Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Godless

Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading AtheistsGodless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists by Dan Barker

I have mixed feelings about this book. Part 1 of the book entitled "Rejecting God" is the most interesting as it is the author's personal story of his journey from fundamentalist Christianity to atheism.

Part 2, "Why I am an atheist" is very dense and philosophical - and I appreciated some of Barker's arguments and critiques regarding God and the various arguments often offered for God's existence by Christian apologists - some of which are clearly wanting.

Part 3, "What's wrong with Christianity?", was the worst part of the book. It consists of a hurried survey through the Bible intended to prove that inerrantism is unsustainable (I agree that it isn't sustainable). But in this section Barker proof texts in much the same way as many fundamentalist Christians do - he gives almost no consideration to context (cultural, historical, or textual) unless it serves his purpose. For example, he criticises what he sees as the moral commands of the Beatitudes and doesn't realise that these are not moral commands. The context is Jesus blessing the marginalised oppressed group of people in front of him who were going through the experiences he was describing in each of the Beatitudes. While some Christians see the Beatitudes as a moral code, this is not the only way of reading the text. Baker's book fails in genuinely engaging with the text and sharing alternative perspectives with the reader. It is highly biased towards Baker's conclusions (which may not always be wrong but are not offered fair-mindedly).

Because Barker came from a fundamentalist background, he falls into the trap of treating the text of the Bible as a flat set of propositions. Apart from the fundamentalist, few educated Christians would take it that way. So this whole section of the book, in my opinion, would have been better left to another, more scholarly book, rather than plonked into this book in the way it is.

Part 4, "Life is Good!" becomes a boring listing of all the people Baker has met that he deems important to the atheist/humanist cause (it is hard to avoid thinking he is engaging in name-dropping) and events he has participated in. There are a few autobiographical stories that are of interest. His brief discussion on the scientific hypotheses for the origin of religion and his discussion of the basis of meaning and morality without God are worth reading but are overshadowed by the interminable minutiae of the rest of it.

In summary, Part 1 is worth reading to gain an insight into Baker's journey and what was going on inside his head as he struggled with the loss of his faith. I think there are other books that do a better job of the material in the other parts of the book. Baker needed a good editor to make this book shorter and more powerful.

Movie Review: Melancholia


Lars von Trier’s Melancholia would have to be the “deepest” most demanding movie in cinemas at the moment. The word melancholia refers to profound depression, apathy, and withdrawal. In the movie, it also refers to a planet that is about to collide with earth bringing the world to an end and to the experience of one of the main characters of the story, Justine (Kirsten Dunst).

The movie opens with a stunning series of slow motion scenes (snapshots of what is to come) to the music from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The images are surreal and dark and create a degree of anxiety with an impending sense of doom. Following this prologue, the rest of the movie is in two parts – Part 1 is “Justine” and Part 2 is “Claire”. These are two estranged sisters and the story of the impending end of the world is told by focusing on each of them in turn, comparing the way in which each of the sisters deal with the end of the world. The whole movie takes place in a mansion owned by Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), beginning in the first part with Justine’s wedding reception and, in the second part, with Claire caring for Justine as she descends into a profound depression. Justine’s depression begins in the first part of the film and traverses the second part until she begins to improve just before the end of the world occurs.

There are many layers to this film and many possible “readings” of the story. The director has, however, left those things to the viewer to work out – there is no preachiness, no exegesis, just superb storytelling that leaves us deep in contemplation when it is over.

Melancholia is ambitious in using a cosmic event to parallel Justine’s depression. Dunst is superb in her role and, as someone who has experienced a major depressive illness, I resonated with much that she portrayed as she descended into her private hell. Ultimately, for me, the film portrays the different ways that people might face the end of the world (and depression) – opting out before it happens (in the case of John), becoming fraught with anxiety (in the case of Claire), or facing it head on with calm acceptance for what it is (in the case of Justine).

The end of the world is stunningly portrayed by von Trier. There is no cliché, no sensationalism, no “Hollywood” happy resolution. In fact, there is nothing clichéd about this movie at all. It is deeply courageous film making and will, therefore, not suit every viewer. It is tough to watch; patience is required as some parts move slowly; there are nuances to observe; and the subject matter is bleak and confronting.

Apparently, the idea of this movie grew out of von Trier’s own depression while he was in therapy. He came to understand that depressed people could, in the face of impending doom, act with rationality. Because of their experience managing depression, they could perhaps deal with this sort of event better than others (see Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald for more on this).

God and/or religion is nowhere to be found in this movie. This is the end – that’s all there is. For many Christians, this will be an omission that is significant for them. Most Christians cannot conceive of people dealing with depression or obliteration without God. But they do – and often with ultimate peace and tranquillity. (Feel free to comment on this issue in the comments area below!)  Melancholia is a stunning piece of moviemaking – except it is a bit long and slow in the second half. If you want to bypass the superficial fare of the holiday period, check this one out!


You will probably enjoy this movie if you liked Solaris, The Tree of Life, The Virgin Suicides, or The Antichrist.

Positive Review
'Leave it to von Trier to conceive an intergalactic sci-fi metaphor for a psychological disorder – and then make it work so astonishingly well.’ – Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald

Negative Review
'Melancholia is his latest pile of undiluted drivel, nauseatingly filmed by a wonky hand-held camera and featuring a crazy, mismatched ensemble headed by Kirsten Dunst, who won an acting award in Cannes last year for looking totally catatonic.’ – Rex Reed/New York Observer

Content Advice
some graphic nudity,sexual content and language

Friday, December 23, 2011

Book Review: Heaven is For Real

Heaven is for real

Right up front, let me say that I think Todd Burpo’s book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back is one of the most naive, superficial, and disturbing “Christian” books I’ve read for a long time.

In brief, the book purports to tell of a 4 year old’s journey to heaven during a surgical procedure for a severe ruptured appendix. Following the procedure, and over a period of months and years, Colton, Todd’s son, gradually “revealed” bits and pieces of his alleged journey to heaven. Here’s what he “discovered” and/or “experienced” on his journey:

  • angels sang to him while he was in hospital
  • he was sitting on Jesus’ lap while he was in heaven
  • while in heaven, he saw his father praying in a small room in the hospital and his mother in a different room talking on the phone and praying
  • he met John the Baptist in heaven
  • Jesus has a rainbow coloured horse and wears a golden crown with a pink diamond
  • he was given “homework” to do in heaven while he was being cared for by his deceased grandfather – Pop
  • everyone in heaven has wings and flies around from place to place – except for Jesus who who levitates up and down like an elevator
  • everyone in heaven has a light above their heads (Todd Burpo interprets this in the book as a halo)
  • God is ‘really, really big’ and is so big he holds the world in his hands
  • Jesus sits at the right hand of God, Gabriel sits on God’s left, and the Holy Spirit is “kind of blue” and sits somewhere in the vicinity of the other three.
  • the gates of heave are made of gold and pearls
  • after Colton’s return to earth, he became obsessed with rainbows because of the incredible number of colours he saw in heaven
  • at times, following his return from heaven, Colton saw ‘power shot down from heaven’ while his dad was preaching
  • there are swords  and bows and arrows in heaven that the angels use to keep Satan out of heaven
  • the weaponry described above will apparently be used in a coming battle that destroys the world – and Colton’s dad will be fighting in that battle
  • the final battle will be against actual dragons and monsters while the women and children stand and watch the men fighting them
  • he meets ‘a sister’ in heaven – who was lost through miscarriage by the mother years before – and which the parents claim they never spoke to Colton about
  • he claimed to see Satan in heaven but wouldn’t say what he looked like
  • and he described what Jesus looked like, comparing people’s ideas of Jesus in their artworks as not right, until he was shown a painting of Christ by Akiane Kramarik which he said got the picture of Jesus right

There are a few more “revelations” in the book, but these are the essential ones. And all this was discovered in 3 minutes in heaven!

There are a number of reasons one should be highly sceptical of this book. Firstly, Colton was just 4 years old when he began to talk about his experience mostly prompted by his father – except for the first of his comments about the angels singing to him when he was having his surgery. Four year old children are renowned for making up stories and not being able, at this age, to distinguish fantasy from reality. After all, many children have imaginary friends and use their imagination constantly in making up stories while engaging in play. It would seem that the parents are still thinking like four year olds if they take what their kid says as literally true!

Secondly, why so many months and years for the story to develop – with the prompting of the parents? Surely if a child visited heaven they’d come back and be talking about it excitedly all at once – at least to start with. Haven’t we all heard children bubble over with enthusiasm after having an exciting experience? Not Colton. He doesn’t even mention it until he happens to say something about where his parents were during his operation. But given that it takes years for his whole “story” to come out, one has to wonder how much of it was constructed in response to his father’s questioning.

Thirdly, the “information” provided by Colton is so obviously consistent with an evangelical fundamentalist view that it is not hard to see it has being informed by this culture as he grew up. Colton’s father is a pastor and he admits to reading Bible stories to Colton as he grew up. He would have attended Sunday School and  been exposed to all the detail he has described even if unconsciously. It’s not surprising that his description of heaven draws on that culture.

Fourthly, Colton’s father holds to a literalist reading of the biblical Book of Revelation which most people quite rightly understand to be highly symbolic and figurative. Colton describes things like swords and horses (rainbow coloured, no less, obviously similar to the children’s Rainbow Brite toy!) in heaven and his father believes they are truly in heaven because verses in Revelation confirm it! So does Colton’s father believe there is really a slain lamb/lion creature actually there too?

Fifthly, if Colton’s descriptions of God on thrones with angels using swords to keep Satan out of heaven are to be taken literally, then God has been caught in an Old Testament era time warp. Are they really suggesting that God has eternally sat on thrones, ridden horses, fought with swords against real dragons? Most biblical scholars (and most Christians) would have a much more mature view of these issues than the childish view that Colton and his parents have. But then, of course, according to this book, we are to become like little children in our faith and just accept all this stuff without question.

Finally, the idea that Colton has told them a few things that he just couldn’t have known about is highly unlikely. Church communities are renowned gossiping communities and it is much more reasonable to assume that he heard some of these things than to believe they are supernaturally revealed.

There’s a lot more that could be said about this book. But the above will do. Heaven is for Real is simplistic, superficial, and naive. The most disturbing thing about this book is that it has become so popular – which doesn’t say much for the people that swallow it whole without a second thought – even to the extent of stating that they have had their faith strengthened by it. If this is all it takes to reaffirm faith then, to my mind, that faith is pretty fickle.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Book Review: Surprised by Oxford

I was pleasantly surprised by Carolyn Weber's memoir Surprised by Oxford. I enjoyed it to such a degree that I had to keep reading. Carolyn, who comes from a loving but broken home and is highly averse to religion, heads to Oxford to study literature. While there, she meets all sorts of wonderful (and not so wonderful) people, engages in conversation, and is challenged by what she learns about Christianity from a friend who breaks the stereotypes she has held about believers.

The writing is a bit disjointed at times but the author uses language beautifully and describes Oxford University in ways which made me want to study there. She also shares her gradual and subtle journey from agnosticism towards Christianity. This journey sometimes includes a few cliched responses to questions that are issues for Christians but, on the whole, does not dominate the narrative.

To begin with, I wondered whether my interest could be sustained for over 400 daunting pages. But it was. With evocative descriptions of Oxford, reference to classical writers and poets, delightful turns of phrases, a bit of romance, it makes for a genuinely fresh reading experience. It's the sort of book you can relax with and be carried along on a gentle journey of delightfully meditative reflections. Beautifully honest and insightful.

Click here to learn more at Amazon: Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book Review: The God Debates

John Shook's The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and everyone in between) is a stunning addition to the sometimes highly volatile contemporary arguments over God that are so prominent. The author takes a serious in-depth look at just about every argument used by apologists of religion (particularly Christian) and teases them apart, describing how they are constructed, and uncovering the many flaws that make them ineffective.

Shook categorizes arguments for God in the following way:

  • Theology from the scripture - arguments for God based on special revelation and apologetics
  • Theology from the world - arguments for God derived from the natural world, morality, human experience, and human analogy
  • Theology beyond the world - cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, and arguments from the laws of nature
  • Theology in the know - Reformed epistemology, foundationalism
  • Theology into the myst - arguments based in mysticism, relativism, existentialism, and scriptural interpretation
In a section dealing with each of these categories, Shook describes the various arguments and ruthlessly analyses them and evaluates their validity - and most (if not all) of them fall short in terms of their evidence and/or logic. The final chapter presents a summary of where the God debates are now. He describes 12 modern worldviews and presents them in a diagram showing how each relates to the ones next to it and differs radically from those opposite. I've reproduced the diagram here: 

After surveying each of these and their contributions to the relationship to faith and reason - the big question in the God debates - he argues that the best possibilities for the future development of ethical principles will come from humanism - not secular or religious humanism but ethical humanism. Based on reason and experience and without the what Shook sees as the flawed supernaturalism of religious apologetics, Shook sees ethical humanism as the providing the most hope for grounding of morality in a secular culture.

The God Debates is excellent reading and both Christian apologists and atheists will benefit from this comprehensive analysis. Christian apologists will see how inadequate most of the arguments for God's existence are flawed and the challenges they need to meet if they are going to be persuasive - a very difficult task indeed. And atheists will see a model of scholarly dialogue that avoids the emotive rhetoric of the so-called "New Atheists". They will also gain a deeper understanding of the structure of religious apologetics.

The God Debates is must reading for thinking Christians and thinking atheists. It sets a standard for future dialogue around the existence and nature of God and the role of faith and reason in developing a moral framework for those who do not believe in a supernatural being. It will be challenging for both - but, in particular, Christians (and other religions) are going to have to work very hard to sustain a belief in God in the face of this author's critique. I'll be looking forward to the responses of Christian apologists to this one!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Book Review: God Without Religion

Andrew Farley has followed up his previous book, The Naked Gospel, with another brilliant turn in God Without Religion. Farley has the gift of making profound things simple - and nothing is more in need of simplifying than religious teaching about the gospel that persists in keeping Christians in bondage.

The central point of God Without Religion is that Christians now live under the New Covenant which has jettisoned the Mosaic Law and replaced it with a new ethical foundation in the gospel of grace soaked in the power of the Holy Spirit. For Farley, many Christians have not grasped the freedom they have in Christ. They are bound up (the original meaning of the term from which religion is derived) in the oppressive belief that the have to keep the at least some of the Old Testament laws.

Of course, many will object to this message of grace plus nothing and frequently appeal to NT passages about behavior, law, and obedience. But one of Farley's gifts is to exegete Scripture and he looks at these common passages, teasing out there actual meaning in their literary and historical contexts. His explanations are clear, simple, and penetrating and I often sat breathless as I wondered why I hadn't seen these things before.

If you are living a religion that insists on defining rules or laws for you that you must live by then you must read this book. St Paul, in Galatians 5, provocatively drives home the fact that the whole point of Christ's ministry was to bring freedom. And the only way to live as a Christian is to live by the Spirit - not by being lashed to the Mosaic Law. As Farley points out, the law can only provoke us to sin. It was never intended as a tool for Christians to live their lives by. The fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, and so on) are produced in us quite separate from law.

God Without Religion is a stunning second book from Farley. He uses analogies and stories to good effect; he makes the Bible come alive; and he makes controversial issues, that have plagued the church, practical and relevant. Get this book without delay and come to know God without religion.

Book details: Farley, Andrew (2011). God Without Religion. Baker Books.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Movie Review: Red State (2011)

red stateSex, religion, politics. Take these three ingredients and mix them together and you get one hell of an explosion!

In Red State, a group of teenage boys find an internet invitation for sex in a local location. Not believing their luck, they set out to take advantage of their opportunity only to find themselves drugged and kidnapped by an extreme fundamentalist Christian sect. The members of this sect have an intense antipathy to the way the world is spiralling down into moral oblivion – manifested especially by rampant sexual promiscuity and the evils of homosexuality being accepted in society. And they are doing something about it. Their worship service involves bringing God’s judgment to the wayward sinners in their midst after a rousing sermon from the Grand-daddy of the family sect. On their way to their sexual encounter, the three teenagers accidentally side swipe a police officer’s car and the officer tries to track them down – ultimately bringing them into conflict with the sect. The ATF (Burea of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) are called in and political decisions are made to wipe out the sect with fire power.

If all this sounds reminiscent of certain historical events (like Waco, Texas and David Koresh) then you’d be right. But Kevin Smith (Clerks) has brought us an over-the-top horror-thriller that contains too much truth for comfort. It tellingly portrays contemporary tensions between religion and politics that so often centre around aspects of sex, particularly in America. The basic point is that neither religion nor government really know how to communicate and handle each other and when they come together it creates a tinder box of dangerous attitudes that have serious consequences.

Red State is very violent in making its point – but religion and governments have resorted to violence to try to “manage” their agendas. If you are at all squeamish – better not to see this one. If you do see it, you are in for a very confronting experience that will have you thinking deeply for a long time.

The acting is top-notch, especially Michael Parks as the sect leader and John Goodman as the ATF officer. The story is riveting and suspenseful. And watching it is like being tied to the tracks in the face of an oncoming train. Kevin Smith, the writer and director, has stated that this film is not a comedy (as many of his other films are) and that ‘[i]t’s a nasty-ass $4 million horror flick with few (if any) redeeming characters.’ The movie was shot in 25 days and it has a rawness about it as a result. Interestingly, there is no actual soundtrack to the film. The music you hear is all in the film itself. So what you see and hear is what there is.

One of the most disturbing moments (actually more than 10 minutes) is a sermon preached by the sect leader. You don’t hear many “speeches” in movies that go for this length of time. But this one punches below the belt. As you listen to it, you suddenly realise that the things we’re hearing are actually being said by individuals and groups in our society. And they form the basis of the horror that follows in the story.

Red State is already controversial and is receiving highly mixed reviews – it looks like critics either love or hate it. Essentially, Red State is, as Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter has said, ‘A potent cinematic hand grenade tossed to bigots everywhere.’

Go see it if you dare.


Positive Review
'Red State is as profane and anti-establishment as any of his other films, but the stakes are infinitely higher this time: This Kevin Smith movie has an astonishing body count.' – Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald

Negative Review
'Ugly characterizations and simplistic preachiness negate the terror in Red State - a film that eventually proves horrific in ways unintended by writer/director Kevin Smith.' – Nick Schager/Boxoffice Magazine

Content Advice
strong violence/disturbing content, some sexual content including brief nudity, and pervasive language.

AUS: MA15+

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Movie Review: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an almost spiritual experience as we enter into the life and times of ancient humans through cave paintings that are 32,000 or more years old. Using 3D technology we are taken into the Chauvet Caves of Southern France - a rare opportunity as no one else has been allowed to film in the caves.
The caves were discovered in 1994 by a group of scientists. They contain the oldest known human drawings and represent a remarkable cultural and historical find. The French government immediately realized the value of the find and sealed the caves, only allowing a small group of paleontologists and archeologists annual access to its treasures. Access is extremely constrained and small non-professional cameras with limited lighting only were allowed on the first visit. On the second, state of the art 3D cameras were used allowing the rich texture of these paintings to be shared. It is awe-inspiring to think that over 30,000 years ago someone was painting these drawings illustrating the animals and birds that were part of their world and telling stories that we now are "hearing". But we can know very little even though what has been preserved is in pristine condition. Just to enter the caves in 3D is enough though. In places it is like a cathedral and the experience, along with the haunting music of the soundtrack, provides a humbling meditative experience.
At times, the commentary is a little over interpretive and the post-script is excessively hyperbolic to the point of almost spoiling the mood of the film. The film could be shortened by cutting some of the extraneous material. But overall it provides a rare opportunity.
For some Christians, certain difficult questions will immediately arise (and most likely quickly avoided or rationalized away). Specifically, those Christians who believe in a very young earth need to deal with the fact that these paintings are over 32,000 years old and some of them even older than that. More and more evidence mounts for a very old earth and for a chronology of human history that just doesn't fit with a literalistic reading of the Old Testament. None of these issues are mentioned in the documentary but a thinking Christian will inevitably need to deal with the implications of the facts.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a simple film on one level. But the 3D immerses us into what soon feels like a real visit to these caves. I recommend the visit - particularly in view of the fact that very few people will ever get to actually step inside this monumental discovery.
Positive Review
'Director Werner Herzog's latest cinematic mind trip blows you away with its beauty' - Joe Neumaier/New York Daily News
Negative Review
'Cave of Forgotten Dreams feels stuck in a middling zone of too much conjecture and not enough scholarship.' - Joshua Rothkopf/Time Out New York

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book Review: The Book That Made Your World

Vishal Mangalwadi's The Book That Made Your World is an ambitious undertaking that is also deeply flawed. Mangalwadi’s thesis is concisely summarised in the Foreword to the book written by J Stanley Mattson:

‘[Mangalwadi’s] arduous research establishes the fact that the Bible and its worldview, contrary to current prevailing opinion, combined to serve as the single most powerful force in the emergence of Western civilization.’

In over 400 pages, Mangalwadi provides a sweeping series of historical narratives, entwined with his own personal experiences in India and the United States, which argue that features of Western civilization would not have occurred if it hadn’t been for the Bible. His outline of history includes the development of the valuing of humans as being higher than animals; the commitment to rationality; creative technology and its benefits; the formation of the concept of heroism based in humility and service; and the dramatic impact of the translation of the Bible into various languages. He also argues that literature, universities, and science would not have formed in the way they did without the Bible. For the author, the West is the best because of its higher ideals regarding morality, the family, compassion, true wealth, and liberty that transcend all other cultures because of the Bible’s influence. Ultimately, Mangalwadi wants to call the West back to a commitment to the Bible and its worldview to reverse what he sees as a rapid decline in relativistic morality and its consequential nihilism that results in despair. At the beginning of the book, the author holds up Kurt Cobain as an icon of modern culture arguing that his suicide was one of the rare occurrences when a nihilist genuinely followed through on their beliefs. Mangalwadi believes that this is the ultimate end of the West if it does not return to the Bible and its worldview.

There is no doubt that Mangalwadi is a good writer and very widely read. The fact that he is Indian and can make a comparison, from experience, between East and West provides for an interesting perspective. And his stories from his experience give a personal dimension that mostly enhances the history and philosophy that he surveys.

But there are some serious flaws in Mangalwadi’s argument. Firstly, reducing the entire development of the West to the influence of the Bible and its worldview is simplistic. While I am no historian, I am always suspicious when a single cause is offered for something. The world and history is surely more complex than that. For example, when he talks about the development of the wheeled plough, he argues that it only happened because of the biblical belief that toil was sinful (whereas work was part of God’s original creation). But as another reviewer has pointed out, farmers who are making a living from their work are surely going to look for more efficient ways of doing their work even if they did not subscribe to a “biblical” worldview! Mangalwadi also completely ignores a range of other influencing factors on the development of Western civilisation – the occurrence of plagues, growth in population, and a host of other historical events. For Mangalwadi everything is the result of the Bible and the adoption of its world view.

Secondly, Mangalwadi speaks of the worldview of the Bible. There is no acknowledgement in the book that the Bible has been the basis of multiple interpretations and “world views”. Mangalwadi presents what might be called the best of the Bible and the best examples of socio-cultural examples based on the Bible. But he fails to mention that the Bible has, for many people, been the basis of some very bad practices and used in support of genocide, slavery, and the “raping” of the environment.

Thirdly, Mangalwadi doesn’t mention any countries that have been successful without a basis in biblical theology or world view such as Japan and Singapore. How did they develop so well without a commitment to the Bible? And what about countries based firmly on a secular philosophy such as Sweden?

Fourthly, Mangalwadi completely dismisses any other religion or worldview has having much of value. But there is no sustained engagement with any of these alternatives. According to one Buddhist scholar who reviewed this book, Mangalwadi actually misrepresents Buddhism.

Overall, The Book That Changed Your World is an uncritical exposition of history. There are sweeping generalisations without any evidence being provided, selective use of the biblical text (on some occasions, no biblical evidence at all), and the equating of a romanticised view of the Bible (which is not as even in its presentation of God as Mangalwadi implies) that completely ignores the fact that Christians are just as prone to many of the social evils of our time as non-Christians (eg, teen pregnancy, divorce, domestic violence, child abuse).

In the end, The Book That Changed Your World is a work of apologetics rather than a scholarly and critical look at the relationship between the Bible and the development of Western culture. There is no doubt that the Bible has been influential – for good and for ill. While Mangalwadi’s book makes for an interesting read, it takes a too uncritical approach to history and the Bible to make it reliable. If one already believes that the Bible is solely responsible for the best in civilisation then this book will bolster that belief. But for a well-informed, educated believer, the evidence won’t be adequate to support the thesis as it is presented.

Acknowledgement: I found Jeff Swanson’s review very helpful, in particular, in parts of this review. I recommend it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Movie Review: The Ledge

the ledge

The Ledge is a flawed but legitimate attempt to tell a story exploring the relationship between faith and reason – from an atheist perspective.

The story opens with Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) standing on a ledge on a tall building clearly planning to jump. Hollis (Terrence Howard) is the police officer in charge of talking Gavin down. In a series of flashbacks, we find out that Gavin has been having an affair with Shauna (Liv Tyler) who is married to Joe (Chris Wilson). Shauna and Joe are fundamentalist Christians. The mystery is what has brought Gavin to the ledge willing to jump – and it is not what you might think it is.

The writer and director, Matthew Chapman, to his credit, wrote the script and planned the movie determined to do it the way he wanted to – fully expecting not to have the movie made because of that. But it got made and it provides for thought provoking viewing even if it is somewhat amateurish in its execution.

The major problem with the movie is that it has a “preachy” flavour like so many Christian movies that offer black and white answers for complex questions. The dialogue is forced and some of the acting is artificial, although Wilson and Howard just about rescue the film with their interpretations of their characters.

Another flaw is that both the fundamentalist Christians and the atheist characters are too simplistic. The film overall is too dogmatic in its view of both and does not reflect the nuanced best of these antagonistic views. The premise of the story is brilliant and it had the potential to be a very profound piece of cinema. But, as Chapman has indicated in an interview I heard on Point of Inquiry, he wanted this to be an explicit argument from an atheist perspective. And that is what it is – an overt argument about faith and reason with cardboard stereotypes and simplistic reasoning. The “philosophical” agenda of the writer has overshadowed the story and made creative writing and professional production a secondary concern.

As a vehicle to stimulate some discussion around a number of issues, the movie has some value and there is a certain level of entertainment. But given the movie had such well known stars and was clearly backed by commercial support it is surprisingly amateurish. And the “winning” side of the argument is rigged from the beginning by comparing the best of atheism with the worst of Christianity – a poor thinking move itself.

For me, the most significant theme in the movie is whether people need God (or a belief in some external authoritative revelation of morality) in order to live good lives. I get very frustrated when I hear some Christians saying how atheists cannot have a system of moral values because they don’t believe in God. Clearly, many atheists do. They have reasons for living well and, sometimes, those reasons are based more in a care for humanity itself than some Christians who seem to merely be obeying the laws of God (as they define them) to avoid God’s displeasure. The gospel of grace subscribed to by most Christians should free them from serving for any other reason than love for fellow humans. And there is absolutely no reason to think that an atheist cannot do that.


Positive Review
'Chapman coaxes good performances from his cast, especially Wilson, who makes Joe's immense conflicts a matter of empathy as much as abhorrence.' – Peter Rainer/Christian Science Monitor

Negative Review
'There's nothing wrong with establishing a field of unlikable characters, but The Ledge not only relies on paper-thin stereotypes, it keeps its allegiances clear from the beginning.' – Jesse Cataldo/Slant Magazine

Content Advice
sexuality, language and some violent content


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Movie Review: The Tree of Life

the-tree-of-life-movie-posterOne of the most agonizing experiences in life is crying out for meaning in the face of suffering and loss of innocence – and getting no answer from God or the universe. In the face of silence to our questions, what gives meaning to life? Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life tackles this most profound of questions.

Set in the 1950s, we follow Jack, one of three brothers, as he moves from the marvellous innocence of childhood to the loss of that innocence following his troubled relationship with his father (Brad Pitt), experience of sickness, suffering, and death, and into adulthood (Sean Penn) as he works in a competitive concrete jungle business world where the self is the only thing that matters.

The Meaning of Life is a very unusual movie. The narrative is minimal and much of the 2 hours and 19 minutes consists of impressionistic cinematography around our universe and on our earth. The experience of the story’s protagonists are almost overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe’s history from its birth to its death – once again not told in linear form but rather in frenetically wonderful glimpses that are thematically related and which build to an experience of awe-fullness in which human life is reduced to near triviality. The overall experience of the film is one of meditation and humility as Jack struggles to answer the big questions of human existence. An answer is provided at the end of the movie – there is a meaning to life – but depending on your current point of view, you may or may not agree with it. I won’t reveal it here because it will have more impact if you discover it in the ambiguity of this stunning meditation.

Many Christians provide inadequate and insipid answers to the why questions when it comes to suffering. They appeal to nonsense like ‘God has a plan for your life’; ‘This was meant to be’; or ‘We will understand the meaning of our suffering in heaven’. All of these are inadequate and, for many Christians who cry out to God in their darkest moments, become downright offensive when there is no response from God to our cries – a God that is supposed to love and care for us. It may be that this film provides the answer – whether we are Christian or atheist, religious or secular.

The Meaning of Life is definitely not a mainstream film. Don’t go to see it just because your favourite film stars are in it – you’ll be disappointed. When it was shown in an Italian cinema over one week, the first two reels of the movie were accidentally switched and no one noticed – attributing the result to the director’s editing style. In some American cinemas, signs were posted warning cinema goers ‘about the enigmatic and non-linear narrative of the movie – following some confused walkouts and refund demands in the opening weeks.’ (IMDB) That should give you an idea of the nature of this film. As one reviewer has described it, The Tree of Life is a ‘total sensory immersion’ film.

But if you are willing to immerse yourself in an almost unfathomable meditation that takes patience, courage, and perseverance to survive nearly 2 and a half hours of ambiguity and slow exploration, there is much to be pondered. The Meaning of Life reminded me of the book of Job in the Old Testament (the movie opens with a quote from the book) – except The Meaning of Life proffers a different answer and one which may be more satisfying to some. Near the beginning of the film, we are told that ‘there are two ways through life, the way of nature, and the way of grace, and we have to choose which way to follow’. If you dare to experience a completely different type of movie – go and see it and make up your mind which way you will choose.


Positive Review
'There is simply nothing like it out there: profound, idiosyncratic, complex, sincere and magical; a confirmation that cinema can aspire to art.' – Ian Nathan/Empire

Negative Review
'Glibly put, this challenging time-skipping rumination is the big screen equivalent of watching that "Tree" grow.' – Roger Moore/Orlando Sentinel

Content Advice
Thematic material

USA: PG-13

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Book Review: The Australian Book of Atheism

I've read a few books written by atheists in the last few years and have been mostly unimpressed with them. Some have been so dismissive of theism, often with unnecessary and disrespectful amounts of cheap sarcasm and insults, that they have lost my respect for them. Some have not demonstrated any accurate understanding of theism and others have made poor use of theistic sources in their critiques. But The Australian Book of Atheism is a whole different matter. It is respectful, intelligent, scholarly, and (mostly) objective.

Edited by Warren Bonnett, The Australian Book of Atheism is a collection of papers roughly categorized into themes and written by prominent Australians who are all atheists. The first section presents an overview of atheism in Australia. This section consists of three chapters covering a brief history of atheism/atheists in Australia and discussions of the relationship of atheism to the Australian Constitution and the law.

Part 2 offers the reader six personal perspectives on atheism which make excellent reading for anyone who genuinely wants to understand why many people see theism as impoverished and have chosen to reject claims in god, gods, God, or the supernatural.

Part 3 focuses on education and discusses the role and relationship of religion in education, up to date exploration of the controversial presence of chaplains in public schools, issues around evolution and creationism, whether intelligent design "theory" can be considered science, and a comparison between philosophy and theology.

The next section turns its attention to social and cultural issues such as the challenge of fundamentalism, debates on euthanasia and abortion, an argument for gods being human invention, the rise of "spiritualism" in modern culture, and social attitudes to death and dying. There's a particularly interesting chapter on the so-called Progressive Christianity movement.

Section 5 focuses on the political with an outstanding, wickedly funny, but profoundly serious argument as to why "God is a bloke". There is a highly informative chapter on the role of the Exclusive Brethren sect in Australian politics - something that many readers may know little, if anything, about. There is also some important material on why a secular society would ensure religious (and other) freedom rather than one based on religious grounds.

In Section 6 a number of writers explore philosophical issues including whether there is a basis for morality without God, atheism as a spiritual path, the creation of meaning in the absence of a belief in God, and the relationship between religion and violence.

The final section explores the biological basis of religious experience in a careful and scholarly manner. Finally, there is a brief appendix that outlines the financial cost of promoting religion in Australia through taxes and other government allocations of money.

I've outlined the contents of The Australian Book of Atheism to give an idea of now wide-ranging this collection is. And even then it only scratches the surface of possible topics! In my view, this book is essential reading for theists and atheists alike for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is an excellent example of good quality writing on a highly contentious topic. It is engaging, scholarly, respectful, honest, and stimulatingly provocative.

Secondly, Christians would benefit from hearing atheists speak for themselves rather than, as so many do, consume apologetic material against atheism which frequently casts atheists as evil, "of the Devil", or, at best, completely ignorant. The contributors include those who have always seen themselves as atheist, some who have converted from some form of Christianity, and some who have never been faced with a moment of choice because of their upbringing. A Christian reading this book would be hard pressed to construe atheists negatively. They might even realize that atheists can have a strong sense of moral obligation, and live happy and meaningful lives. So, if nothing else, a Christian who courageously decides to read it despite possible warnings from their spiritual leaders will gain a more accurate picture of what many atheists really think and believe.

Thirdly, I'm sure that many atheists will find much of benefit in reading this volume. For some it will provide reasons for strengthening a commitment to atheism and a framework for developing a moral framework based on rationalist/humanist grounds. It will also provide insights into the status of religion in Australian life and culture. And, perhaps more importantly, it provides a wonderful example of good conversation with others about beliefs.

Christians reading this review will undoubtedly wonder why I haven't criticized the book for its rejection of God as a real being. How can I be so positive about a book that strikes so deeply at the heart of a Christian world view? There are a number reasons in addition to the above:

  1. It's a very good read! While some may fond patches of dryness, there's enough variety of writers and writing that everyone will find something of interest. And the writing is good writing.
  2. Other (Christian) writers have written tomes of material arguing against atheism and for theism. I direct the reader to those if they wish to read arguments against the ideas in this book. But be careful - apologetic material varies hugely in it's quality and rigor.
  3. One of the things I find most offensive is Christians arguing against positions they are ignorant about. In my opinion, a person who wishes to criticize another position should earn that right by demonstrating they fully understand that position. From my perspective, reading The Australian Book of Atheism would be a good start if a Christian wants a good, reliable introduction to atheist thinking.

Do I have any criticisms of the book? Not really. I'm a bit uncomfortable with the contribution by Tanya Levin, the author of People in Glass Houses, who seems to have a chip on her shoulder (judging by her own book and interviews I have seen of her). Sometimes emotion seems to overshadow objectivity. But this is a very minor criticism. And for some readers outside of Australia, there may be some irrelevancy given that much of it addresses the Australian context. Overall, The Australian Book of Atheism is an excellent addition to the dialogue on religion and atheism.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Movie Review: Mrs Carey's Concert

We sometimes may wonder whether some kids will amount to much but Mrs Carey's Concert shows what motivation, inspiration, tenacity, and confidence in kids can produce.
Mrs Carey is the music principle of a Sydney girls' School. Every two years she organizes a school concert for the Sydney Opera House with the Year 11 and 12 students. In involves sophisticated classical voice and instrumental/orchestral music - and what a concert it is!
The documentary starts some months before the concert and follows the development of the students up to the night of the concert. The development is much more than musical ability. It includes emotional and psychological development with a number of students exposing themselves bravely to the cameras. One of the most interesting is Iris who doesn't want to be involved and the end of her "journey" comes as a surprise. Then there's Emily who plays a solo piece with all the emotional stress that comes with standing in front of a large audience when she is usually a retiring individual.
Knowing the journey of all the kids involved in the concert adds intensity to the climactic, spine tingling performances.
If you're interested interested in music or child development, make sure you check this movie out - you'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

x-men first class

With X-Men: First Class this Marvel Comics franchise has had new life breathed into it.

The story takes us back to the origins of the X-Men beginning in 1944 Poland as Erik Lehnsherr (later to become Magneto played by Michael Fassbender) witnesses his mother being shot by a Nazi scientist (Sebastian Shaw played by Kevin Bacon) who is trying to force Erik to demonstrate his telekinetic powers. At the same time, in Westchester County, New York, young Charles Xavier (later Professor X played by James McAvoy) meets Raven the shape-shifting girl disguised as his mother and is overjoyed to discover that he is not alone as a “mutant” after he exposes her. As the story progresses, Charles and Sebastian, who have different approaches to dealing with their status as mutants, move towards each other in a dramatic showdown as Shaw tries to spark a world war that will result in the dominance of mutants over the rest of humanity.

First Class is a refreshing re-envisioning of a franchise that was becoming tired and losing its way. The story is a little too long at over two hours but is mostly well-paced with a story that does a great job of tying into the rest of the series. There are a lot of characters and only a few of them are richly drawn as there is not enough screen time for many of them. The best are Charles Xavier and Magneto. There is lots of action that is well directed and the special effects are mind-blowing.

One aspect of the movie I particularly liked was the weaving of actual historical events into the story – although I was a little discomforted with the potential to trivialise them (eg, the Holocaust and Cuban Missile Crisis) by being associated with a comic superhero story. But the integration is quite well done. There is also some subtle commentary on contemporary issues (like the idea that security should override freedom of the individual) making it a little deeper and richer than some action movies. And there is some witty humour that evokes a laugh here and there.

Despite its few flaws it is an enjoyable and entertaining move. If you are an X-Men fan you won’t be disappointed.


Positive Review
'After undergoing some unfortunate mutations in recent years, a beleaguered Marvel movie property gets the smart, stylish prequel it deserves in X-Men: First Class.’ – Justin Chang/Variety

Negative Review
'A cameo from an old-school X-Man only serves to remind how stylish and witty the first installment was a decade ago. Lacking a single memorable joke or striking image, First Class is as perfunctory and passionless as would-be franchise resurrections get.’ – Karina Longworth/Village Voice

Content Advice
intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language

USA: PG-13

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Proclaim - Church Presentation Software

Here's an interesting piece of software, shortly to be released, that allows the production of presentations in churches using internet cloud-based technology. Check out the video below to see a brief presentation. You can sign up to be notified when free trials become available.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What is Your World View?

Here's an interesting little quiz that attempts to identify your world view based on a series of questions.
Make sure you realise it's limitations as there are certain assumptions behind some of the questions (eg, what does the quiz author mean by 'spirituality'?). But it's an interesting exercise. My world view, according to the results of taking the quiz, is postmodern. It is true that I do consider some aspects of postmodernism to be legitimate - but for much I have a modified view.
The quiz is fun and thought provoking - click here to give it a go!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Movie Review: Oranges and Sunshine


Oranges and Sunshine is an extraordinary movie of a modern day humble hero – Margaret Humphreys – who uncovered a horrendous secret shared by the governments of the UK, Australia, and Canada until 2010.

Margaret (Emma Watson) was a social worker in Nottingham who accidentally uncovered the organised mass deportation of more than 130,00 children to Australia as late as 1970. These children, who were given into care by single mothers who were ashamed to publicly acknowledge they had a child out of marriage, were told their mothers had died and that they would be better off starting a new life in Australia – a land of oranges and sunshine. Until Mrs Humphreys started to delve into the case of one of these children who came to her for help in finding her mother, this mass “migration” program was not publicly known. Working against incredible odds including threats on her life and government resistance, Margaret persisted and exposed one of the most embarrassing cover-ups of our age.

Oranges and Sunshine is a compelling, moving story told without sensationalism. While the movie, at one point, feels like it is going to get bogged down, it quickly recovers and carries the viewer on an emotional journey that leaves us speechless that such a thing could happen in a civilised society. These children were used as slave labour, abused, and suffered the loss of their identities with no concern for their welfare – although it was all done in the name of helping. Emma Watson is very good as the social worker thrust into this journey and she is well-supported by great Australian actors Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. I initially thought that using well-known actors would spoil the power of the story – but it wasn’t long before I forgot that as I was caught in the web of the story.

There may be some flaws in the movie – but these flaws should be overlooked and everyone should see this incredible story which demonstrates that even our own “civilised” societies can easily fall into rationalised evil in the name of good. Don’t miss it.


Opens in Australia on 9 June.

Book Review: Breaking the Spell

Daniel C Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is a book that every person interested in religion should read. It’s been on my reading list for some time but I have, of course, heard a lot about it before opening its pages. Christian critics, in particular, have labelled Dennett’s approach to religion/spirituality as reductionist and his argument based on the already discredited idea of the meme proposed by Richard Dawkins. But a good deal of the critiques I have read have quite plainly misunderstood what Dennett is on about.

In his book, Dennett wishes to achieve two aims:

Firstly, he wishes to argue that religion should be examined in the same way as we examine any other area of human experience. Religion has been protected from careful scientific scrutiny on the ubiquitous assumption that it is outside of the domain of science. But Dennett provides a compelling case for its urgent analysis. There is so much we don’t know about religion (despite continual claims for its benefit to society or, vice versa, claims that it is the centre of much of the strife in the world) and it has so much influence/impact on society. But there seems to be a social assumption that it is off-limits to inquiry. It is time for that to change.

Secondly, Dennett wishes to propose a possible theory of the evolution of religion as a natural phenomenon in human history. If the first of his wishes is that religion be open to scientific inquiry, then there needs to be a testable theory of religion. In the second half of the book, Dennett constructs a coherent theory of religion’s origins, development, and status in society. But he recognises that all he is suggesting are hypotheses and that they may very well be contentious. He quite openly concedes the contentious nature of some of his proposals including the idea of memes.

Breaking the Spell achieves both of these aims and in a highly intelligent, witty, and respectful manner. Dennett raises some profoundly important issues and provides a wealth of well-informed information on the state of religion in society. My preconceptions of this book were “blown out of the water”. Dennett is honest, plain speaking, and eminently reasonable, constantly acknowledging the limits of our (and his) knowledge about religion.

Religion has nothing to fear from Dennett’s approach – unless religious believers fear what we so frequently say we seek – the truth. It is about time that the sorts of questions Dennett poses in relation to religion were confronted and dealt with and that believers stopped hiding behind the “sacredness” of religion suggesting that its examination is off limits to those who do not believe.

Dennett does not claim to be stating the truth about religion. What he does do is plead for religion to be transparent to inquiry and that the “spell” it holds over society and culture be broken by answering the most basic questions about it. Then we can make fully informed decisions about the role of religion in society, how children are raised in relation to religion, and how religion relates to politics and culture. And why wouldn’t any intelligent Christian or follower of any other religion want that? After all, the truth will set us free.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Movie Review: Source Code

Duncan Jones's (Moon) superb Source Code presents us with another intelligent sci-fi (Inception is the other recent one I'm thinking of) which bodes well for the genre.

A soldier (Jake Gyllanhaal) wakes up on a train not knowing anyone and not knowing how he got there. There's a woman sitting opposite him who knows him - but he's not who she says he is. And when he visits the bathroom to look in the mirror, the image staring back at him is not him! In the middle of his disorientation a bomb explodes and the train is blown to pieces. Instead of dying, he finds himself inside a capsule and discovers that he is part of a mission to catch a terrorist who has already blown up the train he is traveling on - somehow he's been transported back in time to minutes before the explosion. He experiences the same 8 minutes over and over again, including the explosion, until he is able to find out who the terrorist is in order to prevent another impending disaster.

Source Code is a very intelligent piece of sci-fi. Gyllenhaal plays the part of the soldier in a way that makes his character very human and conveys the anxiety inherent in his situation with his usual sensitivity. The other performers don't measure up to his skill, but the plot carries us along so that we don't worry about the mechanics of the film - it is fast paced and totally absorbing.

And it's intelligent! I won't give any more of the plot away except to say that the story touches on all sorts of philosophical themes - the nature of life and death, the nature of time and reality, and the ethics of science that occurs on people who may not be able to give their consent - for example on their body after they die.

Source Code is a refreshing movie that confirms the talents of director Duncan Jones. Source Code is more accessible than the very good Moon. Do everything you can to see Source Code.

Positive Review
'Director Duncan Jones achieves a strange and winning amalgam, a gripping action film that also works as poetry.' - Mick LaSalle/San Francisco Chronicle
Negative Review
'Somewhere under all that bloat is the greatest short subject of all time.' - Elvis Mitchell/Movieline
Content Advice
some violence including disturbing images, and for language.
AUS: M15+
USA: PG-13

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Book Review: Why Christian?

Douglas Hall is Professor Emeritus of Theology at McGill University in Montreal and the author of the trilogy Christian Theology in a North American Context. In Why Christian? he has taken a conversational approach to describing why Christianity offers a viable worldview in the context of a modern pluralist postmodern society.

Each chapter of the book consists of a summary of a “conversation” with an inquiring student who starts off by saying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t see why anybody today would be a Christian.” Precisely. This is a question that many are asking. This summary is then followed by an essay that seeks to provide a thoughtful response to the issues raised in the conversation. Despite Hall’s academic qualifications, he has managed to write a genuinely respectful, open, intelligent and simple (not simplistic) book about some of the most significant issues facing Christians in demonstrating the relevance of this worldview. Some of the issues addressed are:

  • why a person believes in a particular religion in the first place – isn’t it just an accident of birth?
  • the particularity of Jesus the Christ – what does it mean when it is claimed that all “salvation” comes through Jesus?
  • the nature of salvation – what does it mean to be saved? and saved from what? for what?
  • spirituality – what does spirituality mean in a highly secularised and pluralised society? And what are Christians talking about when they refer to the Holy Spirit?
  • what difference does believing in Jesus the Christ make to everyday living? How do the core values of Christianity - faith, hope, and love – work themselves out and provide meaning in a world that has seemingly deteriorated and where people are searching for meaning?
  • what about the fact that there are many different religions? what does it mean to be a “church” and/or “denomination” in a pluralistic society? how does Christianity conceive of itself in relation to the “others”?
  • What does Christianity have to say about “hope” and what is its view of “the end”?

Hall’s book is a delight to read – it is a breath of fresh air in the midst of the vocally powerful fundamentalist Christians who arrogantly assert their rightness, exclusiveness, and narrow-mindedness. Douglas Hall actually engages conversationally with his readers in an approach that is appropriate for the world in which we live. One gets a sense of Hall’s willingness to listen, humility in presenting his views, and a genuine engagement with what people are really asking about when it comes to Christianity. He presents a statement of Christianity which is attractive, authentic, and respectful of others.

So who would benefit from reading this book? Anyone who is:

  • a Christian who is having doubts about the relevance of Christianity in the modern world
  • a Christian who can no longer live with narrow-minded, arcane, arrogant, and rigid forms of Christianity
  • a Christian who experiences doubts and wants to be reassured that doubting is actually an essential part of growth and development
  • an atheist who wishes to read a statement of a form of Christianity that is more balanced, open, positive, constructive, and respectful than the one that comes from the fundamentalists
  • anyone considering Christianity as a worldview but has their doubts about what they are getting themselves in for
  • a Christian who wants an intelligent faith that is well-informed, real, and takes account of the fact that we are living in a very different world

There’s just one thing I would have liked to see in the book. Hall never discusses the historical nature of Christianity and the nature of the evidence that is used to support it – much of which is questioned nowadays by non-theist scholars and writers. The only reason given by the author for omitting so many important issues is that space is limited. I think I will chase up his other writings which, he states in this book, fill in the gaps he has left.

As you can probably tell, I highly recommend this book – for anyone interested in Christianity from whatever perspective they come.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Kathryn Schultz: On Being Wrong

Many Christians refuse to entertain the possibility they could be wrong about what they believe. But, according to Kathryn Schultz, being wrong is one of the things that makes us human. While Kathryn is not discussing being wrong in a religious context, it is very easy to see the relevance of this for our theological beliefs.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book Review: Tortured Wonders


Rodney Clapp’s book Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels is a provocative presentation of orthodox Christian spirituality in very modern earthy terms.

Clapp emphasizes that spirituality must be grounded in the bodiliness of being human rather than spiritualized as if we are angels. The book is in two sections. The first is a survey of classic Christian spirituality and the “forces” that tend towards a denial of the significance of the flesh. For Clapp, a genuine spirituality is structured around creation, incarnation, and resurrection, all of which involve the whole human , including the body. The Eucharist provides a focal point for the believing community as it incorporates bodily involvement as part of a community that incarnates spirituality.

In the second part of the book, Clapp explains what an embodied spirituality means in a modern/postmodern world in regard to relationships, community, sex, diet and exercise. His intention is to bring the human body back into focus in Christian spirituality and so the second part deals with the difficulty of a spirituality in a modern world. One of the most interesting chapters is his use of the life of Elvis Presley to demonstrate aspects of contemporary culture that present a challenge to this project.

Clapp’s approach is not without its flaws. His commitment to orthodoxy means his answers to such issues as homosexuality, the exclusivity of Christ, and eternal punishment make it inadequate. The chapters that deal with these issues seem more an attempt to hang on to archaic attitudes to them rather than to draw on modern scholarship that questions some of the traditional interpretations of the biblical text that continue to oppress or engender unnecessary anxiety in believers.

While the book is written in a very engaging, and at times very earthy style, and it most certainly redresses those spiritualties that ignore the body, it is hard to recommend it because of the way important contemporary issues are ultimately dealt with.

Movie Review: Thor 3D

thor-movie-postersThere is little more awesome than standing on the verandah of a house watching a thunderstorm. It is also understandable that the ancients attributed such incredible display of nature to the gods. For them, the god of thunder was Thor. If you have ever watched a thunderstorm you would have felt small and overwhelmed by its power. Unfortunately, while Thor: God of Thunder is entertaining, it doesn’t quite rise to the heights of an actual thunderstorm!

The story is simple. Asgard is the home of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and his two sons, Thor (Chris Hemworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). It is one of the nine realms of the universe. Odin has previously suppressed the warfaring nation of Frost Giants and there has been relative peace for many years. Odin is getting old and needs to make one of his heirs king. After Thor disobeys his father and attacks the Frost Giants and reignites the ancient war between the two nations, Odin banishes Thor to earth as punishment. Loki, his rival brother, attempts to keep Thor banished in order to take the throne. In the process, Thor learns what it means to be a true hero – with a bit of romance on the way.

Thor is certainly entertaining and moves along at a fairly rapid pace, apart from a dull patch in the middle. There are moments of brilliant space photography and the fight scenes are pretty impressive. Overall, though, the story is pretty inconsequential with common themes of true heroism, sacrifice for others, loyalty and betrayal. The music by Patrick Doyle (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) is dramatic and Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Frankenstein, Henry V) does a good job of direction. His conceptualisation of the story was a Norse/comic-book twist on William Shakespeare’s Henry V) – something I will leave to those better acquainted to Shakespeare to comment on. Natalie Portman stars as Jane Foster, the love interest, but doesn’t shine as much as she does in recent work such as The Black Swan.

Thor is entertaining but I’ll vote for a real thunder storm any day!

PS: Make sure you stay for the end of the credits – there is a taster for The Avengers and you will see what happens to one of the main characters of Thor.


Positive Review
'The 3D is ace and the effects are spectacular, making this the most thoroughly enjoyable superhero flick since Iron Man.’ - David Edwards/Daily Mirror

Negative Review
'Somebody, somewhere, is proud of the art direction and animation that brings this city to life, but it just looks like a Lord of the Rings fan film.’ – Nick Deigman/Fan the Fire

Content Advice
intense sequences of frenetic violence, some menace and language

USA: PG-13

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