Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Fountain: A Different View

An alternative perspective on The Fountain written by Daniel Saunders, - a friend , a student of theology and sociology, and, most importantly, a bloody good football player.

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Firstly, I must clarify by viewing The Fountain with a Christian theological lens you must first realise that the writer was not writing this from a Christian perspective. There is milieu of religious influences, from Buddhism to Mayan philosophy. Therefore, it seems a little harsh to be critical of the fact that it had no explicit reference to the resurrection. With this in mind, perhaps the better question is: From a Christian theological perspective where can we find agreement, even if there is still some tension, and even if there isn’t a complete answer? From this perspective, I believe the film poses a good question that can be framed in Christian thought.

Before I begin to state this question, here is a very brief synopsis of the film.

Apart from being a simple love story, the Fountain's main theme is “fear of death”, often depicted in the film as a movement from darkness to light. The film follows Jackman’s character, Tommy, who is unable to come to terms with the very real prospect of his wife’s terminal illness. Tommy even states at one point that death “is a disease” needing to be stopped. However, his wife, Izzi (played by Weisz) responds in a different manner. She views death as not the end, but rather as the “road to awe” or “as an act of creation”. Although the film does not explicitly state what this actually means, perhaps that is to allow the viewer to determine this for themselves – a reader response if you will. I will come back to this later. Lastly, here are some quotes in the film that I feel stand out, and from which a Christian theological perspective can be applied and built upon. 

“Lord of Xibalba: “Death is the road to awe.”

“Izzi: So what do you think? Izzi: About? Izzi: That idea. Death as an act of creation.”

One of the major questions the film poses is: ‘People in society do not like talking about or facing up to the reality of death?’ Even as Christians, we often give precedence to life on earth, rather than viewing it from the perspective of eternity. This fallen world is temporary, just a speck in comparison to eternity. Like Tommy, people are far too preoccupied with trying to remain in this world, and holding onto all that it offers. Through objects (consider the rich young man) and relationships people are relentlessly filling their lives as though this life is it, and so we make the best of it. Perhaps, one of the biggest graces from God was not allowing humanity to live forever (Genesis 3: 22-24). Imagine living endlessly in a world of perpetual sin, with no escape. Thus, death forces us to make a choice: to live in eternity with or without God. Paradoxically, Death holds in tension its power and powerlessness. In the one hand Death has power to make us consider our eternity and acts as a gate all must pass through, but on the other hand, for those in Christ, Death has no power at all (see 1 Corinthians 15:55 & Hebrews 2:14). For Tommy, he saw Death’s power and his inability to stop it. For Izzi, she saw Death as point in time rather than an end. Yes, the film fails to explain what was next, but why not bring the Christian message in here? Therefore, as Christ brought new life in his death and resurrection, those who are in Christ, also find new life in death – In a sense, for those who are in Christ “death is the road to awe”. As 1 Corinthians 13: 12 states:

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

Considering God made us in his image; the most fulfilling and joyful thing, the very purpose of our lives, the fabric of our true nature is to be in perfect communion with God. As Christians we have a sense of this, but it is only a partially understood, there is still much that is a mystery whilst we live on this earth. Therefore, as God’s children, we should be eager to get back to Eden! Before the fall, this was a place and time where Adam and Even were in the full intimate presence of God. To be in God’s presence, in all his fullness; to see Him and experience Him in all of his glory and splendour; this is what we as Christians should eagerly wait and look forward too! As Paul stated, 

‘…to live is Christ and to die is gain.’

We could write an endless theology on what Paul meant by gain. Suffice to say; perhaps words cannot do justice to describe what eternity with Christ will look like. It should certainly leave one in “awe” at that thought.

The Fountain has gaps, but that can be said of any film. It’s not meant to be theologically sound. However, I would rather emphasize the positive reflections this film can bring, especially when talking to a society who rarely consider or want to face up to the reality of death. 

I conclude with a quote from the film: “Every shadow no matter how deep is threatened by morning light.” Why not talk about that light as being the personification of Christ? I see an opportunity to share the gospel out of this film, to bring to the forefront of people’s mind questions on death and what lies beyond. In my mind, people today, try to stay away from such thoughts. So, I applaud a film that is willing to begin a dialogue on death. As Christians, we must ask ourselves what we then do with this. See it as another chance to be critical, or an opportunity to speak of, “the mysteries God has revealed” (1 Corinthians 4: 1).

The Fountain

I watched The Fountain last night, at just the right time. Or just the wrong time. Leaving aside the fact that Hugh Jackman is the Australian Orloondo Bland (a nickname which represents Mark Kermode's finest contribution to the world of cinema), I found the film philosophically and theologically unconvincing in its portrayal of death.

Earlier that day I had read this from Robert Jenson:

It is illegitimate within Christian theology to think death without thinking resurrection.

The Fountain as a quite explicit work of theology in the form of art is thus illegitimate. It does not deal with death properly, because it has not first of all understood death in the only light that it can now be understood - the light of resurrection. To compare this film with The Tree Of Life is to see its theological faults exposed. Where The Fountain finds meaning and purpose -- even being -- in death, The Tree of Life offers us a vision of the glory of God as a gift given, and then given again.

David Bentley Hart is scathing with regard to what he calls "tragic theology". Thinking within the logic of resurrection, he has this to say:

Rather than seeing the resurrection as a speculative (that is, dialectical) tension that eternalizes the cross, theology must recognize it as a reversal of the narrative of violence that makes crucifixion seem meaningful. In the self-oblation of Christ (which is the entire motion of his life) God indeed comprehends suffering and death, but only as a finite darkness exceeded - and conquered - by an infinite light; God's infinity embraces death by passing it by as though it is nothing at all and by making it henceforth a place of broken limits.

Hart's criticism is that tragic theology (and tragic storytelling) does not in fact take death seriously enough because it has not comprehended the comedy of resurrection which works against death.

Finally, film critic Peter Bradshaw delivers the coup de grâce:

Dying young is a painful, horrible business, full of agony and rage and indignity. For Aronofsky to imply that it can be brought off looking all floaty and snowy and ethereal like a pale L'Oréal model, and that there is a spiritual superiority and sacrificial redemption in death from brain cancer - well, that is naive. And slightly creepy.

In all honesty, I am not convinced that I've understood Robert Jenson's reflection on death, nor am I convinced that David Hart is right to reject any and all theology of a "suffering God". And more importantly, what do I know about death anyway? All I can say is that The Fountain left me rather blasé at the thought of it, and that didn't feel right.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Adam and Steve

Philadelphia could have been better. It could have been a masterpiece. But any film bookended by the music of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young and containing a scene as haunting and beautiful as the one below below deserves to be watched.

Same Old Same Old, pt 2

Following on from yesterday, I stumbled across this paragraph from Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who sums up the movement of Christianity from marginal religion of shared conviction to imperial religion of shared interest:

Before, Christians had been a minority - some scholars estimate more than ten percent of the empire's population - and intermittent persecution worked against making anyone's adherence cheap. It took at least a degree of conviction to belong. After Constantine the church was everybody. Being counted as "Christian" was the rule, not an exception. Paganism was soon declared illegal, and within another century the government was actively repressing heresies, i.e., ruling on what constitutes orthodox belief and punishing dissent. Henceforth, it would take exceptional conviction not to be counted a Christian.

Christians are moving/have moved back to the margins of society for the most part, but with one crucial difference: we are now on the margins of a society which is itself the creation of Christianity. The son has turned his back on the father, but unlike the son of the parable, this son had good reason.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Same Old Same Old

‘In the meantime, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, this is the procedure I followed. I asked them whether they were Christians. If they confessed I threatened them with punishment and asked them a second and a third time. If they persevered, I ordered them to be taken away for execution. For I had no doubt that whatever it was they professed, stubbornness and inflexible bloody-mindedness ought of course to be punished’.  
Pliny, Letters X.96 

In other words, believe whatever you want, but don't take what you believe too seriously if you want to remain a part of our tolerant society.

Today, this serious belief is pejoratively labelled as "fundamentalism".

Perhaps Kevin is right after all - What Ireland Needs is More Sectarian Fundamentalists!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thank God I'm Not a Liberal

Andy Stanley -- who I am yet to forgive for writing a book about community whose title completely ignored the wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (we do not create community: it comes to us as a gift) -- said some things in a sermon last week that got evangelicalism's dominican Al Mohler all hot and bothered. You can read what Mohler wrote here or just read Scot McKnight's summary of the situation here.

Mohler's piece reminded me of the classic Baptist joke:

Why are Baptists so against pre-marital sex?
They're afraid it might lead to dancing.

In light of Mohler's piece linked above, we can now add a variation especially for him:

Why is Al Mohler so against homosexualty?
He's afraid it might lead to liberalism.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Genius In Action

I rarely watch snooker, but watching Ronnie O'Sullivan in full flow is a rare pleasure that I am loath to miss. He is the sport's genius, and demonstrates it with this extraordinary clearance from a position which the commentator said he'd be doing well to get over 20. Afterwards, Steve Davis captured the essence of what just happened: "Only Ronnie O'Sullivan could have made that break." Only Ronnie. No one else. His genius, his gift, is our pleasure.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


The problem for us is not, Are our desires satisfied or not? The problem for us is, How do we know what we desire? There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural about human desires. Our desires are artificial; we have to be taught to desire. 
Cinema is the ultimate pervert art: it doesn't give you what you desire. It tells you how to desire.
- Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Expedient Ethics

I first encountered the work of sociologist Peter Berger a while back by randomly picking up his book Heretical Imperative in the BBC library. The only thing I remember from it is that Berger confessed to being from the Schleirmacherian school of liberal theology, to which the Barthian inside me yelled "Nein!" But in the interests of exercising the value of tolerance, I continued to read and found myself very interested in what he had to say. (Not interested enough to remember what it was he said, evidently.)

His most recent blog post outlines the same problem that Kevin faces with regards water charges: Now that I'm going to be charged for water usage, how can I pack even more dishes into our dishwasher while still retaining the impeccable order to which I've grown accustomed?

Or, more accurately, it's the problem of whether good ends justify bad motives. Kevin got no solution, and Berger offers none. But the problem has deep historical roots and continues to cast its shadow over us today:

Opponents of capital punishment might wish that similar moral arguments, rather than economic calculations, would lead to the end of capital punishment in the United States. However, it is results rather than purity of motive that finally matter in what Max Weber called the ”ethic of responsibility”. Quite frequently in history morally desirable changes occurred for reasons that had nothing to do with morality: How important in the abolition of slavery was the insight that keeping slaves was more expensive than employing free labor? How many South African businessmen turned against apartheid because it was ruining the economy, rather than because they were impressed by sermons on racial equality? And must one deplore if some east European states are improving their treatment of minorities in accordance with European Union law, not because they are sorry about past atrocities, but because that is a condition of obtaining EU subsidies? History is not an ongoing seminar in moral philosophy. This does not mean that moral considerations play no role; it does mean that, much of the time, it is more effective to appeal to interests rather than conscience.

The situations are wildly different, but is Paul's commentary on the impure preaching of Christ still instructive? Some people are preaching Christ out of jealousy and rivalry rather than out of truth and love. Paul does not condone their motives, but it is he who has the last laugh, because, ultimately, Christ is being preached "and in that I rejoice".

Is this a case of proleptic Christian realism, and the solution to Kevin's problem? The one from the Hauerwasian school of theological ethics is surely saying "Hell no!" right about now.

Breaking the Golden Rule

From Jewett and Lawrence’s The American Monomyth (1973):

A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil: normal institutions fail to contend with this threat: a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out a redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisical condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.

I came out of Avengers Assemble last night with one conclusion: I don't believe in comic book films any more. I don't believe in their story, their ethics, their policies or their characters. All this is encapsulated by The Hulk, portrayed rather well by Mark Ruffalo. The message is: if we harness our enormous capacity for violence and use it against our enemies for the common interest then we will win and the world will be safe from the terror that threatens it. That is a message that the gospel of Jesus confronts at every turn, yet is a message that the church has bought into since Constantine and a message still believed by most Christians today.

But perhaps even more damning than the Avengers' acquiescence to a dangerous ideology is that the film bored me. I don't have to agree with the message of a film to like it. Slavoj Zizek has convinced me that The Dark Knight is an ode to the politics of the lie, but I still think it's a fine film and am very much looking forward to Christopher Nolan's final re-telling of the Batman story. Avengers Assemble, however, is a film I don't care to see again, nor does its inevitable sequel hold any appeal.

I have a golden rule for films I see in the cinema: Don't make me want you to end. Into the Wild broke that rule, The Way broke that rule, and now Avengers Assemble has broken that rule.