Saturday, July 28, 2007

Book Review: C S Lewis: Clarity and Confusion

C S Lewis: Clarity and Confusion: A Balanced Introduction to His WritingsC S Lewis is a paradoxical writer in Christianity. An Anglican who had some so-called liberal views about doctrines such as inspiration and salvation yet he is adored by evangelical Christians - even of the theologically fundamentalist persuasion. Andrew Wheeler’s book, C S Lewis: Clarity and Confusion: A Balanced Introduction to His Writings surveys Lewis’s books and identifies what he considers to be commendable and what he believes needs to be criticised. Wheeler begins with a sketch of C S Lewis’s life beginning with his birth in Belfast, through his days at university and in the military during the first World War, his conversion, and his ascendancy as a writer and broadcaster who had an impact around the globe. C S Lewis’s books are still very popular. The biographical survey is followed by a section identifying what Wheeler calls ’glimpses of grace’. This part of the book examines Lewis’s beliefs about sin, what it means to ’live in Christ’, God’s character and what it means to know God, and the future of the Christian. In Part 3, Wheeler turns to ’some areas of concern’. These include things like the historicity and factuality of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Given the evangelical perspective that Wheeler writes from, the suggestion, by Lewis, that the Bible began as merely human writing does not sit well. Wheeler concludes that Lewis is ’much more reliable on the New Testament than on the Old.’ (p. 60) Wheeler goes so far as to say that Lewis’s ’book Reflections on the Psalms, though not without its good points, is not a particularly good book. In the hands of a young, inexperienced, or little taught Christian, it could do great harm.’ (p. 61) Lewis’s discussions of creation and evolution also set off warning bells for Wheeler. Lewis accepted evolution as a the scientific theory of origins, as many did in his day. For Wheeler, who is obviously a literalist when it comes to Genesis 1 and 2, this is completely unacceptable. Lewis was also quite accommodating of other religious traditions besides Christianity. Wheeler writes that Lewis’s belief that ’it was possible for followers of other religions to be saved’ is ’[a]nother serious error in Lewis’s thinking.’ (p. 79) Wheeler continues:
[C S Lewis] certainly did not believe that all of them would be saved; he knew very well that not all roads lead to God. He also knew that it is our duty to spread the gospel. Nevertheless, he did not think that only Christians go to heaven.. He wrote: ’We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him’ (Mere Christianity [1952], Book II, Chapter 5). The second half of that sentence contains a dangerous and troubling mistake.
Of course, Lewis’s isn’t/wasn’t the only Christian who believes this. But because Wheeler is coming from a very specific evangelical position, this belief of Lewis’s is problematic for Wheeler. There is much good in Wheeler’s analysis of Lewis’s writings. They provide a useful summary. But this particular example illustrates an important weakness in Wheeler’s critique. He is writing from a very narrow theological perspective without any indication of the breadth of Christian theological and doctrinal belief. Lewis’s clarity and confusion can be defined and discussed in various ways depending on which perspective one comes from. Despite this narrowness, the book is worth reading. It just means that even Wheeler’s evaluation of Lewis’s understandings also needs to be read critically. Related Links

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Movie Review: Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the PhoenixHarry Potter and friends have returned to Hogwarts for their fifth year of study in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This installment is the best of the film series so far and is by far the maturest in terms of film making.

Harry has returned to Hogwarts warning that Voldemort has found a new body and returned. But almost noone believes him. Instead, they believe the propaganda written in the Daily Prophet. The Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, is wilfully ignorant of the truth and installs a new teacher for the Defence Against the Dark Arts classes at Hogwarts - one Dolores Umbridge (brilliantly portrayed by Imelda Staunton). She gradually takes over the school, with the support of the Minister of Magic, restricting the freedom to question ideas, rigid curricula, the outlawing of groups gathering together, and other repressive rules.

In response to the growing threat and because the new teacher will not allow them to talk about it, Dumbledore’s Army is formed, led by Harry who teaches a group of loyal students the magic necessary to deal with Voldemort.

Directed by David Yates, Order of the Phoenix focuses more on the inner emotional development of the characters than on narrative - although that is there too. Harry comes of age in this film (as do Hermione and Ron, to some extent). This episode is more than entertainment and carries with it important themes including the power of love and friendship in overcoming evil and the negative impact of oppressive regimes and how they control individual thinking. It would make George Orwell proud! It’s a great story of good vs evil and is much darker than any of the previous movies.

Because I haven’t read the books, I can’t say how Order of the Phoenix compares. But quite a few reviewers are saying this one is better than the book. If you are a Harry Potter fan, you won’t want to miss this episode!

My Rating: **** (out of 5)

Positive Review
’For all its portentousness, this is the best Harry Potter picture yet. In some ways, it improves on J.K. Rowling’s novel, which is punishingly protracted and builds to a climactic wand-off better seen than read. - David Edelstein/New York Magazine

Negative Review
’Taken as a motion picture, the new "Harry" comes up short. But taken as a visual aid to the experience of reading a book, the new "Harry" does its job. - Mick LaSalle/San Francisco Chronicle

Content Advice
Sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images

USA: PG-13

Monday, July 09, 2007

Movie Review: Stranger than Fiction (DVD)

Stranger Than FictionStranger than Fiction is a brilliant comedy/drama/romance about the inevitability of death and how we try to understand it in relation to the rest of our life’s seeming triviality. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an IRS auditor whose life is repetitive, mundane, and dominated by numbers. Every day is exactly the same as the previous one and is managed by the watch on his wrist. One day, getting ready for work, Harold suddenly begins hearing a woman’s voice narrating everything he is doing. This, of course, is highly disturbing and he becomes obsessed with trying to come to grips with what is happening to him. He solicits the help of Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), an English Professor of Literature, and is eventually able to discover that the voice in his head belongs to a novelist author, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) who is writing his story. Big problem: Karen Eiffel always kills off her main character in the stories she writes. Harold needs to find a way to avoid his death and, as he does so, falls in love with one of his auditees and learns some things about himself and life that have a profound impact on his existence. Will Farrell is excellent as Harold Crick and this is probably his best role so far. Emma Thompson, who apparently wore no makeup for this role, is superb as the distraught, depressed novelist with writer’s block, and they are both supported by good performances from Dustin Hoffman and Maggie Gyllenhaal (as the love interest). Stranger than Fiction is a deeply thoughtful movie and, despite it being a comedy, manages to explore existential themes related to death that are of significance to all of us as human beings who inevitably must die. What do our deaths mean? Are they part of some predetermined tapestry? Where does choice fit in? What gives life its significance? What do the mundane aspects of our lives contribute to the overall meaning of existence? These and many other questions are alluded to in an unexpectedly entertaining and engaging narrative. At times, the story drags a touch, but the narrative pulls us in and keeps us intrigued until the final moments of the surprising resolution. Don’t miss this one. My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review ’In a feat of performing imagination, Ferrell turns his usual extroversion inside out and his usual zaniness into precision, and makes it all work for him.’ - Michael Sragow/ Baltimore Sun Negative Review ’Watching the movie made me long for the big , risky ideas and entertainingly fearless filmmaking in David O. Russell’s "I Heart Huckabees " and Spike Jonze’s "Adaptation ," which Kaufman wrote. Both were similarly conceptual escapades, but they let it all hang out.’ - Wesley Morris/Boston Globe Content Advice Some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity AUS: M USA: PG-13