Monday, June 27, 2005

Movie Review: The Crucible

It is the 17th Century and a group of teenage girls meet in the woods at midnight for a secret ceremony to conjure up love where they dance naked around a cauldren. However, one of the girls wishes the death of a former lover. The scene is witnessed by the town minister who reports them and, as a result, the girls are accused of witchcraft. So begins a series of events characterised by hysteria, injustice, and persecution. The Crucible is another version of Arthur Miller's play, based on actual events that occurred in 1692, which first played on Broadway in 1953. America was in the middle of a panic about the 'Red Menace' -- paranoia about the rise of Communism. At the time, it was easy to see how The Crucible was a metaphor of McArthyism. Arthur Miller, himself, is the author of the screenplay for the movie. Victor Navasky (1996), of The New York Times, asked Arthur Miller what relevance the story had for our time. He replied:
I have had immense confidence in the applicability of the play to almost any time, the reason being it's dealing with a paranoid situation. But that situation doesn't depend on any particular political or sociological development. I wrote it blind to the world. The enemy is within, and within stays within, and we can't get out of within. It's always on the edge of our minds that behind what we see is a nefarious plot.
I'm sure it won't be hard for Christians to identify real-world examples of social paranoia -- many fundamentalist Christians revel in it. How many times do we condemn others because of our own fears rather than the presence of any real evil? Thousands have been falsely accused throughout history as a result of the dogmatic blindness of the prevailing culture. Miller has written somewhere that
No man lives who has not got a panic button, and when it is pressed by the clean white hand of moral duty, a certain murderous train is set in motion. (Navasky 1996)
One can't help but wonder whether, perhaps, the Iraq War might have been an example of this phenomenon. At the level of cinema, The Crucible has failings. It doesn't quite reach the dramatic intensity implied by the summary on the cover of the DVD. Nonetheless, it makes us reflect on the ease with which we group together against those who may be different to us or perceived to be a threat. My Rating (*** out of 5) Related Links

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Book Review: 'Vanishing Acts'

Have you ever wondered how accurate your memories really are? Have you realised how dependent we are on our parents, and others, for our earliest memories? In recent years, we have come to realise just how unreliable memory can actually be. Jodi Picoult's latest offering, Vanishing Acts, centres around these questions. Delia Hopkins has been raised by her widowed father with an idyllic life in rural New Hampshire. She is now an adult, married, with a child. She works with her own search-and-rescue dog tracking down missing persons. Then, out of the blue, a policeman knocks at her door and her whole world is turned upside down leading her to question everything she believes is true. She has memories of her childhood - but how true are they? Who is she, really? And who, really, is her father - a well-known and respected member of the community? Vanishing Acts is classic Picoult and a great read weaving together great characters and an intriguing plot that deals with contemporary issues. Related Links

Saturday, June 25, 2005

DVD Review: 'Breaking the Da Vinci Code'

Have you read Dan Brown's gripping thriller, The Da Vinci Code? Despite the fact that it is fiction, Brown complicates the matter by claiming that various descriptions of artwork, architecture, secret rituals, etc are factual. The book has caused a storm of controversy with its claims that the Christian church has conspired to suppress the truth about the Holy Grail. What is the truth? Breaking the Da Vinci Code will answer your questions about this stunning best-seller. Based on three other best-selling books -- Breaking the Da Vinci Code, The Da Vinci Deception, and Cracking Da Vinci's Code -- this DVD takes each of the major claims in Brown's book and uncovers the truth about them. Most of Dan Brown's alleged facts turn out to be just as fictitious as the plot of his novel. The DVD also contains a generous number of extra features including in-depth interviews and a tour of Rosslyn Chapel which features in the novel. A straight-forward, unsensationalised documentary. My Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

Movie Review: 'Madagascar'

For everyone, there are times when we feel unhappy with our lot in life and wish we could escape our mundane existence of work, rest, and play. We are no different to Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe, and Gloria the Hippo who are best friends in New York Central Zoo. Day after day they entertain the crowds with their antics. They are well cared for with food and shelter and the their caretakers are kind. But Marty the Zebra dreams of a wild paradise beyond the bars of his enclosure. When it becomes too much, he decides to break out in search of "the wild". His other three friends, distressed at his disappearance, go on a search to find him and bring him home. And, thus, the adventure begins. Madagascar is a rather bland offering from DreamWorks that comes nowhere near the high quality we have come to expect from contemporary animation films like Toy Story and Shrek. But the kids will love it (on the way home you are bound to hear your kids singing Move It! from the sound track) and there are some clever allusions to other, more adult, movie fare (watch out for a very quick reference to Cast Away when the animals are on their jungle island). There are some funny moments here and there. But overall, this is a movie that is mainly for the younger population. My favourite characters in the movie are the army of penguins who are obsessed with tunnelling their way out of the zoo to freedom. These penguins are responsible for what, for me, was the best line in the whole movie -- but I won't spoil it by telling you what it is. Overall, a very moderately entertaining kids movie with a pretty cliched plot and some gentle morals on friendship. My Rating: *** (out of 5) Best Review 'Dishes up some very corny jokes, but the images have a brighter-than-life vivacity.' - Owen Gleiberman/Entertainment Weekly Worst Review 'The animation is deft but the screenplay is stilted, the voice-performances are unimaginative, and the whole project is surprisingly clumsy in its efforts to please young and old alike. A major disappointment.' - David Sterritt/Christian Science Monitor Content Warnings mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Crucified nun dies in 'exorcism' (BBC News)

In my last blog I talked about the need to avoid category confusion - answering a question with the wrong type of thinking. Here's a good example of what happens when this confusion is not avoided. According to BBC News, a Romanian nun has died in a convent after she was tied to a cross with a towel stuffed down her throat (to muffle the noise she was making) and left alone for three days. Why? Because her priest believed she was possessed by demons. In fact, the woman suffered from schizophrenia. We know a lot more about schizophrenia these days and one thing we know for sure is that it is not demon possession. This priest, who has been 'accused of orhestrating the crime', by confusing categories (ie, answering a scientific question with a religious answer), may be found guilty of killing someone on the basis of religious beliefs. The outcome has been rationalised as God having 'performed a miracle for her, finally Irina is delivered from evil'. It is understandable that DeGregori, in his article, bemoans the continuing presence of ideologically driven extreme religion in the world! As thinking Christians, we need to avoid contributing to this sort of thing by not confusing our categories!

Magic vs Modernity (Butterflies & Wheels)

Here is an interesting, thought-provoking article on the relationship between science and reason and myth and magic. Thomas DeGregori bemoans the fact that, even though amazing progress has been made in understanding the universe through science, the realm of myth and magic has not decreased in practice. As far as he is concerned, 'the Enlightenment vision seems farther away than ever.' DeGregori believes the scientific method is one of the greatest achievements of the past 1000 years. And,

[i]f we work at it, one of the greatest achievements of this new millennium could be the continued refinement of the scientific method, its integration into the beliefs and practices of everyday life for the greater part of humankind, and the continuous improvement in the quality of life of earth's inhabitants that could be realized as a result.

DeGregori may overstate the case for the benefits of science. Undoubtedly, scientific inquiry contributes to an improved quality of life. But that doesn't mean that 'myth and magic', as he calls it, can't contribute as well. It is about making sure that we answer questions with the right method. Trying to answer scientific questions by religious methods will not work -- and vice versa. It is essential to avoid confusing categories when dealing with inquiry. Religious questions need to be answered by religious thinking and scientific questions by scientific thinking. Too often the categories are mixed up. Some Christians, for example, try to answer scientific questions about origins by appealing to the religious writing found in Genesis. And some scientists try to answer religious questions by scientific inquiry. Scientific thinking and religious thinking are designed to answer different sorts of questions. If we can keep this distinction in mind, a good deal of the antipathy between scienctists and religious advocates would be resolved and we could have a decent conversation about any question. It should be possible that science and religion, properly used, contribute to the improvement in our quality of lives.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Book Review: 'Why I Am Not a Calvinist'

Jerry Walls' and Joseph Dongell's book Why I am Not a Calvinist is an absolutely brilliant exposé of the theology of Calvinism. The most controversial claims of Calvinism are that God has arbitrarily selected some people to be saved and consigned the rest to damnation; that Christ's atoning death on Calvary was only for those elected to salvation; and that God's decision about who will be saved and lost will be fulfilled without any regard to a person's choice. Walls and Dongell clearly show the inconsistent, illogical, unbiblical nature of this theology and how it leads to anxiety about one's salvation -- the very opposite of the assurance that Calvinists wish to offer. Walls and Dongell are amazingly fairminded in their representation of Calvinism -- one only needs to compare these authors' characterisation with another book by two Calvinists which I have reviewed elsewhere (Why I Am Not an Arminian) to see the accuracy of Walls and Dongell's portrayal. Recognising the very best expressions of Calvinism, they meticulously demonstrate that the God of Calvinist theology is ultimately immoral in his treatment of the lost and, ultimately, a god who can be worshiped for his power but not his love. The only way that a Calvinist can worship and love God is by retreating to inconsistencies with their own position. If you are looking for a clear, articulate, penetrating argument against Calvinism then look no further. This is a comprehensive theological, philosophical and, most importantly, biblical critique of a theological system that has dominated Christian thought since the Reformation. Ultimately, Walls and Dongell turn out attention, in their conclusion, to a God who genuinely loves all humanity; who genuinely offers each and every person the gift of salvation; who genuinely provides all that is necessary to effect that salvation; and who genuinely wants his people to freely responded to him with love and adoration of his glorious grace and power. Related Links

More on Calvinism/Arminianism...

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Evolution-Creation: An Interview With Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse has recently published a book entitled The Evolution-Creation Struggle (which I haven't read). Here is an interview with the author where he discusses some of his views.

Other books on evolution/creation

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Christian and the Atheist

Here's a very interesting podcast show where a Christian and an atheist get together to have relaxed conversations about the big issues. A wonderful model of respectful conversation between two world views. You can download the shows and play them on any mp3 player. I burn them to CD and listen in the car! Some of the topics so far have been relationships, the meaning of life, the church, heaven and hell, the influence of God on earth, and why or how everything was created. Great listening! Check it all out here.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Artifact: The Changing Face of Old St. Nick (Reason)

It's finally happened. In the main square of Demre in Turkey, Santa Claus has replaced a bronze statue of the original St Nicholas. Apparently the Muslims of the town are happy with the change but Orthodox Russians, who used to pray in front of the statue are pretty upset about it. Read the whole story here.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Book Review: 'Why I Am Not an Arminian'

Robert Peterson and Michael Williams have done the Christian community a great service with their book Why I Am Not an Arminian. Despite the fact that it is an supposed to be an argument against Arminianism, its greatest value is in the clarity with which the authors put forward the theology of Calvinism. This alone makes the book well worth reading. Proponents of Calvinism and Arminianism have been at loggerheads for centuries over the issue of salvation, in particular. Calvinism has often been summarised in five points: 1. Total depravity of man. 2. Unconditional election. 3. Limited atonement. 4. Irresistible grace. 5. Perseverance of the saints. The most controversial of these are points 2, 3, and 4. Point 2 asserts that God has predetermined only some individuals to be saved completely independently of their own free will and left the remainder to suffer eternal punishment. Point 3 asserts that Christ's blood atonement on Calvary was limited only to the individuals that God has decided will be saved. And, finally, point 4 asserts that God's grace overpowers the will of those God has elected to save and they will inevitably accept God and be saved. For those of us who tend towards the Arminian side of theology, these assertions are completely unacceptable. Arminians affirm free will, universal atonement, and the possibility of people refusing the grace of God. Peterson and Williams take up all these points in their book and show why, as Calvinists, they cannot accept them on biblical and theological grounds. The historical background to the Calvinist/Arminian controversy is also very interesting. The book is also an excellent model for dialogue between those who disagree. The authors are respectful of their theological "opponents" and genuinely wish to engage with Arminian thought. Ultimately, I found the book unpersuasive. Some of the Arminian positions they describe I would not hold to so some of their arguments against Arminianism did not resonate with my views. There is a companion book to this one entitled Why I Am Not a Calvinist written from the Arminian point of view. (Read my review of this book here). Why I Am Not an Arminian makes for excellent, informative, thought-provoking reading. Related Links Calvinism


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Movie Review: 'The Machinist'

The Machinist is a dark psychological thriller that will leave you thinking after it is over. Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) hasn't slept for a year and is so emaciated that, 'if he were any thinner, he wouldn't exist.' Something deep and mysterious is going on from the opening scenes of Reznik disposing of a rolled up carpet with a body in it to the final resolution when all becomes clear. Reznik is a workshop machinist who experiences increasing levels of anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations. He is completely baffled about what is happening to him. His physical wasting away is evidence of what is happening in his mind and no one seems to care about his mental and physical disintegration except the prostitute with whom he has passing sex. We follow him as he desperately tries to unravel the mystery at the heart of his agony. The Machinist is an excellent film-noirish study of human experience with hints of Dostoevsky (Reznik is reading The Idiot in one scene). The director, Brad Anderson, has filmed the movie in dark metallic tones that resonate with Reznik's experience and Bale's committed performance (apparently he lost 28 kilograms for the role) adds authenticity to the role. Hints of the answer to the mystery come early in the movie. Some reviewers have criticised Anderson for revealing too much too soon. But there are too many movies that rely on hiding things from the viewer so the film evokes the most impact at the end. But, in my view, the interesting thing about The Machinist is in the journey more than the end. The final resolution explains the reason for the journey - a journey that, in greater or lesser degree, all humanity travels at times. If all this sounds vague and mysterious - wait until you see the movie where all will be revealed! My Rating: **** (out of 5) Best Review 'A brilliantly honed tale of dementia, starring a skeletal Christian Bale as a tormented insomniac wasting away and terrorized by his irreal existence.' - Duane Byrge/The Hollywood Reporter Worst Review 'Unrelentingly dreary, and seemingly destined to be remembered, if at all, as that movie Christian Bale lost a full third of his body weight for. It doesn't deserve any better.' - Nathan Rabin/The Onion (A.V. Club) Content Warning Violence and disturbing images; sexuality and language