Thursday, May 31, 2007

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s EndPirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End seems to have gone the way of most sequels: big on special effects, thin on plot, and way, way too long.

All of the characters from the original Pirates movies are back in this third installment. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) rescue Captain Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from the land of the dead and join forces to sail of the edge of the map of the known world for one last battle with Davey Jones (Bill Nighy) and Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander). This essential objective involves a whole lot of other goings on that require lots of sword play, magic, and quick-witted thinking.

Geoffrey Rush is the standout in this bevy of actors with Johnny Depp joining him to rescue the movie. Keira Knightley has a bit more to do this time around. The scene stealer, though, is that delightful monkey that sits on Captain Barbossa’s shoulders.

The special effects are stunning, particularly the scenes involving the maelstrom - a giant whirlpool around the edge of which a fast-moving battle takes place on board a number of pirate ships. At 163 minutes, At World’s End is far too long - and feels it! Chop at least an hour out of the movie and it might have been able to sustain its intensity, but by the time the credits rolled, I felt like they were long overdue and the world’s end possibly had time to actually arrive.

For those of us who have seen the first two movies, we won’t be able to resist going along and seeing this one. Just make sure to visit the restroom at the last minute, take a picnic lunch, and maybe a pillow for the occasional doze. The occasional nod-off won’t make much difference to whether you can understand the convoluted plot or not.

My Rating: *** (out of 5)

Positive Review

’The most visually spectacular, action-packed and surreal of the adventures of Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).’ - Michael Wilmington/Chicago Tribute

Negative Review
’Has no narrative throughline, no emotional spine. It’s a mess.’ - Mick LaSalle/San Francisco Chronicle

Content Advice
Intense sequences of action/adventure violence and some frightening images

USA: PG-13

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Questions About Christian Hope

I am leading a discussion about the Bible and Christian hope this weekend. Here are the questions I have come up with. You might like to consider them as well.

  1. In what way does biblical hope influence the way we relate to the failings of others? What is the overall purpose of hope in these circumstances? (Romans 15:1-7)
  2. How does biblical hope contribute to our understanding and experience of suffering? (Romans 5:1-5)
  3. Why are faith, hope and love so central to Christian experience? Why is hope one of the things that will eventually not exist any more? (1 Corinthians 13:13)
  4. Why is the metaphor of a helmet selected by Paul as a representation of Christian hope in the last days? (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)
  5. Is there such a thing as bad hope? If so, what is it? (2 Thessalonians 2:16)
  6. The Bible teaches that, in Christ, we have eternal life. In what sense do we still hope for eternal life? (Titus 2:11-14)
  7. Why is Christ so important to our hope as Christians? What makes it reasonable to have confidence in the hope we hold? In what way does pride belong to hope? (Hebrews 3:1-6)
  8. How does hope relate to our serving of each other? How does it provide motivation for what we do?
  9. What does it mean to say that Christians have a living hope? Is it possible for hope to be a dead hope? What is the difference between the two? (1 Peter 1:3-9)
  10. How would you defend the hope you have as a Christian if someone asks you to do so? (1 Peter 3:13-22)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Creationist Museum

Have a look at the news story below about a new Creationist Museum being built in the US. A couple of things to notice:
  1. The museum designers completely ignore scientific knowledge about the age of the earth and claim the Bible provides the age of the earth - it doesn’t. This is a museum of religious belief - not a scientific enterprise. According to one of the interviewees, the Bible is the absolute source of all knowledge. Another person states that, to work at this museum, you need to believe in God and agree with all the doctrines. This is a religious group even though it might be trying to make itself sound scientific.
  2. They go way beyond the Bible. The museum indulges in pure conjecture about when dinosaurs existed. The Bible doesn’t even mention dinosaurs. Nor does it state an age of the earth. So this museum doesn’t even stick to what the Bible says.
  3. See my post coming soon about the options available for understanding the relationship between the Bible and theology. The one offered in this museum argues that the Bible should come before any other type of inquiry when trying to understand the natural world and science must conform to it. This leads to a religious pseudo-science.
Here’s the news story:

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Movie Review: Spiderman 3

Spiderman 3 is a disappointment compared to the first two in the trilogy - high on special effects, high on moral message, but shallow when it comes to script and acting.

Tobey Maguire is back as Peter Parker/Spiderman who has been seeing Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) for some time. But Peter does not really understand women and he is beginning to develop a certain self interest that is clearly going to be his downfall. Harry Osborn (James Franco) still believes that Peter killed his father and is intent on revenge. At the same time, Flint Marco (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped from prison and is running from the police. Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) has wormed his way into the position of photographer at the local newspaper and pushed Peter Parker aside.

The overall story of Spiderman 3 is a series of conflicts: Peter Parker vs Mary Jane; Peter Parker vs Harry Osborn; Peter Parker vs Eddie Brock; Spiderman vs Sandman; Spiderman vs Venom. Clearly, Peter Parker/Spiderman has a lot on his plate. Everyone wants revenge. Complicating all this, Spiderman is taken over by suit that brings out his dark side. How will Peter/Spiderman resolve all these conflicts - with good or evil? All of these could make for interesting stories in their own right. But, unfortunately, they are not developed adequately.

Spiderman 3 is nowhere near as engaging as the previous two episodes. In fact, it is quite tedious at times. Most of the effort seems to have been put into the special effects which are, indeed, quite spectacular (Sandman is particularly impressive). And there is a very explicit moral message. But the way that it deals with the themes of revenge and forgiveness are too obvious and the drama is stuff we have seen before. The actors do their job, but the dialogue is insipid and predictable.

Go see Spiderman 3 - after all, you need to complete the trilogy! But don’t expect too much.

My Rating: ***1/2

Positive Review

’With nifty new villains, a revived Green Goblin, plus $300 million worth of aerial special effects, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 is definitely good to go.’ - Jack Mathews/New York Daily News

Negative Review

’"Spider-Man 2" was a textbook example of how to make a sequel: Deepen it, make it funnier, give it more heart and come up with a strong villain and a good story. Spider Man 3, by contrast, shows how not to make a sequel.’ - Mick LaSalle/San Francisco Chronicle

Content Advice
Sequences of intense action violence

USA: PG-13

Book Review: Rapture Fiction

Rapture Fiction: And the Evangelical Crisis (Emmaus)What series of novels are more successful than the Harry Potter series? Answer: Left Behind. Two evangelical authors, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins published the first book in a series back in 1995 called Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days. The series has been a publishing sensation, selling over 60 million titles. In 2001, the ninth book in the series, Desecration, ’became the world’s top selling work of hardback fiction in the year of its release’. Since then, fiction that speculates on the detail of the end of the world have mushroomed. And they have all sold well. People seem to want to know about how the world will end. At the heart of all this fiction is the idea of The Secret Rapture. Before the second coming of Christ, the Church will be snatched from the earth - millions of people will suddenly disappear from the earth in the twinkling of an eye - before a period of intense tribulation occurs. Drawing on this basic concept and passages in the apocalyptic book of Revelation in the Bible, detailed scenarios are constructed by these authors. Movies and video games have been derived from some of these books. Rapture fiction has become a world wide phenomenon. What do we make of it? What is the theology behind it? What sort of effect is it having on Christians? And how is it affecting evangelicalism? Crawford Gribben tries to answer these questions in his book, Rapture Fiction and the Evangelical Crisis. Gribben begins his book by surveying the rapture fiction phenomenon and the way that it has tapped into fears of the end of the world, the anxiety around Y2K and 9-11; and the controversies it has engendered within evangelicalism in particular. Next, Gribben discusses the origins of the secret rapture. Tracing it from the dispensational theology of John Nelson Darby in Britain in the 1820s; its spread to North America; its popularisation by the Scofield Bible; and the subsequent changes that eventuated in the rapture being a secret event before Christ’s return. Gribben then turns his attention to the rapture fiction phenomenon itself, beginning with a look at Hal Lindsey’s popular non-fiction book The Late Great Planet Earth. In this book, Hal Lindsey produced a highly conjectural reading of the book of Revelation resulting in a detailed scenario of the end of the world. The ideas in this book have clearly influenced the development of dispensationalism. Gribben’s believes that Hal Lindsey’s book, which combined ’dispensational theology and accessible literary style’ and which ’was clearly designed to take his ideas to as wide an audience possible’ opened the way for popular fictionalised accounts of the end of the world. A number of lesser known works of rapture fiction followed. But none have been as popular as the recent crop of novels. After surveying these pieces of fiction, Gribben turns to a focused critique of its theology, specifically addressing its relationship to the gospel, the church, and Christian life. For Gribben, rapture fiction has introduced distortions in all these areas that have led to a crisis in evangelicalism. He writes:
Left Behind, despite its remarkable success, is a symptom of an unhealthy evangelicalism. The earlier series and its more recent spin-offs outline an inadequate account of the gospel, presenting as the content of saving faith something quite different from the message preached by the apostles. The novels are uncertain about the purpose of the church, the importance of the sacraments, and the life of the Christian under the law and under the cross. Left Behind - like much of the evangelicalism that celebrates its success - is the product of a shrinking theology.
For Gribben, this leads to the conclusion that
... evangelicalism itself now requires reformation, a reformation that will take it back to Scripture, away from the accretions of tradition that been institutionalised over centuries. This conclusion suggests that a great deal of modern evangelicalism is now more governed by Scripture than was much of the thinking of the medieval church it once rejected.
Strong words! There is no doubt that contemporary rapture theology is popular. Gribben mounts a strong case for its errors and damaging effects on the life of believers. The dispensational theology within which these novels are cast (and which Gribben seems favourable towards) is, in my view, a great deal of the problem. But even if one disagrees with dispensationalism, Rapture Fiction and the Evangelical Crisis is a timely critique of the dark side of this fiction. It is a much-needed corrective and reminds us of the essential emphasis on the return of Jesus and the danger of letting speculation and conjecture actually obscure this biblical truth. Related Links

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Movie Review: Georgia Rule

lindsay lohanGeorgia Rule was a complete surprise - a good one. The trailers I saw advertising this movie present it as a relationship comedy. Well, it most certainly is very funny in parts. But don’t be deceived by the trailers. The marketing for this film is completely wrong. Georgia Rule deals with very serious subject matter.

The story opens with Lilly (Felicity Huffman) and her daughter, Rachel (Lindsay Lohan) on the road and things are not happy. These two obviously don’t get on. Lilly is dropping Rachel off at her grandmother, Georgia’s (Jane Fonda) home in a small town in Idaho. This family clearly has big issues simmering under the surface and during Rachel’s stay in the town, they start to unravel with major consequences.

Georgia Rule is most definitely not a comedy. There is comedy; there is romance. But there is more drama than any of those. Jane Fonda’s Georgia is excellent. Her whole face and body communicate what is going on inside her as she observes her daughter and granddaughter stagger in a downhill spiral as revelations emerge that threaten already fragile relationships - including her own with her daughter. Felicity Huffman superbly portrays a woman fighting her own inner demons as she deals with her daughter’s challenging approach to life and relationships.

But the real surprise of this cast is Lindsay Lohan. She is brilliant as Rachel and delivers her troubled teenager role with great power and sensitivity. Put aside all those "nice" images of Lindsay Lohan. Here she shows that she can really act.

The story is excellent with consistent surprises that left me wondering how it was all going to end. The soundtrack is very good and unobtrusive.

If reading this gives you the impression that I am trying to avoid identifying the central subject matter then you are right. The story needs to unfold and surprise - something that happens in reality in relation to this material. Georgia Rule is difficult to watch at times, confronting and pulling no punches. Garry Marshall, known for lighter fare, has delivered a deep, hard-hitting drama about the emotional pain and suffering that is surely experienced by many.

My Rating: **** (out of 5)

Positive Review

Surprisingly (for me) Georgia Rule has received mostly negative reviews. Here is one of the more favorable (Warning: Plot Spoilers if you read the whole review):
’Hector Elizondo, who has appeared in all 15 of Marshall’s features, turns up as a Basque rancher and adds a bit of sparkle. I just wish Marshall’s good luck charm was not a 70-year-old actor but a fresh, honest screenplay.’ - Lawrence Toppman/Charlotte Observer

Negative Review
’Certain words should be reserved for special occasions. "Abysmal" is one of them, and Georgia Rule is as special as such occasions get.’ - Joe Morgenstern/Wall Street Journal

Content Advice
Sexual content and some language


Atheists with Attitude (The New Yorker)

Atheists are high profile fighters against religion lately and a spate of books have been published attacking God/god/gods. Anthony Gottlieb surveys these books and their arguments and asks the question, "Why do they hate Him?" You can read the article here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Deluding Who About What?

I recently reviewed Alister McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion? Dan Bye, of the Sheffield Humanist Society, has written a detailed article documenting a range of errors (factual, interpretive) in McGrath’s book. You can read the article here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Book Review: The Dawkins Delusion?

The Dawkins Delusion?Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine is an excellent critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. In four brilliant chapters, McGrath shows the absolute paucity of Dawkins’ fundamentalist atheism. As McGrath points out, trying to critique Dawkins’ arguments is difficult. They are naive, emotive, poorly argued, misrepresent religion and Christianity, and are a departure from the usual careful and rigorous approach that Dawkins displays in his other books. Each of McGrath’s chapters answers a question that is raised by Dawkins:
  1. Deluded about God?
  2. Has science disproved God?
  3. What are the origins of religion?
  4. Is religion evil?
The Dawkins Delusion? is an excellent read - calm, well reasoned, and respectful - all of the things that Dawkins’ book is not. Alister McGrath was once, himself, an atheist who was converted to Christianity. He is a scientist and theologian so speaks from a number of relevant perspectives. Francis Collins, the Director of the Human Genome Project, speaking about McGrath’s book, says,
Addressing the conclusions of The God Delusion point by point with the devastating insight of a molecular biologist turned theologian, Alister McGrath dismantles the argument that science should lead to atheism, and demonstrates instead that Dawkins has abandoned his much-cherished rationality to embrace an embittered manifesto of dogmatic atheist fundamentalism.
As McGrath points out, even atheists are becoming embarrassed about Dawkins’ approach and fear that he may do more to bolster support for Christianity than any Christian apologist could do! McGrath’s book packs some deep insights into its 78 pages. It’s easy to read and penetratingly exposes the profound deficiencies of Dawkins’ views. It is a must read for anyone interested in religion. Related Links

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Most Hated Family in America

The YouTube video below is the first part of a BBC documentary by Louis Theroux called The Most Hated Family in America. Louis Theroux spent three weeks trying to understand a small church, made up mostly of one family, who have a message of hate that they shove into the face of those they believe God hates. It’s a disturbing piece of television. It shows how the arrogance of believing one has the absolute truth can spill over into judgmentalism, hatred, and abuse of others who don’t believe the same. Be warned: there is some strong language and offensive attitudes portrayed. The video here is the first episode and you will find links to the remaining episodes below it.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Book Review: The God We Never Knew

The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion To A More Authenthic Contemporary FaithWhen I picked up Marcus J Borg’s The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith, I instantly associated him with the infamous (to some) Jesus Seminar. This seminar meets on a regular basis and the attending scholars examine and decide which parts of the New Testament gospels are authentic, original sayings of Jesus and what is considered to be later traditions formed as the early Christian church developed. I had heard that the Jesus Seminar makes its decisions, in part, by voting with little coloured marbles. Whatever I read had come from a conservative evangelical perspective. Because of this association, I was tempted not to read the book. Borg would be considered a "liberal" Christian who, as I understand it, doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ or a literal resurrection. Despite the negative things I had heard about the Jesus Seminar, I decided I would read Borg’s book - a critically thinking Christian seeks out different views to one’s own as a way to challenge thinking and test out one’s own ideas. The God We Never Knew was a very pleasant surprise. Borg shares his experience growing up in a conservative Christian culture and how, as the years progressed, traditional Christianity became increasingly difficult for him. His questions led him on a spiritual journey that, in his view, has led him to a more authentic form of Christianity which is attractive to contemporary people. Borg is an excellent writer. He is clear, conversational, and makes complex ideas easy to understand. The perspective that Borg presents is called panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism!) Panentheism, according to Borg, is more consistent with biblical understandings of God. It asserts that God is both transcendent and imminent. Borg defines panentheism as the view of God
... as encompassing Spirit; we (and everything that is) are in God. For this concept, God is not a supernatural being separate from the universe; rather, God (the sacred, Spirit) is a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality all around us. God is more than the universe, yet the universe is in God. Thus, in a spatial sense, God is not "somewhere else" but "right here." (p. 12)
Borg contrasts panentheism with what he identifies as supernatural theism which
... conceptualizes God as a supernatural being "out there," separate from the world, who created the world a long time ago and who may from time to time intervene within it. In an important sense, this God is not "here" and thus cannot be known or experienced but only believed in (which, within the logic of this concept, is what "faith" is about).
As Borg teases out his concept of God, it becomes fairly clear that he does not think of Jesus as divine in the orthodox sense, nor accepts a literal virgin birth, and sees the gospels as the produce of a developing tradition within early Christianity. A lot of evangelical Christians will feel uncomfortable with these "liberal" understandings of the biblical story. But it is important not to let what might be disagreeable get in the way of what Borg has to say. Borg has some incredibly important things to offer in his understanding of Christianity, particularly in the way that Christians should live in the modern world. The book is divided into three sections: 1) Thinking about God; 2) Imaging God; and 3) Living with God. In the first section, we are led through the two main alternatives in understanding God ("supernatural theism" and panentheism). This is important to consider because, as Borg says, how we think about God has implications for everything else we believe and do. For Borg, panentheism is most consistent with the biblical view of God and Christian tradition. In the second part, Borg explores a range of images and metaphors for understanding and conceptualising God. There is an incredibly rich array of images for God in Scripture that, when recovered, provide a superbly fresh understanding of God and God’s relationship to the world and humanity. There is a whole chapter on the relationship between God and Jesus and Borg carefully describes what he sees as the pre-Easter and post-Easter views of Jesus. When Borg arrives at the third section of the book, Living with God, he really has some very significant things to offer about the way that Christians should live in the world. Tackling the big issues of spirituality, the politics of compassion, and salvation, Borg articulates a vision of contemporary Christian spirituality which would result in a radical lifestyle that has relevance now on earth rather than being primarily concerned with an other-worldly salvation that takes the focus away from immediate social concerns. The God We Never Knew really made me think about God in fresh and exciting ways that, if followed through, would change the focus of my Christian life to a more communal, socially aware, and relevant faith that enacts itself in positive practical ways to bring about the "dream of God" for the world God loves. I was moved by this book. Borg walks a line with his theology that I don’t always follow. But he has some essential things to say and his view of spirituality is enriching, relevant, and inspiring. It will appeal to anyone who needs a fresh, inclusive contemplation of Christianity that speaks to the 21st century mind and heart. Related Links

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Five Questions About Clarity (Butterflies and Wheels)

One of the most important criteria for thinking and communicating is clarity. Check out this excellent, brief interview with Nigel Warburton on the nature and importance of clarity. I like his five tips for improving clarity:
  1. Care about being understood.
  2. Read George Orwell’s essay ’Politics and the English Language’ (1946). It has excellent practical advice about writing to be understood.
  3. Use examples. These can be highly imaginative and creative. This will force you to think through what you mean by generalisations and will also help your readers to understand what you mean. If you want your writing to be impressively obscure, don’t descend from abstraction and use as much jargon as you can.
  4. Know what your conclusion is, how your reasons and examples support it and your response to obvious counterarguments and counterexamples. If you don’t know that, how can you expect your readers to work out what you are saying?
  5. Don’t bullshit. Most people know when they are doing it. If you don’t, you are probably in the wrong subject.
You can read the whole interview here.

Atheists split on how not to believe (Nashua Telegraph)

It is not only Christians who find the approach of atheists like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris to be overdone. Greg Epstein, a humanist chaplain at Harvard University, describes the ’new atheism’ to be just as fundamentalist as some of the faith leaders they criticise. Jay Lindsay reports on what seems to be a split within the atheist camp on just how to go about persuading others of the atheist position. You can read the whole article here.

Jesus 'Love-Bombs' You

AP_livinghope300Chris Hedges, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, reports on a five-day seminar on how to evangelise, as part of his research for a book entitled American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. It makes for interesting reading. And, although many Christians may not be quite so overt about manipulating people to convert to Christianity, it does us good to ask ourselves whether we truly value and protect people’s freedom, autonomy, and ability to reason for themselves. God has gifted humans with reasoning ability. If we do anything to undermine that ability, we make people less than human. Read Chris Hedge’s complete article here.