Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Review: The Genesis Enigma (2009)

It had to happen eventually... For years, some creationists have been trying to align Genesis 1 with geological history from a so-called 'scientific creationism' perspective. Now we have an evolutionist, Andrew Parker, claiming that Genesis 1 perfectly describes evolutionary history. Here is the alignment he proposes:

GenesisThe scientific history of the earth
And God said, 'Let there be light'The formation of the sun (around 5,000 million years ago)
And God said, 'Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear'The formation of the seas, and the separation of land areas (around 4,200 million years ago)
'Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed [vegetation]'The beginning of life, including single-celled, photosynthetic organisms ('plants') (around 3,900 million years ago)
'Let there be lights ... to divide the day from night'The first image-forming eye evolved and the visual information used. The lights were turned on for animal behaviour and evolution (around 521 million years ago)
'Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life'The Cambrian explosion — evolution's Big Bang (beginning around 520 million years ago)
God created the great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly after their kind ...Life was exclusively marine at this time. It was in this period that all the animal phyla that exist today evolved their characteristic forms. These facts are not common knowledge. Only an experienced biologist would know this.
... and every winged fowl after his kindAll animals adapted to the vision of predators, except for birds, which could afford not to because they can escape predation through flight, and so generally can avoid camouflage colours. It is fascinating that sea creatures and birds should be singled out. These are, respectively, the main characters and exceptions in life's history book.

On the basis of these "observations", Andrew Parker claims that the Bible is scientifically accurate. But it doesn't take much to discover that Parker is reading a great deal into the biblical text! Let's just check one phrase that Parker uses to prove the Bible is scientifically accurate: Genesis 1:14-19 (NRSV) which reads:

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

The description of these lights being 'in the dome of the sky' immediately identifies these objects as being heavenly bodies. As is well known, the ancient Near Eastern cultures understood the cosmos to be three-tiered — heaven, earth, underworld. The dome of the sky is clearly referring to heaven and it was understood, in these ancient cultures, to contain the sun, moon, and stars. The text speaks of two great lights to rule the day and night, plus the stars. It is impossible to avoid the implication that these are talking about the sun and moon.

But Parker reduces these six verses to the phrase to 'let there be lights ... to divide the day from night' and suggests that it refers to the evolution of the eye in animals. This interpretation of the text is laughable and completely disrespects the original genre and purpose of the text in its own cultural context!

Here's an alternative understanding of these verses: In ancient cosmology outside of Israel, the sun, moon, and stars had been put into place by the gods to regulate the seasons and the calendar. There was a strong "personal" attribution to these heavenly bodies. In the Genesis account, the author is removing this personal element and attributing the presence of these bodies to the creative work of God who is distinct from God's creation. The whole Genesis account can be demonstrated to have parallels in ancient Near Eastern culture and so it is unsurprising that many of the elements in the Genesis account are present. Genesis 1, amongst other purposes, is a polemic against the polytheistic and anthropomorphic cosmology of the time and the elements of the narrative can be demonstrated to be so.

But Parker has brought his own particular agenda to the text like many fundamentalist creationists do and tries to force a scientific reading onto the text. It is time to give up on this project. Genesis was never intended to be a scientific account of origins. Even a cursory consultation with a scholarly commentary on Genesis will show this. Those, including creationists, who persist in trying to coerce Genesis to prove what they want ultimately become an embarrassment. The whole point of the two creation accounts is overlooked and the literary qualities and original authors' intent becomes completely lost in hermeneutical servitude to a modern, 21st century agenda.

So the explicit project of The Genesis Enigma is a complete failure and is not worth reading with that particular interest in mind. However, there is some value in the book if the thesis of proving Genesis's scientific accuracy is abandoned. The very large majority of the book is an engaging account of the development of evolutionary thought over the centuries. Read for this, the book is quite enlightening and enjoyable. Parker is certainly qualified to write on natural history. But when it comes to interpreting the Bible, he goes completely astray.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Movie Review: The Invention of Lying (2009)

The Invention of Lying

Released: 2009

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Is it always wrong to lie? What sort of a society would we have if we always told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Is a belief in God merely a lie that has evolved to provide a delusional sense of hope?

All of these questions, and more, are evoked by Ricky Gervais's The Invention of Lying. Gervais is both writer and director of this lightweight comedy which starts off in a world where noone has ever lied — or even thought of doing so. In this society, not only do they not lie; they are completely ruthless at telling the whole truth even if it hurts others. Lying is not only nonexistent in personal life, but the very concept of fiction doesn't exist. Movies consist of actors merely reading historical facts.

Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) is a screenwriter whose life is pretty boring, he can't get the girl of his dreams (easily played by Jennifer Gardner), and he has been fired from work for not being able to produce a movie that is successful. One day, he discovers the possibility of telling others things that are not true when he spontaneously lies about how much money he has in his bank account. His relationships improve, he acquires more things, he lies to his mother who is dying about life after death and to the whole world about the existence of a big man in the sky deciding the fate of everyone. Mark becomes famous and may even get the girl of his dreams after all.

The Invention of Lying has received very mixed reviews. Although the movie is not great literature, I found it conceptually provocative enough to enjoy it and evocative of the sorts of questions I have listed above at the beginning of this review.

The subject of lying is a complicated one because we can all think of situations in which we may justify not telling the exact truth — either by remaining silent or actively promoting a non-truth. Even the ninth of the Ten Commandments says we are not to bear false witness against a neighbour but it doesn't say that all lying is wrong.

In the Bible there are examples of lying for altruistic reasons. In relation to the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), Shemesh (2002) offers some examples of lies that seem to be acceptable:

David lies to Ahimelech (1 Sam. 21:3) and misleads King Achish of Gath (1 Sam. 21:14) in order to save his own life. Saul’s daughter Michal lies to her father’s messengers in order to save her husband David’s life (1 Sam. 19:11–16), and then lies to her father in order to escape his rage (1 Sam. 19:17). Jonathan, too, lies to his father to save his friend David’s life (1 Sam. 20:28–29), and the woman from Bahurim lies to Absalom’s servants to save David’s spies Ahimaaz and Jonathan, hidden in the well in her courtyard (2 Sam. 17:18–20). Proof that God may actually approve of such lies may be derived from His rewarding of the midwives in Egypt, who lied to Pharaoh out of compassion for the lives of the male children born to the Hebrew women (Exod. 1:15–21). A further indication to that effect
is the narrator’s comment concerning Hushai’s deception of Absalom by pretending to support him: “The Lord had decreed that Ahithophel’s sound advice be nullified, in
order that the Lord might bring ruin upon Absalom” (2 Sam. 17:14).

All of this is to merely point out that lying is not as black and white as we might like to think. In fact, as The Invention of Lying implies, a certain type of lying might very well be required for social facilitation. Every day most of us lie about how we are feeling or what we think of a colleagues new hair style if we are asked (for example).

Please don't misunderstand me. The Invention of Lying doesn't handle any of these issues with any sophistication. In fact, the exploration of lying in this story is quite superficial. For example, a good proportion of the movie is about the alleged delusional nature of a belief in God. While Christians will certainly quibble with this, many of the associated simplistic theologies about predestination, suffering, and God's intervention in life are quite rightly satirised as ridiculous. The scariest point in the movie is the way in which some people are prone to believe anything they are told.

Although The Invention of Lying could have been executed better, acted better, and explored the issues in more depth, the fact that it tackles such a significant subject has to be commended.


Shemesh, Y 2002, 'Lies by Prophets and Other Lies in the Hebrew Bible', Janes, vol. 29, p. 84, <>.


Positive Review
'In its amiable, quiet, PG-13 way, The Invention of Lying is a remarkably radical comedy.' - Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times

Negative Review
'Proof that when you aim for the stars, sometimes you find a black hole. Hopefully just an anomaly for the usually wonderful Gervais.' - Chris Hewitt/Empire

Content Advice
sexual references, coarse language, drug reference

USA: PG-13

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book Review: The Art of Being Kind

We probably would agree that being kind is important. For Stefan Einhorn, not only is it important — it is the key to success. In his book The Art of Being Kind Einhorn argues that success and being good can go together. Of course, whether you agree with Einhorn will have a lot to do with what he defines as kindness/goodness and success.

For Einhorn, success is the feeling that you have a meaningful life. It is a life of generosity, seeing others, resolving conflicts, empathy, responsibility, and role modelling. It is easy to see how this sort of life is supported by kindness.

But Einhorn makes the important point that we need to distinguish between true and false kindness. There are many ways that actions can have the illusion of kindness but not be kindness at all. True kindness is not about words but actions. It is courageous, discerning, transcends laws, rules, and norms, and is kind to oneself as well as others.

In exploring kindness, Einhorn also discusses what he calls 'counterforces' — those things that tend to pressure us not to be kind such as the lack of time, resources, empathy for others, and reflection. Hypocrisy, innate aggression, a victim mentality, the principle that 'someone else will do it', and pessimism also contribute to reducing kind acts by individuals.

Kindness is clearly something that benefits others. But are there reasons for being kind that transcend the individual. The author summarises his reasons for being kind (pp. 205-206):

  • We feel better if we do good. Research has shown that it is pleasurable to do good things for other.
  • The people around us feel better if we do good things for them. Being surrounded by people who feel good is enjoyable, and helps us to develop.
  • Indirectly we create benefits for ourselves by doing good things for others, because what we do for others comes back to us, one way or another.
  • Societies with widespread ethical thinking function better than others.
  • We will get a better world as a result. Even if individual people can sometimes feel powerless, this is not the case. Do not forget how the effects of a good deed can spread out like ripples on a pond. We can do more than we think for others, and in this way make our contribution to a better world. And a good world is much better than a bad one.

In the end we have everything to gain by being kind with discernment, and a lot to lose by not being kind. And this is no bad reason for being kind — the fact that we gain by it. In fact, this is a really good reason.

Christians have another reason for being kind to others. The essential gospel  message is that God has been unconditionally kind to us in the person of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. We are to treat others with the same kindness with which we have been treated. The Art of Being Kind, while drawing on a number of religious traditions, fails to mention this essential message of Christianity. The book would have been the richer for it.

The Art of Being Kind is a gentle meditation on the benefits of being good to others. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: ''When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.' For Einhorn, kindness is a part of ethical intelligence. We can only hope that this intelligence is one which we will all develop in order to make our world a better place.

Einhorn, S 2006, The Art of Being Kind, Sphere.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Movie Review: A Christmas Carol 3D (2009)

A Christmas Carol

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Robert Zemeckis' new retelling of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a very enjoyable experience — especially in 3D!

Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is a nasty miser who despises most of humanity for what he sees as its spendthrift ways. He spends his life in a dark and cold office with one clerk and rejects anyone who tries to show him any hint of friendship. At the end of the day he travels back to his dingy dwelling where he huddles before a fire — alone.  And his repugnance of all things pleasurable extends to Christmas and the frivolity and graciousness that accompanies it. Even his brother's attempts to engage with him, by inviting him to celebrate Christmas with family, are spurned. Despite his own view that he is successful, we know that his life is the very opposite. But Scrooge is so set in his ways that he seems completely impervious to any possibility of change. Impossible, that is, until the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future visit Scrooge one night and take him on a journey he will never forget and that will change him forever.

A Christmas Carol 3D is truly entertaining — right from the opening sequence that has us flying over the rooftops of Victorian London. The characters of the story come alive and Carrey is brilliant as he plays about nine characters! The fact that Carrey is not immediately recognisable is good as his usual over-the-top performance doesn't intrude. And Carrey (in his first project with Disney) is supported by some great actors — Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Robin Wright Penn, Colin Firth, and Bob Hoskins. Zaneckis (the director) has provided a tightly controlled balance of seriousness and fun as the important themes of this story unfold. The animated world is rich and detailed and the representation of the three ghosts are spot on. The 3D effects are fantastic and used with appropriate effect in support of the narrative.

This timeless story of redemption is one that children and adults will both enjoy. Parents of very young children should take care, though, as there are some quite frightening scenes and the movie earns its PG rating. So take the rating seriously.

I haven't seen the non-3D version, but I would think the story will hold its power even without it. A Christmas Carol 3D is a superb Disney offering and I predict it will be one of the better Christmas movies this year. Make sure you see this one on the big screen!


Positive Review
'An exhilarating visual experience and proves for the third time he's (Zemeck) is one of the few directors who knows what he's doing with 3-D.' - Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times

Negative Review
'This sad excuse for family entertainment tries to enshrine a classic while defacing it.' - Joe Morgenstern/Wall Street Journal

Content Advice
Scary sequences and images


Official Movie Site

Watch the Trailer

Monday, November 09, 2009

Book Review: The Undercover Philosopher

If there is one book everyone should take time to read it is Michael Philips' The Undercover Philosopher: A Guide to Detecting Shams, Lies, and Delusions. Despite the common Christian claim to search for the truth, many Christians (along with the rest of humanity) fall prey to poor thinking.

In a wonderfully written book, Philips explores the human tendency to see what isn't there and remember what never happened; badly assess probabilities; favour our existing beliefs; only look for evidence that confirms what we want to believe; different thinking styles; rely on emotions for assessing truth; and so on.

The ways that we can be taken in are numerous and Philips provides up-to-the-minute examples of the way people have been deceived by all sorts of shams, lies, and delusions. In the closing chapters, Philips discusses more theoretical issues in relation to thinking that provides an excellent overview of the philosophical issues related to thinking. The book closes with a chapter on the process of deciding what to believe and how to go about considering evidence for belief and the ethics of belief.

One of the most distinctive aspects of The Undercover Philosopher is the author's balanced approach. He recognises that we cannot provide complete evidence for all of our beliefs. And we each have differences in the way we think and evaluate our beliefs. He also acknowledges that we may choose to believe certain things without evidence.

The ultimate point is that, knowing the pitfalls of thinking and how we can be taken in, allows us to choose our beliefs with a realistic assessment of the evidence in support of them. Noone suggests we shouldn't be allowed to believe what we want to believe. But to do so fully informed and cognisant of whether we are being taken in is important because it may have implications for how we live and how those beliefs affect others.

The Undercover Philosopher is a great book that is well crafted and fresh in its approach. If you want to be a better thinker then make sure you read it! Check out the video below for a sample of the author's work...


What others are saying...

A magnificent book – a user’s guide to one’s own brain. He details the insidious tricks our brains play on us and how to guard against them. As a scientist, I found humbling, but right on target, his assessment of the sociological limitations on our search for Truth. His writing is compact, clear, and delightfully free of academic jargon.” Steven N. Austad, author of Why We Age: What Science Is Discovering about the Body's Journey Through Life

“A great book! Writing with clarity and good humour, Michael Phillips reminds me of a great philosophical collector, an Aristotle of errors, as he enthusiastically categorizes specimens of every kind of mistake, con and self-deception and describes how we can guard against them.” Rick Lewis, Editor of Philosophy Now

Here's a link to the author's blog.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Movie Review: Funny People (2009)

Funny People

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Things are not at all funny in Judd Apatow's latest movie, Funny People. And they are not meant to be. Funny People is a very serious film and those who go to see it thinking it is a comedy will be very disappointed.

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a successful standup comedian when he is diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia that is untreatable except for an experimental drug regime that has a very low success rate. It means he has less than a year to live.

During a show at a comedy club, George gives a very bleak performance that is not well received. Following him, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling up-and-coming standup comedian, gives a performance in which he scathingly comments on George's preceding act.

George hears the act and decides to employ Ira to write for George and to perform as his personal assistant and general gopher. Ira's world is very different to the successful George's. Ira lives with two other guys in a small apartment and he sleeps on a foldout bed in the living area. He is envious of the apparent success of his flat mates and is struggling financially. As he enters into George's world he is overawed by George's marks of success — money, women, belongings — everything and anything he wants.

As Ira adapts to being part of George's world, his wide-eyed wonder and innocence begin to challenge George as George tries to come to grips with his imminent death. On the way, George begins to confront the superficiality, loneliness, and despair of his life.

Funny People is a profound examination of a whole range of themes — death, happiness, friendship, materialism, celebrity fame, marriage, and much more. Apatow has packed into the 146 minutes of this story as many subplots and themes as he could — many of these could make full narratives in their own right.

Adam Sandler is excellent as the troubled celebrity and Seth Rogen plays his role with innocent subtlety. Sandler and Rogen work extremely well together and the narrative moves along.

Because Funny People is about the world of contemporary standup comedy, it is stuffed with coarse language, sexual references, and other confronting adult material. But this material almost seems a desperate counter to a life of desperation.

As I have said, Funny People is not a comedy. It would be better described as a drama with humour. It is very deep and offers lots of material to think about. The resolution at the climax of the movie is mixed and no easy answers are offered to the question of what gives life meaning. But there are hints. We, as viewers, are respected enough not to be given a trite  conclusion — at least not for all the characters.

I had read an interview with Judd Apatow where he said he wanted to make a serious movie. He has. So be warned. Don't go to see a comedy. Go if you want to be confronted with some serious questions about life and, in particular, think about where  and how you find your happiness.


Content Advice
Coarse language and crude sexual humour throughout, and some sexuality

Positive Review
'Funny People is a true brass ring effort, a reach for excellence that takes big risks. It's 146 minutes, with a story that's more European in feeling than American.' - Mick La Salle/San Francisco Chronicle

Negative Review
'The denizens of Judd Apatow’s Funny People have been pulled every which way to fit a misshapen concept, yet they remain painfully unfunny, and consistently off-putting.' - Joe Morgenstern/Wall Street Journal

AUS: MA15+

Friday, October 23, 2009

Movie Review: Ben X (2007)

benxBen X brings autism and online gaming together in a deeply disturbing and profound story.

Ben (Greg Timmermans) is very different to his peers at school and is constantly bullied and harassed. He copes with the daily trauma of his existence by retreating into the online gaming world of Archlord (an actual online game). In the game, he can be anything he wants to be and has developed an online friendship with Scarlite who inspires him to heroic deeds. The real and online worlds begin to merge as he overlays the world of Archlord onto his home and school life, allowing his identification with his computer avatar to bolster his courage and deal with the constant pain of relationships in which he finds it impossible to relate to others.

Finally, life becomes so unbearable for Ben that he develops a plan to end his life. But Scarlite, his online female friend, meets him and they strike up a friendship that changes Ben's life in a way he never imagined.

Ben X is a stunning, powerful story inspired by true events. Timmermans is brilliant playing the troubled, autistic teen. The rest of the cast support his portrayal with excellent performances. The representation of the online gaming world of Archlord is very effective and, even if one is not familiar with online gaming, it is easy to follow and all the information we need is provided. The integration of the two worlds in Ben's experience is done very well and we get a profound sense of the importance of the virtual world in helping Ben cope with his real world — although for Ben, the distinction between the two becomes very blurred.

Ben X was Belgium's official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 80th Annual Academy Awards.

Ben X is, at times, very painful to watch as we enter into the experience of autism with Ben. But it is a deeply provocative story that should help us think about the pain that those who are different often suffer in our society. Ben X is available on DVD.



Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis

When I was young, I remember singing a bright chorus by Ira F Stanphill:

Happiness is to know the Savior, Living a life within His favor, Having a change in my behavior, Happiness is the Lord.

Unfortunately, happiness is not quite that simple according to Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the Test of Modern Science.

Although I have been a Christian all my life, I suffered for about 10 years with a major depressive illness despite my attempts to deal with it by eating better, exercising more, affirming my relationship with God, praying more, doing more Bible study, in short, trying to 'live a life within His favor, [and h]aving a change in my behavior'. Finally, after trying the three approaches to improving mood proven to have a definite effect (meditation, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and medication) medication helped. And I am not alone. Many Christians suffer from depression. Shouldn't Christians be happy? Doesn't a faith in God improve the way we feel? Well... maybe it does. But happiness is much more than just what we believe or put faith in.

Drawing on research-based evidence, Haidt draws apart the curtains shrouding happiness and provides some extremely helpful insights into what makes people happy; how happiness works; and what aspects of human nature and life improves the prospect of experiencing happiness. As the author discusses the evidence, he evaluates ancient wisdom and philosophy to see whether these two sources of wisdom got it right. Unsurprisingly, the answer is sometimes right and wrong.

It turns out, there is a Happiness Formula:

H(appiness) = (S)etpoint + (C)onditions + (V)oluntary activities

The Setpoint is the maximum amount of happiness possible for a particular person to experience. It appears that each of us is hardwired with a maximum threshold for experiencing happiness. There is increasing evidence that genetics plays a highly influential role in the boundaries of our emotional lives.

In addition to a setpoint, the Conditions of your live within which we live — the environment, finances, weather, etc —has an effect on happiness.

Finally, the Voluntary activities we choose to engage in (or not) have an influence on levels of happiness. So happiness is a combination of all these elements.

Haidt discusses each of these elements of happiness and provides some fascinating research in support of his Happiness Hypothesis. He weaves an understanding of all of these elements of happiness in a very engaging, easy-to-read, informative style. This discussion of happiness is hopeful, practical, evidence-based, and ultimately provides the reader with an understanding that is balanced and insightful. Highly recommended.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Book Review: Nine Ways to Walk Around a Boulder

All of us face "boulders" in our lives — challenges that make it difficult for us to achieve our goals. In Nine Ways to Walk Around a Boulder: Using Communication Skills to Change Your Life Juliet Erickson provides simple, effective strategies for getting around a boulder. At the heart of these strategies is the issue of communication.

There are lots of communication books available and they vary in quality, as you would expect. Erickson's little book provides clear, practical explanations of communication techniques including understanding your own communication styles; dealing with conflict; listening in order to learn; how to effectively ask for things; paying attention; the use of silence; and much more.

Erickson is a great writer making communication theory interesting and practical with numerous case studies illustrating the concepts. Erickson approaches communication skills realistically with a recognition that none of us are perfect and the advice she provides is within the reach of anyone.

If you are looking for a simple, practical, fresh book on communication then check Nine Ways to Walk Around a Boulder out. The title says it all!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

How Christians Develop Critical Thinking Through Education

This guest article was written by Adrienne Carlson, who regularly writes on the topic of online bible colleges. Adrienne welcomes your comments and questions at her email address:

The Bible tells us that God created us in his own form, that he made us flesh and blood creatures who could think as well. If one were to go by the Book of Genesis, the fruit of knowledge that Adam and Eve ate on the sly is the result of all that is mankind today. Not for nothing has it been said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But not all knowledge is bad; in fact, it’s the way we think that influences our actions. Our thought process defines who we are, so it’s important to be able to think rationally and with a critical mental eye.

As Christians, we are taught since childhood to follow the word of the Lord and practice his teachings and values in our day to day lives. And when we go through the path of education, we learn to think rationally and critically. More importantly, through critical thinking, we develop:

  • Tolerance for fellow human beings: With critical thinking comes an open-mindedness that is helpful when we have to co-exist with hundreds of other people, most of who are of different religions and cultures. We learn how to tolerate them and accept them for who they are rather than despise them for who they are not. When we are more accepting, we are more at peace with ourselves and this helps in developing spirituality.
  • The ability to judge between right and wrong: Critical thought empowers us to judge between right and wrong, no matter what biases we bear in mind. Education opens our minds to a different level of thinking, one that goes beyond preconceived notions and prejudices and allows us to determine for ourselves (without the influence of others) what is good and what is bad and what is in between.
  • The ability to raise relevant questions and push for their answers: When you’re a good Christian, you need to constantly question your values and your conscience to determine if you are on the right path as chosen by our Lord. Critical thinking that is gained through education allows you room for self-introspection and subsequent self-improvement. You are not blinded by the belief that you are faultless; instead, you look for ways to better yourself.

Education is very important in order to succeed in life, and Christian schools and colleges do a good job of helping to develop your critical thought process.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

Movie Review: District 9 (2009)

District 9

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District 9 is one of the best sci-fi movies to hit our screens for decades. Presented by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) and directed by Neill Blomkamp, it moves the genre into new territory in much the same way as Alien did back in the the late '70s.

District 9 begins as a mockumentary summarising the events of the last 20 years in Johannesburg, South Africa, when an enormous alien ship settled in the air over the city followed by a long period of complete inactivity. When no life forms emerged from the ship, the military decided the best approach was to break into the ship. On entry, they found thousands of emaciated, malnourished, aliens close to death.

The aliens were evacuated and located in a massive refugee camp in the middle of Johannesburg. But after 20 years, the detention area has become saturated with crime as a result of the extreme poverty and demoralisation of the population of alien creatures.

The government in Johannesburg has decided to relocate the now 1.8 million alien creatures to a site well away from the city. To do that, a new facility has been built and the aliens now require evicting from their slum. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has been delegated the leadership in the eviction process. We follow him out into the streets of the alien area where, with the help of a private military company, he serves eviction notices. During a visit to one shanty, he discovers a device that sprays him with a black liquid and he becomes infected. From that moment on, Wikus has to work out where he will find help for the consequences of his one mistake.

I'm not going to describe any more of the plot. The less you know the better your experience of the movie will be. Suffice it to say that this movie is as far away from a cliche-ridden Hollywood serving as you can possibly get.

What makes District 9 so good, apart from the brilliant special effects that make you forget they are special effects, is that it is an example of how modern art and culture can make profound contributions to our thinking about contemporary issues. District 9 is clearly a political statement — about apartheid, racism, attitudes towards refugees, detention centres, and humanity's incompetence at handling anyone or anything that is "different". Despite the "message" of the film, the director never preaches to us. We don't feel as th0ugh we are being bludgeoned with the message (like so many cliched "Christian" movies we often see). The message is implicit and genuinely haunts after the final credits roll.

Copley is superbly cast as Wikus, the story is outstandingly fresh, the cinematography lifts the whole narrative to the level of believability. District 9 is not to be missed!


Positive Review
' District 9 is very smart sci-fi, but that's just the beginning; it's also a scathing social satire hidden inside a terrific action thriller teeming with gross aliens and regrettable inter-species conflict. And it's a blast. . . .' - Betsy Sharkey/LA Times

Negative Review
'It's a bad joke that District 9 will be hailed for its "originality."' - Michael Sragow/Baltimore Sun

Content Advice
bloody violence and pervasive language

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Movie Review: Balibo (2009)

Balibo_010  In 1975, five Australian journalists were murdered in East Timor because they dared to report on what was happening in that country as Indonesia invaded it. A sixth journalist went looking for them and was also murdered in plain view on a wharf in Dili. Since then, the Australian government has turned a blind eye to the events and made the false claim that they were accidentally killed in crossfire. Balibo tells this story.

Juliana Da Costa (Bela Viegas) has returned to East Timor to give evidence at the Timor-Leste Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. She experiences the invasion and the massacre on the Dili Wharf. During that massacre, she witnesses the killing of Roger East (Anthony Lapaglia), an Australian freelance journalist.

As Juliana begins to tell her story, we are taken back to 1975 when Roger East is approached by José Ramos-Horta who invites East to come to Timor and run the East Timor News Agency. At first he refuses. He has had enough of war time correspondence and has become cynical about any good it might do.

However, when Ramos-Horta tells him that five Australian journalists have gone missing without East even knowing it, he decides to go to East Timor to run the agency on the condition that he can first try to find out what happened to the journalists.

The narrative then moves to the story of his search and, as he retraces the journalists' paths, their journey is re-enacted. So the remainder of the movie moves back and forth between East and the five journalists as these two stories converge on the Balibo where the murders took place.

You might think the multilevel narrative would make this movie complicated to follow. Far from it. The movie is brilliantly directed and edited and the events unfold in a clearly understandable way. The ultimate fate of the Balibo Five (the name the journalists eventually came to be known by) is absolutely shocking. The fact that the Australia Government has swept all this under the carpet is a highly disturbing illustration of how politics often takes precedence over humanitarian concerns.

Balibo rings with authenticity. Filming occurred in the actual buildings where the Balibo Five were murdered. The recreation of the news footage recorded by the Balibo Five is stunning and every actor portrays their character superbly. The role of Juliana is a composite character representing over 8,000 Timorese people who courageously came forward to testify at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The involvement in the film of people who were actually there in 1975 during the massacre and the factual presentation of the killing of the Balibo Five based on the actual coronial report investigating the deaths makes this portrayal even more poignant.

Balibo is not only an incredible achievement from a dramatic and cinematic perspective — it is a brilliant political thriller. It is also an extremely important expose of a cover up of a monumentally immoral travesty. It is a potent memorial of six men — Channel Sevenʼs Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart, and from Channel Nine, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, and Roger East who cared enough to find out what had happened to his colleagues — who gave their lives to make sure the world knew about what was going on in a small corner of the globe.

Balibo is much, much more than entertainment. It is a disturbing reminder that great injustices can be perpetrated even by some of the best governments in the world.


Content Advice
Violence and coarse language


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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Book Review: What Not to Say

Friendship. Love. Sex. Ending relationships. Marriage. Divorce. Having children. Coming out. Domestic violence. Depression. Suicide. Terminal illness. Personal crises. Art. Taking drugs. Holidaying. Losing a job. Making money. Work-life balance. Moving home. Exams. Complaining. Texting. The environment. Making decisions. Politics. Religion. Death.

Every one of us will, at some time in our lives, need to deal with one or more of the above litany of life situations and issues. Inevitably, one or more of our friends or colleagues will experience some of the above as well. And if you have ever been with someone who has experienced any of the above, you will have experienced the anxiety of wondering what you should say. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I make the situation worse? What if I am influential in my friend making the wrong decision or leading them to feel even worse?

Well ... Mark Vernon has provided some excellent help in his small volume (less than 200 pages) called What Not to Say: Finding the Right Words at Difficult Moments. Vernon is an Honorary Research Fellow in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, London. Bringing insights from philosophers from ancient times to the present, Vernon helps to understand the important issues in relation to difficult moments and what might be appropriate to say or not say.

Vernon is witty, engaging, and shares aspects of his own life journey. Although the book is short, it is packed with lots of wisdom and shows how philosophy can be very relevant to everyday life. Of course, as always, there will be things to disagree with. But they are the best books!

For a gentle, insightful book on life's issues, What Not to Say is a delightful place to spend a few hours.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Movie Review: Bruno


Released: 2009

Go to IMDb page

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Bruno is a difficult movie to review. When it is good it is very good. But when it is bad it is very very bad.

Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a gay 19-year-old Austrian who spends his life following the latest fashions. Following a desire to become famous, he teams up with Lutz (Gustaf Hammarstan), who becomes a devoted manager, and travels to America where he tries out various means to draw the attention of the world to himself. But getting fame is a bit harder than he expected. Using candid-camera style interviews, Cohen presents a series of cutting social satires loosely tied together in a narrative structure.

So ... what is good about Bruno? At its best, Bruno is a cutting, sarcastic satire of the modern infatuation with hollow celebrity fame. A number of the scenes in Bruno are brilliant at exposing the vacuous stupidity of so much human behaviour and attitudes. The interviews with women desperate for their children to become models and willing to expose them to almost anything dangerous or immoral to do so; being counselled by a fundamentalist Christian gay converter who wants to change Bruno to a heterosexual; posing as a heterosexual wrestler at a "straight" wrestling club where profound homophobia is revealed when Bruno and Lutz start acting out homosexual intimacies in the ring; and the intolerance of a TV talk-show audience when Bruno claims to have adopted a black African baby who is wearing a t-shirt promoting gayness. All of these scenes, and a couple more, provide some genuine belly-laughs and implied social commentary.

However, a number of Bruno's characteristics completely undermine the value of watching this movie. The explicit nudity, sex (including real sex at a swingers' party), extremely coarse language, and various other elements will be highly offensive to many (and quite rightly so). A significant amount of this material is overdone and unnecessarily "in-your-face". It is as if Cohen and his co-writer didn't know when to stop. The lack of subtlety reveals the unsophisticated approach to humour that is, in fact, a disrespect for the intelligence of the viewer. This material is truly awful and so crude I cannot describe it here — you really don't want to see it.

In summary, Bruno has some great moments. But the presence of overdone, extremely tasteless material that reaches a new low for cinema, makes this movie one that is best avoided.


Positive Review
'The movie is a toxic dart aimed at the spangly new heart of American hypocrisy: our fake-tolerant, fake-charitable, fake-liberated-yet-still madly-closeted fame culture.' - Owen Gleiberman/Entertainment Weekly

Negative Review
'Here’s the bad news: Brüno is no "Borat." Here’s the worse news: Brüno crosses the line, like a besotted sprinter, from hilariously to genuinely awful.' - Joe Morgenstern/Wall Street Journal

Content Advice
pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Movie Review: Last Ride (2009)

last-ride Glendyn Ivin, the director of the Australian movie, Last Ride, has gifted us with one of the best movies I have seen this year.

Based on the award winning novel by Denise Young, Last Ride is a slow, gentle, but deeply moving journey of a father and son across 5,000 kilometres of rough and remote Australian Outback country.

Kev (Hugo Weaving) bundles his son, Chook (Tom Russell) into the car in the middle of the night and flees into the darkness as they run from the law. Chook knows something is not right but his Dad is not talking. As they travel, father and son are forced to deal with their troubled relationship as they meet the challenges of survival. As the story develops we gradually begin to understand what has happened and share in the complex development of the relationship between the two.

Last Ride is a truly superb movie. The story is deeply engaging with depth of character development.  Weaving is superb in what I would consider as one of his best performances. Tom Russell, who plays the 12-year-old Chook, gives us a nuanced, understated character who is entirely believable. And the Australian Outback landscape  reflects the beauty and ugliness of the narrative itself.

Last Ride explores so many themes — father/son relationships, love between children and flawed parents, prejudice (in terms of what we think of the father), childhood abuse, and self-revelation.

Last Ride is in limited release in Australia at the moment. If it hasn't been released in your location make sure you put it on your list of must-see movies when it arrives.



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Monday, June 08, 2009

Book Review: How Then Should We Choose?

Ever since I read Gary Friesen's book Decision Making & the Will of God back in the early '80s I have been liberated from the traditional view that God has a specific will for every individual that we have to learn by mostly guess-work (although that is not how the traditional view is usually presented). Friesen's view emphasises the biblical teaching of wisdom and affirms God's endowment of humanity with an intellect that can reason about what choices are appropriate within God's revealed moral will and a trust that God's sovereign will is worked out as God wishes it to be.

But not everyone agrees with Friesen's wisdom view and there has been considerable debate over the years about what it actually means to discern God's will in relation to the practical realities of life. Douglas S Huffman's book, How Then Should We Choose? Three Views on God's Will and Decision Making is a very timely book in which three authors present their views and critique each others in what is a lively, respectful, thought-provoking discussion.

Huffman presents an overview of the search for the truth about discerning God's will throughout history and some of the choices of perspective available. The following chapters have three different authors presenting their views which are:

  • The specific-will view (Henry and Richard Blackaby) which argues that the Bible teaches that God has a specific will for every individual which they need to discern.
  • The wisdom view (Gary Fiesen) which asserts that the Bible teaches that God has endowed humans with freedom of choice; God has revealed his moral will in Scripture and needs to be obeyed; God provides wisdom to those who ask in order to make good decisions; and the need to trust God to work out God's sovereign will as God decides to.
  • The relationship view (Gordon T Smith) in which a relationship with Jesus Christ is to be developed and provides the context for the discernment of God's will. Much of this view is similar to the specific-will view but places heavy emphasis on relationship.

Each chapter also includes the author applying the principles of their approach to a series of real hypotheticals and a critique of the view from each of the other authors.

Huffman, in the final chapter, provides an interesting attempt to construct a model on which the various views can be mapped and which articulates the similarities and differences of the views.

How Then Should We Choose? is an excellent discussion of the issue of discerning God's will. If you have ever had the need to know God's will in your life (and who hasn't!) and been confused by what you have heard, then this book is just what is needed. It won't tell you which approach is correct — but it will certainly give you a better understanding of the choices.

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Soul in Depression

depression.pngI suffered for 10 years with a major depressive illness before it was properly diagnosed and treated. During that 10 years I read a lot of material and consulted with many health professionals. Some of the advice I received was good and some was downright dangerous. Because of my experience with depression, I was immediately interested in a podcast done by Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith® where she interviews a number of people and discussed depression and its effects on faith. I highly recommend it. You can find it by clicking here where you can download, listen online, or listen to it on your iPod.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Movie Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Released: 2008

Go to IMDb page

Information ©

It is so easy to think in black and white terms. The enemy is clearly identifiable -- it's them and not us. This black and white thinking can bedevil us when we are thinking about history.

There have been a number of movies recently dealing with aspects of the Holocaust that are obviously designed to trouble our binary-coloured vision.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas takes us into the heart of a German family that is torn asunder by the evil brutality of Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution".

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an eight-year-old German boy whose father is a Nazi soldier. His family lives in a beautiful mansion and Bruno is sheltered from the realities of the Holocaust. He looks up to his father.

Bruno's father then gets a job as the commandant of a concentration camp out in the country. But, in Bruno's innocence, he believes the camp is actually a farm. Eventually he finds an opportunity (against his parent's instructions) to go and check out the "farm" where he befriends a boy his own age through the wire of the camp. Bruno struggles to work out what the farm is about. As the reality begins to dawn in the young mind of Bruno and other members of his family, the peaceful balance of the family is permanently torn.

Nothing prepared me for the chilling conclusion of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It was so profound that noone in the nearly-full cinema moved or made a sound until at least half of the credits had rolled.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been criticised for a number of things. One of those is the suggestion that a boy of Bruno's age wouldn't be found in a concentration camp because anyone not able to work would have been gassed. I have heard others argue that it would be possible.

But these side issues should not be allowed to distract from what is a unique and powerful perspective on the Holocaust. Viewing history from the point of view of an innocent child, somehow the horror is intensified like never before. The narrative is essentially simple but profound. The most horrifying thing about this story is the way it portrays the fact that evil is usually 'perpetrated by human beings, not monsters.' (Pete Rainer) This means that we are forced out of our stereotypes to the realisation that things are not as simple as we think. Butterfield (as Bruno) and Farmiga (his mother) are both excellent. And the finale will stay with you for a long time to come.


Positive Review
'And yet the great conundrum of the Holocaust is that it was perpetrated by human beings, not monsters. Few movies have rendered this puzzle so powerfully.' — Peter Rainer/Christian Science Monitor

Negative Review
'See the Holocaust trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked for a tragedy about a Nazi family. Better yet and in all sincerity: don't.' — Mahnola Dargis/The New York Times

Content Advice
Some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust

USA: PG-13

Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review: God, Actually

Over the years I have read a lot of books arguing for the Christian faith. Walk into any Christian bookshop and you will see row-upon-row of works arguing with absolute certainty that God exists, Jesus was divine, and Christianity is definitely the truth. Most of those I read said the same things and used the same evidence. There is nothing wrong with this per se. But I had become tired of reading these sorts of books.

In this sea of certainty, imagine my surprise when, on the New Release shelf at my local Christian bookstore, I saw a title of a book that repeated the word probably. I had come across Roy Williams's book God, Actually: Why God probably exists; Why Jesus was probably divine; and Why the 'rational' objections to religion are unconvincing.

As I flicked through the book, I could see that here was an author who took doubt seriously. Who understood the nature of evidence and persuasion. Who realised that, in a contemporary world, to speak of absolute certainty is to overstate the capacity of human beings to know without any questions remaining. Who takes seriously the necessity of faith as a fundamental feature of reality.

Williams was a skeptic/agnostic with a leaning toward atheism when it came to Christianity. In the beginning of the book, he shares his journey from skepticism to faith. As a lawyer, trained in rigorous, deductive thinking, his acceptance of Christianity did not come easily. And even now, his faith, although based on what he considers to be persuasive evidence, still remains faith that values doubt and uncertainty as a necessary part of that faith.

After we have heard about his journey, which continues to the present day, Williams explores what a deductive approach to Christianity might look like along with it advantages and limitations. He ends his preface with a statement of his goal for the book:

If anything in this book causes just one person to begin to think more closely or more clearly about even one issue, then it will have served a valuable purpose. My hope, though, is that many readers will be persuaded that the likelihood of the Christian God's existence lies well above 50 percent on what Richard Dawkins has called the 'spectrum of probabilities'. At least, some might reassess the all-too-common attitude that Christianity is a refuge for charlatans, killjoys and well-meaning dopes, and is certainly not something for 'sophisticated people'. In fact, the more sophisticated you think you are, the more carefully you need to consider it. (p. 8)

Then Williams takes us on a superbly fresh examination of the evidence for Christianity and the reasons it makes sense to believe that, at least, its claims are probably true. That is all that is needed for the beginning of faith.

Rowan divides his discussion up into three sections: reasons to believe in God; reasons to believe in Christianity; and answers to some common objections.

After providing a fresh survey of the physical universe and the human capacity for cognition and conscience, Williams spends a superb chapter discussing the nature of love and how that provides evidence for a belief in God. Then he turns to a penetrating analysis of, and response to, arguments against a designing God.

When Williams turns to Jesus and the resurrection, even when he is representing the standard evidences, his approach and perspective enliven and engage in a genuinely contemporary discussion that deeply respects the person who struggles to believe.

In the final section of the book, Williams turns to some objections constantly raised against Christian belief: the problem of suffering; the extremes of Christian involvement in politics; Christianity's relationship to other religions; and the traditional doctrines of heaven and hell. All of these issues are profound and problematic. Williams attempts some creative approaches to them which seem to me, in a number of places, to be somewhat strained and, themselves problematic. For example, he affirms a form of purgatory that I find unsupported in Scripture. Despite that, Williams models the sort of dialogue and willingness to question assumptions that are so important to a rigorous exploration of faith. Even here one has to give Williams his due even where there is disagreement. But the disagreement would not be a problem to Williams as he values the presence of uncertainty in the journey of faith.

God, Actually is a brilliant book. Williams writes with wit and a masterful command of language and sensitive argument. He displays a deep respect and empathy for his reader and his approach is reassuring and inspiring. Williams confidently engages with the ideas of contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins.

If you are looking for a reasonable basis to believe, or have friends that are averse to dogmatic expressions of religion, then God, Actually may just be the book you need.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Book Review: Blest Atheist

The title of this book captured my attention. How often do you hear an atheist use the language of blessing? Before I read the book, I wondered whether it was a current atheist writing about how they were blessed despite being an atheist. That wasn't so. Instead, the author, Elizabeth Mahlou, is a Christian who once was an atheist.

Mahlou describes her horrific childhood of constant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Through it all, she has an indomitable spirit that always hopes and always survives. She recounts the way in which, looking back from her now Christian perspective, she sees how God blessed her, even when she was an atheist.

For Mahlou, God is intimately involved in everything that happens(ed) in her life (indeed, in everyone's life). Prior to her conversion, she ascribed all the "miracles" of coincidence to Serendipity, not realising, at the time, that it was God working in her life.

Mahlou developed into a scholar with expertise in K-12 education and many languages who travelled widely and was highly influential (it would seem). She calls herself a Good Samaritan because of her natural tendency to help those in need — seeing this tendency now as the impulse of the divine working in her life.

Mahlou writes poetically. There are some inconsistencies here and there and, in my opinion, she gets bogged down in detail at times — I became bored with some of the story. And, at times, one gets the impression that she praises herself a little too much, despite the ultimate message of the book that the glory should go to God. But perhaps that can be forgiven when you think of her origins and what she has had to overcome.

The most interesting part of the book, for me, was the story of her conversion to Christianity and her move from a predominantly rationalist view of reality to one which is quite mystical. The book finishes on a very spiritual note with a hope that atheists (and others) who read the book may come to appreciate the reality of God in their lives even before they may come to recognise God. Some may find it hard to describe as miraculous some of the coincidences that Mahlou describes (I certainly did). But whatever you think about it, the story of her journey from abuse, to atheism, to Christianity is interesting. I just would have liked her to spend a bit more time on those mountains rather than spending so much time in the valleys of detail.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Movie Review: Knowing


Go to IMDb page

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The end of the world has been "near" for millennia. Every age sees signs of impending annihilation. Apocalyptic literature, such as the book of Revelation in the Bible, link the end of all things with catastrophic events in nature or the deteriorating moral milieu of society.

Despite the range of possible interpretations inherent in apocalyptic literature, people have always wanted to see definite predictions in the text. But if we interpret these texts in ways that predict events with accuracy and certainty, deep philosophical questions arise about causality and determinism. There are two extremes when it comes to the nature of causality: determinism and randomness.

Determinism postulates that every event has directly antecedent causes. If we comprehensively knew the current state of all things, we could predict with certainty all future events.

On the other hand, some postulate that the fundamental nature of reality is randomness. Things just happen and what we see is some form of "average" product of the randomness.

The contemporary apocalyptic thriller, Knowing, directed by Alex Proyas, tackles these themes head-on. The central character, John Koestler (Nicholas Cage), is a scientist who, since losing his wife in a disaster some years before, struggles with the question of whether there is any inherent meaning in the events that occur (based on some form of determinism) or whether what happens is random and arbitrary.

Knowing opens in 1955 in a school where students are participating in a competition to come up with a celebration of the opening. Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) wins the competition when she suggests the school bury a time capsule with drawings of what the children think the world will be like in 50 years time. Lucinda's image is a page full of seemingly random numbers that she writes frenetically and is not able to finish because she is interrupted. She goes missing and is later found in the school's gym frantically scratching the remaining numbers on a closet door.

Fifty years later, in the same school, the students remove the time capsule on the anniversary of the school's opening. John Koestler's son, Caleb (Joshua Long) is given the envelope containing Lucinda's page of numbers. He opens it and takes the page home because he wonders whether it is a puzzle that can be solved.

His father, John, notices a pattern in some of the numbers that consist of the date and number of deaths of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. John gradually realises that the numbers are the details of the major disasters that occurred from the 1955 up until the present day. Thus begins an edge-of-your-seat thriller as John tries to uncover the meaning of the numbers that indicate a significant disaster in the near future. Adding to the suspense is growing belief that all this has something to do with his son -- particularly when Caleb begins to hear voices and see strange men trying to make contact with him.

Knowing is a tense, gripping, roller-coaster ride to a profoundly religious conclusion that postulates a hope of redemption for a devastated earth destroyed by the ultimate natural disaster. Viewers who are culturally literate will notice numerous allusions to religious and biblical themes. In many ways, the future vision of Knowing is bleak with only some being saved. But that mirrors the biblical themes of the destruction of heaven and earth with those who hear the call being rescued to populate a new earth.

Knowing is an intriguing film based on an intriguing premise. We are living in a world which seems to recognise the fragility of the planet and the realisation that we may be nearly at the point-of-no-return when, if we don't change the way we relate to the earth, there may be no earth to relate to. There is no hope unless salvation comes from outside the planet. It is the knowing that is important -- to be saved, you need to know the right person. That is far more important than knowing the details of the future which are not as predictable as Knowing suggests.


Positive Review
'Knowing is among the best science-fiction films I've seen -- frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome.' - Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times

Negative Review
'Isn't prophetic ... just pathetic.' - Joe Neumaier/New York Daily News

Content Advice
disaster sequences, disturbing images and brief strong language

USA: PG-13

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Movie Review: The Reader

The Reader

Released: 2008

Go to IMDb page

Information ©

To maintain the distinction between the sin and the sinner must be one of the most difficult teachings of Christianity. Our identities are so intimately related to what we do that to try and separate what we do from who we are just doesn't feel right. And when we are trying to relate to others, it can be even more difficult. This difficulty is at the heart of Stephen Daldry's movie The Reader.

Michael Berg (David Kross) is a young German teenager who becomes ill and is helped by Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslett) — a woman twice his age who lives alone. They strike up a friendship which very quickly evolves into an intense, sexually charged affair that lasts for a summer.

Years later, Michael (Ralph Fiennes) is studying law at university following World War II. As part of his course he is taken to a war crimes trial by his lecturer. He is shocked to see Hannah on trial.

As the trial unfold, Michael is thrown into intense conflicts as he tries to make meaning out of what he is observing. How does he come to terms with someone he loved being accused of involvement in the evil persecution of Jews through the Holocaust? Michael is confronted with difficult moral decisions as the trial progresses.

The Reader powerfully explores themes of human nature, guilt, identity, loyalty, love, and compassion.

Kate Winslett deservedly won an Oscar for her role as Hannah. She plays the young and older Hannah superbly. Apparently her makeup for old age took 7 hours to do! Fiennes is excellent as the tormented older Michael and Kross plays the demanding young Michael involving intense scenes of sexuality.

The nudity and sexuality in the first part of the film will be difficult for some people to watch. So you might want to reconsider watching this film if this material offends. But, in my view, the  nature of the relationship between the young Michael and Hannah is essential because the sexual aspects of relationships represent the most intimate and powerful dimensions of human connection. This early relationship provides the counterpoint for Michael's later reaction to discovering that someone he loved has acted in such an unimaginably evil way. Complicating all this is a range of ambiguities about Hannah's involvement in the crimes with which she is charged that presents difficult choices for Michael.

The Reader is a provocative story that challenges us to think about how we relate to the ordinary human beings in our world that perpetrate great evil. How is it that people just like us end up at the point where they engage in evil? Is it possible to understand how this happens? And what are the long term effects of evil? And how should we relate to those who engage in these evils? The Reader won't give you easy answers to these questions. But it will most certainly make you think about them.


Positive Review
'Winslet deserves an Oscar for her amazing performance.' - Jenni Miller/Premiere

Negative Review
'The shallowest "serious" film to be reeling this year.' - Matthew Sorrento/Film Threat

Content Advice
Scenes of nudity and sexuality


Sunday, March 08, 2009

Richard Dawkins for Cats

Richard Dawkins has recently published a new edition of his book, The God Delusion specifically for the cat community.


Source: Unknown

(This is, of course, a joke! — you'd be surprised at what some people believe.)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Book Review: The Blue Parakeet

Sometimes a book comes along that sweeps you off your feet with a strong breath of fresh air and forces you to rethink something that you thought you had worked out. Scot McKnight's book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible does exactly that. I love this book!

The blue parakeet that McKnight refers to comes from an experience he had in his back yard when a pet blue parakeet flew in and disrupted the normal social life of the birds usually inhabiting the area. The blue parakeet becomes a metaphor for Bible passages that disrupt our normal habitual approaches to reading the Bible and force us to reflect on whether they are appropriate. The "blue parakeet passages" are those like texts on the Sabbath, tithing, foot washing, charismatic gifts, and surrendering possessions. Or those that are related to contentious issues like evolution, Calvinism, war, abortion, and homosexuality.

McKnight describes the way in which Christians (all Christians), despite claims to believing and practicing all that the Bible says, actually pick and choose what we really take and apply. For example, many who claim that they practice what the Bible teaches about the Sabbath don't actually stone those who disregard it. In other words, they interpret the Bible in such a way as to not require themselves to practice all that the Bible actually says on a particular subject.

For McKnight, this raises the obvious question: How, then, are we to live out the Bible today? The "blue parakeet" passages of the Bible provide an opportunity for us to explore how we actually read it. These passages

... lead us deeper into thought... When we encounter blue parakeets in the Bible or in the questions of others, whether we think of something as simple as the Sabbath or foot washing or as complex and emotional as women in church ministries or homosexuality, we have to stop and think. Is this passage for today or not? Sometimes we hope the blue parakeets will go away... Or perhaps we shoo them away. Or perhaps we try to catch them and return them to their cage....

How we respond to passages and questions will determine if we become aware of what is going on or not. When chance encounters with blue parakeet passages in the Bible happen to come our way, we are given the opportunity to observe and learn. In such cases, we really do open ourselves to the thrill of learning how to read the Bible. But ... we have to get over our fears and learn to adjust to the squawks of the Bible's blue parakeets. We dare not tame them. (pp. 24-25)

McKnight discusses three ways that we commonly read the Bible and the advantages and disadvantages of each. All of the approaches he discusses entail us, the reader, trying to tame the Bible rather than letting the Bible be what it is — a story that requires us to listen  carefully and discern what it means to apply it to today. During the rest of the book, McKnight unpacks these three words:


For McKnight, '[t]hat's all we need to know. It's all in those three words. The next three parts look at each of these three words. First, McKnight demonstrates how the essential nature of the Bible is story. If we are to understand the Bible we must grapple with this essential nature of Scripture. We need to come to understand the overarching plot of all the individual 'wiki-stories' (as he calls the various sub-stories in all the various books of Scripture).

McKnight then moves to the nature of listening to the story arguing for a relational approach. Listening means listening to God speak via story with a missional approach. The key passages are 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and Psalm 119. The chapter on listening to Scripture is the most "theological" of the book.

Next comes the section on discerning the way in which what we hear in Scripture applies to today. For McKnight, as we examine a number of blue parakeet passages of Scripture, asking ourselves why we don't practice what the Bible actually says literally, we can uncover a pattern of discernment. The pattern of discernment is:

as we read the Bible and locate each item in its place in the Story, as we listen to God speak to us in our world through God's ancient Word, we discern—through God's Spirit and in the context of our community of faith—a pattern of how to live in our world. The church of every age is summoned by God to the Bible to listen so we can discern a pattern for living the gospel that is appropriate for our age. Discernment is part of the process we are called to live. (p. 129, emphasis in original)

This 'pattern of discernment' is at the heart of reading the Bible for McKnight. He believes that we operate on this principle most of the time but rarely make it explicit or admit that we are doing it.

In order to demonstrate how story, listening, and discernment can help us understand the application of Scripture today, the fourth part of the book explores a case study in rethinking how we read the Bible with women in ministries as the topic. And what a journey it is! Exploring this case study with McKnight is profoundly enlightening and exciting as his approach brings clarity to what is often fuzzy and confused.

For many of us, reading the Bible as Story will be new — particularly if we have been brought up in traditions that have emphasised mining the Bible for proof texts and propositions of truth out of context to build and defend our own humanly constructed systematic theologies, creeds, and statements of belief.

The Blue Parakeet is a powerful, engaging, easy-to-read, profound book that will, indeed, challenge you to rethink the way you read the Bible. I would say that it is one of the most important books you could read about reading Scripture. I agree with John Ortberg who wrote:

If you are interested in the Bible, or God, or your mind, or where these three might intersect, you will be blessed if you read this book. (back cover)

... and Phyllis Tickle, who declares this book to be

... far and away the best, gentlest, most intelligent argument [she has] ever read for the absolute necessity of embracing the Bible as story. (back cover)

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible is one of the best books I have ever read on how to read, understand, and apply the Bible in our lives today.