Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sources of the Secular

John Milbank, with typical diffidence, says that there are no secular sources for proper ethical thinking. Hobbs tries to employ Plato for secular ends, but Milbank is having none of it.

Listen to these "public" philosophers (as with "social" justice, is there any other kind?) talk Plato and politics below:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

True Detective Revisited

Those planning to watch True Detective may want to stop reading now, although I will speak in the broadest terms possible and very briefly at that.

I have likened True Detective to several films and shows: The Wire, Heat, and Se7en. Okay, three films/shows. But I missed one. The similarities were there from the very beginning, but like a true detective I failed to spot the clue that was right under my nose.

True Detective is televisions answer to The Tree of Life, at least on a metaphysical level. Of course the visions of these two pieces of art are, at times, miles apart, as well as the nuts and bolts of the respective the extent that The Tree of Life has a plot. Yet even these dissimilarities produce interesting juxtapositions. For example, the tree in Malick's film is a sign of growth, of reaching towards the heavens, of the reception of light. The tree in True Detective is a place of death, a place were the flames of hell have scorched the earth. All this is in fact illustrated in the very first scene.

But more than these two works having trees in them, it is Rust Cohle that provides the real point of contact. Cohle speaks like he sneaked his way into a Malick script, but instead of gushing about the glory that surrounds us, the light that shines through all things, he has scribbled out Malick's doxological flourishes and replaced them with what he himself calls "philosophical pessimism." If Malick is Heideggerian, Pizzolatto (the writer of True Detective) is self-consciously Nietzschean. Or at least Cohle is.

As I noted already, the stories told by Malick and Pizzolatto go in completely different directions. Yet there is one crucial narrative strand that makes seeing them together an entirely justifiable and fruitful endeavour. In True Detective, we learn very quickly one of the reasons behind Cohle's bleak outlook: his daughter died when she was four. Indeed, the day that kicks off this 17-year case is the anniversary of his daughter's death. The same narrative strand runs through The Tree of Life. Much of what we see occurs because Jack O'Brien (JOB) is meditating on his past on the day of his dead brother's anniversary.

The questions that undergird these works are therefore remarkably similar: How do humans deal with tragedy, with unbearable loss? What is the true nature of a world in which tragedies like this happen? And what story or stories do we tell ourselves to make sense of the whole?

You will be hard pressed to find more honest and compelling answers to these questions than those offered by The Tree of Life and True Detective. I say answers; what we get instead are poetic visions that linger on in the lives of anyone willing to do what is almost impossible in this age of ours: to contemplate.

Friday, March 7, 2014

One Big Soul

Does our dedication to mission and evangelism derive from the theology that those who are not Christians are "enemies of the gospel"?

If it does, then, according to the late missiologist Kosuke Koyama, we have based evangelism on a faulty theology. This raises a question:

How can we appeal to Christian congregations for support of "overseas mission/evangelism work" if we do not tell them that "people over there" are living in darkness, and need their help?
Koyama's answer is as follows:

Our appeal to congregations for support of mission/evangelism work must be presented in terms of the theology of "extending hospitality to strangers," which is the essence of the gospel, and not in terms of the damnation of the heathens who are seen as the "enemies to the gospel."

So beings my next piece of work on inter-religious dialogue, paying particular attention to Christian-Buddhist relations as understood by Koyama, and relating all of this to a quote from Lindbeck, which, for better or worse, has stayed with me since I first read it nearly three years ago: can be argued in a variety of ways that Christian churches are called upon to imitate their Lord by selfless service to neighbours quite apart from the question whether this promotes conversions. They also have scriptural authorization in passages such as Amos 9:7-8 for holding that nations other than Israel -- and, by extension, religions other than the biblical ones -- are peoples elected (and failing) to carry out their distinctive tasks within God's world. If so, not everything that pertains to the coming of the kingdom has been entrusted to that people of explicit witness which knows what and where Jerusalem is and (as believers hope) marches toward it, if only in fits and starts. It follows from these considerations that Christians may have a responsibility to help other movements and other religions make their own contributions, which may be quite distinct from the Christian one, to the preparation of the Consummation. The missionary task of Christians may at times be to encourage Marxists to become better Marxists, Jews and Muslims to become better Jews and Muslims, and Buddhists to become better Buddhists (although admittedly their notion of what a "better" Marxist," etc., is will be influenced by Christian norms). Obviously this cannot be done without the most intensive and arduous conversation and cooperation.

Monday, March 3, 2014

True Detective: A Recommendation

They say that television is the new cinema. They're wrong, but True Detective is just about the best piece of evidence they have in their favour.

For one, it stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, two actors best known for their big screen appearances. The latter is enjoying something of a renaissance, what with The Lincoln Lawyer, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyers Club as recent stellar additions to a chequered filmography. This is in fact one renaissance I fully believe in, unlike that Affleckian one that has the world hoodwinked. (The Town was rubbish, people, rubbish!)

For another, it looks like a film. Some of the landscape shots are glorious, as if they were lifted from the cutting room floor of The New World.

None of this is too surprising, mind you, given that the show is an HBO production. Cinematic television is the name of their game. But this feels like a raising of the stakes.

If I was to compare True Detective to anything, I would compare it to my two favourite creations for the screen, big and small: Heat and The Wire. Indeed it is something of a mash up of the two. That said, True Detective is not as good as either, insofar as it's fair to compare a television show with a film, and another television show with The Wire. But seeing it in the light of these two giants does not diminish it. It is well capable of having its say, and with a rural setting and multiple time periods it adds a different dimension to what has gone before. Moreover, in McConaughey it has an actor at the top of his game playing a character that is as mysterious as he is compelling. He appears deeply odd, yet somehow in line with the grain of the universe. Or at least the grain as it is depicted in the show. IT is worth tuning for him alone.

The story itself is based around a serial killer, and the two detectives who are tasked with finding him. This is no ordinary, run of the mill serial killer, however, but a highly liturgical one. The initial murder scene is like a form of iconography, with various religious symbols and artefacts making their presence felt. In this way the hunt for the killer is as much a hunt for meaning as it is justice. As the show delves into the depths of its characters, it is not only the whodunnit, but the why that matters. Is there meaning in this world? Or should we all just walk hand in hand off the face of the cliff, as Rust (McConaughey) suggests, sparing any future generation the misery of humanness?

The dialogue, I should warn you, often moves into this heavy terrain, and it times it is overbearing. But the more you learn about the characters, the more organic the heaviness feels, and the more you feel it too. This is not just a clever novelist (Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and sole writer of the show) showing us how much he knows about nihilism, though there is a touch of that. This is the expression of tortured souls who live in the what Flannery O'Connor termed the "Christ-haunted" South. Indeed it comes as no surprise that Pizzolatto was born in Louisiana, where the action is both set and filmed.

To sum, if you are looking for a TV show, and haven't watched The Wire for a second time, then I recommend giving True Detective a go, provided you have the stomach for it.