Thursday, October 25, 2007

'God's honest truth' (Guardian)

Check out this story from Andrew Brown in the Guardian about Sweden’s plans to, according to Brown, make the teaching of religious beliefs and doctrines illegal even in private religious schools.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Movie Review: Deliver Us From Evil

Deliver Us from EvilI’ve just finished watching the award-winning controversial documentary Deliver Us From Evil. It follows the story of a Catholic priest, Father Oliver O’Grady, a convicted pedophile who raped and abused children as young as 9 months old in California in the 70s. He is, at present, roaming free in Ireland after serving seven years in prison. When you first meet O’Grady on the screen, he comes across as someone who is remorseful and wants to put things right by telling his story. But the more you listen to what he has to say as the film progresses, the more you get the feeling that he is not much more than a very clever manipulator. The way O’Grady talks about his crimes, the more you get the feeling that he doesn’t really understand the depths of evil that he has perpetrated on his victims. O’Grady describes how he wants to write letters to each of his victims inviting them to come and meet with him so he can tell them it should never have happened so that he and they can move on with their lives. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he seems to be looking forward to the reunion with his victims. When his softly spoken descriptions of his crimes is contrasted with the deep pain of the interviews with his victims, O’Grady’s remorse seems even more superficial. The horror of this man roaming free is intensified when we see him casually lean against the fence of a children’s playground. O’Grady is not the only criminal in this story. The Catholic hierarchy protected him by moving him around knowing what he was doing. The documentary also describes the coverup extending to the highest levels of the Catholic Church all the way to the current Pope. (According to the documentary, the current Pope was actually charged with allegations of conspiracy to cover up child abuse in the Catholic Church, but on the request of the Vatican, President Bush made him immune from prosecution.) The documentary consists of interviews with victims of O’Grady and their families, video footage of depositions, and interviews with a number of people within the Catholic Church who are fighting for justice for these victims and the thousands of others who have suffered sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. The abuse of power by leaders of churches is destroying people’s lives and their faith. One of the interviewees in the documentary reminds viewers that the only time in the gospels when Jesus gets angry is ’when he goes to church’. The Lord’s Prayer includes asking God to ’deliver us from evil.’ What a travesty it is that, so often, we have to pray to be delivered from the evil of the church - an evil that frequently sides with the abuser rather than the victims of abuse. Father O’Grady got away with evil because people who were supposed to be committed to protecting the vulnerable allowed it to happen and actively covered it up. This documentary is harrowing and confronting as it reveals the ripping apart of people’s souls. It will leave you haunted and angry. But it should be compulsory viewing for anyone who cares about our children or those who are now adults still suffering from evil perpetrated in their childhood. My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Reviews ’Brilliant and psychologically transfixing documentary.’ - Owen Gleiberman/Entertainment Weekly ’Works best when it concentrates on O’Grady and the ever-rippling effect of his transgressions. Viewers may not remember the victims whose stories practically pierce the heart, but they’re unlikely to forget O’Grady’s deceptively innocent face. - Desson Thomson/Washington Post Negative Reviews None available Content Advice Strong themes AUS: MA USA: Not rated Related Links

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Book Review: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions

Meaning of Jesus: Two VisionsThe Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus J Borg and N T Wright has to be one of the most enlightening books I have read in a long time. Marcus Borg is one of the world’s leading liberal Jesus scholars and N T Wright one of the world’s leading conservative Jesus scholars. They have joined together to produce this brilliant exploration of the meaning of Jesus. Dealing with such questions as Was Jesus born of a virgin? Did he know he was the Messiah? Was he bodily resurrected from the dead? Did he intentionally die to redeem humankind? Was Jesus God? Borg and Wright each provide their answers in separate chapters. Borg and Wright clearly have a deep respect for each other and it shows in their writing even though they disagree on fundamental points. It is a model for how all Christians should be able to dialogue with each other despite their differences. Borg is a member of the (in)famous Jesus Seminar and Wright is an outspoken critic. And yet they are able to find areas of agreement and demonstrate keen understanding of each others’ points of view. I learned an enormous amount about Jesus from both of these authors along with the occasional paradigm shift. No matter what position these two men come from, it is obvious that they are deeply committed to following Christ according to their own understanding. They shed new light on age-old questions. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions is deeply satisfying and provides an enormous amount for reflection. It won the Best General Interest Book of 1999 award from the Association of Theological Booksellers. If you want a refreshing, thoughtful, and meaningful discussion on the debate about Jesus that has become so popular in recent times, I highly recommend this excellent book. Related Links

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Movie Review: The War on Democracy

The War on Democracy is an incisive documentary on the US’s involvement in the politics of Latin America over the last 50 years. Despite Washington’s rhetoric about fighting to preserve democracy in the world, its actions in its own ’backyard’ show that it is often only interested in true democracy when it serves its own interests. John Pilger, an award-winning journalist, tells the story of a number of Central and South American countries who tried to bring democracy to their people but failed because of the atrocities committed by dictators backed by America.

The largest part of the documentary tells the story of the rise of Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected president of Venezuela. Chavez has revolutionised Venezuela bringing a form of democracy to the people that we have pretty much forgotten about in the West. But Chavez has not been popular with the middle and upper classes of Venezuela who ride on the back of capitalism that marginalises the poor of the country. Chavez has begun to fill the gap between rich and poor with his policies and Pilger tells the dramatic story of an attempted but failed coup during which US media were manipulated into showing footage that perpetuated a distorted view of actual events.

The second part of the documentary surveys various nasty tricks the US has perpetrated in various countries with some stunning interview footage of ex-CIA operatives who proudly boast about their countries right to do anything it wants, anytime it wants, wherever it wants, if it serves its own interests.

The War on Democracy is not, however, without its faults. It is clearly biased in and the strength of the film is undermined by the few times Pilger appears on screen "preaching" to his audience. Additionally, despite the fact that Chavez explains his passion to bring true democracy to Venezuela, many despots in the past have started out preaching freedom for the oppressed. Only time will tell whether Chavez continues to run a government by the people for the people. In a telling moment when Pilger asks about the high number of people still living in poverty, he sidesteps the question saying that the real issue is to live with dignity. It doesn’t quite ring true. Apparently, too, Chavez is gaining significant control of the country’s institutions (see Negative Review below).

The War on Democracy, however, is a must see documentary, particularly in the current political context of the "war on terror" and the "modern Vietnam" of Iraq. Our politicians who speak so eloquently about democracy may have a democracy in mind that the rest of us don’t recognise.

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

Positive Review
’A brilliantly-researched and sometimes shocking insight into the democratic position of those countries whose dealings with America are more along the lines of slave than political poodle.’ - Kat Brown/Empire

Negative Review
’Pilger, typically, is not content to let the film do its own talking. He appears regularly, in cream lightweight suit and complementary tan, to deliver schoolmasterly dissertations on the sins perpetrated by self-serving Washington and its craven acolytes.’ - Sandra Hall/Sydney Morning Herald


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The need to read

I have recently been reflecting on a few things that people have said to me at various times about reading. I remember, as a teenager, attending a presentation made by an evangelist who was critiquing a controversial book for the youth group I belonged to at the time. I hadn’t heard of the book before that presentation but it sounded like an important book to read. I approached the evangelist at the end of the program and asked where I could obtain the book. He wouldn’t tell me, saying that you had to be a strong person who knew the church’s doctrines well before reading the book. I was very annoyed that someone else believed that his job was to censure what I read and make judgments about my ability to deal with the contents of the book. It wasn’t until some years later I was able to locate the book. I read it and gained an enormous benefit from it.

On another occasion, I had a Christian friend tell me that he never read anything about the Bible - no commentaries or books. He believed that he only needed to read the Bible and accept what it said and that reading anything else was merely contaminating Scripture by other people’s opinions.

Finally, I have had a number of people warn me that reading so widely, particularly material that contradicted what the denomination of which I was a member taught, would inevitably lead to the loss of faith or the adoption of error.

Many people seem to fear reading widely as if, somehow, they will be unwillingly entrapped. The problem, however, is not so much what is read, but how one reads. I would suggest that, in fact, it is essential to read widely if one is to avoid erroneous thinking and that those who, out of fear, confine themselves to reading only what they agree with are the very ones who are in danger. Reading widely brings with it a number of benefits.

It provides an opportunity to test our thinking. By reading widely and exposing ourselves to other ideas and critiques of our own ideas, we have the opportunity to reflect on issues and questions that may lead to a refinement of our own beliefs and values. The reality is that our own thinking may be wrong. It is inevitable that, at some point, it will be wrong. By only reading what is agreeable to us we merely reinforce our own beliefs and values. For some people, that is what they want. They fear being exposed to ideas or thinking that may challenge their own and only want confirmed what they already believe to be true. But those who wish to pursue truth must be willing to take the risk of examining alternative views to their own. So reading widely provides us with the opportunity to test our thinking.

It avoids cultic manipulation of one’s beliefs. One of the favourite techniques of cults, in controlling their members, is to control the information that is fed to them - what they hear and what they read or see. By refusing to read anything that challenges our beliefs or gives us information not consistent with what we already think, we are essentially choosing to apply cultic mind control to ourselves. Many Christians only read what they find in their Christian bookstore or published by their denominational press. By making this choice, they do not need to ever deal with genuine challenges to their thinking or what they believe. And although this may be a voluntary restriction the effect is the same as if it was imposed. Organisations and denominations may also subtly "encourage" their membership to limit their reading by producing their own material in such quantities that, if a person has so much available, they may not ever have the "need" to read outside that particular world view. So reading widely prevents any form of cultic manipulation, however subtle that might be.

It enriches understanding and experience. The practice of reading widely is to enter into dialogue with other people. By sharing others’ perspectives and ideas we enrich our own view of the world and, as we think about these varying perspectives, our experience is also enriched. The way we think affects our emotions, the decisions we make, and our behaviour. By exposing ourselves to the thinking of others, we open ourselves to the potential to live differently and experience life more fully. Increasing our knowledge and information also increases the resources that are available to us in making decisions. Reading widely has the capacity to significantly enrich our understanding and experience.

There is nothing to fear from reading widely. It allows us to test our thinking; avoid manipulation of our beliefs, however subtle; and enriches our understanding and experience. Reading widely without thinking critically may be dangerous because we would tend to adopt the position of whatever author we happened to be reading at the time. But approaching our reading whilst thinking critically about what we are reading, evaluating ideas as we proceed, is an absolutely essential part of our spiritual journey if we are to mature and grow in faith.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Movie Review: Ratatouille

RatatouilleThinking about rats and food together does not usually bring pleasant associations (to say the least). But Pixar have created a heartwarming animated movie about just those two things and the outcome is the delightful family film Ratatouille. Remy is a rat whose food taste is different from the rest of his clan - he likes gourmet food and has a natural gift for being able to put food together into new, exciting combinations. He dreams of being a chef. One day, his dream comes true. Escaping from his home in the Paris countryside when a little old lady discovers him raiding her kitchen, Remy ends up in Paris in a famous restaurant which, because of the death of its owner and the self-interested commercialism of the new one, is declining in popularity. Remy teams up with a young boy desperate for a job at the restaurant and, together, they produce stunning dishes that bring renown back to the restaurant. And, of course, there is lots of fun, action, thrills and spills as the unlikely rat-plus-food story unfolds. And there is the inevitable bad guy - a nasty food reviewer - who is out to close the restaurant down. Ratatouille feels too long but is mostly enjoyable fare that, for once, is suitable for the whole family with its subtle themes of the importance of family and pursuing excellence in whatever one does. It’s a simple, straightforward narrative that doesn’t try to be clever for the sake of being clever. The animation is absolutely brilliant. A lot of work has gone into making the look and feel realistic and authentic. For example, the animation team worked alongside an actual French chef (Thomas Keller) to learn the art of cooking. A rat expert brought several of her personal pets to help the animation department learn about rats. The compost pile in the movie was researched by allowing various types of food to rot and photographing it. Overall, a tasty movie the kids and their adults will enjoy. My Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review ’Ratatouille is delicious. In this satisfying, souffle-light tale of a plucky French rodent with a passion for cooking, the master chefs at Pixar have blended all the right ingredients -- abundant verbal and visual wit, genius slapstick timing, a soupcon of Gallic sophistication -- to produce a warm and irresistible concoction that’s sure to appeal to everyone’s inner Julia Child.’ - Justin Chang/Variety Another Positive Review (because I can’t find a negative one!) ’For parents looking to spend time in a theater with their kids or adults who want something lighter and less testosterone-oriented than the usual summer fare, Ratatouille offers a savory main course.’ James Berardinelli/ReelViews Content Advice Mild animated violence AUS: PG USA: G