Reel Spirituality: My Top 10 ‘Theological’ Films

Top 10 lists can be rather self indulgent. And if you find them so you might want to skip this post! I am hoping, however, that this post might have some value in celebrating the role that good cinema can have on our personal spirituality. I am hoping that this post will inspire some dialogue—please comment below, politely please!

The films below are not ‘Christian films’—although a small number are meant to be religious, or spiritual, to some extent. They are films that have been made by people at the top of the cinematic game who want to shed light on the big issues of life, as well as no doubt having other motives too. Such films when viewed through our vision of Christ, and imagination informed by faith, have the potential to enrich our minds and hearts. Films can also be a tool for sharing our faith.

This is not a film review and I want to avoid spoilers, but some elements might be given away so please don’t read the supporting text if you are a purist and have not seen one of the films.

Number 10 on my list is The Thin Red Line. This film seems like a typical, albeit very good, war film at the start of viewing. It is towards the end of the film that events and words work to achieve a special depth and profundity. The film’s conclusion also makes sense of other earlier elements in the film. Even if you normally don’t watch war films why not give this one a go? Like many of the films below it does have some gritty aspects—these help root the film appropriately in the full horror that is war. I would recommend you check all of the film’s below in terms of their rating/classification before watching—I know not all Christians approve of various adult themes in cinema.

The next film, Of Gods and Men, is closely based an a true story. This adds to a sense of growing concern for the monks, who are centre stage, as you watch this film. It becomes increasingly apparent that there won’t be a classic happy ending. This film, like a number of others here, raises questions about the value of life and to what extent we stick with the calling that God makes on us in the face of extreme hostility.

Number eight on my list is a film that I find to be as beautiful as it is at times harrowing. It shows the gospel and the Church being worked out in South America. To my mind, it simultaneously celebrates the gospel whilst casting an immense shadow on some aspects of the Church as institution. The film also has one of the most remarkable portrayals of conversion to Christianity that I have ever seen on screen. Like all the films here it contains tears. In each film the tears are shed in different contexts. Here the tears are shed as awareness of sin comes home to someone who has trafficked uncountable people, and even killed his own half-brother.

Number 7 on the list, Silence, takes place at a similar time to The Mission. I can’t say a lot without giving too much away. What I can say, is that it is difficult to watch the terrible experiences that so many converts to Christianity experienced in Japan’s early years of engagement with Europeans. It raises profound questions about how to respond to religious persecution in its most life-threatening forms.

Signs is an unusual film. And it is one where it is important to play close attention to what’s going on right from the outset, otherwise the deeper aspects of the film will be missed. In particular the opening minute, or so, reveals key information about the main protagonist, Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson.

Next, at five, on my list is Life is Beautiful. This film tackles the most disturbing events of the Twentieth Century. Some viewers might find its handling of the subject matter of the horrors of the holocaust have overstepped a line. It is certainly vital to note that from the outset it claims to be ‘a parable’. Never has a film had a more bittersweet conclusion.

Less controversial is the next film on my list, Bladerunner. This film has become a cult film and I won’t get into the issues surrounding the existence of multiple versions of the film. I will however recommend the Director’s Cut for those who need to make a choice without wanting to investigate further. Like other films on this list the real (reel?) revelation occurs in the closing minutes. These closing minutes contain some of the most amazing dialogue in any science fiction film, as well as some less than subtle imagery. The philosophical questions explored in this film are also central to this film’s wonderful sequel, Bladerunner 2049.

Number 3, Gran Torino, is another film which seems to be something different at the outset than what it is later revealed to be. The film does have a lot of bad language, because of the realistic portrayal of one of the sub-cultures that it a key part of the film. The film has, in my view, one of the profoundest ends to any Hollywood film. When I watched this with one of my teenage son, last year, the closing credits felt like a religious experience.

I struggled to choose between the next two films and I’m having second thoughts even as I type. But a ‘joint first’ seemed inappropriate. Terrence Malick is the only director to appear twice on this list and I know he does not appeal to everyone. But please give this film a go if you haven’t seen it. It is a truly amazing film and is undeniably unique. It’s weakness, for some, is that the plot is difficult to piece together on the first viewing. Once the plot is pieced together it reveals an amazing and rich journey of faith. A faith journey as messy, complex, yet full of grace, as many of us in the audience can testify to.

A dialogue spoken at the beginning of the film is a vital lens through which to see the whole film:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

My top choice proves to be a difficult film for some. It is certainly long, but not overly so for me. It has Tom Cruise playing a ill-spoken misogynist who make me cringe. Yet, this film is nothing less than biblical in some ways. Most obviously, all of the film’s many characters are united by an event straight from the Book of Exodus. Even the title is a deliberate play on the Latin term magnalia Dei, the Mighty Acts of God—a reference to the God of Israel’s deeds in the exodus of his people from captivity in Egypt. At a more subtle level, the lives of the characters, like those of the Patriarchs, have repeating patterns. The film can be understood as a reflection on Providence, but of course its probably not quite what Paul Thomas Anderson had in mind. Like number two on this list, The Tree of Life, this film is meant to be seen through the lens of an opening dialogue, After the portrayal of some remarkably unbelievable stories the narrator concludes:

It is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just “something that happened.” This cannot be “one of those things”. . . This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. . . These strange things happen all the time . . .

In faith, of course, such words connect with us with the central faith and hope we have in Christ.

Please feel free to disagree and offer your own suggestions below.

Already I’m concerned that I’ve found no place for A Hidden Life . . .

Once Upon a Time in . . . Bethlehem

I Samuel 16: 113

Introduction

The story of David starts in Bethlehem, the place of his birth and childhood. As soon as we think of Bethlehem our minds tend to switch to that later king of Israel born in that town. Once Upon a Time in Bethlehem, sounds like a Christmas story and there is indeed a children’s Christmas song with this title. But this morning our story has more in common with Quentin Tarrantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood than Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem.

Whatever we might feel about Tarrantino’s films, they have some similarities with many Old Testament stories. In this case, there’s a monumental unexpected plot twist. Samuel has already anointed one king, but now God wants another one anointed. No one saw that coming. In these events in Bethlehem, there’s an undercurrent of violence. Samuel fears Saul’s reaction to his anointing of a rival. Will Saul seek to have Samuel killed? There’s a community in fear as they meet Samuel making an odd detour from his usual place of ministry. They were asking, “what does this powerful political figure want with us?”. You can sense their apprehension, we’re told that the elders trembled.

There also plenty of blood. In this case it’s that of a heifer being sacrificed. But there’s the anticipation of human blood being spilt now that there are two kings. There’s a key allusion to how human judgement is prejudiced by appearance, whereas God sees the heart. This philosophy or theology is the key to understanding this episode. There’s a clunky piece of theatre that feels decidedly awkward, worthy of a pantomime. Seven sons are paraded before Samuel and each is found wanting. Then there’s a rather uncomfortable and lengthy pause as everyone awaits David being located out in the field. How long might that have taken without a phone and transport? Then there’s another plot twist. The person with the right character turns out to be rather good looking anyway.

Unexpected plot twists, violence, fearful communities, blood, difficulty in understanding characters’ morality and motives, clunky theatrics and good-looking people. These are often the features of Old Testament narrative, and just as often the features of Tarrantino’s films.

Unlike the godless universe of Tarrantino, however, our world—the world of the Bible—has a theological significance and an ethical backbone which can inform, and better still, transform us.

The Homely Eight

As we encounter Jesse and his family for the first time in the Bible, we find he has a large family. Eight sons are mentioned here. Elsewhere, in 1 Chronicles 2:16, we find he also had two daughters. The patriarchal story of David’s anointing has no concern with daughters. We cannot work out too much from the story about other aspects of this family. There is a suggestion that this family has done what many have others have over the past few millennia. It might be that they have seen the sons as fulfilling various roles according to the order of their birth. There are known psychological and societal reasons and consequences for the first, second, third, and last child having particular character and occupation. David—son number eight—appears to so far down the pecking order as to be all but invisible. At the start of the story of his anointing he is literally not visible; being left out in the fields tending the sheep. If he was sociable, charming, outgoing, attention-seeking, and fun, as ‘lastborns’ characteristically are, it seems unlikely that the sheep would have noticed.

In David’s culture, as in some many others, the first handful of sons are expected ‘to make something of themselves’. They are the expected to be the self-made men who will keep their parents in the future and perpetuate the fortunes of the family.

God however seems to have an aversion to the self-made and indeed to judging by appearances. God ‘looks at the heart’. He looks to character. To virtue, to use an old-fashioned term. Fortunately, salvation does not depend on our hearts but here God chooses a person of character for kingship and indeed founding a dynasty. God delights in a good heart.

When anyone is successful in anything it is natural to ask, ‘how did this happen?’. There are three means to success in just about any venture:

  • Innate gifting and fortuitous circumstances.
  • Hard work.
  • Dubious means.

For example, a world class athlete will have to have a set of physical attributes, some circumstances that make training and advancement possible, the will power and desire to work hard day-in-day-out. They might be tempted to add into this mix dubious means such as drugs.

For example, a businessman who founds a business empire will have to have some innate talents. Perhaps a novel insight into a new product or service. Or perhaps just that ability to win people over and persuade them to invest in something. They will have to work hard. They too might be tempted to try dubious methods to. The odd threat and/or bribe perhaps.

The story of David adds something else into the mix. Something that we would normally want to be careful of claiming—he is chosen by God. It turns out he has the physique to be a warrior, a key attribute for a king at this particular point in the life of Israel. As it happens, he has years of training ahead of him in living as an outlaw warrior. Later in life he will resort to dubious means to get what he wants. And yet behind all this human cause and effect lies the hand of God. If God had not sent Samuel to an obscure family to pick an obscure eighth son smelling of sheep dung he would not have become king.

True ‘Romance’

The hand of God would have been an encouragement to David when times were hard. But we centuries later might well ask what is the basis of this David-God ‘romance’. The text simply tells us that God chose David on the basis of his heart and not any of the usual visible traits that make people successful.

This leaves lots of questions. Why was there a false start with Saul? Why is Saul doomed to failure and David to success? The Bible has different concerns—it tells us ‘things’ about God and about all of humanity. It tells as that God looks to the heart. The counterpoint being we look to external appearances.

The problem of the heart is of course that ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). That goes for David, Saul, Samuel, you, and me. God didn’t choose David for his perfect heart. He picked David because his frail human heart was good enough to make a good king—albeit one who made some terrible mistakes. His heart was not a heart that desired power for prestige and selfish ambition. It has been said that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” others have suggested that “Power attracts the corruptible”. The evidence of these two anecdotes is never far away. Yet, for all his failings David did not fundamentally usurp God’s authority.

At the heart of today’s story is the human condition. The sinfulness that means that we think, and do, wrong; the brokenness that turns our hearts to things that are less than healthy; the weakness that means we do not do as many things of value as we might.

Jesus Christ, the ultimate heir of David’s line, dealt with the ultimate consequences of sin once and for all. Our turning to him in repentance and faith removes the barrier between us and God. This is the gospel and we should praise God daily for this gift of grace. This is not, however, the full gospel. Too often we have made the gospel one dimensional. Last time I looked we the Church are a company of the broken. We still sin, we still do what we should not, and we still do not do what we should.

God did not finish with David when he was anointed King; he’d just got started. Neither does God finish with us when we first bow the knee to Christ. Our initial repentance and faith are the start. For us, as for David, the Spirit is given as a sign of things to come. The Life of Faith and our ongoing development in Christ is something that the Church has historically spoken of in different ways. Whatever language we might use it is vital we look to God for ongoing transformation.

In being so adamant against the critics of Christianity that it is not about being good and thus earning salvation, we too often neglect goodness. The most fundamental attribute of God is that he is good. God delights in goodness, his perfect goodness and the good heart that is growing in us.

Different Christian traditions use different words to describe our ongoing Christian transformation. Discipleship is the term we are most comfortable with in my context. Becoming more Christlike is another. Although too often this seems to become What Would Jesus Do, which is not the same thing at all. The latter is about primacy of action and not character. It can also be oddly legalistic. Sanctification, until the last 20 years, was a popular term rooted as it is in the theology of Saint Paul. Spiritual Formation is a term used in some circles and recognises our need to be transformed; that we are not a finished work. It also tends to link to actual disciplines that will enable it to happen. The cure of souls is a very old-fashioned term but is helpful in recognising that we tend to carry around aspects of character that are unhealthy and need fixing in Christ. For whilst God can transform us in the twinkling of an eye, we all carry degrees of frailty that need an ongoing work of Christ that require prayerful effort in the form of self-honesty and discipline. The cultivation of virtue is another way of speaking of our transformation. I like this term. With terms like virtue and vice we can cut to the chase of what we mean without hiding behind generalities and slogans.

David Unchained

In I Samuel 16: 1–13 we read of David being released to be who he is. His indirect encounter with God, through Samuel, sets him on the path to be king. His surrender to this anointing marks a new life. David is no longer slave to family or cultural expectation. His encounter with God has turned expectation upside down. This is the effect of the gospel today. We don’t have to be constrained by things that enslaved us in the past we can move forward, having broken free.

David went from being a shepherd to shepherding God’s people. In Christ our gifts can be used in a variety of ways, but we all have things to offer the world at large and the community of God’s people.

What does it mean for us to be more Christlike, to fulfil our potential in Christ? What do we need released from? What virtue should we be cultivating? What cure does your soul need? What do you need to step into to mature in Christ? The terminology matters less than the recognition and openness to a transformation that comes from God. It is firstly about who we are, and only secondly about what we do.

David was first a person with a right heart—not a perfect heart. This led to him being appointed and anointed king. The road ahead was a very long one. As he journeyed with God he was refined and transformed. Compared to David, we can fix our eyes on Jesus Christ and a clearer destination. In so doing we can be transformed by the living God to be what he created to us to be.

Reading the Psalter with Captain America

Yes, an odd title to be sure. It was last summer that I found myself reflecting on the character Captain America in the films collectively known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. I know these films well, in part due to my previous publication on the fictional material vibranium [1]. In my moment of reflection I wondered at the similarities between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and the psalmist. This started simply with the thought that both are often judged harshly because of a thirst for righteousness that is all too easily misunderstood as arrogance. Today some readers of the Psalter react negatively to Psalm 1’s call to meditate on God’s torah or instruction. Due to a misunderstanding of torah and its relationship to righteousness as framed in the Bible. This is especially problematic given Psalm 1’s hermeneutical importance at the opening of the Psalter [2] and the psalmist’s ongoing self-understanding as being righteous before God.

Shield

This led to significant further reflection that culminated in a paper. This paper can be downloaded below. Whilst the paper will hopefully interest some readers of this blog (please add a comment below if this proves to be the case) it turned out ill-suited for more formal publication. Importantly for me it has seeded something bigger. It has galvanised some ideas for a book on the Psalter that I have been grappling with for around 5 years, or so. I hope to have more news about this later in 2019.

For now I hope some readers might persevere and see what can happen when we read the Psalter with Captain America. Please click on the text below to download the paper as a pdf.

Rereading the Psalter with Captain America 23rd March 2019 PsalterMark

 

References

  1. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Is it a Ceramic? Is it Graphene? No it’s Vibranium’ pp.93‒110 in The Secret Science of Superheroes (Eds: M. Lorch and A. Miah), London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2017.
  2. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85 (3), 246‒262, 2013.

 

Philippians 1:12–26 — A Philippian Rhapsody

In an age of style over substance you might think that I’m simply jumping on a bandwagon following the release of the film Bohemian Rhapsody late last year. But this reflection’s title is not just a nod to popular culture. It is not just timely given recent awards or the controversy over the film’s sacked director, Brian Singer. It is appropriate for several reasons as we will see later.

At the heart of Philippians 1:12–26 we find the short verse that reads:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

This verse has always struck me as on the one hand profound and on the other as worryingly challenging. As a soundbite it is an amazing summary of the Apostle Paul. It rings true with what we know of Paul. The Bible tells a clear story. Here is a man who had the most shocking of conversion experiences. He persecutes the Church in his passion for the God of Israel. Then the Risen Christ appears to him. This sets in motion the most complex shift in theology ever undertaken, worked out over three years in Arabia. All of this is followed by his three whirlwind tours of the Mediterranean—his evangelising and church planting record is truly remarkable.

It’s not to say the other Apostles weren’t busy, it’s just that he did so very much that we know about. And he managed to write thirteen of the books out of the twenty-seven in the New Testament. He even stars, along with Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles.

In short he not only said but he lived “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain”. Even in death, under Nero, this soundbite transfigures into the best of epitaphs. His life was a Rhapsody. One dictionary definition of a rhapsody is “an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling”. That’s Paul’s life and that’s Philippians 1:21.

Who else do we know who these words could be said of, and everyone would just nod sagely in agreement? Of course, we can’t all be an Apostle Paul or an Apostle Pauline. So, are we off the hook when it comes to ‘living out’ and ‘dying out’ Paul’s soundbite and epitaph?

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

We will answer this question later. But please note, Paul would be the first to say that the fruit of his life was not the result of human effort but is an example of God’s action. We can, and should, see God clearly at work in his life. To follow Paul is not to attempt a remarkable feat of hard work per se. It is to be open to God’s work and seeing God’s grace at work around us. This should be obvious—we will make a real difference, not because of our human effort but because of openness to God’s work.

In the modern world the Philippian Rhapsody has been imitated. Others have tried to crystallise their experience and personal ethos into similar soundbites. In Bohemian Rhapsody, the song by the band Queen with lyrics written by Freddy Mercury, for example, we find a similar statement to Paul’s. Now of course it’s a progressive rock song so it’s words shouldn’t be the subject of too much serious reflection. But the words seem to echo the troubles and challenges that Mercury experienced in his life, just as Paul’s words capture his very different ones:

I don’t wanna die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all
Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody

Perhaps we all have moments like that? The form is similar to Paul’s great saying, but the meaning is closer to Job who famously said: “May the day of my birth perish” (Job 3:3). I have no reason to believe that Freddy Mercury was consciously, or even unconsciously, echoing Paul or Job. Another singer-songwriter, however, appears to have deliberately echoed Mercury:

I don’t wanna die
But I ain’t keen on living either
Robbie Williams, Feel

It reads biographically like the others, but feels contrived compared to the Apostle Paul’s and Freddy Mercury’s art—sorry Robbie!

But back to the Bible. Philippians 1:12–26 not only has a remarkable verse at its centre, these verse are in themselves a rhapsody. Paul may be just writing a letter, but what a letter. We have forgotten how to write letters. Paul’s short letter is a lesson in how to do it. It is recognised by experts as a specific style of letter known in antiquity—a Letter of Friendship. It captures the story of the Philippians and it captures Paul’s story—two stories in which God has been at work. It brings the two together to explain how Paul’s current experiences and the Philippians situation both fit together to advance the gospel which is also God’s work.

The Present (1:12–18a)
Some might see being imprisoned as a problem or even a failing. Not the Apostle Paul. Paul knows that that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). His dependence on God is acute enough to see that whatever happens to him it can serve the purposes of the living God. Paul does not hesitate in seeing that he is in chains for Christ. Not just that his imprisonment is a consequence of upsetting the status quo in his preaching of Jesus Christ. Even being in prison can be for Christ. There are people in the palace guard who have now heard the good news of Jesus. Rather than his imprisonment sending a message of fear, Paul says that he brothers and sisters in Christ are more confident in the Lord and will proclaim the gospel without fear.

It appears that some that preach the gospel don’t get on with Paul—those that preach ‘out of envy and rivalry’. The Early Church has its problems, like the Church in every age. Perhaps personalities will always clash this side of the final trumpet? But Paul is bigger than rivalry and envy and sees that the important thing is that Christ is preached. The precise story about Paul’s rivals remains unclear.

There are two things that are clear about the situation. Firstly, whatever the difficulty with rivals, it is a source of serious trial for Paul. He alludes to the Greek translation of Job chapter 13 (later in verse 19)—a passage where Job is in dialogue with rivals who masquerade as friends. Like Job, Paul is suffering but knows he will be vindicated. The second point of clarity is that Paul rejoices—in fact he is full of joy. Joy, that Christ is being preached. He sees God’s very hand at work. What other response is there than joy when God is at work?

Sometimes we try so hard to do things that we forget to slow down and see God at work. Sometimes we are so cynical that we don’t wait for God’s work to be perceived. Surely Paul had reasons to be cynical? But despite seeing the reality of life in prison and the reality of rivals ‘having it in for him’. Despite feeling like Job, he rejoices. He is ‘with Isaiah’ in perceiving that God is doing a new thing and is at work.

The Future (1: 18b–26)
Rejoicing is so important to Paul that he focuses on how he has joy in the present and will continue to have joy on the future. We see this is in verse 18 which marks a transition in this passage:

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.

Paul is confident, not only that God is at work in his current situation. He is able to trust God—that he will continue to be at work. His trust and joy are not rooted in his comfort or well-being. Paul trusts and rejoices because he knows that God will continue to use him for the glory of Christ. Paul’s experience means he is past any naivety about Christian Discipleship being about a simple life of earthly blessing. Paul’s trust in God is not fatalism however. His eyes of faith see the need for the Philippians’ prayers, for God to deliver him, and the need for courage:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:20–21

Even Paul’s hope for his life is selfless. He sees his life as ‘in the body’, not in his body, but in the body of Christ. His work as an Apostle is for the building up of the Philippians.
His partnership with the Philippians is such that he can perceive the joy they will have when he is released from prison.

Paul also knows that ‘to die is gain’. Not only that he will then be with Christ but also that should his death be that of a martyr it will benefit the body, that is Jesus Christ. He knows first hand from witnessing the death of the first martyr, Stephen, the powerful testimony that is spoken as a servant of Christ dies for him and his gospel. Paul in chains in Rome thinks of his beloved Philippians and his own life.

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see.

His thinking. His theology. His ethos. His love. His plan for life. His hope. His trust. They all find their summary in that one key verse:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

Are we like the Apostle Paul? No. Not if we mean, we should do what he did. As God’s servants we are each unique in what we do.

Are we like the Apostle Paul? Yes. If we mean, we should be what he was. As God’s servants we are all the same in who we are. We are all loved in Christ. We are all able to perceive God at work. We are all able to rejoice in His work, past, present, and future.

Philippian Rhapsody

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a prison,
No escape to the light of day.

philippian rhapsody 13 jan 2019

Open your eyes,
Look up to the heavens and see,
I’m an Apostle and still Pharisee,
Because to live is Christ, die is gain,
Sing it high, sing it low,
Any way the gospel’s spread—it really does matter
to me, to me.

Mama, they stoned a man,
Put a rock against his head.
I approved by standing by, now he’s dead
Mama, martyrdom had just begun,
But now I’ve gone and joined them all the way.

Mama, ooh,
Didn’t mean to make you cry,
I’ll still be in prison by this time tomorrow,
Gospel told, gospel told, that’s what really matters.

Maybe my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine,
Chained-wrists aching all the time.
Goodbye, I’m ready, if I’ve got to go,
Gonna leave you all behind and face my Lord.

Mama, ooh (let’s see how the wind blows),
I’m ready to die,
But to live is Christ as I’ve been born times two.

I saw a revelation of a Galilean,
Son of Mary, Son of Mary, you are the Theotokos!
Theophany and lightning,
Very, very frightening.
Galilean. Galilean.
Galilean. Galilean.
Galilean Christou
Magnificat-o-o-o-o-o.

I’m an Apostle, and still Pharisee.
He’s an abnormal one from a posh family,
Spare him his life from this incarceration.

Will I stay, will I go, will you let me go?
Gospel! No, we will not let you go. (Let him go!)
Gospel! No, we will not let you go. (Let him go!)
Gospel! No, we will not let you go. (Let him go!)
Will not let you go. (let me go!)
Never let you go (Never, never, never, never let me go)
Oh oh oh oh
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
Oh, mama mia, mama mia (Mama mia, will they let me go).
Emperor Nero has a court case put aside for me, for me.

So you think you can chain me and spit in my eye?
So you think you can hate me and leave me to die?
Oh, baby, can’t do this to me, baby,
Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.

(Ooooh, ooh yeah, ooh yeah)

The Gospel really matters,
Anyone can see,
The Gospel really matters,
The Gospel really matters to me.

Any was this prison goes . . .

X is for Xerxes

Xerxes is the Greek name of a Persian ruler who reigned in the 5th century BCE. In the Hebrew Bible he is named Ahasuerus which is a transliteration of his name from Persian. In English translations this word is usually rendered Xerxes as this is how he has become known in classical history. An exception is the New Revised Standard Version where he is given his Hebrew name. Despite appearing in nearly every chapter of Esther, he is only mentioned once elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in Ezra 4:6.

Details of the life of Xerxes and his reign are found in diverse documents from the time he ruled and shortly after. A more complex issue is how factual the story of Esther might be. On this matter scholars differ significantly. The story certainly has some remarkable features to it which make it sound like a fable (see the previous post, ‘N is for Novella’). One of these is the classic line whereby King Xerxes besotted with Esther offers her: “Even up to half the kingdom” (Esther 5:3 and 7:2). The most remarkable aspect of the story, however, is the coincidence that occurs which works against the villain of the story, Haman.

An element of the book of Esther which is frequently noted is that God is absent from the story. Or to put it more precisely, he is not directly referred to. The inference from the story and the coincidences within it, by which the Jewish people escape death at the hands of Haman, is that God is at work providentially behind the scenes.

I am reminded of my all-time favourite film, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson called Magnolia. This film is not for everyone as it contains some unsavoury scenes in the lives of people who are in different ways broken by modern American life. The main characters all live in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, California. Much of the film documents the lives of these dysfunctional people and the audience puzzles at these only vaguely connected lives. Deep into the film a remarkable event occurs—I won’t spoil it here but will say that is thoroughly biblical. This event finally explains why the film is named Magnolia. The title it turns out is a play on the theological term, magnalia Dei which means the mighty acts of God. Just like in Esther, God is not mentioned and yet the implication is that he, or some powerful force, is there working behind the scenes.

What really matters as we live our lives is the knowledge that God is at work behind the scenes. Whether you see Esther as a historically reliable account or a literary fiction is less critical. In the words of the opening of Magnolia:

It is the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just something that happened. This cannot be one of those things. This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.

 

 

 

P is for Psalms

The Psalms are 150 compositions that defy monochromatic definitions— they are never solely poems or prayers or songs. In their threefold nature they are words addressed to God and at the same time the editors of the Hebrew Bible saw in them a greater value as Scripture. In some sense they are authoritative and normative.

Leonard Cohen famously speaks of The Psalms in this manner:

There’s a blaze of light

In every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Part of the third verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Perhaps Cohen is deliberately reflecting on The Psalm’s duality as both the words of men and the Word, perhaps not. What is clearer is that he connects King David with this songbook. As we saw earlier in ‘K is for King David’ this song speaks of David’s throne being broken as a consequence of his succumbing to the temptation prompted by seeing Bathsheba bathing. From the outset this song refers to David and connects him as in some sense intimately connected to the psalms:

Now I‘ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The first verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

David is traditionally considered to be the author of the Psalms. This tradition is natural in that 13 psalms (Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142) have clear biographical episodes linked to them. In addition, some 73 psalms in the Hebrew Bible have a heading which describes them as being ‘of David’. This does not necessarily imply authorship and in any case a very large number of other psalms are linked to others, both individuals and guilds. These guilds were priestly orders, which had worship responsibilities in the Temple. These guilds are presented in 1 Chronicles 25‒26 which introduces temple singers and temple doorkeepers. The names of Asaph, Korah, Jeduthan and Heman appear there and these names are associated with many psalms.

Depending on how we assess this evidence a wide range of possibilities are possible. Some highly conservative Bible readers seem keen to defy logic and see David as author of the whole book. This stands in clear contradiction to the post-exilic nature of many psalms (see Psalm 137 and Psalm 126 as especially clear examples) and the identification of many psalms with other people. For this, and other reasons, scholars tend to be far more cautious about David’s direct role in authorship of the psalms.

I am persuaded by the evidence that the Psalter is the result of a lengthy process of authoring, collecting and editing of psalms to form a structured book. This does not, however, contradict David’s connection with the book. Whilst we will never know how many of the psalms originated with David the final form of the Psalter requires it to be read to some extent with a Davidic emphasis. Any reading requires other lenses too, but we should be clear, David is vital to the Psalter.

The first few psalms illustrate this well. Psalm 1 can be read with an eye on David as an ideal of the devoted Law reader found there. Psalm 2 as we saw in the last post can be read in different ways. One of these is to see the anointed king as David, the first of the line of kings from the tribe of Judah. Psalms 3‒7 can be read as the struggles of David. These same psalms can also be read with a view to the common experience of humanity as our lives echo the struggles and hallelujahs of the very human king portrayed there. We would do well to consider making space for these polychromatic songs, poems and prayers on our journey.

M is for Moses

My first recollection of anything connected to the Hebrew Bible is watching the film The Ten Commandments. This was the 1956 version of the film although I was watching it around twenty years after its release. The director, Cecil B. DeMille, made two films with this name. The first film was a silent one released in 1923. Despite some commonality these two films are actually rather different to each other. The first film presented a relatively short account of the Exodus story in which, as its title suggests, the Ten Commandments are central. The narrative in which Moses is central is a prelude to a longer story concerning two brothers. The two brothers choose different paths in life. One chooses to live a life consistent with the Ten Commandments. The other brother pursues a life in which he breaks every commandment. The outcome comes as little surprise—Danny’s disdain for the commandments means that his sins eventually catch up with him, after a life of decadence.

The 1956 version is often termed a remake but it is a very different film. The newer film is wholly concerned with the life of Moses. This story is covered at length with the film having an epic running of time of 3 hours and 40 minutes, if the original intermission is included. Much of the later parts of the film are a straightforward, even faithful account of the life of Moses. The opening hour of the film fills in a lot of ‘the blanks’. From a cinematic point of view this is quite understandable. Modern sensibilities expect a film to be about the main protagonist, and not the titular Ten Commandments. Readers of the life of Moses in Exodus realise, because of the gaps in the story, that this is more than a story about Moses. Like much of the Hebrew Bible, silence often surrounds the questions we want to ask. This is arguably driven by a deliberate literary device rather than any authorial lack of information. The additions to DeMille’s film, to be fair make for a number of intriguing plot developments. The biggest departure concerns Moses falling for Nefretiri, who as a princess is expected to marry the next Pharaoh. The film also portrays Moses as a General. He defeats the Ethiopian army and the country then agrees an alliance with Egypt.

How would Cecil B. DeMille feel I wonder if he knew that in his effort to bring a key element of the biblical canon to life he had made other elements of the story achieve canonical status? The childhood of Moses is again a key feature of DreamWorks’ 1998 Prince of Egypt. Moses’ military prowess is central to Ridley Scott’s 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings. By 2014 something has changed with regard to the basic commitment to the story however. Cecil B. DeMille wanted to celebrate the Ten Commandments, not only as a story but as a tenet of faith. Scott and presumably his studio are keen to explain the miraculous in terms of implausible coincidence. All this said, all of these retellings are in a sense legitimated by the original—the narrative terseness of the Hebrew Bible invites retelling—retelling is central to the very purpose of this story:

“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” 

Exodus 12:24‒7

 

Book Review: The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails

Mark Roques, The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails: Creative Ways of Talking about Christian Faith, Leeds: Thinking Faith 2017.

ISBN 978-0-9957572-0-2, 182pp., £8.99

Many books are available on Christian apologetics but very few focus on communicating faith. Mark Roques recognises this and encourages us to try something that we might just be able to do. His project is no intellectual programme to out-think militant atheism nor is it an unrealistically intensive evangelistic programme—this is human-centred and culture-centred storytelling. It focuses on the act of storytelling that people do every day, the need for narrative that Jesus shows to be the way that human beings communicate. Few people will ever be persuaded to undergo the paradigm shift to Christian faith on the basis of intellectual apologetics. The drip feed of new ways to look at reality that comes from storytelling, on the other hand, has a hope of penetrating the wall that modern Westerners build around themselves.

Mark Roques Book

This book not only promotes a great way forward in how we can share our faith it does it in a highly engaging fashion. Despite being a short book it has a solid underpinning intellectual depth and rigour. This necessary background is however put over as engagingly as the stories Roques encourages us to share. The core call of this book is to see the culture we live in as a resource, a common language for us to use in creative dialogue with others. In this way James Bond can become an ally as we talk about our faith and show others they too have a faith, albeit in things other than Jesus. Roques knows that Bond won’t work for everyone and to this end the variety of ideas to inform our storytelling is remarkable. Who would have thought that Ivan the Terrible, Glenn Hoddle, Anna Nicole Smith and the Duke of Edinburgh would be such vital assets to our endeavours in personal evangelism?

The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails can be purchased here: http://thinkfaith.net/realitybites/spy-rat-nails

Psalm 149—Singing a New Song in 2017

Purple Rain: 2016

2016 was by any standards a remarkable year. On two days I awoke to the opposite outcome to that which I had expected in a national vote – I was personally disappointed on both counts. This time last year no one would have predicted all of the big events on the world stage of these past 12 months. It will, I am sure, go down as a historic year which set in motion events which will take decades to unfold. But 2016 was remarkable for other reasons. It seemed that everybody experienced a famous person that they liked, or admired, dying. The world of music alone lost Prince, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and George Michael.

The most talented musicians leave a tangible cultural legacy. I find the role of music in culture fascinating. Have you ever wondered about the ubiquity of music? Why do we have song-after-song-after-song? Are there not enough songs by now? Is it really possible to do anything new with a song?

The cynic might say that the modern song writer is in it for the money. Whilst I cannot deny that there is a commercial dynamic to the music industry, there is something more. It is not cold hard cash that motivates budding musicians to work endlessly at anti-social hours for little or no money and limited recognition. I don’t think it is just a hope of future fame that can drive them. There is simply something creative about the human nature. Just as God created the Universe, as people in his image we are creative too. For some of us this means writing new songs and music and/or playing and performing music.

Psalm 149 makes much of singing a New Song. It is not alone in exulting us to sing a New Song. Psalms 33, 40, 96, 98 and 144 also refer to this idea. Isaiah 42 and Revelation 5 use it as a key motif too.

Hallelujah: Gathering to Sing

Singing together as God’s people is one of the essential activities that we engage in. There is something about singing with others. Of course not all of us enjoy it. Few of us choose to do it outside of Sunday worship and the football stadium. In football, and other team sports, singing together can be the very the worst of the tribalism that afflicts humankind—the singing of insults being a central dynamic. When we sing together in gathered worship this can be the very best of tribalism—the singing of praise being central. A football team are a self-serving and self-promoting tribe. To paraphrase Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944), “The Church is the only tribe that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it”. [tribe is substituted for organisation.]

Singing together creates unity—we share the same beliefs and emotions; the same faith. The opening Hebrew word of Psalm 149 exemplifies this tribalism. Like the neighbouring Psalms it opens with the Hebrew Word hallelujah — or praise Yah—often translated as ‘Praise the Lord’. We belong to the tribe of Yahweh; the tribe of his son Jesus Christ.

Singing is partly about being together, being gathered, being the body of Christ. It is also education. In my church, and many others, there is scant opportunity to learn together in our time-poor lives. We do not have special classes; we do not have a second service. We learn primarily by singing and we learn from sermons. We probably never fully appreciate just how much we benefit from singing choruses and hymns. For most of us if we remember any words by heart that define our faith, it will be the songs we sing.

Education of course is not just about head knowledge—it is doing that teaches. Gathering and being together is itself a vital education. At the end of the day gathering is the gospel. Gathering is a foretaste of the age to come. The New Songs of the psalmist are a foretaste of the New Song spoken of in the Book of Revelation. New Song are songs of thankfulness. New Songs can be ‘old songs’ recovered and reclaimed afresh.

New Songs, in the Bible often seem to be connected with victory. For us the victory can sometimes simply be being a Christian after one more year in a world which throws the unexpected at us. Many of us have suffered closer, personal more tangible afflictions than Brexit, Trump or the death of our favourite celebrity.

Hallelujah.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.
Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with victory.

We might use different instruments but this is fine. In fact we have to as the Hebrew words for musical instruments tend to be uncertain. It is not our musical culture, musicianship or instruments that count, it is gathering before the same creator God, Yah.

Under Pressure: Singing 24-7

Our Psalm is not just about singing together on a Sunday or other church gathering. Sometimes we have a view of church as a place of refuge, a place to escape the ‘nasty world’. Perhaps what I have said thus far seems to suggest this. There is a sense in which gathering together is about being refreshed and strengthened, and about learning too.

And yet this idea is potentially problematic if we become consumers or passengers looking passively to be fed during the short time of gathering. In a small church in particular, you are unlikely to find all the food you need to sustain you. In a larger church we might be fooled into thinking we have all the food and nourishment we need.

Despite the apparent passivity of our culture, the talk of tolerance, the solid democratic processes that govern our nation, we live in an environment which is toxic to our faith. As Christians we are under pressure. Pressure to conform, pressure to consume, pressure to go along with everybody else. I cannot even begin to guess the temptations which we might each face to conform to the world’s values. But a key to cultivating faith in the face of the pressure to conform is the practice of an everyday spirituality.

Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor
and sing for joy on their beds.
May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,

We can sing to God wherever we may be—not just church—everywhere, even bed. Although we should note that the ‘bed’ mentioned here is probably a reclining couch. The point is that worship is 24-7. It is the day-and-night meditation we read of elsewhere in The Psalms. It is the praying on all occasions we hear about from the Apostle Paul.

This can be a joy rather than a chore—a New Song not a new legalism. It is not as busy as it sounds—at its core it is about being single-minded. Being the same person whether in church, at home, at work or at play. New Songs sung ‘wherever we are’ could be the biggest thing we do in 2017.

Faith: Hopeful Singing

One of the remarkable things about The Psalms is that the psalmist can say anything to God. Yet, however confrontational these words the psalmist cries out from a stance of faith and trust. In any year, using these prayers and making them our own would seem to be a wise move. None of us know what 2017 will bring. What we do know is that The Psalms provide the words for every situation and for every emotion.

One of the challenges of The Psalms, however, is that they rarely do ‘what you want’—this is Scripture at its most surprising and untamed best. God has not given us a collection of nice pithy sayings. This is no catalogue of gift card niceties, nor the musings of a two-a-penny self-help Twitter guru or life coach.

By verse 7 we might think Psalm 149 has gone rather off the wall:

to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,
to carry out the sentence written against them—
this is the glory of all his faithful people.
Hallelujah.

Despite these verses jarring with our nice cuddly conceptions of God they are part of our faith and our trust in Yahweh and his Son Jesus Christ. They tell us that the massive wrongs of this world will be judged. They tell us that our God is Lord of history – whatever news reporters in the world’s war zones unintentionally intimate day-by-day and year-by-year.

These latter verses also make sense of the trajectory initiated in Psalm 2. That God will judge is not actually odd, it is a necessary perspective—how else can we claim that our God is a just God? Like the Psalmist we can look to God to deal with injustice. This is a major part of our hope. For the psalmist it is worth not only believing but making a song and dance about.