Sunday, April 27, 2014

Whose Wealth Is It Anyway?

Spending most of my days among books means that I am constantly being made aware of all the literature that I am not reading, and that I will never read. I don't like that there are books that I haven't read. So every now and then I'll pick up a book that catches my attention and read some of it. This is what free time looks like for a theology student. Well, that and watching football.

Yesterday it was Jacques Ellul's Money and Power.

The opening two chapters contain two interesting points.

The first is Ellul's critique of the notion of "stewardship," which is an ethic based on God's ownership of the world and his handing over of the things of the world to humans as stewards. I don't think Ellul goes far enough with his critique, but he at least forces us to ask the question: whose wealth do own?

In reality men and women get wealth unfairly; they willingly strip God of it and appropriate it to themselves; they are not stewards. They are unfaithful trustees, and they take care of Satan’s wealth.

"Satan's wealth." What a brilliant phrase. It reminds me of Bill Hicks's rhetoric:

People often ask me where I stand politically. It's not that I disagree with Bush's economic policy or his foreign policy; it's that I believe he was a child of Satan sent here to destroy the planet Earth. Little to the left.

The second point is something I have thought about for a while. It concerns the tension between the Old and New Testaments on the topic of wealth. According to Ellul,

There is no more apparent radical opposition between the two covenants than the one concerning wealth.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The True Measure of Secularisation

I have devised a fool-proof measure for secularisation levels across Europe. All you have to do is look at the football fixture list, and see how many games are scheduled in the Easter period. The results are as follows:

England, despite Cameron's recent nonsense, comes out looking quite secular. Most of the lower league games are being played on Good Friday at 3pm. Presumably they act as the fixtures that TV producers would like to wash their hands of. Easter Saturday brings in over half the Premier League games, but none of these games are really very alive. West Ham v Crystal Palace? Newcastle v Swansea? They are almost respectfully downbeat. Easter Sunday, however, is yet another Sky Sports Super Sunday. The joy of resurrection can now be celebrated with the weekend's most intriguing fixtures. They can be feasted on one after the other, staring at midday and ending at 6pm. The new liturgy.

By contrast, Serie A has scheduled all its games for Easter Saturday, leaving Italians free to go about their Good Fridays and Easter Sundays in more traditional ways.

It should come as no surprise that France is the most godless country, with the majority of games taking place on Easter Sunday...or just Sunday, to the French. Good Friday also gets a game, although curiously there is nothing scheduled for Easter Saturday. Perhaps that in-between day doesn't have enough iconoclastic potential for the French. Although the fixtures could also be construed as a sort of dramatisation of the Easter story. The one fixture on Friday falls to the ground and dies. Saturday is a non-event. But Sunday! Sunday brings Ligue 1 back to life!

The fixture list for this weekend in the Bundesliga looks exactly like the fixture list for the previous 30 weeks of the Bundesliga. Typical Germans, Alex Ferguson would say. Their league runs like clockwork. A fixture amendment would mean that the system is flawed, but the system is flawless. A sign of secularity, or a sign of German efficiency? It's too hard to tell.

Most surprising to me at least is Spain. Spain, that most Catholic of countries for so many years, has not escaped the fate of other European nations. France, it seems, is contagious. One survey from 10 years ago reveals that only 14% of young people in Spain describe themselves as "religious." But more scientific than such surveys is the fixture schedule for La Liga this weekend. Good Friday sees Atletico Madrid take on Elche. This is especially odd, since La Liga games are almost never on Fridays. Easter Saturday contains only three games, each as exciting as West Ham v Crystal Palace. Easter Sunday then witnesses four games, with one kicking off at 12pm local time.

One other country of note is Scotland. Rather curiously, all of the league games in Scotland, like in Italy, are being played on Easter Saturday. Except for one. Inverness play Aberdeen on Good Friday. Do one of those two have a European engagement next week that I'm unaware of?

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Bible and Colonialism

What would it mean to read some of the biblical narratives from the point of view of a Canaanite?

That is one of several questions that has emerged in my study of narrative criticism. My supervisor pointed me in the direction of Michael Prior's book The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique, which offers a somewhat scathing assessment of both the interpretation of the conquest narratives and the narratives themselves. Prior speaks of "racist, xenophobic, and militaristic" traditions within Israel's scripture that, unsurprisingly, lead to racist, xenophobic, and militaristic applications by later readers. Due to the problematic nature of these traditions - which for Prior have no historical merit, but reflect perhaps a post-exilic attempt to reconstitute national and religious identity - it is up to civilised, morally sensitive readers to subject some portions of the Bible to ethical critique.

There are numerous problems with Prior's book, not least its theological and moral shallowness. But it nevertheless addresses a topic in need of addressing. If scripture as the norma normans non normata (the unnormed norm of norms) cannot be subject to "moral critique," then what must give way - the understanding of scripture, or the moral critique? By what "norm" might scripture be tested against? Prior's "civilised" individual? Other competing traditions in scripture? Prior gives a couple of examples of scripture being used as a form of encouragement for both colonizers and those colonized. (Interestingly, Noah actually picks up on this phenomenon, with the good character emphasising that part of the oral tradition that promotes creation care, and the bad character emphasising that part of the oral tradition that promotes human dominion.)

The church, it should be noted, has undertaken a de facto moral critique of scripture by leaving morally dubious passages out of the lectionary. Even those churches that eschew a lectionary tend to steer clear of the difficult passages when they prepare their preaching calendars. Most Christians, then, are semi-Marcionites in practice if not in theory. The passages are there, and unlike Marcion we will not remove them, but we will do our best to ignore them into theological irrelevance.

Prior notices this pick and choose mentality among liberation theologians. The Exodus narrative is taken to be paradigmatic for the likes of Gutierrez. Here God's action on behalf of the oppressed is displayed. But Prior asks: what about the Eisodus? That is to say, what about the violent movement from Egypt and into the territory of another people? The Exodus paved the way for a conquest, with Canaanites on the receiving end. Surely South Americans, while identifying with the experience of Israelites in one movement of the narrative, will identify more with the experience of the Canaanites in the next? Where, morally speaking, does that leave ancient Israel?

If only I was well acquainted with a Latin American who could give me the answers I seek...

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Meant to Preach

NOAH FEATURETTE with Quotes from Cooke Pictures on Vimeo.

Here are some people talking about Noah. I disagree with all of them, but I disagree with Karen Covell, founder of "Hollywood Prayer Network", the most. She says:

Movies aren't meant to preach. Movies aren't sermons.

First, she (implicitly) propagates the tired, old trope that sermons are bad. A bad sermon is bad. A good sermon is spine-tinglingly good. A good sermon may be much rarer than a bad sermon, but it is still a sermon. It is still preaching.

Second, movies are meant to preach! Cinema, for better or worse, has always been a medium that conveys a message. To be sure, the stories are stories, and should not be reduced to a few didactic point. But the stories are ideological all the way down. The question is therefore not whether a film is "preachy" or not. The question is how and what the film preaches.

In the end, Covell's statement actually contradicts the agenda of HPN, which speaks of Hollywood as "the world's most influential mission field." That's a bonkers description, of course, but it does at least acknowledge the reality that films, just like sermons, are intended to influence.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Noah: A Review

One of the first films I remember watching was a biblical epic. It was The Ten Commandments, and it was around four days long. For some reason, I was able to watch it again and again and again. Probably because Moses was a hero of mine. I would always get my dad to read the Moses story from the children's story bible just one more time. I couldn't get enough of it. I watched The Ten Commandments again a few years ago, and it remains the quintessential biblical epic, containing one of the finest pieces of narration committed to the big screen:

Learning that it can be more terrible to live than to die, he is driven onward through the burning crucible of desert, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God's great purpose, until at last, at the end of human strength, beaten into the dust from which he came, the metal is ready for the Maker's hand.

All of this is by way of saying that I approached Noah with some anticipation. Darren Aronofsky has artistic credibility, so I expected an intelligent, imaginative, and engaging rendering of the biblical story. I got the other rendering, and was bitterly disappointed, almost from the get go.

I wasn't disappointed because Noah didn't stick to the biblical account of the story. If it had done so, the film would have been over in fifteen minutes. (Though, with hindsight, that might not have been such a bad thing.) Furthermore, the biblical story - and I say this with all due deference - isn't particularly interesting. If there is an interesting dimension to it, it is the proper theological dimension. The story begins with a God who "repents." That in itself might have made for an interesting theme to explore. Indeed, it would have created a beautiful, poetic irony. Those Christians who denounce the film for not being true to the biblical text would perhaps be left uncomfortable if confronted by the text's own theology on a big screen. We actually had one of these Christians in our screening. How do I know? Because as the credits rolled, a voice from the back told us that "This is not a true representation of the Bible. If you want the truth, read Genesis 5 and 6." "Get a life," was one of the replies. My thought was that that was the least of the films problems. But get a life works, too.

Anyway, I can forgive Aronofsky for not focussing on the character of God, even if God is the most interesting character in the Noah narrative. Or at least I could have forgiven him if he gave us some interesting humans. That he didn't is my biggest criticism. I'll admit, he came close a couple of times. There is an Augustinian tension between sin and grace that plays out in the life of Noah, but the sin never really gets concrete form (apart from a few stock villains) and therefore the grace amounts to little more than sentimentality. Ethically/existentially/spiritually [delete as appropriate] it is profoundly shallow. The other characters aren't even worth talking about, because they are not really characters at all. They are plot devices, not people.

The film does raise some good questions, but it has no idea how to answer them. The vision of the film is blurred, lacking the conviction of another recent biblical epic, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. One scene in Noah was like the creation sequence of ToL  in fast forward, and therefore lacked any of its breadth or majesty. In fact, it was probably closer to the opening of The Big Bang Theory, minus the Barenaked Ladies. As far as criticism goes, it doesn't get much worse than that.