reflecting on two films

On Saturday evening Sally and I went to the cinema to watch ’12 Years a Slave’. It is very difficult to describe my emotions afterwards as I felt that I had been assaulted by a vile experience. That is not a criticism of the film – I thought it was incredible, powerful, moving and engaging. But what was portrayed in the film left me feeling sickened to think that people could treat one another in the way that the slaves were treated.

And when the slave owners tried to justify their actions by a distorted and highly selective reading from the Bible it left me both disturbed and angry. How can anyone imagine that God approves of such barbarity, inhumanity and what is plainly evil? How can they imagine that God was on their side?

And that left me with some difficult questions of my own:

How can I be sure that my reading of the Bible is not distorted by prejudices of my own? I think the answer to this lies in honest and open approaches to the text. I should look at the pages with an open mind not a closed one, ready to receive not look to back up my own views. It helps to look at how others have interpreted it too (which is why commentaries and Bible reading notes are so helpful), and not just those I would automatically agree with. And it is essential to read it prayerfully and with humility – what does God want to say to me?

What would I have done if I was born into a Plantation-owning family in the Southern States of America in that era? Would I have bought into the distorted view of reality? Would I have accepted the status quo? And if (as I hope) I would have been repulsed and want to change things, what would I do differently? If I only had employees rather than slaves I would price myself out of business very quickly as I could not compete with those whose overheads were much lower because of the exploitation of slave labour. Would I sell up and move to another place where slavery was not accepted and start a different business? I don’t know.

What would I have done if I had been born as a slave, or kidnapped and forced into slavery? Is it possible to resist evil when you are so powerless? Would I have tried to be the best I could and serve as diligently as possible in the hope of showing another way (along the lines that Paul advises when he writes to those who are slaves, and also in supporting the return of a runaway slave in the letter to Philemon)? Would I have responded with hatred?

I recognise that I am privileged not to be in a situation where I have to answer those questions. But I feel that it is important for me to try – in order to try to recognise the suffering of others, in order to motivate me to fight for justice and truth (especially in the face of modern slavery and people-trafficking) and in order for me to be vigilant about how I treat others and seek to ensure that I respond in a way that emulates Jesus.

And then last night at our church Film Night we watched ‘Invictus’. I have already commented on the film last week but watching it after having watched ’12 Years a Slave’ was incredibly powerful. Nelson Mandela’s refusal to respond to violence and hate with revenge and retribution was inspirational. By offering forgiveness and reconciliation he showed another way: what Paul calls the ‘most excellent way’ (1 Corinthians 13). That cannot have been easy. It is still not necessarily easy today.

There is a lot of talk about ‘equality’ today. Equality Legislation has been passed to give the full force of the law to trying to stamp out prejudice. But legislation alone is insufficient. We need to begin by recognising the innate value, dignity, humanity and importance of every other human being on this planet. The Bible talks about us all being made in the ‘image of God’. That is not a physical representation of him, but is about the capacity to love and be loved, to sense the divine spark of creativity in everyone, to know that everyone is utterly priceless.

When we see each other like that we will not only find slavery and racism (and the like) abhorrent, but we will also find it more difficult to be unkind to one another, to carry out character assassinations behind someone’s back, or even to think of ourselves as better than someone else.

On Sunday morning we used a prayer from the Iona Community to gather at Communion:

Gather us in
The lost and the lonely,
The broken and the breaking,
The tired and the aching
Who long for the nourishment found at your feast
Gather us in
The done and the doubting,

The wishing and wondering,

The puzzled and pondering

Who long for your company

found at your feast

Gather us in

The proud and pretentious,

The sure and superior,

The never inferior

Who long for the levelling

found at your feast

Gather us in

The bright and the bustling,

The stirrers, the shakers,

The kind laughter-makers

Who long for the deeper joys

found at your feast

Gather us in

From corner or limelight,

From mansion or campsite,

From fears and obsession,

From tears and depression,

From untold excesses,

From treasured successes

To meet, to eat,

Be given a seat,

Be joined to the Vine,

Be offered new wine,

Become like the least,

Be found at the feast

Gather us in

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

feelings…

On Sunday evening at our church we will be having another of our Film Nights. They are relaxed occasions when we gather together and watch a film, with an invitation to reflect on some of the deeper meaning of the film and what it means for our lives.

This Sunday we will be watching The Bucket List. I will endeavour not to give out any spoilers, but the blurb on the back of the DVD case describes it as, “A hilarious and deeply touching tale. The Bucket List charts [Edward and Carter’s] journey across continents, to building a friendship and discovering their own identities.”

The two main stars are Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman and I think it is a lovely, moving film that makes you laugh and consider deep questions. What is it about the arts that they have the capacity to do that to us? Music, even without lyrics, can move us. Poetry can touch deep within. Paintings and sculptures can speak to us in ways that words cannot. Film and theatre can engage us in unexpected ways.

On Saturday I went to the cinema and watched Les Miserables with the two main women in my life (wife and daughter). I had seen it at the theatre in the past and was moved by it, but the film production of it left me with a lump in my throat.

I am sure that wiser and deeper thinkers than me have pondered why the arts can move us, and probably have been awarded PhDs for their troubles. But here’s how I see it. God has made us with emotions as a way of helping us to engage more deeply with him, with each other. with his world and with ourselves. We are moved, we feel joy, we express laughter, we cry because we are created to be affected by all that is around us. It is an essential part of being human. It is part of being created in God’s likeness. It is part of understanding the world in which we live and ourselves within that world.

We respond emotionally to the arts because they meet us on an emotional level that is underpins intellect and cognitive ability. Stories resonate with us. Images remind us. Sounds and melodies stir us more profoundly than knowledge can.

I think that it’s part of us growing emotionally as well: we have a safe place to ‘rehearse’ our emotions so we can know how best to respond to them in other circumstances. It can help us to empathise and sympathise with others.

One of the messages for me in The Bucket List is that there is more to life than we often allow ourselves to experience. In our morning services we are exploring what it means to follow Jesus and live life in all its fullness. I don’t have all the answers, but I know that God wants us to explore what it means to be fully human in a relationship with him: allowing ourselves to be emotionally affected by many different aspects of his world and allowing him to speak to us through them.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A film crew was on location deep in the middle of Dartmoor. One day a wizened, weather-beaten old man went up to the director and said, “It be gwin ter rain termorrow.”

The next day it rained. A week later, the old man went up to the director and said, “Termorrow there be gwin ter be a hoooge storm.” The next day there was a hailstorm.

“This man is incredible,” said the director. He told his secretary to hire the old man to predict the weather. However, after several successful predictions, the old man didn’t show up for two weeks.

Finally the director sent for him. “I have to shoot a big scene tomorrow,” said the director, “and I’m depending on you. What will the weather be like?”

The old man shrugged his shoulders. “Oi dunno,” he said. “Me radio is broke.”

learning from elephants

Apparently there’s an Indian parable about four blind men who encounter an elephant. One finds the trunk and describes a very different animal to the person who finds the tail. Another finds a leg and describes a very different beast to the one who feels the elephant’s ear. The parable is supposed to tell us that different faiths are merely different ways of describing God.

Now I am NOT saying that there is no truth or good in other faiths. But the message of Jesus is, in my opinion, pretty exclusive. He is the only one whose death makes a difference to our relationship with God. He is the only one whose resurrection affirms our hope of resurrection and offers eternal life.

However that parable seems to me to be apt if applied to the gospels. What we have are four eyewitnesses who are describing the same thing but from different perspectives. Matthew, writing for a predominantly Jewish audience tells us how the Jesus narrative fulfils the Old Testament prophecies. Jesus IS the Promised One. Luke, writing for a predominantly non-Jewish reader, wants to emphasise how anyone can be a follower of Jesus. He sets out to write ‘an orderly account’. Mark is in a hurry (look how many times he writes ‘immediately’ or ‘the next day’). He writes about Jesus probably to a community under duress, to reassure them of who Jesus is and encourage them in their faith. God wins. John looks at things very differently (I think he got the trunk!). Instead of a chronological narrative John takes events from Jesus’ life and comments on them for us. Indeed my own theory is that what we have with John is a collection of his sermons. He affirms who Jesus is through his words and actions, which are ‘signs’ to lead his listeners / readers to faith.

It is assumed that Matthew and Luke had sight of Mark’s gospel when they wrote because the order of events and the events recorded are very similar to Mark, but they have added details for their readers. That may be so. I don’t have a problem with them doing that. But even if they used Mark’s structure they told the narrative in ways that were relevant and appropriate to their audience.

That’s a lesson for us all today. How can we tell the Jesus narrative in ways that are relevant to the people we encounter? On Sunday evening we will have a go at this by watching the film ‘Despicable Me’ and seeing what it reveals to us of the gospel of Jesus and how it relates to people today. If you are in Colchester on Sunday evening (6pm) you would be very welcome to join us and join in.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Another elephant-related lesson:

At the College / Minister Factory where I trained we were asked the question, “How do you eat an elephant?”

The answer: “One mouthful at a time.”

Don’t get hung up on the ethics of eating elephants or endangered species issues, the elephant is imaginary. It was intended as another parable about how you tackle big problems.

spoilers

This morning I watched a film we had recorded in anticipation of my convalescence period. It was a good film, although I was a bit miffed to discover that I had correctly anticipated the plot before it had fully unfolded, including the twist and the kicker at the end. I still enjoyed the film (The Illusionist, with Edward Norton and Jessica Biel) but there was something disappointing about being able to guess the plot. It was not that I had seen or heard anything about the film, it just seemed to me that this was how the film had to develop, and I was right.

One of the things that I find irritating is the practice of showing some of the best bits of a film or some of the plot in the trailers that are on the TV or in the cinema to try to get you to go to see that film. I understand that they want to whet people’s appetite and give them some idea of the genre of film, but why do they have to tell us so much or show some of the best bits of the film? It is almost impossible to avoid these trailers, which can spoil my enjoyment of the films. I have noticed that they do that for some TV programmes as well (but interestingly not for live football matches – they never tell us how they are going to end do they?). It is not for nothing that these are known as ‘spoilers’.

I sometimes get the same feeling with the narrative of Christ’s life in the Bible. I know what happens, I know how it ends and I know about the plot twist and kicker at the end. One of the most difficult things I find (especially at Christmas and Easter) is finding fresh ways of engaging with the narrative. That is, until I sit back and relax, realising that I have been getting worried unnecessarily.
I don’t have to rely solely on my intellect and imagination. Indeed that is a foolish thing for me to do. I also have the Spirit of Jesus who points out things I had not noticed before, or who shows me new ways of looking at the same thing. And that, I find, is really exciting. That is one of the reasons I keep going back to my Bible as often as I can, because the One who inspired it to be written is there inspiring me as I read it.
I’ve been thinking about possible movie titles for sequels that will never get made:

 

Charlie and His Spot Problem

Nemo Stays Home

Pirates of the Caribbean: At Howard’s End

The Slow and the Sedate

Indiana Jones and the Retirement Home of Senility

The Ordinaries

Ugly Man

 

I’m sure you can do better – go on, have a go!