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)

Funny Games

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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.