Monday, December 31, 2012

The Songs I Stumbled Upon

The older I get the less time I devote to music, both the playing of it and the listening to it. This list, therefore, is not so much about the music of 2012 as it is the music I came across during 2012, usually in films. There has been a slight shift in my taste, so if this list makes me seem more cultured and sophisticated than you, it's because I am.

The Staves - Mexico

My sister put me on to this trio. Love the video, love the harmonies, love the chorus, love the simple guitar picking. I have no idea what the rest of their stuff sounds like -- pretty similar, I imagine -- but The Staves could be getting a more thorough listen off me in the new year and even a live viewing should they return to Belfast (they played in Limelight the weekend before I heard this song). They must be excited about that.

Matteo Zingales - Martin David

Is this a cover of Moby's 'God Moving Over the Face of the Waters'? It sure sounds like it, which is no bad thing. This song plays at the end of The Hunter, and it is perfect.

Arvo Part - Spiegel im Spiegel

Part is one of two on this list who can be categorised under the genre "holy minimalism" (like I said, cultured and sophisticated.) I think I heard this song on an Auschwitz documentary and did an instant Google search to see who was responsible. Part is from the Estonian Orthodox flavour of holy minimalism (there's a niche market if ever there was one), with a lot of his songs based around these beautiful and haunting chants. This one, however, simply consists of piano and violin. It is minimal, but it is no less holy.

Yo La Tengo - Driving Home

This is probably the last band I've gotten into. This particular song is taken from the cleverly titled album You Shoot, We Score, which is an album of Yo La Tengo tracks written for various films. I first heard this at 3am in a tent full of guys in Wicklow. It was a moment of bliss in troubled times.

Henryk Gorecki - Symphony No. 3

There could be any number of songs featured in The Tree of Life on this list. Indeed there is one more to come. This one, however, is the crème de la crème. R.L. asks his mother to tell them a story form before they can remember. She mentions a plane ride she and their father once took after graduation. In fact, the whole scene is on YouTube. It still gives me goosebumps:

The song goes on, and manages to get even more beautiful. You can listen to the whole thing below.

Andrew Peterson - Hosea

My mp3 player broke during the summer, so the only portable source of music that I had for those long journeys up and down from Belfast was the phone my sister gave me, which came complete with one album: Resurrection Letters by Andrew Peterson. I have listened to that album to death. There are a number of sons on it that I like, but this is probably my favourite.

Hanan Townshend - Welcome Happy Morning

Finally, that other one from The Tree of Life. This one plays in the background as we see Jack develop his first crush, and also during the end credits. It is another simple piano piece, but as music critic Johnny Giles would say, there is beauty in simplicity.

2012: A Review

If Stanley Hauerwas is right then I may be putting my salvation at risk by acknowledging January 1 as the beginning of the "New Year". As an ex-semi-professional poker player, however, "risk" is my middle name, so that's a chance I'm willing to take.

2012 began in Maynooth. I arrived to pouring rain, which made me feel instantly at home. Kevin picked me up at the train station, and even moved the car so that I wouldn't have to step through a puddle to get into the passenger seat. Such a gesture set the tone for the next four weeks. 

Maynooth Community Church had no need of me. My biggest contribution over the course of the month was helping at Friday night set up, which involved setting out chairs and readying the sound system for Sunday morning. These were not tasks for which a year and a half of Bible college was absolutely necessary. I imagine my placement was supposed to look different given the, ahem, elite training I was bringing to the table. I was supposed to hone my skill set and increase my competence for ministry, but instead I was ministered to right from the start. 

One of the refrains in a Brueggemann prayer is "You give and we receive." I was given so much that January, and all I really did was receive it. I wish I did more in response. If a Christian community is constituted by gift and reception, then I was definitely far more often on the receiving end than the giving end. It didn't occur to me at the time, but the dynamics of the placement were turned on their head. MCC didn't need me, but I needed MCC.

That, it turns out, was what I needed to learn: I need a local church. My salvation depends on it. The question remains: what is the church in light of the truth that we need it not only to obtain salvation, but to work out salvation's content? That the local church is more determinative for the history of the world than Dail Eireann or the White House is not a fact gleaned from objective experience. It is a fact of faith, if you will. In truth, I haven't had much faith in it. But slowly I am learning where the power of God is at work in the world. The first month of 2012 provided a glimpse at this power.

My final semester of second year was a busy one. I worked hard and left little time for play. Not to be vague or anything, but in light of the previous three semesters I made some decisions and surprisingly I actually stuck by them. I don't know if they were the right decisions or not. My transcript will probably back me up, but there is more to life than results...or so I'm told. Indeed that's probably what I'll end up telling myself after this first semester of final year, because I'm quite certain I didn't do as well as before. Maybe it's the fact that I spent most of the summer studying, but for whatever reason I couldn't quite keep up with the pace which I had set for myself. The motivation -- even the capacity -- to stay studying till the library closed at 10.30pm just wasn't there. The phrase "resting on your laurels" was used on more than one occasion, and I'm sure it's at least somewhat applicable. 

To put a more positive spin on things, this semester has been about going deeper into previously explored territory rather than furrowing lots of new ground. The furrowing can wait until next year's dissertation, when I'll be writing about second century apologetics  second century social ethics  second century ecclesiology  second century church/world relations  ecclesial identity formation in the second century  something to do with Christianity in the second century.

Like any Bible college student worthy of the name I did a few camps during the summer. They were three of the best weeks of the year. I got to be a scholar in residence at one, I got to share one of my testimonies (I'm postmodern like that) at another, and I got to coach football at the third. In fact at the football camp, let it be known to my readers that what is called the "nutmeg" in Ireland and the UK or the "panna" in most other parts of the world became known as the "Declan" for one week in Finaghy. Just to prove that the kids weren't misguided, in a recent football game I nutmegged Declaned the same guy twice with successive touches of the ball. The only problem: as much as the kids want to learn, you just can't teach that!

My procrastinated step into adulthood took a turn for the better when I passed my driving test in October. It didn't seem likely in September. It didn't even seem likely an hour before the test, when I was stuttering through my final lesson in torrential rain. That was actually the first time I had driven in crap conditions, so I just wasn't used to it. Then, lo and behold, about 5 minutes before my test was due to begin the rain stopped, the clouds broke, and I was greeted by that rarest of Galwegian sights: the sun - that beautiful big orange ball that makes things like cars and road signs easier to see. I made up some speed limits for the tester, guessed the make of car I would be driving (correctly, thank God), and took my accuser for a 25 minute drive around West Galway without bumping into anything important. I could have kissed him when he told me I passed, but I figured twice in the one day and he'd get suspicious. It was only in the last week or so that I've actually driven since becoming fully licensed, and I have to say - it feels good. "Watch out for the fool" says my father, passing on the advice his father gave to him. I haven't seen any fools yet, which has led me to coin my own piece of advice? If you can't spot the fool after half an hour in a car, then you are the fool.

I visited friends, made some new ones, watched Denis Suarez in the flesh, cried in front of my church, ate salad, took a long walk on a beach with another man, heard a very special lecture by Dr Charlie Hadjiev, scored my first and only goal for BBC football team, met Desie Alexander, started going to a church in Belfast, walked down Donegall Pass with a sign saying "I hate Protestants", went to the Giant's Causeway (underwhelming, and definitely no more than a few thousand years old if you ask me), played this brilliant game from South Korea where you throw four pieces of wood into the air and judge from other people's reactions whether you've done it well or badly (I'll figure it out for myself eventually), began a table tennis match in which I am 2-1 up in sets but losing 4-3 in the fourth set (with a set being the first to 5 games and a game being the first to 21 points), bladed (as one of my housemates calls roller-blading) and ice-skated, got given a banjo so that I can turn every church song into something that sounds like Mumford and Sons, went on a tour of the Tayto Factory, heard the music of Dmitri Tiomkin performed in the National Concert Hall, attended my two cousins' weddings (emphasis on the plural), and wondered about the future.

Where all this leaves me I don't know. I approach 2013 with less assurances than I had a year ago. The truth, however, is that they were never really assurances in the first place. John Milbank talks about the economy of gift, which involves a radical embrace of contingency. John Howard Yoder names and criticises our deep-seated desire to grab hold of the "handles of history" so that we can secure ourselves against contingency and make history come out right. Another name for this grabbing of the handles is "idolatry". I have desires, dreams...I may even have a plan or two. But if a class on Ecclesiastes has taught me anything, it's that I am not in control. That is not a justification for inaction. Nor is it cause for fear. Quite the opposite. To live out of control is to live in complete trust of the One in whom we live, move and have our being. 

Trust and obey. Obedience may work or it may not. It is not given to us to ensure which way things go. There are no assurances, no givens, apart from God. And when the Infinite is the only given, who can tell what is in store?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

My Year In Film

Top 5 (in no particular order)

Killing Them Softly

This guy wants to tell me we're living in a community? Don't make me laugh. I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business. Now f***** pay me.

Seeing this film was not always a pleasant experience. There were moments of awkward squirming, and one particular scene when the violence was too much to take in - brutal, remorseless, prolonged. But the film left an impression on me that has been hard to shake off since.

Killing Them Softly is interspersed with audio clips from the 2008 presidential race in the States, which is a not-so-subtle way of letting us know that it has a message. Repeat: it has a message. But this obviousness is contrasted by reasonable subtlety in the dialogue, the above quote being a glaring exception to the rule.

It is a tragic work, a tragedy embodied in James Gandolfini's despicable and pitiable character. But it is not without its funny moments (the sawn-off shotgun bit), and it has a heist scene that is as good as any out there - full of the kind of tension that makes you unable to breathe or blink.

This was, in short, a classic cinematic experience.

The Hunter

I wonder if she's the last one. Alone. Just hunting and killing. Waiting to die.

I've seen this film three times since August, which is as much a compliment I can pay to it. For a story that spends a significant amount of time following a lone hunter around the Tasmanian wild it packs an emotional punch that I didn't expect. Of course it doesn't hurt that I'm big fan of Willem Dafoe, and have been known to waste away hours studying the lines and contours of his face. Indeed this film attaches a story to that face which is probably more believable than the real story. Willem Dafoe is -- I mean, really is -- the hunter. It just makes sense.

There is nothing ground breaking about the film. It has no outstanding feature that sets it apart, save for the Tasmanian landscape. What it does have is a simple story told without fuss. It is the story of a human's journey towards humanness, which, like it or not, must involve other humans...and virtually extinct animals, but mainly humans And with that sentence, I have made it sound like the biggest pile of crap since Friends With Benefits (see below). Perhaps this clip (which, admittedly, will make little sense without any context attached, but which still has Bruce Springsteen playing over it) can redeem things:


This is what happens when you take a big, expensive camera to Asia and start filming things. Is it pretentious? Postmodernly racist? Possibly, but it is also, at times, stunningly beautiful. It's probably not worth watching this at home, but over the course of 100 minutes I began to realise why God invented the cinema. There are no words in this film. Just images and music to to tickle your aesthetic sensibilities. If Arsene Wenger (at least Wenger circa 2008) were to make a film, it would probably look something like this. Make of that what you will.

Margin Call

John Tuld: You're one of the luckiest guys in the world, Sam. You could have been digging ditches all these years. 
Sam Rogers: That's true. And if I had, at least there'd be some holes in the ground to show for it.

From a film without any words to a film full of them. This isn't so much a movie as it is a re-enactment complete with retrospective analysis. How did the financial crisis happen? Who were the kinds of people that were involved? How did they attempt to get out of the mess? These are some of the questions for which the film provides answers.

What it really provides, however, is a a forum for Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons to strut their considerable stuff. And strut it they do in a film that flew under the radar but which is now available on Netflix America if you download a program to change your i.p. address sure to come to Netflix Ireland in the coming years.


Hello James, welcome. Do you like the island? My grandmother had an island when I was a boy. Nothing to boast of. You could walk along it in an hour. But for us it was paradise. One summer, we came for a visit and discovered the whole place had become infested with rats. They came on a fishing boat and gorged on the coconut. So how do you get rats off an island? My grandmother showed me. You put an oil drum in a pit and hinge open the lid. Then you coat the lid in the coconut. The rats come for the coconut and plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink; they fall into the trap. Then what do you do? Throw it in the ocean? Burn it? No. You just leave it. And then one by one...They start eating each other until there are only two left. The two survivors. Then what do you do? Kill them? No. You release them into the trees. But they will not eat coconut anymore. Now they will only eat rat. You have changed their nature. The two survivors, this is what she made us.

Cool bad guy: check
Attractive bond girl (who was killed off disappointingly early): check
Puns and quips: check
Q: check
Deadly opening sequence and credits: check

This is a Bond film not without its problems, but it is the best one I've seen since GoldenEye. It is -- as opposed to the previous one -- unashamedly Bond most of the time. Indeed it seems that one of the film's purposes was to restore what was lost to the franchise in Quantum of Solace; a sort of setting Bond back on track. This it did, and it did so while thoroughly entertaining me for over two hours. I grew up watching the 'Bond season' on Network 2 on Tuesday nights (when there was no Champions League), so I've always had a soft spot for the Don Juan-ism of James Bond. This film, while at times skating dangerously close to explaining away that Don Juan-ism, restored my fondness for the series and has made me look forward to the next instalment.

Bottom 5


This was a mess of a movie. That it starred Shia LaBoeuf should be evidence enough to convict it, but even a young Robert DeNiro in his place couldn't have rescued Lawless from being anything but terrible. As I said before, there is a scene with a Mennonite pastor chasing Shia LaBoeuf with a burning stick. That tells you everything you need to know about the levels of thought that went into the making of this.

Avengers Assemble

Billions of people enjoyed this film. They're all wrong.

To make me bored during a comic book film is no easy feat, but that's exactly how I felt about a third of the way through this cash cow. Right now I have lost my faith in comic book films, with The Dark Knight being the shining exception that proves the rule. Next year's Man of Steel can either confirm me in my apostasy or cause me to repent in sackcloth and ashes.

Friends With Kids

One of the taglines for this film went as follows:

Love, Happiness, Kids: pick two.

Don't you just hate when your children get in the way of either your love or your happiness?

This film aims -- in a quirky, clever, funny-but-serious way -- to explore that stage in life when children interrupt pre-existing relationships. I'm not quite at that stage yet, but I'm going to assume that it exists. Children do indeed make a difference, after all. This film, however, tries to get around that difference. The main couple (who are two friends with absolutely no feelings for each other whatsoever) decide to have a child together, but also to allow themselves to have relationships with other people. That way they get to have love, happiness and kids. Will it work? It's hard to say. Did I care? Not a jot. Did I laugh? Maybe once, but it was a laugh ridden with guilt.

This was like an extended episode of How I Met Your Mother, except worse. Yes. Worse. Far worse. I know.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

I had no love for this film when I first saw it. I haven't seen it since, but I imagine I would be a little kinder after second viewing. It was bad, but it wasn't boring. Still, it was bad, not least of all when judged by Hitchcock's dictum the better the villain, the better the film.

J. Edgar

The pre-film meal and company couldn't save this from being a thorough disappointment. Rotten Tomatoes has this at 44%, which sounds about right to me. What should have been a fascinating insight into a key figure in recent American history was anything but fascinating. It was instead shapeless, unsure of what story it was trying to tell. John Puccio says it best:

Hoover may have been the sweetest, kindest, gentlest man in the world, or he may have been a ruthless bastard; we wouldn't know from Eastwood's cautious portrayal of him.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Since It's Christmas And All

My Christmas present to you, dear reader: not one, not two, not three, but three quotes from Karl Barth, weaved together here as an Incarnational Medley, and a very special Christmas reflection. Probably best to open with the reflection.

Last night I decided to read a passage in Luke as my Christmas text. It is a text about the birth of Jesus, a moment to which the Scriptures testify, though in veiled form. Some people came to visit him, bringing along some gifts fitting for the occasion. As they came to the place where he was supposed to be laid in swaddling cloth, helpless and humbled,  there were some heavenly creatures hanging around, bearing good news. The good news? "He is not here." Surprise, confusion. He was supposed to be here. He belonged here. This was the place in which he must be sought. The glorious creatures answered the confusion with a question: "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" The cloth was there all right, but there was no body.

At the beginning, few expected a messiah to be born into a poor family in a stable. At the end, nobody expected a failed messiah to be anywhere but in a tomb. Jesus was never where he was expected to be. But here, on the first day of the week, at dawn, he was where he said he would be. He was no longer in the tomb, no longer wrapped in swaddling cloth. He was risen, the firstborn from the dead, burning hearts as he unveiled the Scriptures, opening eyes in the eucharist, making peace through the blood of the cross, and gracing the old world with the presence and power of the new.

The Word became flesh. And the flesh became resurrected.

God for his part is God in his unity with this creature, this human being, in his human and creaturely nature – and this without ceasing to be God, without any alteration or diminution of his divine nature....We must be able to show that God is honoured and not dishonoured by this confession.
God does not have to dishonour himself when he goes into the far country, and conceals his glory. For he is truly honoured in this concealment. This concealment, and therefore his condescension as such, is the image and reflection in which we see him as he is. His glory is the freedom of the love which he exercises and reveals in all this. 

How should God’s divinity exclude his humanity? For it is God’s freedom for love, and therefore his freedom to be not only in the heights but also in the depths, not only great but also small, not only in and for himself but also to be with another who is different form himself, to give himself for this other, since there is room enough for it for community with humanity.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Hollow Victory

Our Man in the Pews is a blog written by someone who can write. That someone is Philip Sasser, writing for Oxford American: The Southern Magazine of Good Writing. He writes about issues of faith from a Southern context, and what he writes is effortlessly readable.

In his latest post, he puts his finger on a key aspect of the relationship between church and state:

It is a hollow victory that Christians gain when they convince judges that the municipal display of nativity scenes, crosses, and other accoutrements of the faith do not violate the Constitution. To do so requires arguing that religious imagery is so neutered by history and cultural familiarity that it no longer means much of anything at all.

Where once the nativity scene threatened the powers that be to the point of brutal infanticide, it has now become a reminder of how we have emptied the incarnation of all its power to the point where the powers can allow its re-enactment without feeling the slightest sense of threat to their legitimacy. This is not so much Civil Religion as civilized religion, religion with manners. A hollow victory indeed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Power of a Carol Service

Stanley Hauerwas says that the church doesn’t have a social ethic; rather, the church is a social ethic. John Howard Yoder describes the ethical task of the church in the world simply as the church needing to be the church. What these statements mean became clearer to me today. I was studying in the university library, listening to the sound of a mint swirling around in my mouth and construction work on the adjacent building, when somewhere outside the walls music started seeping through. I didn’t know where it was coming from, and its sound was faint at best, but I was curious. I left the library to pick up some lunch in a nearby shop, and on my way there I heard the music again, this time louder and with its source finally apparent – the cathedral. I wanted to go closer to see what my ears were hearing, but I decided to stay on track, pick up my traditional ham and cheese sandwich, and return to the library.

Yet as I listened to the music fading into the background, it struck me: this is what the church – and only the church – has to offer the world. A carol service is not just a tip of the hat in the direction of the real meaning of Christmas. It is a social ethic, a way of being in the world that only the church knows, because the church knows Jesus. This, as Walter Brueggemann has said, is a profoundly artistic way of being. The organ and the choir were resonating out into the world from the cathedral, infusing the ordinary with a moment of sacredness, a glimpse of something bigger. They were witnesses to a different world, interrupting the prosaic nature of life with a poetry and rhythm that is beautiful – and because beautiful, attractive. Incarnation names this interruption at one particular moment in history. Church names this interruption at every moment in history since, with the church being, in Barth-speak, the crater remaining after the explosion of the gospel.

Of course there must be more to the being of the church than music. The conservative would like to remain worshipping in the church, but the liberal knows that true religion consists of caring for the widow and the orphan. The prophet knows this too, for our worship services without the commitment to justice are empty sounds before God. No matter how artistic our worship services are, if we have not love, we are nothing.
Yet the music, the carols, and the stories they tell have a power outside of ourselves. A worship service is a dangerous place to be. It is even dangerous to experience it from a distance, as I did from the library. Someone might see and hear and think “Surely God is in this place.”

Social ethics and worship, it turns out, are not two things but one. The church that sings “Oh Come let us adore Him” is thus extending an invitation and committing itself to its distinctive mission – the invitation is to come and see and experience the beauty of the form of Christ; the mission is for the church to be transformed into that same form: a transformation that begins in worship and which, ultimately, ends in worship.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Coming Soon

It's approaching that time of year when my blog becomes interesting. In 2012, I decided to keep track of every film I've watched by rating them all on IMDB. This year I've watched 88 different films so far, some of them multiple times, and most of them made before 2012. My aim is to give you a top 5 from the 2011/2012 crop along with a bottom 5, and then to mention some of the greats from the past -- recent and not-so-recent -- that I've only seen for the first time this year.

Watch this space.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Anointed One

Here is a tremendous quote to, ahem, mull over during Christmas:

The royal psalms depict the kingdom and office of the anointed one according to his – still hidden – divine glory (von Rad)...In the OT this glory concealed itself more and more – until in appears most darkly veiled. 
K. Koch