Saturday, December 31, 2016

Film Awards 2016: Part III

King of the Jungle

What a pleasant surprise The Jungle Book was. It looked gorgeous in a I-can't-believe-it's-not-butter-real! sort of way, and had the feel of Apocalypto for kids, with some light humour thrown in and some light maiming and human sacrifice thrown out. This is one of those children's movie that's fun for adults too that's actually fun for adults too! The Jungle Book was a delight from start to finish. A cinematic treat easily beating The Legend of Tarzan to the award for best jungle-based movie. The latter may feature the son of Stellan Skarsgård, the man who plays Prof. Lambeau in Good Will Hunting and who I have an irrational love for (I know how you feel, jealous T.A). But I will not let that love - or Margot Robbie - cloud my judgment. The Legend of Tarzan was a disaster of colonial proportions.

Most Disappointing Film

Any chance there's a script up there?"
There are very few films I have had the real urge to walk out on. As bad as some of the films I've seen this year have been, it never crossed my mind to leave the cinema early. As I said in my introduction to these awards, a bad film in the cinema is still a film in the cinema. But there was about a ten minute stretch during Knight of Cups when I wrestled with the thought. Those who dislike Malick's films sometimes criticise them for resembling two hour perfume adverts. I wasn't having any of that, not even for To the Wonder. But there is perhaps no better way to describe Knight of Cups. This is self-indulgent, up-its-own-arse film making that moved me only to disappointment. In his review of The Tree of Life, Xan Brooks writes that he does not believe in God, but he does believe in Terrence Malick. Well I do believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Terrence Malick. Has his latest blockbuster caused me to lose faith? Not quite. For all its many faults, it has a great line: "You don't want love. You want a love experience." There's a criticism to cut the modern individual to the heart. The only problem is that it's not much fun watching Christian Bale having half a dozen love experiences in a couple of hours. I think I need to come to terms with the reality that it won't get any better than The Tree of Life. But it surely doesn't have to be as bad as this. The good thing is that the newly-prolific Malick has a couple of movies coming out soon. Like a Premier League team with a midweek fixture after a heavy defeat, he has a chance to right some of the wrongs and get Knight of Cups out of my system. Over to you, unnamed project starring half the actors in Hollywood.

The Joseph Fletcher Award for Services to Situation Ethics

Governments have a lot of difficult decisions to make. For example, do we accept the $13 billion that is legally owed to us, or do we refuse it? Or, in the case of Eye in the Sky, do we murder an innocent child or do we not? Eye in the Sky is as close to a piece of propaganda for liberal democracy that you're likely to get. It shows all sorts of fine people wrestling with what we're supposed to believe is the central moral dilemma. There's an old joke that says Catholics can do what they want as long as they go to confession, and Protestants can do what they want as long as they feel bad about it. If there's any truth to this, then Eye in the Sky is a deeply Protestant film. There's lots of politicians and soldiers who feel bad about doing what seems to be a necessary evil, but the final message of the film is: don't judge us from your comfortable armchair; we sacrificed our lives so that you could have the freedom to sit in this cinema munching on popcorn and Minstrels and watching important movies like Zoolander 2. In other words, only those who have had to decide whether or not to murder a child are in a position to criticise governmental action. London Has Fallen made no secret of its sadism, no attempt to rationalise or justify its brutality. Eye in the Sky is an evil film precisely because of these attempts. And the worst of it is, it's not even telling us the really brutal truth. Now, imagine a country deciding that London Has Fallen and Eye in the Sky are the only two nominees for the Best Picture Oscar.

The country you have imagined is Fuckheadica.

Best Biopic

If you want to learn the truth about someone's life, it's probably best to avoid their biopic. The best you can usually hope for in these films are half-truths. And you can be fairly certain that these half-truths will add up to a story of redemption. This was the formula for last year's Steve Jobs and it was the formula for this year's Miles Ahead. I didn't much about Miles Davis before I saw this film, save for the fact that he was a famous jazz musician. Having seen the film I now know that he was a famous jazz musician with a drug problem. This is a strange movie. It follows Davis around in the wilderness years of his career, when he apparently spent his time getting into hilarious jams while chasing his next fix. In the flashbacks we witness a younger Davis in his pomp, playing his trumpet in smokey jazz venues and occasionally beating his wife. It's not an exaggeration to say that these two timelines don't mix very well. Davis is presented to us as a flawed genius who loses his way, though the flaws are severely underplayed (what's a little violence towards women when you can play a mean trumpet?). Don Cheadle is very good in the lead role, but there is something soulless about the whole project.

Best Comedy

I love a good buddy comedy, and The Nice Guys is a a perfectly good buddy comedy from the master of the genre. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe, an aging, surly man with a short temper. He's the straight guy to Ryan Gosling's clumsy, flamboyant P.I.. It's an old formula but it works. Gosling in particular demonstrates some good comedy acting chops. The jokes come thick and fast (some work, some don't, but who's counting?), making this a worthy addition to the buddy comedy canon. That it did so badly at the box office while The Avengers' Civil War 2: Thor vs Black Widow and Hawkeye's Revenge made 17 trillion dollars is why we now have Brexit and Trump.*

Best Film Featuring a Member of the Skarsgård Family

If the son of Stellan Skarsgård cannot save a film then can Stellan Skarsgård himself? This is the pressing question of our age, and the answer is...sort of. Our Kind of Traitor taps into the popularity of British author John le Carré. I've never read a le Carré novel, but if this film is anything to go by then the book on which it is based was probably churned out by le Carré one rainy afternoon while he was waiting for the roast chicken to finish. That is not to say that this is a bad film (or that it must be a bad book). It's just not a very thrilling espionage thriller, and I like my espionage thrillers thrilling.

* Not strictly true

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Film Awards 2016: Part II

The Best Advertisement for Journalism

In the fifth season of The Wire (the worst of the five by general consensus, but also the most underrated), David Simon finally tackles head on the institution which is closest to his heart: print journalism. The Wire gives us good journalists and bad ones, with the former suffering because of idiotic decisions made at corporate level and the latter prospering. It's a fairly bleak depiction of the industry, though hardly surprising given Simon's own experiences as a journalist, as well as his singular drive towards what he calls "the audacity of despair." In The Wire, the failure of the journalists (even the good ones) is their remarkable ability to miss the stories that matter. The city of Baltimore is teeming with interesting characters who we have been following for several years. Yet when these characters die, for example, the story of their deaths is buried in some small section of the newspaper. The point Simon is making here - a point which not only applies to journalists, but to police, politicians etc - is that people are ignorant of their own cities. And not only that, but trapped in an ignorance that is self-perpetuating because it is willed. As Detective McNulty says of a former CI, he “saw the street like we wish we could.” In Spotlight, we are given a more hopeful depiction of print media - though not without a final mea culpa. The "street" in this instance is Boston, with the story centering around the sexual abuse suffered at the hands of clergy throughout the city, as well as the institutional cover-up. Indeed, it's perhaps even more the latter than the former. The film shows us good journalists doing good work - interviewing victims, gathering evidence, spotting corrupt practices, facing up to the powers that be. Though a sensational story, the film is not given to sensationalism. It is subdued and matter-of-fact almost to a fault. That said, the "fact" in question is sufficient of itself to evoke heartbreak and fury. How could something not only so horrific, but so widespread, so systematic, so known, have happened? Spotlight's line is that it takes a village (a city) to abuse a child. There is no one with clean hands, though some certainly have dirtier hands than others.

Best Sequel to a Movie That Was Quoted to Death During My Teenage Years

You know what I like about rich Dublin kids? Nothin’! My first exposure to Zoolander was at a Christian summer camp, where a bunch of my dorm mates [?] quoted it to each other ad nauseam. That’s never a good way to endear one to a film. The same thing happened with Napoleon Dynamite and Anchorman. When I eventually got around to watching these films, there was nothing left to enjoy. We've been spared a Napoleon Dynamite 2 (with Jon Heder's miserable career to thank for that), but we have had no such luck with the others. Anchorman 2 is a singularly humourless comedy, and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise. But Zoolander 2 is not far behind. It got one cheap laugh out of me, but one cheap laugh does not a comedy make (that goes for you as well, David Brent: Life on the Road, but we'll talk later). The if-in-doubt-load-your-comedy-up-with-celebrity-appearances formula just isn't working. Who knew? It's time for Hollywood to take a long hard look at itself and figure out what's funny again. The era of the Frat Pack is over. Time of death: The Internship. They had a good run. The question is, where to next? It's hard to know, but don't be surprised to see Bongwater 2 hitting your local cinema this time next year while Hollywood comes up with a more acceptable answer.

Best Poor Man’s Heat

"Remind me why agreed to do this movie?"
Films about a crew of thieves taking one last score in a big city will inevitably be compared to Michael Mann’s Heat. By me. But the wait for one of these films to step out of its shadow goes on. The Town failed to do it, losing its way near the beginning and ending up with a final minute which looked like a cut scene from Miley Cyrus vehicle The Last Song. The bad news for Triple 9 is that it doesn’t even reach the heights of The Town. Or The Last Song, for that matter. This is, unfortunately, a case of Casey Affleck saying to big brother Ben, “Anything you can do, I can do slightly worse.” An A-list cast is given precious little to work with, with the characters and the story going nowhere interesting. Instantly forgettable, but for the fact that it could have been so much better. And for the fact that Kate Winslett plays a Russian mobster.

Best Neologism

GB: "Get out of this franchise while you still can, Aaron! I'll cover for ya."
AE: "But how are you gonna get out?"
GB: "....." 
A trip to Frankie and Bennie’s followed by London Has Fallen is surely a contender for worst evening ever, but that's a blog post for another time. It was bad taste all around, with this Gerard Butler-led action romp being perhaps the fittingest film for 2016. If Air Force One is the Democrat’s version of a president-based action movie, then London Has Fallen is the Trump version. It wears its xenophobia on its sleeve, and makes no apologies for its knife-a-bad-guy-to-death-and-ask-questions-later approach to conflict. But it wins this award for giving us what should have been the Oxford word of the year: Fuckheadistan. Gerard Butler throws in this beauty as he taunts one of the terrorists over a walkie-talkie, telling him and his terrorist friends to go back to “Fuckheadistan” or wherever it is they came from. Zing! Forget your post-truth, forget your Brexit: the English word of the year is Fuckheadistan. It’s not the word we need, but it’s the word we deserve. It's also kinda fun to apply the same zinger to other countries. For example, instead of "America" you can say "Fuckheadica". That might not actually be a bad idea, at least in the short term. It may sound like an over the top gesture, but I am becoming increasingly convinced this is the only way to make Fuckheadica great again.

Best Horror

I am about as much an authority on horror films as David Cameron on Aston Villa. So take this award with a pinch of salt. The Witch is more or less the only horror movie I've ever seen. And truth be told, it's not a quintessential horror movie. There are no real jumps to be had, no moments of impending fright, other than when you discover that Finchy is playing the lead role. This is a film that builds slowly and menacingly to a dramatic finale. The story is simple: a family in 17th century New England is banished from their Puritan plantation, and set up home near the woods. What follows is the unraveling of all certitudes, and the exposure of and to the evil which they have heard about with their ears (it is learned from the great Confessions) but which they now see with their eyes. This was a contender for my film of the year. It is certainly the only flawless film I've seen in the past twelve months. Once you've seen it, it is impossible to shake it off. It exposes you to a darkness you would rather not contemplate, but which you are forced into contemplating (fair to say it's more a Lenten film than a Christmas film, though Herod's massacre might suggest otherwise). As Evgeny Morozov once remarked, evil was not eradicated with the invention of the iPhone. That said, for better or worse those who lived before the iPhone were perhaps more aware of it. Does that mean that the iPhone is the devil's greatest trick? Possibly, but what is certain is that you would be missing a devil's trick if you don't see this movie. Highly recommended, as it used to say in the RTE guide.

Least Worst Comic Book Film

There are no longer any "best" comic book films. Only comic films which aren't quite as bad as other comic book films. After the double whammy of The Avengers and Man of Steel I made a solemn oath never to see a comic book movie in the cinema again. For a couple of years I was true to my word. But possessing an Unlimited card makes a man do things he can never undo. One of those things was my trip to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. My expectations were rock bottom, yet still I was disappointed (though mostly I was just bored and angry). The first quarter of the film flirts with intelligence. It tries to deal with the fact that these films almost inevitably end up in mass destruction which goes unaccounted for. In this case, the Superman of Man of Steel (played with all the charisma of a cardboard box by Henry Cavill) is shown to have paid no regard to the fortune of Bruce Wayne as he and Zod knocked lumps out of each other. Wayne is pissed, and he's looking for any excuse to take down Supes.

There's even some mildly interesting political commentary on Superman vs Liberal Democracy, But all of that goes out the window once Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor gets going. Coincidence? I think not. There is an attempt at a kind of pseudo-Nietzschean theme, as well as an attempt at theodicy (can Superman be omnibenevolent and omnipotent?). To put on my theologian's hat for a second, the problem with these attempts is that, contrary to the view of popular atheists (Ireland's friendly racist Ian O'Doherty, for example), God is not thought to be something like an alien (as Terry Eagleton puts it, God plus the universe does not make two). And for Christians, God becomes man, not Übermensch. But all of this is rather beside the point. The real problem with this film is that it's not actually a film at all. It is a two and a half hour advertisement for future films/advertisements. If there are any god-like figures at work here, it's the studio executives intent on creating a cinematic universe, or rather, the Mammon which has them grovelling at its feet and willing to do anything to appease it. 2019's Plastic Man may end up being the film of the decade. But I'll be damned before I go to see it.

A metaphor: Oscar Isaac is comic book movies,
Jennifer Lawrence is the film industry
With all this in mind, the award for least worst comic book film goes to X-men: Apocalypse. Yes, it's bad. Really bad. Stupidly bad. But it has two things going for it. First, it has Michael Fassbender, the most beautiful man in Ireland. (Aside: nothing makes me prouder to be Irish than the fact that an Irishman is dating Alicia Vikander. It's as if we're all dating her.) Second, it feels like the end of one of these franchises rather than a set-up. That in itself is worth celebrating. I mean, surely there's nowhere to go after an apocalypse. Right?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Film Awards 2016: Part I

Let's be clear. 2016 was not a particularly vintage year at the cinema. That being said, I must also confess: I chose poorly. There were potentially great films on offer which for one reason or another I didn't get to see: Hail, Caesar!, American Honey, Son of Saul, Midnight Special, I, Daniel Blake, Nocturnal Animals, Sing Street, Mother's Day. I could blame Cineworld and its reluctance to show anything that isn't guaranteed to earn three billions pounds in its opening weekend. I could also point to the happy fact that my cinema going days all but ended in October (at least for the time being). But truth be told, this one is on me. My rationale is, most of those potentially great movies which I neglected can be watched at home without much loss of appreciation. The cinema, however, is for films that are guaranteed to earn three billion pounds in their opening weekend. And so I trudged along to some unimaginable crap over the last twelve months. You name/ridicule it, I saw it, my only consolation being the fact that, thanks [?] to my Cineworld Unlimited card, it wasn't costing me anything extra to see if Now You See Me 2 or London Has Fallen could live up to the originals (they couldn't, which says a lot).

But it wasn't all bad. I saw a few truly great films this year, films that will live long in the memory, films that I can't wait to see again. And even a bad film at the cinema is still a film at the cinema, and thus an excuse to indulge in my new vice: Galaxy Minstrels (or Counters, though the Minstrels come in bigger bags) mixed with salt & sweet popcorn. So without further delay, here are my awards for the Films of 2016.

Best Film Featuring a Man Sleeping Inside a Horse

Alejandro Iñárritu is so hot right now. The Revenant was the first film I saw in 2016, and none since has matched it for sheer spectacle. From the fairly tight confines of his previous film Birdman, Iñárritu drags his audience out into the vast expanses of the North American wilderness, this time to track Leonardo DiCaprio as he crawls from one misfortune to another. The Revenant covers an enormous amount of space, displaying all the beauty and brutality of Nature. Yet precisely because of this the human story gets sort of swallowed up, or should I say, chewed up and spat out (quite literally). Perhaps that is simply part of the narrative, a sort of critique of Enlightenment anthropocentrism and its attendant colonialism. In the battle between Man and Nature, the lesson of The Revenant is that Nature will not be subdued without cost. What then of the battle between Man and (Tom Hardy’s unnecessarily unintelligible) Man? The Revenant certainly has politico-theological aspirations, aiming to say something about loyalty and violence and revenge, but these remained slightly obscure and unconvincing to me. There are flashbacks and visions that didn’t make a whole lot of sense at the time, though perhaps they would become clear with a second viewing. But watching The Revenant on anything other than a giant cinema screen seems a waste of its talent. This is a made-for-cinema film. In short, I ain’t inclined to watch it anymore. I’ve done it already.

Film with the Best Use of 'The Mighty Rio Grande' by This Will Destroy You

Room isn’t the first film to use 'The Mighty Rio Grande' (it cropped up in 2011’s Moneyball). But it’s definitely the best. I didn’t know what I was walking into when I walked into Room, and after ten minutes I felt like walking out. But this turned out to be a quite brilliant film, weaving philosophical reflection (think Plato’s cave allegory) into a well-told story of human suffering, struggle, and hope. It is as if we are getting a first-hand insight into what it might be like for a child to go from womb (room?) to world: the terror, the disbelief, the wonder. It may or may not be a stretch to call this a pro-life film, but it is undoubtedly life-affirming in the most pregnant sense of that term. That is not to say that Room is an easy watch. It most certainly is not. But this is a carefully crafted and beautifully acted film that deserves to be watched. A definite highlight of 2016. (If you care to see the scene with 'The Mighty Rio Grande' again, here it is.)

Best Film Featuring an Actor with the Same Name as a Basketball Legend

“Where’s Wallace at?” you ask? He’s only starring in one of the most enjoyable movies of 2016, is where he’s at! Michael (B.) Jordan is not yet a household name in the acting world, but it is surely only a matter of time. He oozes charisma and likability, and carries Creed on his considerable torso (it's a long time since that oversized jacket in the low rises). There is enough of an ode to the old Rocky films to keep this attached to the original series, but it doesn’t allow itself to get bogged down by nostalgia or sentiment. This is a film which stands on its own
two feet. It doesn’t exactly break any new ground, but it effortlessly retains boxing’s status as the sport which makes for the best movies. And I hate boxing.

Best Financial Crash Comedy-Drama

It may have missed a trick by not having Kevin Hargaden explaining sub primes while doing calf stretches on an exercise ball, but The Big Short does a fine job of turning the financial crash of 2008 into an intelligent and entertaining film (consider a companion piece to the more solemn Margin Call.) There is too much bravado and machismo on display (Like The Wolf of Wall Street, it seems to assume that its audience is exclusively male, hence Margot Robbie in a hot tub.) But this is a film with good actors giving good performances, and it tells a story so few really understand (in part, at least, because of the technocratic obscurity which surrounds the crash) in a way that helps us to understand it. Do I now know what a sub prime is? I won't pretend that I do. But when I bump into Margot Robbie at the next Society for the Study of Theology conference I will at the very least know to ask her.

Best Actor

Dalton Trumbo is not a communist. He may be a liar, a screenwriter, and a communist, but he is not a porn star. Trumbo may not be the best film of 2016. But given what has happened in the western world since its release, it may well be one of the most significant. It tells a history I knew absolutely nothing about: the blacklisting of Hollywood screenwriters (The Hollywood Ten) who were accused of being communists, and therefore traitors in America's war against Russia - a war which would not be resolved until Rocky IV. Trumbo (who wrote the Oscar winning screenplay to the wonderful Roman Holiday, but couldn't receive credit for it because of the blacklist) is played by Bryan Cranston, perhaps one of the funniest actors in Hollywood at the moment. He gives a sharp and compelling performance, helping to bring an important but neglected moment in American history to life. As a friend recently remarked, there is no real Left in America any more. This film explains at least in part why that might be the case. And as much as Hollywood today likes to think of itself as a strange bastion of something that might be called 'leftist values'...well, watch this video and weep. Workers Film lovers of the world, unite! (by watching this movie over Christmas).


Monday, October 17, 2016

Health is Wealth

Just before the summer I went on a "theological retreat" for first-year systematic theology students and their supervisors. We were joined by a visiting scholar from Tuebingen, who presented a paper on God and medicine. One of the points he made - the one that has stuck with me - is that the things we used to do for God we now do for our health. A pilgrimage is a way of keeping fit and improving our mental health, fasting keeps us slim and cleanses the body, and so on. It is little wonder, then, that Silicon Valley is pumping millions of dollars into experimental medicine in order to discover the thing which God alone was once thought to offer: eternal life.

I live in the UK, home to the NHS, but I have private health insurance. Why? Because I am married to someone from the wrong country. For my wife to get a residence card, we needed to have something called "comprehensive sickness insurance," and the NHS didn't count. So we now pay a substantial sum of money every month for a service that we neither want nor need.

The reason I mention all of this is because I just received a call from our health insurance provider, and I have seen the future. The lovely gentleman on the phone explained to me with great gusto all of the fantastic little offers available to me as a paying customer. For example, I can get "free" cinema tickets by keeping track of my steps and earning rewards. I can also pay for the new Apple watch simply by exercising and uploading the data to their app. This, I fear, is the future. It is not a future without money. I cannot pay my health insurance provider by walking to my office, although there may come a time when that data alone will suffice. But it is a future in which the body is monetised not only for sex or for labour, but for exercise and well-being - in short, for energy (or "power" if you want to speak in a theological idiom). Energetic human beings are deemed valuable human beings. This is one reason why abortion in general - and the abortion of those with disabilities in particular - can be justified. Those without energy are deemed burdens, and they do not belong to our energy-harvesting and data-mining future.

I will continue to play my (ridiculously expensive) Tuesday evening and (free) Saturday morning football. I can't claim to feel God's pleasure as I play, and I get the impression that God derives increasingly little pleasure from watching me play. But I'll be damned before I wear a piece of technology which tells my insurance company how many (or, more likely, how worryingly few) steps I took so that I can get an Apple watch. Get me a machine that records nutmegs, however....

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Fancy a Pint of Evangel-Ice?

I grew up in a Christian environment where street evangelism was something close to a norm. My church would regularly stage events in the main square in Galway, where members of the congregation would hand out tracts (little leaflets giving you the nuts and bolts of the gospel) and share their testimony (the story of their conversion). I was too young actively to participate in these events, but I wasn't too young to feel embarrassed at having to tag along with my parents. I knew that what we were doing was odd, and that we would be making many regular people on the streets either uncomfortable or angry. There was always a certain amount of guilt attached to that embarrassment. After all, if I'm ashamed of Jesus, then Jesus will be ashamed of me. That was never said to me directly I hasten to add, but that's one of the mentalities that surrounded the whole endeavour.

My unwillingness to participate in this kind of evangelism never went away, though the gradual decline of the 80s-90s enthusiasm of evangelical Christians made the opportunities for street evangelism few and far between - at least in my small circle. More and more Christians, it turns out, are ashamed of Jesus.

Was the street evangelism wrong? Or was my embarrassment and unwillingness wrong? I am in no position to make a final judgment. What is clear to me is that the willingness of Christians to "share their faith" is not a categorical good. The reticence of Jesus to make known his true identity (the so-called 'Messianic Secret' of the Gospel of Mark) is perhaps - perhaps - as much a model of how to be faithful as are the extravagant stories recounted in the book of Acts. Furthermore, consider Jesus's words in the Sermon on the Mount: "On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you." All of this is by way of saying that unwillingness to boldly proclaim the name of Jesus in the streets of Galway is not necessarily a sign of disobedience. On the contrary, it may very well be the kind of quiet obedience that Christ commands (he said, in order to justify himself).

Why do I mention all of this? Because on my way to university this afternoon (a la my NUIG days) I saw an army truck and stall set up outside the campus library. From some distance I could see the recruitment slogan: "Be the best." All of a sudden I was the regular Joe on the streets of Galway, and the soldiers were the weird Christians handing out tracts and trying to convince me that there was something better out there for me. The whole thing felt odd, and I wondered if others felt the same way. Do those who are made uncomfortable or angry at the street evangelism of Christians also feel uncomfortable or angry at the street evangelism of soldiers?

There is much more that could be said about all of this. But what struck me is the rather simple truth that we are never not being evangelised. Speaking on the story of Elijah and Elisha, Walter Brueggemann asks his congregation the question: "Who threw the mantle over you?" What this question presupposes is contesting evangelists who preach contesting gospels, gospels to which we have committed our lives. Many of us in the West like to think that we do not wear anyone's mantle, only the mantle we made for ourselves. But that is just the mantle we have been given. The extent to which we think it is worth passing on is perhaps measured by our willingness to have and raise children. Those British soldiers are looking to throw a particular mantle over students, a mantle which brings with it some potentially horrific expectations and devastating consequences, but which is sold as the opportunity to "be the best." The Christian gospel is deeply opposed to the military evangel in ways far too numerous to be discussed here. The point is, seeing that truck and that recruitment stall made me realise that Christian evangelism - in some form or another - is more needed than ever. Or, better, the gospel is more needed than ever.

I was ashamed of going out into the streets of Galway as a very young Christian. I still am! But twenty years on from the mid-nineties evangelistic fervour I am, in my better moments, learning why Paul could proclaim that he was not ashamed of the gospel.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Interview with Barth

In November 1938 Columbia Theological Seminary published an interview with Karl Barth. It's not the most enlightening interview you'll ever read. Most of the questions (asked by William Childs Robinson) take the form: "Is it true that...?" or "Given what you have said, does this mean that...?" For this reason Barth's responses rarely rise above the level of "Yes," or "No," or "I wouldn't quite put it that way." Indeed, as you read the interview you realise just why you had never discovered what 5 minutes ago appeared to be a hidden gem. The interview is little more than a wasted opportunity, really, but then we hardly lack for words by or about Karl Barth.

Still, there is one question and answer that gives a good summary of what Barth is up to in his theology. William Robinson asks:

"Would you describe sin as the transgression of the law of God?" (what did I tell you?)

You might expect Barth to respond with a simple "Yes," but he has something a little difference up his sleeve. He replies:

"Not primarily. Sin is first a protest against grace. There is no law apart from grace. Of course, grace gives a law, but what makes sin condemnable is our resistance against His love, not against His commandments. The Gospel comes before the law and love before the claim."

With these few sentences the traditional configuration of law -> sin -> grace is criticised and re-configured. For Barth, the true order is grace -> sin -> grace -> law (or perhaps grace -> law -> sin). This is why Barth says elsewhere the only Christians can properly sin, since Christians are the ones who know the grace (and the God) against which they sin. Indeed, our chief sin is our attempt to understand sin apart from grace. Barth's name for this attempt is "ethics."

One thing worth thinking about is what Barth's order would do to the practice and content of evangelism.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Creator and Creature

“But God confronts all that is in supreme and utter independence, i.e., He would be no less and no different even if they all did not exist or existed differently. God stands at an infinite distance from everything else, not in the finite degree of difference with which created things stand towards each other. If they all have their being and a specific nature, God in His freedom has conferred it upon them: not because He was obliged to do so, or because His purpose was influenced by their being and nature, but because their being and nature is conditioned by His being and nature. If they belong to Him and He to them, this dual relationship does not spring from any need of His eternal being. This would remain the same even if there were no such relationship.”

Above is a passage lifted out of Barth's Church Dogmatics. In this passage and its surrounding context, Barth is talking about the aseity of God, that is, the freedom of the divine being in itself and in relation to others. The standard claim of the tradition - a claim which Barth more or less follows - is that God does not need us to be God, that God would be God without us. I get what he is saying (and, more importantly, what he is trying to avoid saying) when he follows this line of thought. "Pious blasphemies" such as God does not exist if we do not exist, or God needs us as much as we need God, are just that - pious blasphemies.

And yet...In this and other similar passages, is Barth not in danger of treating that which is other than God – creation – in the abstract? Barth appears to be speaking of human beings or creatures in general, as opposed to the human being Jesus Christ. But if we take the man Jesus of Nazareth as the true creature - as Barth insists we must - then is it really true to say that God "would be no less and no different" even if the man Jesus did not exist or existed differently? Barth, of course, does not want to divinise the man Jesus, or turn the flesh which the Word became into an eternal, divine flesh, as if the creature is co-eternal with the creator. But Barth appears to be speaking of the Creator-creature relationship un-christologically in this instance, which is surely a problem. There must be some other way of articulating this relationship that doesn’t make the man Jesus either irrelevant to the divine being or co-eternal with it.

For those of you who are by God's good grace unaware of the secondary literature on Barth, what I'm on about here is one of the fault lines in Barth studies. The issue being debated is a genuine issue. You only need to read Barth for a while before you begin to wonder what it might mean to say "God could be God..." or "If God didn't..." Of course there is the danger that such wondering is precisely the kind of theological speculation that Barth rejected. Perhaps this is an unavoidable danger, such that the whole debate is destined to be unfruitful at best, divisive and elitist at worst. I have no real interest in picking sides, or in making a contribution which will decide the issue one way or the other (or which will perhaps introduce a "third way", or a fourth way which is even more nuanced than the already existing third ways). That is not theology. That is hell. But I'd be lying if I said that the passage quoted above didn't raise any questions. The Christian theologian is profoundly interested in the claim that the creature Jesus of Nazareth is God. What must be clear to the Christian theologian, however, is that that interest is not for the sake of academic positioning. It can only be for the sake of the Church, for its worship of God and service to the world.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Loyalty and Love

"The intuition is that loyalty, not prosperity, is the foundation of a healthy society. To my mind, it’s a sound intuition."

The editor of First Things, R. R. Reno, wrote these words the day before just over half of the 72% eligible to vote in the United Kingdom decided to leave the EU. The "intuition" mentioned belongs to those who campaigned to leave. In Reno's own words, "the vote to 'Leave' opens up the possibility of a different future, one in which national identities are renewed rather than 'fused.'" This renewal of national identities is, for Reno, a self-evident good, with the vote to leave representing a collective, British middle finger to the "global technocratic empire" whose face in this instance is the European Union.

This is all socially, historically, economically and politically dubious. It becomes theologically dubious when Reno connects the United Kingdom post-Brexit with Augustine's City of God. According to Reno, had the UK remained in the EU then it would be a polity ruled by fear of poverty and the rapacious desire for prosperity. These are the characteristics of the city of man. By contrast, a UK outside of the EU would model the city of God by participating "in the ennobling power of love". The basis of this participation is "national loyalty." The object of this love is one's British neighbour.

If what Reno is describing were true, it would be disconcerting at best and diabolical at worst. A theologically justified nationalism is a collective middle finger to the Christ attested in Scripture. But what Reno is describing isn't even true. It's false. And that's the real problem. What is happening in Britain is not nationalism per se (if there is even such a thing). It is racism. There have been an enormous amount of reports from people who have either experienced or witnessed abuse and hatred in the wake of the UK's vote to leave the EU. What is worth noting is that a significant number of these people are British. But being British is simply not enough. They may be "officially" British, they may have British passports, they may even have been born in Britain, but they don't look like a British person should look, or they don't talk like a British person should talk. or they don't worship the god that a British person should worship. All of this is by way of saying that nationalism is inherently racist. To be British is to be white, not black. To be British is to be Christian, not Muslim. The "national loyalty" that Reno gets so misty eyed about is poisonous to its very core. It is a loyalty that Jesus came quite explicitly to defeat. It is a loyalty that nailed him to the cross, but which was in fact nailed to the cross with him.

We live in troubling times. We always do. That is why theological work needs to be done. Indeed. Karl Barth's justification for theology is a simple one: sin. The sin of Christians, the sin of non-Christians, the most especially sin of theologians, means that the work of theology must continue. Church's who sing the songs of national loyalty, and theologians who write its propaganda, cannot go uncriticised. Woe to those who call the city of God the city of man, and the city of man the city of God.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

How (Not) to (Not) Speak (about) (God)

In Barth's foray into doctrine of God he makes the modest claim that more or less every pre-Reformation and post-Reformation theologian got the doctrine of God wrong. Theologians today work in the wake of this claim. Some agree with Barth, and try to continue along the same path that he walked, though not uncritically. Others agree, but seek to find alternative solutions (some of which are more alternative than others). And others simply disagree, and seek to keep alive what is in danger of being lost.

Barth's criticism can be summed up as follows: theologians have confused theology with metaphysics. What does such confusion look like?

Barth gives one such example. Take the divisions we might make between nature and grace, body and soul, visible and invisible, material and spiritual, earth and heaven. You will finds these divisions all over so-called "classical theology". God is generally associated with the latter term, and creatures are associated with the former term. So, for example, we associate God with "spirit" and "supernatural" and "invisible" and "heaven." Barth's point is that the differentiation of the divine from the non-divine does not coincide with these other distinctions. In other words, God is as much to be distinguished from the "supernatural" as He is from the "natural", or from the "spiritual" as the "material". So if we think we are in the realm of true talk about God when we talk about spirit, we are gravely mistaken. According to Barth, it is no more anthropomorphic to talk of God's hands or feet or back than it is to talk about the being of God as spirit.

With this Barth basically dismantles the work of my former teacher, Maximus the Confessor. Maximus was of course much too sophisticated to identify God with any human word, be it spirit or being or absolute. Indeed for Maximus God so transcends Being Itself that He is perhaps even more like non-being than being when conceived by us. Nevertheless, the metaphysical hierarchy is present: spirit, intellect, soul are closer to God than matter, senses, and body.

Barth's argument is that we cannot equate God with the Invisible, or Incomprehensible, or Absolute, or Ground of Being. God is as different from the invisible as He is the visible. Or on the positive side, God is as free to be associated with the visible as He is with the invisible.  We don't get closer to the "pure essence" of God when we approach God with our metaphysical i's dotted and t's crossed. There simply is no way from here to there.

The takeaway point in all of this?

People in "sophisticated" (post)modern Churches would do well not to identify God with absolute spirit or the unknown ground of being, whereas people in "unsophisticated" evangelical Churches would do well not to identify God with the supernatural.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

I Believe, Help my Unbelief

I didn't realise it until I saw BBC News this Sunday morning, but this weekend the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and Head of the Commonwealth, officially celebrated her 90th birthday. Little did I know, that wouldn't be the last I heard of it.

I trotted off to Church, for the first time in a while it must be said. We arrived late, and were greeted with a hymn book and an order of service, before settling into a deeply uncomfortable pew. Hymns were sung, prayers were offered, there was lovely choir performance that may or may not actually belong in a worship service, and some biblical texts were read from the lectern. And then there was a sermon.

It started off fairly benign, but the more it went on the more subversive it became. The only problem, and it really was the only problem, was that this particular sermon was subversive of the gospel. Out of nowhere, the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and Head of the Commonwealth was front and centre. The minister made reference to his own personal acquaintance with the Queen, and described this weekend as a celebration of her "public life". I turned to my wife and asked her what the hell he is talking about the Queen for? But it was about to get worse. The minister then directed our attention to what was coming at the close of the service - the first verse of the national anthem. Of cours,e he acknowledged that there may be some in the room who are critical of the monarchy, and they are of course free not to sing along. Yet this tolerance of other views was immediately undermined by his claim that "Yes, monarchy, in the past, has done bad things, but then" - wait for it - "so has the Church". The hidden message, of course, being - you who have not sinned, only you can refuse to sing the national anthem and refuse celebrate the "public life" of a queen. And for the record, this is a Presbyterian Church in Scotland. A Presbyterian Church in Scotland! As Alex Ferguson would put it, Church, bloody hell.

Now this is all bad enough as it is. And when I say bad, I mean idolatry and heresy. But the irony of it all was the biblical texts everyone in that massive Church building heard. That's the beauty of Scripture. Even when it is being mishandled and abused, it has a power that no human can get a handle on. The thing is, if you wanted to pick three texts that are deeply critical of monarchy, nationalism, and pride in human achievement, you probably could not have hand picked three better texts. Without any discernible self-awareness, the minister preached his sermon after we had just heard the story of King Ahab coveting the land of Naboth, and his wife, the Queen, conspiring to have Naboth killed and the land handed over to the monarchy! Here, in plain speech, is what the Bible has to say about the public life of queens. If only we had ears to hear. Next came a passage from Galatians, where Paul chastises Peter for a nationalism which undermines the truth of the gospel. Finally, the Gospel reading was from Luke 7, where Jesus eats dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader enthralled by power and therefore blind to his need for forgiveness. Three texts, one deeply troubling and energising gospel, and a sermon that sought to threaten it all at every turn.

We left after the sermon, but not before we recited the Apostle's Creed together. There we affirmed our faith in Father, Son, and Spirit, and our belief in the Church. And at times like this it is crucial to remember: that there is a Church is not a given, a self-evident factor in the world, but an article of faith. We thank God that there has been a Church, and pray that there will be a Church in the future, but it is in God's hands whether there is a Church or not. Stanley Hauerwas, in his Gifford Lectures, is critical of a sentence in Church Dogmatics where Barth says that the world would be lost without Christ, but would not necessarily be lost if there was no Church. This morning was a reminder of why Barth thought had to say what he said. The Church needs God, but God does not need the Church. 

In the Apostle's creed we also declared our common belief in the forgiveness of sins. Before I left, I was tempted to use the pen I was given to write on the order of service sheet: "God forgive us for celebrating the life of Jezebel." I refrained. I won't be going back to this Church again. An unfaithful, sinful Church is simply the Church of Jesus Christ. But an unfaithful, sinful Church that is blind to its need for forgiveness is the Church for Simon the Pharisee and Jezebel the Queen, and not the Church for the woman who loves the merciful Jesus and the vineyard owner who will not bow to the demands of the royal family.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Health Before Wealth

In Slavoj Zizek's reading of Titanic, the film is not a love story. It is a film about the redemption of a bourgeois woman. Leonardo Di Caprio is not her lover, but her priest and saviour, instilling in her bloated and regimented existence some of his lower-class values of spontaneity and revelry (the real party is in steerage, you see). In the end, Kate Winslett gets the best of both worlds. Leo dies, meaning she doesn't have to live an impoverished existence with him. Instead, we see pictures of her living an affluent life but without the guilt and depression that might have ensued had she not been freed to enjoy her wealth. The problem, it turns out, was not wealth, but the fiance who would prevent her from finding satisfaction in it.

Almost 20 years later, we have a slightly new spin on this trope. I have not seen Me Before You, but I have read about it. It seems to be almost identical to Titanic in its form, though with one significant difference: one of the "lovers" is disabled. This, it seems, makes all the difference. While it is bad to be working class, it is actually worse to be rich and quadriplegic. Like Kate Winslett's Rose, Sam Claflin's Will is wealthy and suicidal. But unlike Rose, Will is beyond saving. His disability means that he is unable to enjoy his wealth, and this makes him deeply unhappy. The Jack Dawson of this film, Louise Clark, is an "eccentric" and "bubbly" working-class woman without much qualifications or job prospects. Like Will, she is in need of salvation, but unlike Will, she can actually be saved. Where Will is wealthy (good) and unhealthy (bad), Louise is poor (bad) and healthy (good). To spoil a film that should probably never be watched, the two fall in love. But what this means is that Will must take himself and his disability out of the picture if Louise is to truly find happiness (if you love someone, set them free and all that). So Will goes through with his planned assisted-suicide, but not before leaving Louise with a large inheritance. Like Rose in Titanic, Louise now has the best of both worlds. She is healthy and wealthy, and Will's tragic existence has given her a real sense of duty to make the most out of her newly-possessed privileges.

The takeaway lesson is as follows: health without riches is useless, but riches without health are equally useless, if not more so. Indeed, in the hierarchy of human existence, persons with disability apparently rank the lowest, and they ought at least to consider the possibility that they'd be better off dead. It is little wonder that this film is being protested against. This is a vile message when stated explicitly, yet it is implicitly accepted by many of us. What is at work here, theologically speaking, is idolatry. Health and Wealth are our gods. All that we do, we do for them. All that we sacrifice, we sacrifice for them. It would be a grave mistake for churches to think this idolatry is only practiced by "health and wealth" or "prosperity gospel" churches. Churches which are not temped by the the health and wealth gospel are more often than not Churches whose members have a surplus of both.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Worst Thing in the World

In the same Barth Q and A mentioned in the previous post there is a question about the relationship between Christianity and other religions. Based on the text in Acts 14 where it says that God did not leave the nations without witness or testimony, the student asks Barth whether there is revelation in religions outside of Christianity. Barth's response? "The answer is 'No'" But what then of Acts 14 and these "testimonies" given to the nations?

Barth explains this by drawing a distinction between revelation and what he calls "signs." Certainly, he says, the world is full of signs of God's presence. Paul also talks about this in Acts 17 and in Romans 1. But these signs of God's presence are not revelation, that is, they are not God's self-disclose, His own speech concerning Himself.

Returning to other religions, he notes that in the Bible the other religions surrounding Israel (and later, the Church) are not dealt with as revelation. On the contrary, the relationship between the people of God and other religions is always agonistic (though it must be said that the relationship between the people of God and the people of other religions is not always so). Indeed, Barth summarises the story of Scripture as the fight between God's revelation and what is called religion. "The worst thing in the world," claims Barth, "is religion." One hesitates to conclude that this is mere exaggeration. Indeed, Barth returns to his first answer - there is no revelation in other religions - and adds that one can and must include Christianity in this Nein insofar as Christianity has become a religion. What initially looked like "religious intolerance" from Barth becomes something much more interesting: the call to abolish all religion, including the Christian one.

"God's speaking in the Gospel - now there is revelation over against the whole Christian and non-Christian world!"

The "Thus saith the Lord" is therefore not the word of a pious man, or the theological insight which has arisen form the human heart. It is, for Barth, the Word which is strange and new, graceful and helpful. In other words, revelation is apocalyptic all the way down. If we follow Barth, we might say that the extent to which Christianity fails to conform to this apocalypticism is the extent to which it becomes the worst thing in the world.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Do the Barth Man

If you go to this website you can hear Barth deliver his lectures on evangelical theology in Princeton in 1962, as well as some Q and As. I especially recommend the latter, since it gives you a chance to appreciate Barth's wit and self-deprecation. One exchange in particular stands out,

In the Q and A with students, one of them quotes to Barth a sentence he wrote in The Resurrection of the Dead (from the mid 1920s), and asks Barth is he still agrees with this sentence, and if he does, is it not problematic? Barth comments that that book was written a long time ago, and that there are certainly sentences which he can no longer uphold. But he asks the student to read the quote again slowly, and says "I will look into what I can make of it." So the student repeats the quote from Resurrection: "Exactly in the place of that which makes me a man, the human soul, is placed that which makes God God."

In the recording you hear a sort of confused pause by Barth, followed by silence, and then laughter from the crowd. Barth himself seems to be laughing. As the laughter stops, Barth asks: "Can you tell me...what I may have meant...!?" Barth is laughing again by the end of his question, and the students follow suit.

From another theologian this question could come across as patronising and arrogant, as if to say: well of course I know what I meant, but I want to check to see if YOU know how to interpret me. But here it is a genuine question from Barth, a question which seems to be mocking the obscurity of the original quotation. For all Barth's giftedness as a theologian, his best characteristic is perhaps his refusal to take himself seriously. He is not precious about "his" theology. From the very beginning of Church Dogmatics he insists that dogmatics is not mastery, but service. This, sadly, is a characteristic often absent from Barthians, who would do well to pay as much attention to the spirit of Barth's theology as to the letter.

If you want to hear the exchange for yourself, click here and go to minute 10:30

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


If you've ever wondered what psychoanalysis might have to say about The Sound of Music, then wonder no more. In the above video philosopher Slavoj Zizek uncovers the "hidden" message of the film, and more importantly, the "hidden" message of the Church as institution: "pretend to renounce and you can get it all". In the case of the film "getting it" means getting Baron von Trapp.

What Zizek doesn't mention is the theological move which the head of the Convent makes. Here's the key part of the dialogue:

Maria: I left... I was frightened... I was confused. I felt, I've never felt that way before, I couldn't stay. I knew that here I'd be away from it. I'd be safe... I can't face him again... Oh, there were times when we would look at each other. Oh, Mother, I could hardly breathe... That's what's been torturing me. I was there on God's errand. To have asked for his love would have been wrong. I couldn't stay, I just couldn't. I'm ready at this moment to take my vows. Please help me. 
Reverend Mother: Maria, the love of a man and a woman is holy too. You have a great capacity to love. What you must find out is how God wants you to spend your love. 
Maria: But I pledged my life to God. I pledged my life to his service. 
Reverend Mother: My daughter, if you love this man, it doesn't mean you love God less. No, you must find out and you must go back. 
Maria: Oh, Mother, you can't ask me to do that. Please let me stay, I beg of you. 
Reverend Mother: Maria, these walls were not built to shut out problems. You have to face them. You have to live the life you were born to live.

At work in the Reverend Mother's pastoral wisdom is a non-competitive account of a creation governed only by the law of love. In essence, the advice to Maria is "follow your heart". Such advice is, of course, the very antithesis of pastoral wisdom, but who of us would not like to hear it?

This is what makes a passage such as 1 Corinthians 7 so troubling (and so ignored). Paul speaks of divided interests, of a "world" which competes with God for our time and devotion and service. In other words, if Maria had gone to St Paul for advice, it seems he would have told her: stay as you are. By loving this man you will almost certainly end up loving God less. But if you're too horny then go ahead and marry him. You won't be sinning, and your union with him can be of service to God. Now this advice may have led to the very same outcome, but the kind of world that Maria now inhabits would have been radically altered by Paul's speech.

Another episode from The Sound of Music which Zizek does not mention is the relationship between Liesl, the eldest daughter in the von Trapp family, and Rolfe, a telegram delivery boy. Their relationship mirrors that of their seniors in many ways, but it does not enjoy the same happy ending. Nazism gets in the way of true love! There is a very interesting exchange toward the end of the film. Liesl meets Rolfe in Vienna, having not seen him in quite some time. She tries to rekindle their youthful romance, but the newly recruited Nazi Rolfe tells her: "I'm now occupied with more important matters."

More important than modern, romantic love?! Neither the film, nor the Christians it depicts, can imagine such a thing. Surely the only true ideology is one which allows us to roam free in a non-competitive space, where even God Himself does not impinge on our personal projects.

But the God of Paul does so impinge. As Zizek says, the kind of non-competitive, follow-your-heart logic of the Reverend Mother does not belong to Christianity as such. Christianity is much more interesting than that. So what am I saying? I think I am saying that if we want to look for the logic of Christian discipleship in The Sound of Music, we can look no further than the Nazi Rolfe.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

That's Amore

Since I am supposed to be doing research on love (if ever something cries out not to be researched, it is surely love), Pope Francis's latest statement has proved timely. It is called Amoris Laetitia - The Joy of Love. Francis is not reflecting on love per se (whatever that might mean), but on love as it pertains to family life.

I have only began to read what is a fairly long statement, but the following line caught my attention. Francis says:

The ability of human couples to beget life is the path along which the history of salvation progresses.

This claim comes in the context of "fruitful" human love being understood as imaging the fecundity of the divine life. I have two things to say about it.

First, it is not true. If Scripture teaches us anything, it teaches us that it is precisely the inability of human couples to beget life that is the path along which the history of salvation progresses. The child of promise, and not the child of the flesh, is the one who carries forward the divine blessing. This is a basic theological truth, but it is one so easy to miss, and one whose implications are enormous.

Second, Pope Francis's claim shows how tempting it is to speak the language of natural theology when we talk about love between human beings. Indeed it is hard to know how to speak about love and *not* engage in a bit of natural theology, intentionally or otherwise. My hope is that Karl Barth might teach me how to do so, and thus help me to avoid the notion of agape as the civil virtue which keeps the machine running. (Not that that's what Pope Francis is doing, I hasten to add.)