Thursday, 30 September 2010

Movies: No 3-D, but good stories

Here's a few films I've enjoyed recently. Also be sure to check out my review of Moon, one of the more thought-provoking films to come out last year.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World: Awesomely silly. Brilliantly smile-inducing odd-ball characters in a crazy old-school-copmputer-game style situation, where Scott must overcome the sinister exes of his love Ramona Flowers in order to date her. Also, I couldn't help slightly relating to Scott's geeky awkwardness or his off-on-another-planet moments. Set to become a cult classic?

The Soloist: Good but not excellent film which dares to explore the real challenges of homelessness and mental health problems. Jamie Fox's character shows us how there are sometimes multiple factors warring against some needy people. Even Robert Downey Jr is brought down a peg or two through his unlikely commitment to a man on the street.

Girl, Interrupted: In what could have been a very depressing story about jailbirds in a psychiatric institution, assured direction and a good story make this a film about struggling to live as decent and "whole" person in society. Winona Ryder's performance is brilliant (more so than Angelina Jolie), but so is the rest of the cast. It's a sometimes disturbing, sometimes hopeful film which raises questions about how we judge what is acceptable behaviour and how we best gives ourselves a chance in life. Not sure it always answers all those questions, but then that's life - which sometimes can be muddled.

Toy Story 3: The series has grown up, in my view, as a more dread-laden universe threatens the classic characters. Still manages to get us anxious as the toys head on several new journeys. Also: very funny.

Inception: Not sure what else can be said about this. Wait, yes I do. I'd love to hear someone's thoughts on the pyschology of the team trying to turn someone against an idea through using their feelings about their parents. Is this actually quite bad (or simplistic) psychology, assuming that the way we think is that much a product of our relationships with our parents? I'm not denying that we are influenced by our family, consciously or sub-consciously, but it seemed a little neat in the film, now that I think about it...

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

So - smile! and forget all about it....

Sometimes I despair about communicating the serious message of the gospel in a world which loves and seeks out the flippant, the tearing down, the joke. Of course, we seek a joke to make a social situation more comfortable – and I understand this: There’s skill in making others feel at ease through humour. But what I’m talking about is the way we hear something serious and twist it into something to laugh at or make light of, totally missing the point that was being made.

I’ve been listening to the preaching of John Piper on Romans lately. Now, he can use absurd or humorous language to make a point. But he is is passionate big-time in speaking about God. One thing I’ve particularly noticed is how he urges his congregation to consider and dwell on the seriousness of God’s teaching. Here’s some examples:

  • Piper is urgent about spreading the good news of the gospel to make known the magnificent name of Jesus Christ. He is deathly serious about the situation that many are heading towards hell, settling for the things of this world and never turning back to their Maker. Like Solomon's serious words in Proverbs 1, or Jesus’ words in Jerusalem when he called people to come to the way of rescue in Him, that leads to true, lasting life – let’s be serious about this. So that people do not go down to a death without God, for lack of knowledge or because of the foolishness of how they treat the subject.

  • Piper is serious about being thankful and glad towards God and to others, making a point of showing his gratefulness for others’ gifts on a Sunday, for instance, or to his wife or others. I both love this and can learn from it

  • He is serious about getting people to understand that God is glorious in holiness and sovereignty over the whole earth, but also that he specially chooses a people for himself - people who do not deserve his love and forgiveness and holy righteousness. (How wonderful it is to see this so clearly!)

What’s more, Piper wants us to look hard at ourselves and our motivations – the things of the heart which only God sees. For instance, why do we do good things? What is the manner in which we do them? Is it with an awareness of the rescue plan God has put into place for us? Is it with an awareness of the rebellion that is in us, still close to our hearts? Do we recognise that He has done all and we are the recipients of wonderful grace?

Piper is earnest about the need to “get our knees” (or humble ourselves) in prayer and in love of God and in dependence on him. Nothing qualifies us for heaven except Jesus’ blood shed in sacrifice, if we accept it – so as Christians we are dependent on God. We are centred on Jesus, the source of our salvation. And we couldn’t do true good at all except for the influence of God on the world – so nothing we bring qualifies us for leadership or to help or teach others, it’s only the strength, gifts, good skills and opportunities which God brings us. Our very service and worship is enabled by God. So let’s attribute it all to him!

There’s much to be serious about. And much to grow in. Let’s determine to grow this week, even today, and take God seriously. Let’s heed his call to “listen” and see his work in our lives as significant. And let’s lead people with our words to greater subjects than the latest internet fad or the latest largely insignificant news story.

Image rights: ({{Information |Description=A smile a day keeps the pain and the doctor away |Source=[ :: A smile a day keeps the pain and the doctor away. ::] |Date=2009-04-03 15:55 |Author=[

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Comics: politics in Avengers: Initiative and Waren Ellis' Thunderbolts

The US government places blame on the reckless behaviour of unlicensed individuals and groups, but tries to remedy this by empowering government-approved and sanctioned groups to combat the rest. Who is right? How do you best navigate or utilise the chaos that ensues?

This is the situation created in the aftermath of Marvel's hugely popular Civil War storyline, which divided allied heroes such as Iron Man and Mr Fantastic from Spiderman, Captain America or Luke Cage in a seemingly permanent way.

The question is: what overpowered forces can be allowed to be active day-to-day? What is the role of the unregulated do-gooder in the community, and can such role models be allowed without some kind of formalisation?

The question of the media is sometimes touched on as well, as government-endorsed heroes must be made to appear victorious,despite the facts. When the government's “Avengers: Initiative” is launched to train or re-train B-list heroes at boot camp, in order to provide a super-powered force in every US state, the “superman-controlled state” seems close – closer when you appreciate how the truth about their missions is kept from the public, and their enemies, once captured, are carted off to the negative zone without trial for the foreseeable future. In this new world, everyone seems to be grasping for the final say on how these teams should be run, and the motivations are more than suspect. For instance, old foes like Norman Osborn (the Green Goblin) and Taskmaster (who trained several major villains) are given influential positions in the new order, whether for the money, the freedom or the power it is unclear. So we are left to ask: when does peace-keeping become oppression? And when does education become political indoctrination? How should communities interact with their policing?

The New Avengers comics following Civil War show an outlawed group of former Avengers being attacked by a group organised by the Hood, who sees the chaos amongst superheroes as an opportunity. The Hood's promises to his villains are better than what the government offers – so that out in society, greed can not be relied on to procure loyalty.

Another method of control explored is electronic implants used on villains, temporarily paralysing them if they disobey orders. Take the new, darker Thunderbolts comics, where, somehow, Norman Osborn has been given oversight of a team of some of the most sadistic characters in the Marvel universe – or at least that's how they are portrayed by writer Warren Ellis in the first two volumes: Faith in Monsters and Caged Angels. Super-violent at points, it's hard not to be on the side of those trying to pull the team apart, and although assassin Bullseye is not a convincing psychopath here, Ellis has brilliant fun playing with Norman's bipolar manic depression and insanity, and the attempts of the team to undermine him, as well as the arrogant Swordsman, and he even writes some of the craziest Venom sequences I've seen for a long time in volume two. Yes, even Venom is on this team. It's an example of a comic where just when you think things could get better for the unregistered heroes which the Thunderbolts are out to “contain”, it just gets worse.

Ultimately, in Thunderbolts we see that tough security can be broken or manipulated. You have to feel sorry for the security guards who tend to get killed off by the more dangerous Thunderbolts on the team.

The afore-mentioned Avengers: Initiative comic is almost as dark in content, and violent, despite a colourful, manga or TV-inspired design. It also happens to be one of the best Marvel books I have read recently, more shocking and bigger in scope than some of the recent Iron Man stories or the impressive espionage-focused Captain America series. In Avengers: Initiative the concept of having leaders with dubious moral fibre running a boot camp for heroes with a variety of strange powers is a perfect way to get inexperienced teenagers into terrifying danger. And as we see them get confident with their powers, or traumatised and disillusioned, we worry about the personal motivations of some to be part of the programme. The first volume ends with a neat whodunit, for instance, where many on the training base are suspects and which only the reader finally finds out the real solution to. The first two volumes pour in shock after shock and well-define some interesting characters, but so far the third, which links with an alien invasion, is less punchy due to there now being too many characters to follow. I wish we could have stayed mainly with the batch of heroes from volume two.
And whether the questions raised in the Marvel universe get resolved or not, we can guarantee whatever happens will provide more action. Hopefully we can think more carefully about these issues of who runs society, the role of business in politics, what kind of policing is effective and the importance of role models, including the importance of supporting good leaders which we have the opportunity to elect and involve in our communities.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The hope of the Christian

Just read this fantastic outline of the message of the book of 1 Peter! Find the book towards the back of the Bible, and read below to get a sense of what it's about.
Facing impending assaults on the gospel, Peter witnesses to the grace of God, the overwhelming reality of what God has done in Jesus Christ. The apostle knows that Jesus rose from the dead; he saw him ascend to heaven. He knows, too, why Jesus died, and what his death accomplished, as he writes: ‘Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed’ (2:24).

The reality of what Christ has done makes sure the hope of the Christian ‘brotherhood’. Christians can not only endure suffering for Christ’s sake; they can rejoice, for in their agony they are joined to Jesus who suffered for them. Their very sufferings become a sign of hope, for, as Christ suffered and entered into his glory, so will they. The Spirit of glory and of God rests on them (4:14).

Whether their neighbours attack or respect them, they can bear witness to the grace of God by their Christian lifestyle. Quietly and humbly they can live holy lives, not seeking to claim their own rights, but honouring others. Such humble living is in no way servile or demeaning, for Christians know themselves to be the royal people of God’s own possession, the chosen heirs of the new creation. They need not avenge themselves, nor need they claim for themselves what is their due; their trust is in the judgment of God. Christians are ‘resident aliens’ in [their towns and cities], but they are members of God’s own household.
The gift of God’s love, the blood of Jesus Christ, has redeemed Christians from the corrupt and empty lifestyle of their God-less past; that grace now unites them in fervent love for one another. They serve and help one another, using the rich spiritual gifts with which God’s grace equips them, ... [Jesus watching over them].
By the victory of Jesus Christ over all the powers of darkness they are freed from the power of Satan. They can repulse the roaring lion; in the fires of trial their faith will not be destroyed but purified like gold in the furnace. They may cast all their cares on God, knowing that he cares for them.
The grace that already fills Christians with joy will be brought to them fully at the appearing of Jesus Christ. The Lord, whom they love but have not seen, they will see and adore. Knowing well the doom and darkness from which they were delivered, the new people of God sing forth his praises. Their hallelujahs ring from their assemblies, their homes, even from the prison cells where their fear of God has set them free from the fear of man. Their witness is a witness of praise. Nourished by the unfailing Word of God, they taste already the goodness of their Saviour. The true grace of God has called them to his glory: everything, even their sufferings, will serve his purpose who redeemed them at such a price.
Some may scorn the comfort and triumph of Peter’s letter as unpractical theology. His answers are answers of faith. But Peter knows that his witness is true, that Jesus Christ is real. He has tasted that the Lord is good, and that his goodness will not fail. ‘This is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it’ (5:12).

Clowney, Edmund P.: The Message of 1 Peter : The Way of the Cross. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA : Inter-Varsity Press, 1988 (The Bible Speaks Today), S. 23

Praise the Lord! Praise Him for Peter's witness to us and for the certain hope of being saved by Christ, if we ally ourselves with him and his people on earth. Amen.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

What materialism is good materialism?

According to Philip Johnson, through school, college or university many in the West have been given “maps of understanding” where God has been “left off” the map. There is no place for the spiritual in academia (and little in the media). This is what Os Guinness found, who said his education “gave no place to the faith that was vital to him”. So today many, like Os Guinness, may be unsatisfied with us, really searching for meaning which is not found in their place of study/work or in their culture.

For Christians the danger is that we too easily fit in to our society and leave God off the map. We are tempted to do things without investing their true, and highest, meaning in them – studying, working, politics, economics, technology, writing, reading, having fun – it all ought to be done in worship, as we know an inner joy in God through Christ, and seek to live in God’s world God’s way, in response to the gift of Jesus Christ.

In short, here’s the challenge: Godless materialism can not have its way. Its goals and its various manifestations must not become our idols. Only God-worshipping materialism is right – a celebration of the true physical blessings God has given us, turning these blessings into worship. Yes, worship: whether this means sharing physical things, putting them to use for God, not simply for man, or finding satisfaction in using or enjoying them, knowing God is the giver of all good things, and will provide even more satisfying and joyful physical things in heaven.

If you sympathise with this point of view (or do not) it would be useful to hear your thoughts, and perhaps how you have rallied your body to worship of God in your work/play/social life/family life/etc.

Quotes from The Right Questions: Truth, Meaning & Public Debate by Phillip E Johnson, which I don't always agree with, but is usefully thought-provoking.