Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Book Review: Who's Afraid of Postmodernism

For many Christians, the word postmodernism represents all that is bad about the contemporary world. An unholy trinity of postmodernist thinkers would be Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. Could we think of anything worse than actually allowing these three to speak in church? Well James K A Smith has done just that in his brilliant little book Who's Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.

For Smith, these three postmodernist thinkers have some very important things to say to Christians. And what they have to say will surprise you and make you rethink your approach to Christian belief and practice. And the message is equally important for "orthodox", "traditional" believers and those who see themselves as part of the "emergent" or "progressive" streams of Christianity.

The first thing that Smith does is identify the essential message of each of his three conversationalists. They are:

  • "There is nothing outside the text" (Derrida).
  • Postmodernity is "incredulity toward metanarratives" (Lyotard).
  • "Power is knowledge" (Foucault).
In the first chapter, Is the Devil from Paris? Smith introduces the reader to postmodernist thought, outlines his agenda for the book, and discusses the nature of Christian apologetics and witness in contemporary society.

After this introductory chapter, Smith spends one chapter each on the above essential messages from Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. In each chapter, he teases apart the meaning of each of the statements trying to represent the thought of each philosopher as carefully as possible. He then applies his understanding to the contemporary church. Here is a summary of each chapter as provided by Smith in his first chapter:

    • 'Derrida. Deconstruction's claim that there is "nothing outside the text" ... can be considered a radical translation of the Reformation principle sola scriptura. In particular, Derrida's insight should push us to recover two key emphases of the church: (a) the centrality of Scripture for mediating our understanding of the world as a whole and (b) the role of community in the interpretation of Scripture.
    • Lyotard. The assertion that postmodernity is "incredulity toward metanarratives" is ultimately a claim to be affirmed by the church, pushing us to recover (a) the narrative character of Christian faith, rather than understanding it as a collection of ideas, and (b) the confessional nature of our narrative and the way in which we find ourselves in a world of competing narratives.
    • Foucault. The seemingly disturbing, even Nietzschean claim that "power is knowledge" should push us to realize what MTV learned long ago: (a) the cultural power of formation and discipline, and hence (b) the necessity of the church to enact counterformation by counterdisciplines. In other words, we need to think about discipline as a creational structure that needs proper direction. Foucault has something to tell us about what it means to be a disciple.' (pp. 23-24)

In his last chapter, Smith turns his attention to a movement known as Radical Orthodoxy which he believes comes closest to incarnating the principles he has derived from postmodernist thought as outlined above. The section titles for this chapter are wonderfully enticing:

  • Redeeming Dogma: A More Persistent Postmodernism
  • Recovering Tradition: Taking History Seriously
  • Renewing the Body: Space, Place, and Incarnation

Smith is a superb writer, explaining deep concepts simply and elegantly. Each chapter begins with a summary and analysis of a contemporary movie (eg, The Matrix – Chapter 1; Memento – Chapter 2) which forms the basis of his discussion of each theorist. The last chapter draws on Whale Rider to illustrate the way in which the contemporary Christian church needs to live in the world while drawing on ancient traditions to express and form its work and worship.

Unfortunately, Smith doesn't engage in a discussion about relativism and pluralism — both issues of concern to many Christians. He briefly mentions relativism in a footnote, suggesting that it is the fruit of modernist thought rather than postmodernist. And on page 50 he engages in a brief discussion of hermeneutic, or interpretive, pluralism. I would have liked to see a deeper discussion. But they can certainly be found elsewhere.

Who's Afraid of Postmodernism is essential reading for the contemporary Christian. Smith's analysis is scholarly (he has published widely in postmodernist thought) and penetrating. And he does a wonderful job of challenging the way we think.

I would also recommend this book to those who have moved away from their religious faith. In particular, the third chapter of the book entitled Where Have All the Narratives Gone? is a brilliant analysis of the hegemony of the science narrative in society (promoted especially by writers such as Richard Dawkins who are thoroughly modernist in their approach). In addition, those interested in the emerging church movement will discover that there is much that is modernist in the approach (even though it claims to be postmodernist).

Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? packs a potent punch. Put this on your reading list for the new year!

Related Links

More books ..

Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness

An excellent help for Christians suffering from a mental illness. Readable, practical, balanced. The author's descriptions of her own illness are very powerful.

Captured by Grace: No One Is Beyond the Reach of a Loving God

An inspirational meditation on grace using the hymn Amazing Grace for its structure.


Supernatural thriller about a group of people who have to abandon their broken down car on a highway and find themselves in a house where a mad man plays a game of cat and mouse. One game. Seven Players. Three Rules. Game ends at dawn. Co-written by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker.

The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views

One of the books in the Four Views series. Gregory Boyd, Joel B Green, Bruce Reichenbach, and Thomas R Schreiner share their perspectives on the atonement and critique the others. Up-to-date treatment of the issue.

Is God to Blame?: Moving Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Evil

It is great to see some books coming out that take a much more biblical, intelligent approach to the problem of evil and suffering. Jesus Christ is central in the book. 'What comes through is a hopeful picture of a sovereign God who is relentlessly opposed to evil, who knows our sufferings and who can be trusted to bring us through them to renewed life.' (Back cover) Highly recommend.

The Porpoise Driven Life

Here's a wonderful parody of a book whose name I won't mention (you will work it out) and the approach of so many superficial self-help books on spirituality...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Movie Review: Twilight

Released: 2008

Go to IMDb page

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I was pleasantly surprised by Twilight — the dark, sensual vampire romance based on Stephenie Meyer's book of the same name. The movie is clearly targeted at older teens but it deals with deep moral issues that will hopefully be discussed by these teens.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) moves to Forks, Washington to live with her father, Charlie. At school in her science class, she finds herself buddied with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) a mysterious boy to whom she is strangely attracted. As she gets to know him, she discovers that Edward is a 180 year old vampire. Edward is deeply attracted to Bella - physically and emotionally. The smell of her human blood is almost overwhelming. But Edward's father has taught his vampire children that to kill humans for food is immoral and they have lived on animals hunted in the nearby woods.

Edward knows that, if he gives in to his sexual desire for Bella, his vampire instincts will take over and he will kill her to drink her blood. So he decides to resist and, although their friendship deepens, there is a constant temptation beneath the surface that each must resist.

Complicating all this is the arrival of a band of renegade vampires who put Bella's life in danger. Edward's family rally around her to try to protect her. Will they be able to save her? And will Edward succumb to temptation?

I really enjoyed Twilight. The fresh approach to the vampire tradition is engaging. Stewart and Pattinson both inhabit their roles well and, apart from one overacted scene from Stewart and a shaky start from Pattinson, are great. The tinges of horror keep the suspense going at the right times. The sexual tension is taut and well handled. It is a rare narrative that makes self-discipline and restraint the dominant plot device! And the photography is beautiful as Edward transports his love interest above the tree tops and then down into the forests.

The two lead roles are obviously attractive if the teenage audience in the cinema was anything to go by — particularly when Edward first appears on the scene. A cheer ascended the moment he walked into view.

Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon who earned her degree in literature at Brigham Young University. She has stated that she wrote the Twilight book following a dream she had of a vampire who fell in love  with a girl but also thirsted for her blood. On the front cover of the Twilight book there is a red apple held in two hands. Inside the book there is a biblical reference to the tree of knowledge of good and evil found in the opening chapters  of the Genesis. Here is what Meyer says about the apple symbolism:

The apple on the cover of Twilight represents "forbidden fruit." I used the scripture from Genesis (located just after the table of contents) because I loved the phrase "the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil." Isn't this exactly what Bella ends up with? A working knowledge of what good is, and what evil is. The nice thing about the apple is it has so many symbolic roots. You've got the apple in Snow White, one bite and you're frozen forever in a state of not-quite-death... Then you have Paris and the golden apple in Greek mythology—look how much trouble that started. Apples are quite the versatile fruit. In the end, I love the beautiful simplicity of the picture. To me it says: choice.

Choice — that does indeed summarise the theme of Twilight. It's a good yarn and there's lots of thinking to be done about the theme of choice — not only in the movie but in our own lives as well.

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

Positive Review
'A sometimes girlie swirl of obsession that will delight fans, this faithful adaptation is after teenage blood, and will most likely hit a box office artery.' - Will Lawrence/Empire

Negative Review
'I've had mosquito bites that were more passionate than this undead, unrequited, and altogether unfun pseudo-romantic riff on Romeo and Juliet.' - Marc Savlov/Austin Chronicle

USA: PG-13

Content Advice
some violence and a scene of sensuality

More movie recommendations

Two friends get lost in a desert. A demanding movie that (very) slowly arrives at a devastating ending. (***1/2) - DVD

The Secret Lives of Dentists
A quirky drama about a dentist who believes his wife (also a dentist in partnership with him) is having an affair. We see him dealing with it in his imagination in the person of a client who becomes his alter ego. (***1/2) - DVD

The story of the UK television presenter, David Frost's, famous interviews with US President Richard Nixon where Frost manages to elicit a confession from the President about his role in Watergate. (****)

An on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller. A TV journalist covering the life of fire fighters during a night shift is called to an apartment block where some strange behaviour is being reported. When it is discovered that a virus is loose, the building is quarantined and no one can get out. Things go from bad to worse. (****)

A sweeping drama set in Australia during the Japanese invasion of Darwin in early 1940s. An English woman travels to Australia to prevent the sale of her and her husband's station. Very enjoyable. (****)

The Lemon Tree
Set on the border between Israel and Palestine. A newly elected Palestinian government official moves to a residence where, across the border on the fence line, is a lemon orchard run by a widowed Israeli woman. To improve security, plans are made to cut down the lemon orchard. The woman decides to take the official to court. A pleasant and moving story. (***1/2)

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Movie Review: The Bothersome Man (Den Brysomme mannen)

Den Brysomme mannen Go to IMDb page

Information ©

I have stumbled on a brilliantly surreal Norwegian movie which, from a Christian perspective, might be seen as a critique of bland views of eternal heaven or, for the secular audience, a dystopian view of modern society.

The Bothersome Man (2006) begins with Andreas (Trond Fausa Aurvaag) standing on a train platform where he is aware of a couple engaged in gross mechanical, emotionless kissing. Andreas then jumps in front of an oncoming train. We are then transported back to the time he arrives alone, and without memory as to how he got there, at a desolate outpost. He is "welcomed" by a man in a black car who transports him to a city where everything is perfect. There is no pain, no death, relationships are conflict-free, and sex is mechanically free of any complications such as love. And there are no memories from the past to intrude in this idyllic life. Andreas is given a perfect job and a perfect house and lives with a perfect wife who makes no demands. Everything is just perfect ... or is it?

Andreas is ill-at-ease. Something is not right in this city. The food is tasteless, alcohol has no effect, there are no children bothering anyone and there are no elderly. Life is one endless round of going to work and coming home at night to an "idyllic" existence.

Then Andreas discovers a man living in a basement who has found a hole in the wall from which comes beautiful music and the sounds of children's laughter. In desperation, Andreas tries to tunnel through to the other side. But Andreas is a bothersome man to this society and they need to deal with him. He is disrupting their perfect existence.

The Bothersome Man (2006) is a superbly crafted dystopian vision. The director, Jens Lien, has produced a finely balanced, subtle story in which the performers provide wonderfully understated portrayals of the deadness of their perfect existence. Sound plays an essential role in painting the utopian vision. Dialogue is kept to a minimum (maybe that is some people's idea of perfect existence!) and the cinematography uses the imagery of vast land- and cityscapes to heighten Andreas sense of disconnection and loneliness. In addition, there are some "high points" of very black comedy as Andreas is hit multiple times by a train but cannot die.

The Bothersome Man can undoubtedly be "read" in different ways. For some, the movie represents the alleged (by some) contemporary nature of modern Norwegian society. Others see a general warning of contemporary society and its pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. For me, I couldn't help thinking of some Christians' views of heaven. They seem so bland and boring I wonder why anyone would want to end up there. It seems to me that the Bible says very little about the reality of heaven. It affirms its existence. But the biblical descriptions often referred to by Christians are most certainly culture-bound at the time they were written. They are constructed around whatever utopia was for those people.

Whatever interpretation you place on The Bothersome Man it is a film that had me sitting and thinking as the credits rolled (an interesting thing happens as the first few credits roll — watch out for it and consider what it might mean). The ending of the movie is highly enigmatic. But the very best art should leave room for us to draw our own understandings. Lien has resisted the temptation to didactically explain the meaning of the narrative. Films like this offer wonderful opportunities for discussion. In that sense, this is a superb piece that truly bothers the intellect — Lien is a bothersome director! The Bothersome Man, is most definitely worth the bother of tracking down.

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

Positive Review 'A few flaws but this is visually captivating and psychologically disturbing.' - David Parkinson/Empire Reviews Central

Negative Review 'There are several ways to take this bothersome trifle, none of which are at all resonant.' - Ed Gonzalez/Slant Magazine (warning: some coarse language)

Content Advice Sexual references; violence and gore; frightening/intense scences

AUS: MA15 USA: Not rated

Friday, November 28, 2008

Book Review: For the Sake of the Gospel

Des Ford is passionate about the gospel. So much so, that he has been prepared to sacrifice much for the sake of it. He has been vilified, defrocked, and now worships outside of Adventism — the denomination he loves and has tried to move forward in its thinking about a cherished doctrine that he believes obscures the gospel. Hundreds of others within the Adventist denomination, particularly pastoral staff, have also sacrificed jobs and friends for the sake of the gospel. Now, Des Ford, collaborating with his wife, Gillian, in their book For the Sake of the Gospel: Throw Out the Bathwater, but Keep the Baby tells the story of the theological controversy that decimated the Adventist denomination through the 70s and 80s and whose effects are still felt even to this day.

For Ford, the bathwater is the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment — the belief that the Bible describes a time in 1844 when Jesus moved from the Holy Place in the heavenly sanctuary to the Most Holy Place to begin a work of judgment to identify whose lives confirmed their right to be ultimately saved. The baby is the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. In a series of somewhat disjointed chapters, Ford pleads for the Adventist officials to come clean and confess the wrongs perpetrated on the members. As far as Ford is concerned, almost no scholar in the denomination believes in the Investigative Judgment anymore and it is time to jettison it completely.

In the first chapter, Des provides the transcript of a talk he gave in 1997 at the Sydney Chapter of the Association of Adventist Forums entitled My Vision for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His vision is

that the true church will arise and proclaim the true gospel to the whole world. It's an objective historical gospel, revealing the love of God in such a way as to break the hearts of rebels so that they might hate sin, learn the purity of Paradise, that sin is insanity, and that life commends what Christ commands. It's a church teaching these things that will lighten the world with the glory of the gospel, not one fixated by dates that don't compute. Seventh-day Adventism has an opportunity and a privilege to preach the Pauline gospel. (p. 7 - emphasis in original)

Moving on from this vision, Ford reviews 22 illicit assumptions that support the Investigative Judgment, the outdated year-day principle, the question of when forgiven sins are blotted out, the New Testament's view of the Day of Atonement, the real meaning of Revelation 14:6-7 (a key passage shaping Adventist identity and mission), the way the Investigative Judgment has been "reworked" since its establishment, a critique of the view that the United States appears in prophecy, and the real meaning of Daniel 8:14 (the controversial verse on which the whole Investigative Judgment doctrine is built.

Ford then surveys the politics around the denomination's understanding of the gospel including the way (mostly) men who disagree with the church's official positions abandon conscience and follow orders to not saying anything about their views and who have to suffer cognitive dissonance.

Gillian Ford provides an interesting history on How a Seventh-day Adventist Scholar in Biblical Eschatology Found His Denomination's Prophetic Traditions Wanting and his rediscovery of the apotelesmatic principle.

There are articles on the Glacier View trial of Des Ford (rather than the examination of Ford's views — what Glacier View was supposed to be about). Appendices include "positive" presentations on the Sabbath and the Covenants for which the Fords hold traditional Adventist positions.

The above is a partial list of themes covered — hopefully giving a sense of what the book contains. By their own admission, the

'... book has been negative for obvious reasons. One cannot vote for dangerous errors which threaten the joy and well-being of the children of God. Neutrality in a religious crisis is the worst form of cowardice. (p. 195)

As I have indicated above, For the Sake of the Gospel is somewhat disjointed. Des Ford's aphoristic style is not always easy to read. But the flaws in the writing are more than made up for the following:

  1. Des Ford has, obviously, been at the centre of the controversy surrounding the Investigative Judgment doctrine (although he is not the first). To hear from someone with firsthand knowledge and experience, including friendships with many of the key players in the history, provides an essential perspective.
  2. Ford's passion for the gospel consistently shines through. In the end, Ford is not primarily concerned with controversy. He wants to see the gospel as the primary focus of our attention. In his view, dealing with the Investigative Judgment is essential because it obscures the gospel and robs Adventists of their true freedom in Christ and their assurance of salvation.
  3. If it is by their fruits that we know the character of someone, then Ford is a genuine Christian man. The way he has consistently and graciously dealt with his adversaries and his refusal to engage in legal battles with his beloved denomination demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit in such a way that his credibility is enhanced.

For the Sake of the Gospel is an important book because it deals with important themes, written by an important "player", during an important part of Adventist history that we are still living. For the Sake of the Gospel, those within Adventism need to read this book. For others, it provides a fascinating insight into a denomination's struggle in confronting truth and error.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Movie Review: Hunger

hunger It has been estimated that 20 million people die from hunger each year. Some of these are the result of poverty. Some are the result of natural disasters such as famine. Some are the result of inhuman treatment. But some people die from hunger by choice. Bobbie Sands was one of those people.

The  debut movie Hunger from Steve McQueen is an absolutely shocking, confronting depiction of the last 6 weeks of Bobbie Sands' (Michael Fassbender) hunger strike in the early 1980s. Bobbie was a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) member who was incarcerated in the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. IRA prisoners would refuse to wear the prison uniform so would live naked except for a blanket. During Bobbie's imprisonment, the prisoners were also engaged in a no-wash protest and would smear their faeces over the walls with some painting with it.

Bobbie Sands was committed to the task of fighting for political prisoner status for IRA members and decided to express this commitment by going on a hunger strike. Eventually, he died for his cause.

Hunger opens with a prison guard, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), getting ready to leave home to go to work. After finishing his breakfast, he walks outside, checks his car for any dangers, looks up and down the street carefully, before getting in and driving to work. He arrives at work and he seems to distance himself from his colleagues and somehow appears different. But it is not long before Raymond descends into the same behaviour as his colleagues — brutalising, torturing, and humiliating the prisoners.

The story then shifts focus to Bobbie Sands as he is admitted to the prison, stripped of his clothes, and inhumanely treated day after day. Convinced of the righteousness of his cause, Bobbie decides to go on a hunger strike and we witness his deterioration until he dies.

Hunger is a highly disturbing look at the conditions and treatment experienced by Bobbie and his fellow inmates. But the film is superbly rendered. There is almost no dialogue — we just watch what happens with the natural sounds which, along with the confronting visuals, provokes deep responses in the viewer.

The brutality and humiliation of Hunger is almost too much to bear. Then, in the middle of the story, McQueen has a 20 minute single take (a claimed world record) where the camera just sits still while we witness a dialogue between Sands and his visiting priest. The priest tries to convince Bobbie not to go ahead with the strike but we listen to Bobbie's absolutely certain rationalisation of what he plans to do. This dialogue is a welcome relief after what we have had to witness and we begin to understand where Bobbie is coming from in his decision to give up life for his beliefs. But at the end of the dialogue, we are thrust back into the horror of Sands' journey to death.

Hunger does not really explore the political background that has led to the incarceration of these prisoners. Instead, McQueen has chosen to force us to just watch as humans abuse other humans. It tells the story of these prisoners from a perspective that is rare. A lot of movies have been made about the troubles in Ireland. But nothing like this one. Michael Fassbender is incredible as Bobbie Sands. According to one of the prisoners who is depicted in the film, Fassbender is 'frighteningly real'. Apparently, he went on a medically supervised diet for this role — he must have been on the very brink of serious illness and those around him were concerned for his welfare according to comments on the Internet Movie Databsase.

When Hunger  was shown at Cannes, there were walkouts as well as standing ovations. This movie will not be for everyone. It is explicit in its brutality and watching it is like being punched in the guts over and over. It's a very dark story but significant. It is the story of a real human person who wasn't treated as one and, to see it from this perspective, made me appreciate the lengths to which someone will go in support of a cause they believe in — even to death. What makes it even more disturbing is the occasional overlay of the insensitive words that Margaret Thatcher spoke publicly in response to the prisoner's protest.

This is a brilliant film — but be warned: it is not easy to watch and it takes a level of courage to keep your eyes on the screen. It is an important moment in history that makes us appreciate the personal dimension of political conflict.

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

AUS: MA15+

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Book Review: Faith Undone

One of the most significant developments within Christianity in recent years is that of the Emergent Church. It is a controversial movement (some say it is not really a movement) that has spawned literature on both sides of the swelling debate. Roger Oakland has added to this literature with his anti-emergent book Faith Undone: the emerging church...a new reformation or an end-time deception.

Oakland comes down clearly on the end-time deception side. There is no doubt in his mind that the emergent church movement is a delusion and a threat to the Christian church. The reasons for his rejection of the movement are:

  1. It has embraced mystical experience as the way to know God.
  2. It is uncritically adopting Roman Catholic practices such as veneration of Mary, use of the rosary, and the so-called Eucharistic Christ (believing that Christ is physically embodied in the bread and wine).
  3. It favours "truth" that is discovered by experience rather than the propositional truth and authority of the Bible.
  4. It is syncretistic, incorporating religious practices from any religious tradition including pagan, believing that all roads lead to God.
  5. It has returned to a medieval form of Christianity rather than returning to biblical Christianity.
  6. It has opened itself to Eastern forms of mysticism.
  7. It has embraced various New Age practices.
  8. It has adopted the approach to spiritual disciplines as promoted by Richard Foster involving a contemplative spirituality based, once again, on mystical approaches to knowing God.
  9. It has rejected an apocalyptic eschatology (the doctrine that the world will come to an end with the return of Christ) replaced by a kingdom of God theology of the here and now.
  10. It has rejected the substitutionary model of the atonement arguing that it is offensive to modern sensitivities.
  11. It has adopted postmodernism relativism and pluralism.

Oakland provides a large array of quotations from various sources to support his criticism — many of which are legitimate. Emergent Christianity is a very loose-knit movement that is evolving. And it is most certainly a threat to orthodox, traditional, conservative, Christianity.

The unfortunate aspect of Oakland's book is that, on the whole, he avoids identifying any positive aspects of the movement. For example, its emphasis on social justice, the recognition of different individuals' needs to worship in unique styles that suit their personalities, a recognition of the way in which our understanding of God is mediated through language that is metaphorical and imperfect, and an understanding that spirituality is a conversation that takes place rather than a matter of conforming to an authoritative creed. Oakland's treatment of the emergent church would have been more balanced if he had acknowledged, in a more fair-minded way, some of these positive elements. And Oakland neglects the fact that his particular version of Christianity is not necessarily held by all Christians. For example, his own eschatology focused on literal Israel is only one of many theological options about the end times.

Faith Undone is worth reading because it provides an important perspective from an evangelical Christian's point of view. If you want to get a broader view of the emergent church movement, check out some of the Related Links below. Like all new movements, we need to listen with caution and discernment. Oakland raises important issues that help us do that.

Related Links
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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Book Review: An Intelligent Life

The word intelligent is so rare in a book title that when I saw this one I couldn't resist taking a look.

Julian Short has practiced psychiatry for more than 30 years and has, undoubtedly, heard and helped a lot of troubled people during that time. Judging from his writing, I wouldn't hesitate to consult with him if I was in need. His book An Intelligent Life: A Practical Guide to Relationships, Intimacy and Self-Esteem is full of down-to-earth wisdom.

In the first section of the book, Short deals with a number of principles and background to living intelligently. He discusses the origin of feelings from an evolutionary point of view (I'll comment on this aspect later); self-esteem as 'a sausage' stuffed with love and individuality needing to be kept in balance; the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and actions; the nature of 'feeling bad'; and unhappiness as a poor esteem.

For Short, the two most important skills for an intelligent life are assertiveness and self-respect. He provides a number of practical steps in achieving these two characteristics. The second section of the book  deals with happiness as a good self-esteem; how to practice a balanced assertiveness; developing self-respect; how to say 'no'; and the direction, anatomy, and structure of argument (a brilliant set of guidelines); surviving criticism; and how to defend one's self.

The third section discusses intelligent love. Short explores various types of relationships: lovers and friends; parents and children; adults with parents; children; and the problems and pitfalls of relationships.

The final section of the book explores the basis of our behaviours —the things we do and the way we are.

Short is a very wise man who writes simply and powerfully. The book is shot through with the fundamental and essential values of love and kindness whilst maintaining a healthy sensitivity to the needs of individuality. Even though most of this author's advice is not new, the way he presents it is fresh and inspiring. He manages to avoid most of the platitudinous nonsense of a lot of contemporary self-help advice.

I need to make one comment regarding the underlying evolutionary theory that informs Short in his explanations for the origins of human thinking, emotions, and behaviour. For some readers who reject evolutionary theory, this aspect might irritate them. But the advice provided by Short is not dependent on this. Ignore it and focus on the practical advice.

An Intelligent Life lives up to its name — this book is filled with truly practical advice that, if applied, could make a genuine difference to your life.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Book Review: Saving Darwin

Is it possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution? Many Christians say it isn't. But the fact is that there are Christians who also believe in evolution. One of these is Karl W Giberson who once was a creationist but now believes in evolution and remains a Christian. In his book Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution he provides an incisive, cogent, and compelling argument in support of evolution and its compatibility with Christian belief. On his web site he explains why he wrote the book:

'I wrote Saving Darwin to build a bit of a bridge between two cultures at odds with each other: the scientific community and American evangelicalism. I have lived in both cultures and am dismayed at how far apart they are. In this climate of misunderstanding the ‘naturalism’ of science looks anti-religious and the anti-evolutionism of evangelicalism looks uninformed. I hope to illuminate the tension that divide these two communities and to contribute to improved communications.'

Giberson's book certainly fulfills his objectives. In his first chapter Dissolution of a Fundamentalist he shares his life journey from his hero-worship of Henry Morris (author of the classic texts of "scientific creationism"), through his teenage fundamentalism, and on to his increasing doubts about creationism and persuasion that evolution is the best explanation for origins of life on planet earth.

One of the great benefits of Saving Darwin is Giberson's superbly engaging and clear survey of the creation/evolution debate in America. He separates fact from fiction in relation to Darwin's developing theory of evolution and his faith in God and the birth and development of fundamentalism. Giberson explores 'Darwin's Dark Companions' — those individuals and movements who have coopted Darwinian evolution to justify such evils as genocide or amorality. According to Giberson, many of these have abused or misused evolution for their own purposes and evolution has inappropriately suffered from guilt by association.

The creation/evolution debate has had a long and prominent history in American courts. There is an excellent chapter telling that story from the Scopes trial right up until the recent Dover ruling. Following this is a history of the rise of "scientific creationism" which has now transformed into the Intelligent Design movement including a discussion of why Giberson believes the Intelligent Design argument fails. Despite Giberson's critique of Intelligent Design, he also acknowledges that evolution speaks ambiguously and different people hear it saying different things leading to the fact that people residing in 'profoundly incompatible worldviews' can accept it.

In an interesting chapter entitled How to Be Stupid, Wicked, and Insane Giberson turns his attention to the increasingly strident and often religious sounding rhetoric of some evolutionists. As far as Giberson is concerned the evolution/creation debate is more a culture war about who is going to determine, for society, the ultimate nature of reality. On one side you have the likes of Richard Dawkins who has explicitly declared his purpose to be the destruction of religion. And on the other side you have those like Philip Johnson who wants to bring down naturalism. This culture war is really not about origins at all but more about the imposing of a worldview from either side on the rest of society.

Finally, Giberson provides a summary of the multiple lines of evidence in support of evolution. Giberson believes that evolution is true and an 'expression of God's creativity, although in a way that is not captured by the scientific view of the world.' (p. 216) Giberson affirms the inability of science to remove mystery from what is. No matter how much we learn there will always be room for God because God is not the longtime abandoned 'God of the gaps'. God is the ground of everything that exists and, whatever we discover about the natural world, there is no reason to exclude God from reality.

Perhaps the most important conclusion we can come to on the matter of origins (and indeed anything we believe we know) is a profound humility as we seek to answer the questions we have about the universe. In his introduction, Giberson quotes Michael Ruse who wrote a book called Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? Ruse wrote:

If you are a Darwinian or a Christian or both, remember that we are mere humans and not God. We are middle-range primates with the adaptations to get down out of the trees, and to live on the plains in social groups. We do not have powers which will necessarily allow us to peer into the ultimate mysteries. If nothing else, these reflections should give us a little modesty about what we can and cannot know, and a little humility before the unknown.

Whatever side of the origins debate you find yourself on, remembering that we are mere humans and not God may be the most important thing we can remember. The arrogance and dogmatism at the two extremes of this debate do not seem to me to be appropriate for those who follow the teachings of Christ.

Saving Darwin is a powerful book that provides Christians who struggle with the discoveries of science and tension with their Christian faith with a middle way between two extremes. It is an important contribution to this most significant cultural conversation. It won't answer all your questions and you may find aspects of it with which you wish to disagree. But Giberson provides an important perspective worth considering. If nothing else, Christians must cease accusing other Christians who believe in evolution of not being truly Christian.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Movie Review: Lars and the Real Girl

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Who would have thought that a movie about a guy who falls in love with a sex doll would be anything worth watching. But Craig Gillespie's Lars and the Real Girl is a superb, deeply moving story that had me totally engaged and riveted to the screen.

Lars (Ryan Gosling) is a recluse who lives out in the garage owned by his brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), and Gus's wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer). Lars goes to work and stays to himself in his little cubicle rarely talking to anyone. Margo (Kelli Garner) admires him from a distance while Lars is completely oblivious to her interest in him.

Lars has shut everyone out, including Gus and Karin who try their best to involve him in their lives. It is obvious that Lars doesn't want to feel anything or let anyone into his world.

One day at work, one of his colleagues is browsing the Internet and shows Lars a site where you can order an anatomically correct girl for obvious purposes. Lars secretly orders one. When it turns up, he introduces "Bianca" to Gus and Karin as his girlfriend. They are completely shocked but, recognising there is something very wrong with Lars, they play along, eventually persuading him to take Bianca to the town's doctor (Patricia Clarkson) who is also a psychologist. She convinces Gus and Karin that this is a phase that Lars is going through and that he needs to be able to play it out in order to heal some deep need.

Gus and Karin, although highly skeptical, decide to help and they begin to inform his work and the community of the plan. Thus begins a fascinating journey, not only for Lars, but for all who know him.

Lars and the Real Girl is absolutely wonderful. With a fresh narrative, superb acting, and a spot-on script, this potentially cheesy story is a moving portrait of a man in deep emotional pain who is healed by a community that gathers together to support him.

Humans yearn for love. But sometimes things happen that emotionally traumatise us to such an extent that we shut down all possibility of others making contact with us because we fear being hurt again. We often find meaning and fulfillment in things we believe will satisfy — but they don't. We are made for human relationships. But when we are broken and in pain, unwilling to let others in, how is it possible to be healed.

Lars and the Real girl is ultimately about the perseverance of those who love unconditionally and who ultimately succeed in penetrating the very high, very solid, walls of defence. For those who come from a belief in God, it isn't hard to see in Lars and the Real Girl a superb analogy of the persistent love of God who never gives up despite what seems like impenetrable walls of pain and suffering. For those who don't share that belief, it affirms an equally essential truth — we cannot survive without the love of other people. Our human relationships are absolutely essential to our survival.

Lars and the Real Girl is a wonderful, moving, heart-warming, gentle, profound story which will linger with you long after the credits roll.

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

Positive Review

'It's nothing less than a miracle that the director, Craig Gillespie, and the writer, Nancy Oliver, have been able to make such an endearing, intelligent and tender comedy from a premise that, in other hands, might sustain a five-minute sketch on TV.' - Joe Morgenstern/The Wall Street Journal

Negative Review

'Lars and the Real Girl wobbles in a slow, toneless no-man's-land between mawkish and schmaltzy while trafficking shamelessly in heartland stereotypy.' - Ella Taylor/The Village Voice

Content Advice

Some sex-related content


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The need to read

reading As long as I can remember I have had a library (I define a library as owning two or more books!). And, for as long as I can remember, I have read widely. By widely, I mean that I have always read outside of my own world view — books that present me with different perspectives than what I currently believe or have heard before.

As I have travelled my life journey, many of these books have led to changes in my thinking — some minor; some radical. Without my reading I would not be where I am today. But changes in thinking worry some people. On a number of occasions, I have had people tell me that reading widely — particularly things that are "in error" — will lead me to destruction. I have been warned that I can be lost by what I read. Dire predictions have been made that I would follow the same path as others who have ended up giving up on things that my "counsellor" believes are essential to salvation. And if I have changed my mind on something, I was told that it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't read so much.

I can remember an evangelist who came to my home city to give a talk to the youth (I was one at the time!) about the creeping new theology threatening the church. During his talk, he referred to a book which was an examination of my denomination's belief system. When I went up to the evangelist after the talk to get details of the book so I could read it for myself, he refused to tell me and said  you had to be a strong in the beliefs of the denomination and the Bible before you could read the book safely. I was very angry that someone should presume to filter out what they thought I should or should not read because they feared that I would be too 'weak' to read it. The evangelist didn't even know me!

This advice not to read anything because it might lead me astray has led me to think deeply about the whole issue of reading widely — particularly reading material that challenges what I think. Is it ok to deliberately read what may challenge what we think and believe? Not only do I think it is ok; I believe it is essential to deliberately and carefully read widely and engage with "dangerous" ideas. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, it is an essential part of thinking critically to expose oneself to alternative perspectives. Whenever I restrict myself to reading only what agrees with my current position on something, I am less likely to counter the products of my own potentially erroneous thinking. I enrich my own understandings with the results of other people's thinking.

I knew a Christian who once said to me that he didn't read anything except the Bible — no commentaries, no books. Reading commentaries and books about the Bible can never replace actual Bible reading. But reading other people's ideas about the Bible leads us into a conversation with other Christians (and non-Christians) that challenges our prejudices, biases, and bigotry. Isolating ourselves from others' thinking can lead to extremism and, ironically, erroneous conclusions. Reading allows us to participate in the great stream of Christian conversation that has been going on for centuries and draw on that wisdom, helping us to correct or confirm our course.

Secondly, reading widely helps guard against those who filter information to promote conformity. One of the marks of cultism occurs when information is controlled by those in power who wish to guarantee the conformity of their followers. Knowledge can be dangerous. It often leads to the questioning of the status quo and, therefore, can become a threat to those who operate from a privileged position of power. Reading widely and seeking alternative views provides a broader source of information that helps us to put things into perspective — a perspective that sometimes uncovers spiritual abuse or bondage through ignorance. Down through history, dictatorships have sought to control their subjects through the manipulation of information. We see it even today in countries like China which tries to suppress information through restricting free access to the Internet. It also occurs in more subtle forms when, out of fear of "contamination", we limit our own reading to that which reinforces the party line. The antidote is to deliberately read widely looking at perspectives that disagree with our own.

Some may argue that reading "error" opens us up to the adoption of that error. However, the advice not to read "error" for fear of being led to believe error suffers from two problems.

First, it assumes that what is to be read is error before it has been investigated. This is a fundamental flaw in thinking — prejudging the quality of something before giving it a genuine hearing. The term we have for this type of thinking is prejudice. If we genuinely believe we need to pursue truth then we need to do so with integrity and fairmindedness.

One of the greatest ironies I have observed within Christian communities is that of wanting to convince others of the truth of Christianity but not being open to new truth themselves. It is impossible for someone to choose Christ without them doubting their current belief system and opening themselves to the possibility of another way of viewing things. How can we expect others to be open to new perspectives if we are not ourselves? When we shut down any possibility of discovering truth by avoiding reading anything that doesn't agree with our positions, we have no right to expect anyone else to listen to what we have to say. How can we be led by God's Spirit if we close ourselves off to listening? Reading widely is one way we listen to the vast wisdom of others — not to accept everything we read, but to think critically about the basis of those other ideas.

And that brings me to the second problem with the idea that we should avoid reading "error" for fear of being led into error. The problem is not so much with what we read. The problem is how we read. Most Christians I have come across who have a fear-based approach to what they read have not been educated in how to read critically. You can often identify this problem by examining the basis of a person's certainty for their beliefs. They are often based on prooftexting Scripture; accepting something solely on authority; or on seriously inadequate information. In my view, uncritically reading what one considers truth is just as bad as uncritically reading what one considers error. We desperately need to teach Christians how to think critically — how to examine evidence, evaluate arguments, interpret Scripture using well-tested principles and methods. Mindless acceptance of "truth" and mindless acceptance of "error" are two sides of the one counterfeit coin.

So reading widely with a critical eye is one of the healthiest, exciting, challenging things we can do to support our growth in understanding. To be a safe reader is to be a wide reader.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Book Review: Pagan Christianity?

What do the following have in common?

  • the idea of the church as a sacred space
  • tax-exempt status for churches and Christian clergy
  • coming to church with a reverent attitude
  • wearing your best clothes to church
  • the collection plate
  • the "Sinner's Prayer"
  • the weekly sermon

Answer: according to Frank Viola and George Barna they all have their origins in paganism or secular social practices. Viola and Barna have written a fascinating history of many practices that are often taken for granted in our churches - Protestant and Catholic. Richly documented and engagingly told, the authors confront the reader with the unexpected reality that much of what we consider biblical — or at least biblically permitted — has solid roots that are embedded in and nurtured by understandings that often contradict the purpose of the church as described in the New Testament — at least as Viola and Barna understand it.

The authors begin the book by asking whether '... we have really been doing it [church] by the book [the New Testament]'. According to Viola and Barna the answer is clearly 'No!' They understand the New Testament to provide an ideal model for the church that, over the centuries, has been corrupted until much of what we do as Christians in our churches often undermines the very purpose and function of the Church as originally intended.

Although Pagan Christianity? is a fascinating historical journey, the book is not written primarily to inform the reader about history. It's ultimate purpose is to

... demonstrate... beyond dispute that those who have left the fold of institutional Christianity to become part of an organic church have a historical right to exist—since history demonstrates that many practices of the institutional church are not rooted in Scripture. (p. xxi)

In addition to this, the authors wish to make what they call a

bold proposal that: the church in its contemporary form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does.

To put it bluntly, the organic church has the right to function as it does, but not the contemporary church. This is a strong claim. Are the authors' conclusions correct?

It is clear that, indeed, many contemporary practices in the church are not biblically-based. It is also clear that many of those practices undermine things like the priesthood of all believers (replaced by hierarchical structures and elevation of individuals to pastoral office rather than one of many roles); or giving which is freely motivated by conviction (replaced, in many churches, by the assertion that God requires tithe-paying); or orderly all-member participation in worship (rather than passive watching of worship performed on a stage). One of the great values of Pagan Christianity? is that it unveils a history of Christian practice of which many of us are ignorant. In that sense it is an invaluable book and definitely worth reading.

But one must read with caution. There a times when the authors make claims that are not accurate or provide evidence that is not quite as they suggest. For example, on page 188-189 the authors write:

[In the New Testament], the confession of baptism is vitally linked to the exercise of saving faith. So much so that the New Testament writers often use baptism in place of the word faith and link it to being "saved."

There is a footnote at the end of this statement that lists a number of passages that, according to the authors, provide examples of this. They are Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; and 1 Peter 3:21.

Mark 16:16 reads:

The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.

The Greek word translated believes here is pisteuo from the word pistis meaning 'to believe' or 'have faith in'. But this verse does not use 'believes' and 'baptized' interchangeably. It is the one who believes and is baptized who is described as saved. The authors are incorrect when they suggest that baptism is often used in place of faith. They are two different things often occurring together but not replacing each other. Acts 2:38 is similar:

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Once again, this does not provide evidence of the authors' claim. Repentance and baptism is mentioned here but there is no suggestion that one can be used in the place of the other. What all this means is that the reader needs to be aware that not all of the evidence provided necessarily supports the authors' claims in the way they suggest.

Another issue that others have pointed out in criticism of the book is the lack of recognition that Christianity began as a sect within Judaism. Jesus was a Jew and all his disciples were Jews. There is no discussion in Pagan Christianity? of the Jewish roots of the early Christian Church. Jesus attended the synagogue as his disciples would have. And, in the synagogue, the reading of Scripture and a sermon were the common practice. Why, then, do Viola and Barna argue so strongly against the sermon, suggesting that it has pagan/secular roots, rather than seeing its origins within the Jewish synagogue? If the authors of this book want to go back to the original forms of New Testament practice, then why not go back to the practices of Jesus and emulate his attendance at the synagogue? The avoidance of the Jewish roots of the New Testament church implies that there is a selective use of history in support of a particular model of the church that these authors favour.

A reading of scholarly literature on the forms and functions of the early church leads, in my view, to the conclusion that there wasn't one specifically prescribed form of the church. The authors fail to acknowledge that descriptions of things in the Bible are not necessarily prescriptions that we must follow. This is a common fallacy that many fall into when interpreting the Bible. It is frequently assumed that, because a biblical character did something that it is generalisable to all Christians. This is clearly invalid as soon as we stop to think about other examples such as circumcision — a practice few Christians would argue is required. This type of argument is most probably used when what we read in the Bible fits with our own cultural or religious practices.

Another fallacy that is committed, in a general sense, in this book is the genetic fallacy — the belief that the origin of something determines the acceptability of the object under consideration. Sometimes, the origins of something are most certainly relevant in judging the acceptability of something — but not always. This type of thinking needs to be used with caution. For example, the origin of English names for the days of the week are mostly pagan. That doesn't mean we should stop using the names of the week. It is the same with some of the arguments of Viola and Barna. Just because the sermon has, according to the authors, origins outside of Christianity doesn't mean we should abandon sermons. Surely the sermon should be judged on its worthiness in its own right.

Yet another fallacy of thinking is arguing from silence. Viola and Barna seem to believe that what is written in the New Testament is the sum total of what the New Testament church practiced. In other words, if something is not mentioned in the New Testament, they didn't do it. There is also hasty generalisation — if something is mentioned then it must have been a general practice.

Finally, the tone of Pagan Christianity? could have been more positive. The impression left with the reader is that there is little salvageable in modern institutional Christianity. Those of us who worship in institutional churches undoubtedly would agree that there is much that is unhealthy and needs to be changed. But is abandoning the church the answer? And is it all as bad as Viola and Barna say it is? The answer is 'probably not' to both questions.

Pagan Christianity? is a fascinating and, at times, informative read. But the problems outlined above make it a book that one needs to read with a certain amount of caution and unease. By all means sit down and read the book for an enjoyable afternoon. But, ultimately, it might be better to read other more careful books to gain an understanding of the history of the development of the Christian church and the range of practices that have enriched the Church through the ages.

Further reading

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Book Review: Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist

Milton Hook has written the first full biography of Desmond Ford - and it is a great read! It provides some timely insight into the man, his message, and the denomination he served for so many years.

Hook writes passionately about his subject and disclaims any idea that history can be written absolutely objectively. Despite that, Desmond Ford is superbly documented with detailed endnotes. And for those of us who know some of the history it resonates as truth. As Hook points out in his introduction to the reader, many of the people he refers to as he tells Ford's story intersected with Hook's own life giving him a direct perspective on the events. But the primary source for the story comes from Des Ford himself.

I can remember, as a young boy, sitting in my country church listening to a much younger Des Ford answering question after question on the Bible. I was impressed with the breadth and depth of his knowledge and the passion with which he spoke. Since then I have met Des Ford quite a few times and heard him speak. One thing that always shines through is his consistent focus on the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. And this focus remains to this day.

Des Ford's life has been inextricably entwined with the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Because of this, Hook's book is much more than a biography of Ford. It is also the story of what must be seen as one of the worst periods of Adventist history when it comes to the way that theology has been done and people have been treated.

Hook begins his book by describing the event that occurred on Saturday afternoon, August 23, 1980 when an enormous crowd heard that Des Ford's thesis was rejected at Glacier View and was probably to face disciplinary action. Hook asks:

Why would a Christian church, in the enlightened and progressive Twentieth Century, deliberately deprive itself of one of its best theologians, who at the same time was loyal, industrious, and arguably their most dynamic preacher of Christ's gospel?

Why, indeed? Hook returns to Ford's childhood in Queensland, Australia to begin to find an answer to that question. From that point the story is a compelling one of a man who is passionate for God and the gospel coming into conflict with a church administration that is more concerned about preserving tradition and power than it is about pursuing greater understanding of theological truth.

The subtitle of the book is reformist theologian, gospel revivalist. This subtitle perfectly describes the life of of Des Ford.

Reformist Theologian

Des Ford was one of the best theologians that the SDA denomination has ever had. From a very early point in his thinking he had questions about the Adventist doctrine of the Investigative Judgment. For much of his career he struggled to find biblical ways to support the doctrine until, eventually, he came to acknowledge that it had no biblical basis. Once he began to publicly share his views, the denominational administration responded by using political machinations to ultimately defrock him.Sadly, the church decided to make decisions on the basis of tradition rather than Scripture.

Des Ford has always remained loyal to the church despite the disgraceful way it treated him. His recent decision to withdraw his membership was also more about his respect for the denomination than his own personal interest. It has also allowed him to carry out his calling to be a gospel preacher without the hindrances of a denomination that constantly instructs its members to have nothing to do with him. His first desire to reform the theology of the church from within was not to be — although for many church members their theology has been reformed!

Gospel Revivalist

The traditional SDA doctrine of the Investigative Judgment is a doctrine that leads to uncertainty of salvation, guilt and frustration, and heightened anxiety around behaviour. In essence, it obscures the true gospel. Keenly aware of the way that perfectionist tendencies in the church were constantly obscuring the beauty of the gospel of justification by grace through faith Des Ford made it his life mission to preach that gospel.

Ford was in constant battle with those who wished to impose their perfectionistic theology onto the church, claiming that theirs was the true Adventism. Ford, one of the denominations clearest articulators of the gospel, found himself constantly battling to keep the message of Jesus Christ's imputed righteousness for sinners alive and shining as a beacon calling church members out of the bondage of a legalistic righteousness that could never save. Thousands of people have found liberation from the burden of guilt and frustration as a result of Des Ford's gospel preaching which still goes on today.

Milton Hook has provided an invaluable resource with Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist. Not only do we learn about the man; we also learn about the SDA Church. At times, we tend to lose sight of Ford has Hook provides detailed discussions of theology and SDA church history.

This, in my view, is probably one of the weaknesses of the book as biography. It is completely understandable that the story of Ford is also, to a large extent, the story of a denomination. But these two stories seem to struggle for dominance in the book. Hook's passion for Ford and the way he was treated by the church comes through strongly. But I would like to read more about what was going on in Ford's mind and how he understands it all.

Desmond Ford tends to be more of a chronicle of events, discussion of theology, and criticism of the denomination. One day I would really like to see an autobiography written by Ford or a biography that truly delves into the mind and heart of the man. Having said that, enough of the mind and heart of the man is present in Hooks book to lead us to admire Des Ford's courage, determination, patience, and passion as he sought, and continues to seek, to bring the good news of salvation through grace alone by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Despite the sadness of a story of a church that rejects its own "children", it's a celebration of the power of the gospel to reassure us that we are children of God and that it matters naught what humans think. Des Ford's life is a powerful illustration of that fact.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Movie Review: Welcome to the Sticks

Welcome to the Sticks (Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis) is an absolutely

Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis

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  delightful French comedy of errors and manners that is genuinely funny. It relies on situational humour and plays on language rather than stupidy — the fare of much Hollywood comedy nowadays. When it was released in France, it became the biggest opening film in French history.

Julie Abrams has been feeling depressed lately and is looking forward to her husband, Phillipe, a post office manager, getting a move away from Salon-de-Provence, a lovely town in the South of France, to a Riviera resort. However, that is not to be. As the result of an unsuccessful scam to cheat his way to the resort, Phillipe is punished by being sent to a little village in the north of France. Apparently, in France, the "northern region" is the last place on earth one would want to go.

Phillipe and Julie don't like what they have heard about the northern region — it's apparently very cold, the people are "uncivilised", and they speak a strange dialect of French. Phillipe decides he will go on his own for the two-year stint and visit his wife and son every second weekend. What follows is a simple, but very funny, story in which Phillipe grows to appreciate those who are different from him and what he knows.

At the heart of this light-weight comedy are issues of prejudice and stereotyping, love and relationships, and honesty and dishonesty. Our stereotypes and prejudices frequently prevent us from enjoying life and appreciating others. However, as we are forced to live amongst those we do not understand, our blinkers are stripped away and we realise that, despite differences, we are very much the same. We have the same needs for love and friendship and, ultimately, we can grow to love those who, at first, seem so different.

The humour in Welcome to the Sticks relies a lot on a dialect of the French language. Fortunately, whoever translated the dialogue for the English subtitles did a good job of conveying the essence of the language humour. There are also plenty of sight- gags and situational humour to keep us laughing.

Welcome to the Sticks is a delight to watch and, while we are laughing, the subtle message of the need to accept others and reject stereotypes and cliches seeps into our hearts and minds.

Welcome to the Sticks opens in Australia on September 4.

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

AUS: M15+

Sunday, August 24, 2008

How religion evolved. Or is it?

James Dow, an evolutionary anthropologist, has written a piece of software (called Evogod) that he claims suggest how religion has evolved in society. He makes the starting assumption that there are some people who have a genetic predisposition to pass on 'unverifiable information'. On running his software, this trait didn't do much on its own. He then added in a factor representing non-believers who were attracted to what believers were saying. This led to the spread of the unverifiable (or, 'unreal' information, as Dow also calls it).

I guess the conclusion is that the spread of religion wouldn't have occurred if unbelievers ignored the believers. Dow admits the implications of his software modelling are very tentative and in the early stages. Of course, the assumption that unverifiable means unreal is an enormously contentious assumption! The philosophical naturalism that underlies atheistic conclusions about reality and denies the non-existence of anything empirically unverifiable may be inadequate as more and more science is suggesting.

You can read the whole story here in the New Scientist article.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Book Review: By Design

book_bydesign What a breath of fresh air it is to read Larry Witham's book By Design: Science and the Search for God. Rather than actually arguing about the relationship between science and religion, Witham transcends the debate and considers the history of science's search for God in the intelligent design movement. It's a great story with lots of people with lots of perspectives struggling to prove they are right. The surprise in this superbly told story is that science itself has begun to provide reasons for continuing the debate. Mounting evidence is forcing many to acknowledge that a materialist view of nature is no longer adequate in explaining reality. The need for some 'intelligent mind' is becoming more pressing. Almost every area of science is contributing to keeping this contentious issue alive.

Witham has two aims in telling the story of science and religion's contentious relationship. Firstly, he

summarize[s] the new mood in a series of sketches, venturing descriptions of the events, ideas, people, institutions and controversies that are part of this ongoing debate between science and belief. Another goal is to give the reader a condensed overview of those areas of contemporary science that impinge on the ultimate questions: the origin of the cosmos, of life on Earth, and of humanity especially.

The contemporary rejuvenation of the science/religion debate is represented by two main contemporary cultural developments. Firstly, the conversation between the Catholic Church and the science establishment. Secondly, the intelligent design movement. This movement is a sophisticated network of scientists, theologians, philosophers, and other who want to be distinguished from the creationist movement. They are less interested in proving the existence of God per se than they are to argue that some form of intelligence is a necessary and better explanation for what we know about reality.

Witham is an engaging storyteller. Beginning with the triumph of Darwinism he takes us on an exciting journey down to the present day when what we are discovering increasingly demands a possible redefinition of the boundaries of science. If you are interested in the current state of the science/religion debate, you will find this book an enlightening read.

Book Details: Witham, Larry (2003). By Design: Science and the Search for God.  San Francisco: Encounter Books.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Movie Review: Funny Games (1997)

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Michael Heneke's Funny Games forces us to consider the ways in which we are complicit in movie violence by forcing us to acknowledge our role as viewer.

George, Anna, and their son, Georgie, travel to their lakeside holiday cabin looking forward to a relaxing time away from the city. As they drive into the area, they call out to friends on a golf course with whom they plan to spend some time. But something is not quite right. There are other visitors playing golf with their friends and, when they meet them, there is an unusual tension. But their friends seem to know them so they put the uncomfortable feeling out of their minds.

They drive on to their cabin and begin to unhook their boat, unpack the car, and settle in. While George and Georgie go off to set up the boat and take a ride, Anna begins to prepare dinner. Then there is a knock at the door and Peter, one of the strangers, asks to borrow some eggs. The tension between Anna and Peter is palpable. He is soon joined by his friend Paul (who call themselves by a variety of names throughout the film) and it becomes obvious that they have no intention of leaving. Instead, they begin to play psychological "games" with the family — terrorising, brutalising, torturing, and killing. Their holiday turns into a hellish nightmare. And they soon discover that they are very much alone with no way out.

The narrative of Funny Games is not the most important element of the movie. It is the violence. As the story unfolds, we are riveted to the screen. The perpetrators are completely sadistic. There is no emotion except the apparent pleasure they are gaining from making others suffer. They do not care for their captors — all they care about is their own enjoyment. As we watch the movie, we wonder why they are doing what they are doing? But no reason is given. Despite the horror of what is happening, we are drawn into the story mostly by our imagination. All of the violence actually happens off the screen. But our imaginations fill in what we do not see to such an extent that we think we have seen it.

Then one of the perpetrators suddenly turns to the camera and looks at me. Nothing is said. But that knowing look confronts me with the fact that I, too, am sitting watching the violence — actually constructing it in my imagination for my own entertainment pleasure. What am I watching? And why? This is the most disturbing moment in the whole movie. In essence, the message is that I am no different to the characters enacting the violence. I am watching it and constructing it in my imagination. What makes me any different to to those on the screen.

Funny Games is a very powerful commentary on violence in the media and the way that we, as audience, participate in it. We may feel offended by the violence, but as we watch we actually become part of its perpetration. We are voyeurs of violence.

The acting is powerfully emotional in Funny Games and the two torturers convey a disinterested immorality with an intensive calm. This is a movie that is hard to watch but impossible to resist.

Funny Games has been criticised for what is alleged to be an underestimation of the intelligence of the audience. Surely most viewers can tell the difference between what they see on the screen and what is reality? But is Haneke right? Have we become so inured by what we see in the media that we can't tell the difference?

Funny Games may not be a film we want to see. But maybe it is one we need to see. Even if Haneke is wrong in his assessment of our relationship to the media, it most certainly bears thinking about.

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

Positive Review

'This elegant and provocative film succeeds in disturbing the peace, as all serious art does; we emerge from it guilty voyeurs, shaken by what we've just witnessed and by our own helplessness to intervene.' Daphne Merkin/The New Yorker

Negative Review

'Posing as a morally challenging work of art, the movie is a really a sophisticated act of cinematic sadism. You go to it at your own risk.' Stephen Holden/The New York Times

AUS: R-18+

USA: Unrated

Friday, August 01, 2008

Book Review: Christianity and Homosexuality

C_HCover_medChristianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives is a collection of essays dealing with the increasingly significant issues related to people who have a homosexual orientation and the way Christian churches relate to them. The book is edited by David Ferguson, Fritz Guy, and David Larson and is the product of a collaboration between SDA Kinship, International (an support organisation for gay Adventists) and the Kinship Advisory Board (a group straight Adventist leaders formed to advise and lead SDA Kinship). The subtitle of the book is important. The writers all come from a Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) perspective. That does not mean they write from any official SDA position. In fact, much of the book may make the officials of SDAism somewhat uncomfortable. It is published by Adventist Forum -- an independent SDA organisation which fosters open communication and thinking amongst its members. Christianity and Homosexuality has an interesting structure (see the diagram). Homosexuality and Christianity I’d like to make a couple of comments about this structure because I think it is highly significant. Notice the location of the scriptural and theological perspectives. Most conservative Christians would want to place the Bible and theology at the beginning of the book and filter all other perspectives through its lense. However, the editors of this book perhaps recognise that placing the Bible at the beginning of the discussion would destroy any chance of an open inquiry into the subject of homosexuality. I don’t think there is any doubt that the majority of Christians would make the assumption that the Bible condemns homosexuality outright. Beginning from this premise, a great deal of what this book discusses would be dismissed from the outset. However, by taking the approach they have, the editors lead us to the text after considering a whole range of extra-biblical material that makes us realise that the text needs, perhaps, to be read afresh and our traditional understandings rigorously critiqued. Let me lay out the journey the editors take us on -- at least as I read it.
  1. Autobiographical perspective. At the very beginning of the book, we are introduced to real people who have had direct experience living with a homosexual orientation or who are related to someone who has. This first section of the book brings home the degree of pain and suffering experienced by an individual with a homosexual orientation. Whatever one may think about homosexuality, the reality is that the issue is not some abstract theological one that doesn’t affect real people. The person living with a homosexual orientation either has to keep their experience to themselves, struggling to come to terms with what the church generally labels as sin while suffering intense guilt for being different or not being able to "overcome" their "sin". Alternatively the person with a homosexual orientation may "come out" and share their struggle with others. Often this results in isolation, exclusion, emotional (and often physical) abuse, or unsuccessful "reprogramming" by those who claim it can be cured. The person’s friends and family are also affected in various painful ways as they struggle to come to terms with what they often see as an abnormality, perversion, or sinful behaviour. By situating the entire discussion within the context of personal experience, the reader is forced to personalise the issue. Theological debate is, in this case, about real people. Whatever we may believe about homosexuality, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Jesus commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves.
  2. We are then led on to the biomedical perspective. For those who are well informed, there are no surprises here. There is mounting evidence that there is a biological predisposition toward a homosexual orientation that has nothing to do with choice. Many Christians want to avoid this fact but it cannot be avoided. Many people make a lot of the fact that homosexuality was removed from the DSM (the psychiatric diagnostic manual) in response to political action. What they don’t realise is that homosexuality was originally included in the DSM without any scientific basis in the first place. There is a chapter in this section that tells this story and is a very interesting read.
  3. Part Three of the book surveys behavioural science perspectives. The chapters that make up this section discuss the psychological and social experiences of gay and lesbian Seventh-day Adventists as well as asking whether the SDA denomination lives up to the ideals it holds as a caring, welcoming church. The assessment is not good, to say the least.
  4. Only after dealing with the realities of experience and science does the book turn to scripture and theology. By now it is difficult not to be convinced that much of what we thought we knew about the homosexual experience has to go. But what does the Bible have to say on the subject and how should it be read? This section, in my view, is the most controversial of the book and is likely to provoke the most scrutiny. The most significant alternative understanding of the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality offered in this section is that the biblical writers knew nothing of what we know, in our time, about sexual orientation. Every reference to homosexual behaviour in Scripture occurs in a context where immoral actions are performed and the relationships are distorted. (One author rather unconvincingly suggests that there are actually positive examples of homosexual relationships in the Bible. This author himself admits that his view is highly conjectural.) The argument is that homosexual acts in mutually beneficial, monogamous, long-term committed relationships are just not addressed in the Bible. Instead, we need to follow similar trajectories of interpretation as has occurred with slavery and the treatment of women. We need to accept that for a percentage of the population, homosexual orientation is normal. Rather than trying to "cure" them of that orientation, we need to accept it and focus on developing the moral foundations and parameters on which healthy partnerships can be formed between same-sex partners. Of all the responses at the end of each section, Richard Rice’s response in this section is probably the most critical. It is as if the other sections of the book present ideas that are basically indisputable - it is hard to argue with personal experience or science. But it is obvious that, when it comes to Scripture an enormous amount of work needs to be done to develop better, deeper, and broader understandings of the text than we have so far.
  5. The final section of the book turns to Christian social perspectives. Coming from the SDA perspective that underlies the whole book, this section asks how SDAs should relate to the development of public policy in relation to homosexuality. What does it mean to pastor a gay person in the church? How do we evaluate public policy? What does a biblical sexuality look like? How does the biblical teaching on love imply what a same-sex marriage might look like? These are just a few of the tough questions dealt with in this part of the book.
Reading through Christianity and Homosexuality is an enlightening, provocative journey. I learned a great deal by reading this book. And the responses at the end of each chapter provided sensitive counterpoints to the material in the previous chapters. This book probably raises more questions than it answers. But it is urgent that the questions be asked and discussed. So many Christian gay men and women are hurting deeply as a result of misunderstanding, prejudice, and demoralising treatment. Although Christianity and Homosexuality is clearly written from an SDA perspective there is much of enormous value for any Christian considering this important issue. The best books bring greater understanding by challenging our thinking, pushing us beyond our present limited perspectives, generate discussion, and remind us that the freedom and grace of the gospel are the central tenets of our faith that should inform all that we do. If these are the criteria for a good book then Christianity and Homosexuality is a good book. But it is not just a good book - it is an urgent call to leave the pages and look out to our brothers and sisters who struggle to work out how to live out their faith while experiencing a sexual orientation they did not choose but defines much of who they are. It is up to all of us to love our gay brothers and sisters as Christ has loved us. You can buy the book by clicking here.