Wednesday, 31 March 2010

"The children have gone": a lamentation

In the day
pomp holds forth
against my wind pipe.

Shining walls,
Tables set for twenty,
Laughter, loud voices.

Given into the hands
of the gleaming walkers,
assessing each gain.

Exulting madly
In the quiet moments,
Floods and dreams.

I bear no scars on my cheek.
I carry no dead weight.
I speak with friends alone.
I keep up my own strength.

This portrait (which is perhaps barely a poem!) describes the present-day tragedy that I can see in people's lives and is called "the children have gone" after a line in Lamentations 1.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Poem: Obsession

Here's an angry, sketchy poem I recently read out at a monthly writers' group I started going to. I think it was liked. Another poem will be posted tomorrow, so check back for more!

Why shouldn't we
Place our places well,
Lay out sheets of space
Amid expensive, precious rubble?
   - oh go on, stand it up,
   keep that lamp to,
   pass those small crystal dolphins,
   the paper fan can hang by it.

Outside, why should we
Solve our own riddles
With bulldozers
Knocking out
Bases and roots -
   stand that tree down,
   wipe out its lip,
   let rip all
   but stay off the pavement!

"The Question" - and some questions for you about "redemption"

As a fan of classics like V for Vendetta, I’ve been very impressed by the unorthodox and mysterious adventures of the Question in his comic series from the late 1980s. Our hero Vic Sage, who wonders if his greatest power is his curiosity, dresses up in a blank flesh-coloured mask and deals out kung-fu on those who try to stop him investigating crimes as "the Question". It’s all very Zen. The (rather dated) artwork, which is clearly going for “gritty”, portrays his traumatic personal journey well, and creates an immersive setting called “Hub City” – which just reeks of corruption for Sage to morosely contemplate or "kick to the curb".

Sometimes the short, connected stories seem to be trying to tick boxes for all the “then” social issues in America (poverty, drugs, identity, pollution, the rebellious youth, family break-up, the aftermath of Vietnam) and tap into the 80s trend for violent martial arts and riddles of eastern philosophy. But the fact that the writer Dennis O’Neil is embracing the unknown makes this book stand out in our age when we tend to think everything can be explained rationally through science.

Again and again O’Neil hints that there is a life beyond this one, implies that perfection is achieved when the mind and body are rightly controlled or focused, or deals with questions of the spirit and the possibility of redemption. Often he won’t give us clear answers – but the central philosophy seems to be a mix of self-knowledge and improvement and moral responsibility to society, including environmental concerns. Hence the ongoing development of former newscaster Myra’s quest to change society as she watches her husband, the corrupt, alcoholic mayor of Hub City, permit all kinds of wrongdoing, from drug-running, to extortion and murder.

For the Question, however, justice is good but mercy is preferable. He sees a fine balance in himself between serving society and becoming reckless in his pursuit of justice. In one issue (No 8: “Mikado”) he confronts a serial killer who is at times called a “saint”, but who, behind a mask, is murdering those he deems evil. He is trying to redress the balance in Hub City, where evil men consistently get away with their crimes at the expense of their families or the poor.

The Question quickly gets to the point where he knows the identity of the killer, but his curiosity wins out: “I know who he is. Now I’ve got to learn why he is”. Meeting the killer, he points out a flaw in Mikado’s sadistic system, showing that although he, Vic Sage, is far from “innocent” and used to beat a girlfriend and relish his physical power, he has since managed to use his life to save people. Point blank, he asks: “Do I deserve to die?” The story ends ambiguously. How can a person judge the answer to this? How do we balance it and is it up to us? How can the evil be dealt with rightly, with punishment, in a way that allows society to continue on and improve? And for those who commit evil, is change possible? These are not straight-forward questions to answer.

This is going to sound very direct, but these are exactly the problems explored in the New Testament of the Bible. The writers are at great pains to show the depth of the problem of corruption and evil running rampant. There is a problem with humanity, and it stems from the fact that we are not in tune with our creator, God.

Delving deeper into redeeming the corrupt

In the book of Romans in the New Testament, God delivers the verdict on all mankind. For our behaviour towards each other and for the secret sins of our hearts, and for our rejection of Him and His ways of living – we deserve death. We are all “under sin” (see Romans 3:9 onward). Romans 3:19 teaches that the whole world is accused of sin before God and no-one has a defence.

This is also how Jesus, who loves us, talks about humanity as recorded by Mark (in Mark 7:21-23): "For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' "

So what can be done? What is the answer to this huge problem? If a thoroughly good God is against us because we are “under sin”, how can we be redeemed in his sight today, and saved from his final judgement when it comes?

It is possible by Jesus’ sacrifice for us - when he gave himself to death on the cross 2000 years ago. This is what his purpose was: that he could truly be our “life” by taking away the curse we face of being “under sin” and facing that curse himself and owning it. He has faced and borne God’s judgement in our place – so we don’t have to! Those who accept this gift and receive Jesus as Lord and Saviour can be considered pure and righteous in God’s sight – we are redeemed.

A great change has come

Restored to God, as we start to follow him and worship him, we can be restored in other relationships as well, areas where we have been corrupt or selfish. This doesn’t mean a prisoner who becomes a Christian will no longer have to face a hard sentence. We still live for now with the consequences of our actions on other people. But in God’s eyes there IS mercy. There is forgiveness and purification.

And it's not just reporters in comic-books with mixed motives who can use their lives now to impact others positively. For Christians, real change is made possible as we live knowing of Jesus’ sacrifice and trusting in Him now, experiencing the new life that he shares with us. This new life will transform us. He will make us different, growing in love and right-ness. As we live with Him, corruption must be tackled, not ignored. And as individuals change, growing more like Jesus, and work together, communities can be changed.

Learning this answer to the question of redemption is the beginning, and will probably lead to a whole new set of questions, so please comment below....

And do pick up The Question volumes 1 and 2 - the first tackles nihilism, control and hypocrisy, the second includes another thought-provoking story called "Poisoned Ground", which is a brilliantly constructed drama, with perhaps something to tell us about commercialism.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Top films which love the unexpected

I have been enjoying the way movies can play tricks on you or experiment with narrative, having recently seen two surprising films. The first, The Prestige (2006), was a drama that keeps you guessing all the way through. One or two brilliant moments towards the end really shine where the obsession of the two main characters, both stage magicians, breaks through, and we finally see what drives them. Another was the (very) slow but compelling thriller The Conversation (1974), in which Gene Hackman stars as troubled and obsessive surveillance man, Kaul, as he tries to piece together a conversation his team has managed to record, to find out why it is wanted so much, and what danger it could cause. What sounds like a random chat (“who started this conversation anyway?”) grows to have more and more significance as the puzzle grows thicker. And the film refuses to give you all the answers.

Following on from my post on quirky films last month, here are 3 more films which don’t give you the full picture straight away.

Momento (2000)

Christopher Nolan’s brilliant debut as director is required viewing if you are into “serious” films, or crime films, or dramas. Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man whose short-term memory does not work very well, and Nolan gives us insight into this experience by stopping us seeing what has just happened before each segment of film. So how does the film work? Well, we see the last section first and go backwards! So the last moments of the film is the earliest point in the narrative – and this works really well. We understand Leonard's bewilderment and panic, we laugh and are shocked with him - all on his very personal quest to find his wife's killer. But the deeper you go into this film, the more unpleasant s character turns out to be… that’s all I’m saying, but you’ll never guess how complex his life and problems are. Makes you think twice about the issue of how to best treat or help disabled people.... and it also comments on the whole noir/police genre and how it works, with all the data and clues that you can't always follow, something that goes back to early noir like 1948's The Big Sleep.

Hero (2002) – a great exploration of deception and the mettle of a person’s character which begins with a nameless prefect (Jet Li) from a small jurisdiction of Ancient China approaching the King of Qin in his impressive palace. He tells of how he has defeated the king’s three most deadly enemies, the assassins Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Long Sky. Amidst all the incredulously picturesque fighting, which is director Yang Zimou’s strange but enjoyable breed of superhuman fantasy martial acts (I think we should appreciate its uniqueness and the way it tells a story rather than bemoaning the weirdness of it), the plot becomes more and more devious. From a certain point in the film you are invited to begin to doubt the various narratives and ways of portraying the King’s quest to conquer rebels and expand his kingdom. OK, so the film doesn’t succeed as well at captivating us as the tragic, emotional journey that is House of Flying Daggers, but it is still worth a look, if only for the dazzling colours in the costumes and fights.

Millennium Actress (2001) – if you’re willing to let the answers come gradually through what can be a confusing 2 hours, take a look at this beautiful animated film where the story unravels through incredible scenery from Japanese cinema, ranging from ancient Japanese warfare to the high-school genre, to rural settings, and even to a mission to the moon (an incredibly beautiful metaphor in the film). Through each film sequence, we follow the story of one actress’s impressive life as she is picked from obscurity and becomes famous, and yet throughout seems to be chasing a mysterious love, who she treasures more than those around her. The film worlds overlap with the real one, until we become as caught up in her life as her two biggest fans. Actually a very simple idea, but cleverly put together into a superb, moving, and at times comical, film that shows just how stubborn and complex and “unready to settle” we humans can be. The haunting climax poses some serious questions to us about what it is that we are looking for in life. When will our dreams be fulfilled?

I could have also mentioned Arlington Road here, a 1999 film about trust, community, and perhaps the state of America, starring Tim Robbins, and which from an already edgy story determines to defy the conventional, and the way we expect the movie to head.

One more off-the-wall movie to finish you off: Night Watch (2004) – which was at times quite an uncomfortable experience, and comes across as more a bunch of crazy ideas than one story – but (and this will be highly personal to each viewer) it never put me off engaging with its gritty horrific world in all the confusion and which won points with me with some really surprising intense sequences borrowing from the thriller and action genres, and a killer ending. I'm not sure I followed it all, and not sure if its view of the world having a balance between good and evil is supposed to be good or not, it all seems very sinister and kind of an arbitrary way of running things.

That's all for now, more on film to follow in a couple of weeks...

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Being confronted: Am I messing around with God? - in Matthew 11

Just been looking at Matthew 11 in preparation for a talk. The end verses are well known and show Jesus' wide invitation to all people to hear him and "lean on" him (or trust in him) in their lives:
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

But how does Jesus feel about offering his invitation to people? And how does he get to a point where he says these great words, even in the midst of a time when people are finding fault with him and not committing to follow him? (It seems people are wanting Jesus to play along to their tune, rather than responding by obeying him.) Here's my run-down of some of the earlier parts of chapter 11.

verses 7-10. Following a visit from some of John the Baptist's followers, Jesus questions the crowds about the fiery teacher himself, John the Baptist: “You went to see John for a reason, remember? He’s a man of iron, an earnest man (you saw this), and he’s a prophet whose job was to point to the coming of the Lord.”

v11-15 “After the Prophets and the Law came, John has come, and now after him something far greater: the kingdom of God is here for all to enter - if people hear and avail themselves of this opportunity.”

v16-19 “What are you like? You don’t want to listen to John, and now you won’t listen to me (the greater one)! You have seen by our actions that we are from God.” (Actions including: John’s forthright teaching and lifestyle which captured crowds, and now Jesus’ teaching, amazing authority and miracles)

v20-24 Jesus denounces those who did not repent. “You cities who have not repented will not remain! Even when the wicked people from Sodom or Tyre or Sidon would have responded, you have not! You will face punishment for not responding in this unique time to me.

v25-27 Jesus speaks to his Father: “Father, Lord of all kingdoms, thank you for how you hide and reveal your truth at the right times, so people can know you, all in line with your plan”

v28-29 Trusting God and with love for the people there anyway, Jesus invites people to him, promising them “rest for their souls” when they join with him.

It still amazes me how faithful God is to us in his Son Jesus when we are so faithless to Him.

Check out the 07.03.2010 talk I gave on this chapter on my church's website for more, and see what Jesus' response to the crowds was, his frustration with them and the judgement he announces as well as his great love to want to help them and give to them from his great riches: