Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Does the Bible provide justification for the persecution of the Jews?

This entry continues a critique of Christian Morality written by Dean Dowling. You can read the first part of this critique here.


Dowling claims that the Bible provides ‘complete biblical justification in the Gospels and Paul’ for the persecution of the Jews. He believes this justification is a necessary condition of the 1600 year persecution, ie, it could not have happened without this justification. He provides six biblical references as proof that ‘Christians blame the Jews for the death of their Messiah.’ These are:

  • Matthew 27:25
  • Mark 2:6, 16; 3:6; 15:10
  • Luke 23:4, 14, 20, 22, 25
  • John 8:44
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:15ff

The gospel texts

Anyone who cares to read the verses from the gospels themselves will discover that, in these texts, the following people and/or groups are identified as being responsible for the death of Jesus:

  • The Pharisees
  • Scribes of the Pharisees
  • Herod and the Herodians
  • The Chief Priests
  • The religious leaders
  • Pilate
  • The crowds

None of these verses suggest that the whole Jewish nation is responsible for Jesus’ death and none of them promote the idea that Jews should be persecuted. Dowling is clutching at straws here and reading into the text what he clearly wants to see. The texts are so clear, in fact, one wonders whether he has actually studied them with a sceptical view!

The Pauline text

Dowling has only offered one text from Paul’s writings – 1 Thessalonians 2:15ff. The whole paragraph reads:

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last. (1 Th 2:13-16, NRSV)

Paul is referring to the Jews who killed Jesus and the prophets. In reading the rest of the New Testament, it is clear that these people are not the whole of Israel, but the specific group of those who were involved in the treatment described. To read into this text the idea that Paul wants all Jews to be blamed or persecuted is, once again, to see in the text what Dowling wants to see.

Paul’s attitude to the Jews, of whom he is one, can be found by reading other sections of his writings also contained in the New Testament. For example, he writes, in Romans 11:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew… (Ro 11:1-2a, NRSV)

Paul goes on to use himself, a converted persecutor, as evidence that God has not rejected Israel. What Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians ‘falls within the range of self-criticism of his own people, as is found in the writings of contemporary Jewish authors such as Philo and Josephus.’ (Collins 2003)

So there is nothing remotely promoting persecution of the Jews in the New Testament. For Dowling to suggest that the Jews could not have been persecuted if there wasn’t complete justification in the Gospels and Paul is utter nonsense.

The truth is that the Jews have been persecuted despite there being nothing in the Gospels and Paul to justify it. The persecution of the Jews is described in the Old Testament long before there were any Gospels or Pauline writings. For example, Nehemiah 1:1-3 describes how,

In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I [Nehemiah] was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.

They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.” (Ne 1:1-3, NLT)

In Esther 3:1-6, Haman hatches a plot to get rid of the Jews. And the (in)famous persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes during 175-163 bc are well known. Clearly, these persecutions of the Jews were before the New Testament time, so to suggest that the Gospels and the writings of Paul are necessary conditions for persecution of the Jews is just not true.

Tan (1996) documents a profusion of Jewish persecution, even in New Testament times and the period of the early church, perpetrated by non-Christians such as Syrians or threatened by Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. In AD 70 the Romans killed 1,300,000 Jews under Titus when they entered Jerusalem as well as many being taken captive. When Mohammed founded Islam in 622, Jews in Arabia who refused to join the new religion were killed. These are only a few examples demonstrating that the Gospels and the writings of Paul are not a necessary condition for Jewish persecution.

The Persecution of the Jews

Although Dowling’s argument is completely flawed, it is true to say that the Bible has been used by those who wish to promote persecution of the Jews. But this is not the fault of the Bible. It is the result of distorted readings of the text. Unfortunately, ‘the history of the church is about as long as the history of anti-Semitism—if not in the overt acts of Christians, certainly in their guilty silence.’ (Wilson 1984) So the Christian Church has certainly been guilty of perpetuating anti-Semitism by commission or omission. But the actions of the Church must not be equated with the teachings of Scripture.

My point here is not that the Christian Church is not guilty of anti-Semitism—it has been. But Dowling’s assertion that it could not have happened without the justification of the Gospels and Pauline literature is entirely false. The presence of anti-Semitism in any form is absolutely evil. But the evil is not the result of the justifications found in the Bible. It is the result of evil humans distorting and abusing the Bible in support of their own evil justifications for persecuting God’s people. So Dowling’s accusations are misdirected. A cursory look at the Bible and at history demonstrates clearly that the Bible does not offer complete justification for the persecution of the Jews.


Collins, RF 2003, 'Special Note on 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16', in WJ Harrelson (ed.), The New Interpreter's Study Bible, Abingdon, Nashville, p. 2118.

Tan, P 1996, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: A treasury of illustrations, anecdotes, facts and quotations for pastors, teachers and Christian workers, Bible Communications, Garland, TX. tom 2004, 15.

Wilson, M 1984, 'Anti-Semitism', in WA Elwell (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 60.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Book Review: "The Clear Word"

There have been a number of religious denominations who have produced their own translations or paraphrases of the Bible. Most of these have been biased towards the particular doctrines of the denomination producing it. Possibly the worst is the The Clear Word published by Southern College Press at Southern Adventist College which is owned and operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

It was originally written as a devotional exercise by the author, Jack Blanco. It was originally published with the title The Clear Word Bible but is now called The Clear Word with the dropping of the word Bible presumably a response to criticism that it contains more than just a direct paraphrase of Scripture. In my view, this is disingenuous as The Clear Word is presented in precisely the way any other Bible is presented - chapters, verses, double columns.

Although The Clear Word is not officially published, or endorsed, by the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, it is distribted by Review & Herald publishing and sold by Adventist Book Centres which is an official publisher of the denomation. However, the variations on the original Clear Word are published by the official publisher, Review & Herald, as can be seen by browsing the items at the online (just do a search for "clear word").

If you would like to have a look at some sample pages of The Clear Word, you can check it out at As you will see, it is impossible to differentiate it from any other Bible (version or paraphrase). So, despite the subtle deletion of the word "Bible" from the title, it is a Bible however you look at it. And despite the fact that it might not have been officially endorsed by the Seventh-day Adventist denominational authorities, it is being published, distributed, and promoted in such a way that, for all practical purposes, it is endorsed.

The Clear Word comes in a range of formats including giant print, The Clear Word for Kids, The Easy English Clear Word, the New Testament as audio, and pocket-sized editions.

Here is how the online Adventist Book Centre describes The Clear Word:

For everyone who hungers for a clearer understanding of God’s Word and a richer devotional experience.

Imagine how much more you would get out of the Bible if the meaning of every passage were crystal clear. Compare the same text from the King James Version and The Clear Word.

"Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness. Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way" (Psalm 119: 36, 37, KJV).

"Turn my heart toward your law more than toward accumulating riches. Help me not to desire worthless trinkets, but give me more desire for your word" (Psalm 119: 36, 37, TCW).

The Clear Word lets the power of ancient texts come through today. As the meaning of Scripture becomes more transparent, you see more of God’s grace. His love shines through even in difficult Old Testament passages. The Clear Word has renewed the devotional lives of thousands of people. Let it renew yours. Now available in the popular two-column format with the text in paragraphs.

There are a number of things to notice here:
  1. The purpose of The Clear Word is to increase understanding of the text and enhance devotional experience.
  2. It is implied that the meaning of every Bible passage has been made crystal clear.
  3. A comparison is made between a text in the King James Version and The Clear Word making it clear that The Clear Word is a Bible.
  4. The Clear Word allows the power of the original texts to come through, making the text more transparent, allowing certain characteristics of God to come through better than other translations or paraphrases, particularly in Old Testament passages.
  5. Thousands have had their devotional lives enriched by using The Clear Word.

What are we to make of these claims?

Firstly, there is nothing wrong with creating a devotional commentary on the Biblical text. There have been an incredible number of Bibles produced in recent years, all emphasising various aspects of Christian spirituality and which are useful for enhancing our understanding of the text. For example, one I have in my collection is The Knowing Jesus Study Bible. It is a 'one-year study of Jesus in every book of the Bible'. It contains the New International Version text. In addition, it contains comments and short articles on the text that are consistent with the theme. The important thing to notice, though, is that these comments and articles are clearly distinguished from the biblical text itself. There is no possibility of confusing the biblical text itself with what is additional commentary. Here is a section of The Knowing Jesus Study Bible which illustrates this:

Notice how the commentary is clearly separated from the text with its own title (which is consistent throughout the Bible). Now, compare a page from The Clear Word:

The yellow-colored section is a paraphrase of the original text of Genesis 3:21 (although the original text doesn't mention the type of skin God used). The green-colored text is additional commentary which is not in the original. There is nothing to indicate that this is additional material. A person unfamiliar with the text of Scripture and who is reading The Clear Word would have no way of knowing that this material is not part of the original text. This brings us to the next point.

Thirdly, The Clear Word is completely biased toward Seventh-day Adventist doctrine. And these doctrines are presented in the same way as the illustration above, that is, they are integrated with the text of the Bible as if they are part of the Bible itself. Here's one of the worst examples of this:

Daniel 8:14 reads:

And he answered him, "For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state." (NRSV)

Here is how it reads in The Clear Word:

“After two thousand, three hundred Prophetic days (or, two thousand three hundred Years), God will step in, proclaim the truth about Himself, and restore the ministry of the sanctuary in heaven to its rightful place. This is when the judgment will begin, of which the cleansing of the earthly sanctuary was a type.”

The green-colored material has been added to the biblical text and reflects SDA doctrine on the sanctuary. Now compare Daniel 9:24-27:

“As soon as you started praying, God asked me to come and help you. So now I’m here to give you the help you need. You are dearly loved by God and by everyone else in heaven. So listen carefully to what I have to say. I’ll explain to you how you and your people fit into the vision and into the explanation I gave you earlier. “Seventy prophetic weeks have been allotted to your people and to Jerusalem—each day representing a year. This comes to four hundred and ninety years. This period is the first part of the two thousand three hundred year prophecy I told you about before. These four hundred and ninety years have been given to your people to stop their rebelliousness, repent of their sins, accept God’s offer of salvation, do what is right, and reach the high level of morality He has in mind for them. Before this period ends, the Messiah will come, the vision and the prophecy will be confirmed and the Heavenly sanctuary will be anointed. “This prophecy has nothing to do with the end of the seventy years of the Babylonian captivity that you’ve been studying about and the time for your people to go home. What you need to understand is that when a Persian king commands the rebuilding of Jerusalem, that’s the point in time when the two thousand three hundred year prophecy will begin. Seven weeks, or forty nine years later, the city will be rebuilt in spite of great opposition. “Sixty-two weeks or four hundred and thirty-four years after the city is rebuilt, the Messiah will come and be anointed, the one whom you and your people have looked forward to for so long. These two periods of seven weeks, and the sixty-two weeks I just entioned, make up the sixty-nine weeks. This means that one week or seven years are left of the time allotted to your people. During this week The Messiah will carry out his mission and lay down His life for all people. A few years later, Jerusalem and the temple will both be destroyed. War, destruction and desolation will come in on the land like a flood. These things have already been decreed. “It’s during this week that God through the Messiah will ratify His covenant, and extend one last call to His people. But in the middle of that week, just three and a half years into his ministry the Messiah will be rejected by his own people and allow Himself to be crucified. That’s when the ancient sacrifices and offerings will come to an end. His followers will offer God’s mercy to Israel for another three and a half years to complete the eventieth week. But the rulers will again reject God’s offer of mercy, and this is what will bring about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple that I mentioned to you above. Those who would destroy the city and the temple, will also come to their end.”

Once again, the text has been added to and/or changed. The black text above is the text of the New King James Version (NKJV) and the bold green text is what has been added or changed in The Clear Word. This manipulation of the Bible text is an absolute travesty! And examples could be multiplied over and over. Here's just one more:

Deuteronomy 5:3, in describing the giving of the Ten Commandments to Israel, states:

The LORD made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day. (KJV)

Here it is in the popular New Living Translation:

The Lord did not make this covenant long ago with our ancestors, but with all of us who are alive today. (New Living Translation)

It is pretty clear that God did not make the covenant with the ancestors prior to their sojourn in the desert but with the very people there on the day the Ten Commandments were given. Notice how The Clear Word renders this text:

It wasn't only with our ancestors that He made a covenant, but with us and with all who are alive today.

The Clear Word implies the exact opposite of what the Bible actually says!

How can a Christian use a Bible that distorts the original text so much? And, remember, there are versions of this Bible for children who will be fed this and grow up thinking that what they have heard is actually in the Bible!

Fourthly, the promotional material for The Clear Word (as quoted above) suggests that it makes the meaning of the Bible 'crystal clear'. On the contrary, it distorts the Scriptures and makes the Bible say whatever is consistent with SDA doctrines.

Fifthly, the blurb above claims that 'thousands have had their devotional lives enriched by using The Clear Word. It is not clear how this is known, but even if they have, it is being enriched by a Bible that distorts God's Word. Why not have your devotional life enriched by reading a Bible that attempts to remain faithful to the original meaning of the text. No Bible translation is perfect, but at least they have as their intention to translate or paraphrase the actual meaning of the text without "integrating" extra-biblical material or ideas.

When The Clear Word was first published as The Clear Word Bible, the editor of Ministry magazine, a journal produced by the Seventh-day Adventist Church for pastors, wrote a letter outlining his reservations about this publication. You can read this letter here. It is encouraging that those within the denomination are uncomfortable with this project. One of the issues he points out is the degree to which The Clear Word incorporates material from the writings of Ellen White, the prophetess of Seventh-day Adventism. Despite the official pronouncements that her writings are not equivalent to the Bible, The Clear Word assimilates teachings from these writings which, for all intents and purposes, makes them equivalent. There are no footnotes indicating the sources of the additions and modifications to the text of Scripture.

Thinking Christians should resist efforts like The Clear Word because they do not draw a clear distinction between the Bible and its interpretation. To forget this distinction is to move towards a position for which our interpretations of the Bible become God's Word along with the arrogance that our interpretations are the only right ones. The Clear Word is an example where this line has been crossed over. My advice is to stick with your favourite translation or paraphrase but make sure you know what is the Bible and what isn't. So this is one book I do not recommend.

Related Links (provision of link does not imply agreement with all the contents)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Ends of Science (First Things)

Check out Eric Cohen's opinion piece entitled The Ends of Science for another view on the relationship between science and faith - an enduring issue!! You can read the article here.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Book Review: Mental Traps

No matter how good we think we are at thinking, we inevitably fall into mental traps that paralyse us, waste energy, waste time, and reduce productivity or cause pain and suffering. Andre Kukla, a philosopher and psychologist, identifies eleven mental traps after a chapter discussing the general nature of these thinking traps. Some examples: Persistence: continuing to work on projects that have lost their value. Amplification: working harder than necessary to achieve our aim. Fixation: when progress toward a goal is blocked and we become immobilised. Mental Traps is full of practical wisdom and, as we read it, we are jolted time and time again when we recognise ourselves in its pages. The book is beautifully and simply written with no jargon; and the typical cliched New Age mystical nonsense found in so many self-help books is absent. The last chapter of the book gives some guidance on how to avoid mental traps when we recognise them and an appendix on a strategy Kukla calls thought watching which encourages deep reflection on our thought processes. Some readers will, perhaps, find his affirmation of feelings as primary in leading to beliefs and decisions uncomfortable. But that's ok -- when we experience discomfort it is a sign that we need to think critically and more deeply about the issue. If you check out the Amazon website for details of this book (just click on the book image at the start of this review) you can read an interview with the author. Kukla is clearly informed by a number of Eastern perspectives, particularly Buddhism. But the book avoids religious language or psycho-babble. Wisdom, wherever it is found, should be listened to. And this book contains a lot of wisdom. A thoroughly worthwhile read.

Movie Review: Open Season

If you are looking for a movie to take the kiddies to these holidays, you probably can't go wrong with Open Season - a pleasantly enjoyable animation voiced by some well-known actors that is adequately entertaining. Boog (Martin Lawrence) is a BIG grizzly bear who has been domesticated by the nurturing, caring animal trainer, Beth (Debra Messing). But when he gets mixed up with Elliot (Ashton Kutcher), a fast-talking mule-deer who is intent on "liberating" Boog from captivity, things start to go wrong for Boog until he finds himself transported to an isolated mountain forest to fend for himself. The only problem is that it is the start of open season and hunters are coming up the mountains to shoot the animals. Boog and Elliot team up to rally all the other animals to deal with the threat. Open Season is not as spectacular as some of the animation we have experienced in recent years but does a fine job of moving the story along with some interesting, unusual, and loveable personalities! An enjoyable movie for the whole family (but mostly the kids). My Rating: *** (out of 5) Positive Review 'Though silly and predictable, this animated comedy has stunning visuals, a catchy soundtrack and charming characters that are family-friendly crowd-pleasers.' - Angel Cohn/TV Guide Negative Review 'An excellent case for euthanizing the entire talking-animals genre.' - Lou Lumenick/New York Post Content Advice Some rude humor, mild action and brief language AUS: G USA: PG

Saturday, December 16, 2006

An addendum to "Casino Royale"

One of my blog readers wrote, in response to my review of Casino Royale:
I find that a ‘thinking Christian’ sending reviews of immoral Hollywood movies is rather strange. I cannot quote the whole text, but you should know it well, “…………………… think on these things” It is ok to send me emails of substance, but leave the ‘sewage’ out!
I think it is important to respond to this view to make sure that, as Christians, we are, indeed, thinking appropriately about the things we should be. The text referred to reads:
... whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think aboutt these things. (Philippians 3:8, NRSV)
Many Christians think that this is an easy text to live by - as if it makes what we read or watch easy to choose. But this is not the case. Paul provides a list of criteria for evaluating what Christians should/should not read/watch. The first question we need to ask is, does what we read/watch have to meet all the criteria provided by Paul? So, does something need to be true and honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable and excellent and worthy of praise? In other words, if any one of these criteria are not met, should we reject the source as Christians? Or is Paul saying that any one (or more) of these criteria is enough for Christians to think about something. In other words, what we read/watch should be true or honorable or just or pure or pleasing or commendable or excellent or worthy or praise? It might be tempting to leap to the conclusion that the first of these options is the right one for Christians - it certainly seems intuitively to be correct. But let's test each on out. The and option If we should only read/watch things that fulfilled all of the criteria, we probably shouldn't read:
  • The Bible

The Bible contains an incredible amount of immoral behaviour. Franky Schaeffer (son of the brilliant Francis Schaeffer) has written, in his excellent book Sham Pearls for Real Swine has made the point that, '[i]f the Bible were a film, it would be R-rated in some parts, X-rated in others.' (p. 28) He points out that '[t]he Bible is the literature of God, and literature, as every book burner knows, is dangerous... The Bible is, among other things, about God, men, women, sex, lies, truth, sin, goodness, fornication, adultery, murder, childbearing, virgins, whores, blasphemy, prayer, wine, food, history, nature, poetry, rape, love salvation, damnation, temptation, and angels.' (p. 28, emphasis supplied)

If what we read has to comply with all of the criteria listed by Paul, then we shouldn't read it (or at least parts of it) because it describes immorality.

Now, some may argue that the Bible describes all these things within a theological context and doesn't condone them. True. But this serves to make the point that we can't decide whether something is immoral or not by counting the number of immoral behaviours in it. We need to judget something by its overall point and purpose.

  • The Lord of the Rings or The Narnia Chronicles

JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy and, by definition, is not true. That is, not true in the historical sense. Truth, of course, has many meanings and can be conveyed in many ways. But some Christians think all fiction should be avoided. If Paul is read in this way, then The Lord of the Rings should be avoided.

  • The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson's (in)famous film The Passion of the Christ is incredibly violent. What we see in the Passion is probably the most historically accurate portrayal crucifixion ever on the screen. But violence is immoral, isn't it? Therefore we shouldn't watch it if all of Paul's criteria are to be included for everything we watch.

We could go on and on. It is clear that a simplistic reading of Paul's criteria, and requiring everything we watch or read to meet every one of them, will mean we need to avoid a great deal that Christians actually believe should be read and watched (eg, the Bible). So clearly the and approach is not adequate. What about the or approach?

The or approach

If the and approach doesn't work, the or approach must be the one we need to go by. How would this work?

Whenever we are deciding what to read or watch, we need to ask whether any of the criteria fit and whether, overall, there is some value in watching or reading something. This means that, rather than fitting everything into one box or the other (good or evil) we have to do some deeper thinking.

Let's return to Casino Royale for instance. How would we evaluate it on the basis of Paul's criteria? Firstly, the movie's main character is human and describes various experiences that, to a greater or lesser degree, we all face. For example, Vesper, the female love interest of Bond, raises the issue of whether certain jobs require people to "switch off" morality. In particular, are their situations where, for a higher good, humans need to engage in what is immoral? We seem to be living in a world where we often hear justifications for immoral behaviour which bring about some higher good. Torturing alleged terrorists, for example, to save people who might be victims of terrorist action. Often, too, in the real world in which we live, values often conflict with each other and we need to make decisions which might be somewhat ambiguous.

Casino Royale also explores issues of vulnerability and how experiences can lead to a person putting on an "armor" that protects them. In the film, we see Bond struggling with his armor and, in particular, his need to trust another person when his past has not provided him with any reasons to do so. Many, many people have shut off their emotional lives because of bad experiences - and some of these experiences make it very difficult for a person to let God love them. It is a challenge for us to explore how we might help these people learn to trust and to love again.

These are just two issues raised by the movie -- there are many more. It is interesting that many Christian movie critics are praising Casino Royale. Here are some quotes:

'... Casino Royale gives us so much that the Bond franchise has longed for: credibility, actual human drama, maturity, intensity and great unpredicted surprises.' Todd Hertz/Christianity Today

'At a time when we can be reasonably sure there really are guys out there licensed and eager to kill in the name of country—whether justified or not—Bond seems less naturally heroic and more morally culpable for his actions than ever." He concludes that the story is "far better," but the result is "less outright 'fun' than previous incarnations.' Christopher Lyon/Plugged In

'The movie's worldview is basically biblical in its extolling of bravery and diligence in overcoming evil ...' Lisa Rice/Crosswalk

Is Hollywood evil?

It is very common for Christians to stereotype Hollywood as evil and full of anti-Christian movie makers conspiring to undermine Christian values. This stereotype needs to be challenged. It arises more from fear and ignorance than anything else. As Austin (2005) has pointed out, 'there has always been a Christian presence in Hollywood.' (p. 53) To suggest that Hollywood, as a whole, is evil, is to characterise Christians who work there, influencing what we see in cinema and on TV, as evil. The fact is that real people, from all worldviews, work in Hollywood. All Christians would benefit from learning more about how films are actually made and on what basis decisions are made by film makers. It is much more complex that we might think.

It is absolutely true that some movies are not good. And there are many good ones. But they are not necessarily good because they have nothing immoral in them or bad because they do. Counting the number of times characters swear, or the frequency of sex scenes, or whether there is nudity, or violence is an inadequate way of determing whether a movie is worth watching or not.

How, Then, Do We Decide?

If things are not black-and-white, then how do we decide what is a good movie and what isn't? We might think that who makes a movie might help us. For instance, what about this list of movies, all of which have Christian messages or themes?

  • Chariots of Fire
  • Tender Mercies
  • Places in the Heart
  • Hoosiers
  • The Mission
  • Grand Canyon
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Dead Man Walking
  • The Apostle
  • The Prince of Egypt
  • The Iron Giant
  • Magnolia
  • Signs
  • Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie
  • About Schmidt
  • Changing Lanes
  • In America
  • Bruce Almighty
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • The Passion of the Christ

As Thom Parham (2005) points out, '[a]ll of these films were critically acclaimed and/or box office hits. But with the exception of Jonah, Bruce Almighty, and The Passion, none were made by Christian filmakers. (p. 55, emphasis supplied)

Now, what about this list?

  • Gospa
  • Entertaining Angels
  • The Omega Code
  • The Joyriders
  • Left Behind: The Movie
  • Carman: The Champion
  • Megiddo: The Omega Code 2
  • Mercy Streets
  • To End All Wars
  • Hometown Legend
  • Joshua
  • Left Behind II: Tribulation Force
  • Luther
  • Finding Home
  • Therese

Parham describes these films as '[o]verall ... unwatchable. There are only a handful of good scenes among them. None had success with critics or at the box office. (What does it say about Christian filmmakers that one of their best-received movie features computer-generated vegetables who sing and dance?)'

Clearly, judging a film by whether it is made by Christians is pretty much a waste of time! The only thing left to do is to ask the questions that Paul asked about the movies we watch:

  • does the movie say anything true?
  • is their anything honorable protrayed in the movie?
  • does the movie promote justice in an way?
  • does the story promote purity?
  • is the movie pleasing in any sense?
  • are any aspects of the movie commendable?
  • does the movie contain elements that are excellent, including the cinematography, acting, plot, etc?
  • is there anything in the movie that is worthy of praise?

Clearly, no movie (including so-called Christian movies) are not necessarily going to fulfil all of these criteria. We live in an imperfect world. But wherever we see the creativity of God reflected in human creativity, we should rush to the cinema and send a message to Hollywood that we want more of the same!

Franky Schaeffer (1990) describes how

As a child, growing up in L'Abri, I never knew that there were "R"-rated movies. I only knew there were well-made films and poorly made films. I never knew nudity portrayed in art and film was "evil." I never knew that four-letter words invalidated someone's book or film, and made it "unacceptable," (though I was taught not to use profanity in polite conversation). I thank God for my ignorance during those formative years. When my father expressed himself at all on the subject of narrow fundamentalist and evangelical attitudes toward art and culture, it was to bewail the lack of vision and harsh treatment of artists, not the "evils" of the "world."

I was taught my father and mother to judge artwork on its artistic merits and that the moral rightness or wrongness of things, such as nudity, violence, or profane language in the arts, depended on their context, the honesty of the work, its quality, and the subject matter.

As a result, it never occurred to me to confuse what was right, as far as personal moral behavior went, and what was appropriate to portray in the arts and media. Violence was part of life; therefore, I was given to undersatnd, it should be portrayed in art forms when necessary to the story. Some people used "bad language" in life. They, too, had stories honestly worth exploring throught the arts and film--stories that could not be told if the syntax and phrases of profanity were eliminated from the characters' vocabulary....

My father and my mother raised their children to be unafraid of ideas and unafraid of being intellectually challenged ...

My father never protected his children from ideas, from art, from intellectual challenge and stimulation, or from contrary thinking, even anti-Christian, anti-biblical art, thought, and culture. Believing that Christianity was truth, he welcomed honest questions. (pp. 6-9)

Franky Schaeffer's parents' approach, in my opinion, is one which we should all strive for.

So, is it ok for Christians to go and see movies made by Hollywood? It's the wrong question. Hollywood makes movies, some of which are good and some of which are horrible. So do Christians. The correct answer is that it depends on the movie. Follow Paul's advice, ask God for wisdom, and decide for yourself -- and think about what you are seeing.


Austin, R 2005, 'The Hollywood Divide', in S Lewerenz & B Nicolosi (eds), Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 41-51.

Parham, T 2005, 'Why Do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?' in S Lewerenz & B Nicolosi (eds), Behind the Screens: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 53-64.

Schaeffer, F 1990, Sham Pearls for Real Swine: Beyond the Cultural Dark Age - A Quest for Renaissance, Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Brentwood, Tennessee.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Movie Review: Casino Royale

Casino Royale is precisely what a James Bond movie should be. After so many decades of glossy Bond adventures, this one takes us back to the beginning and attempts to portray Bond by remaining faithful to Ian Fleming's original book. In Casino Royale, we see how Bond (brilliantly played by Daniel Craig) becomes a 007 - licensed to kill - and it is a very fast-paced, hard-edged, gritty action thriller that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. The central plot concerns Bond up against a criminal at the poker table in a casino in Montenegro where a battle of wits ensues. But surrounding that are fast-pasted sub-plots with some of the best action I have seen in a movie for a long time. There are a number of ways that Casino Royale differs from previous Bond films. James has a depth of character unlike his predecessors - we see internal emotional conflict as he grapples with what he is required to do. He is actually human! Where previous Bond films have relied on all sorts of outlandish gadgetry to get James out of trouble, Casino Royale uses a minimal amount of technology (most of it, I would say, quite possible today) and more on cunning. Previous Bond films have been saturated with beautiful women who are treated like sex objects by Bond. There are beautiful women in this film, but the most significant woman, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is intelligent as well as beautiful and provides an actual love interest - Bond meets his match here! Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, is a fantastic, fresh piece of entertainment with a good plot, witty dialogue, intense emotion, and incredibly physical action. A great holiday movie. I loved it! It is the best Bond movie ever!! My Rating: **** (out of 5) Postive Review 'Relaunches the series by doing something I wouldn't have thought possible: It turns Bond into a human being again -- a gruffly charming yet volatile chap who may be the swank king stud of the Western world, but who still has room for rage, fear, vulnerability, love.' - Owen Gleiberman/Entertainment Weekly Negative Review 'This is a Bond with great body but no soul.' - Richard Corliss/Time Content Warning Intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity AUS: M USA: PG-13

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Is Christian Morality Immoral?

I was having a discussion recently with a couple of atheist friends I met at my local Skeptics Society dinner when one of them mentioned a debate that Richard Dawkins had engaged in with a scientist who was also a Christian. I made a comment that one of the problems I had with the arguments I had heard from Dawkins was that they were reacting to the worst forms of Christianity or he was responding to “straw men” – beliefs that many Christians don’t hold or that he misunderstands. One of the atheists in conversation with me started to make dogmatic assertions about the stupidity of Christianity, using a word that I can’t repeat on this blog. I tried a couple of times to make the point that, if one wants to argue against Christianity, one needs to do so by interacting with the best theology of Christianity rather than knocking down things that don’t reflect what most Christians believe. I didn’t get far. The gentleman sitting next to me threw an article on the table and said, ‘Read this and think about it.’ That was the end of the conversation. As it turns out, the article was written by the very person I was speaking to! So I decided to take his advice – to read the article and think about it. The article in question is entitled Christian Morality and is written by Dean R Dowling (1996a). Since reading the article, I have also come across a version on the internet (Dowling 1996b) which is essentially the same with some minor variations. You might like to check it out and read it for yourself. In a series of blogs, I plan to take a look at Dowling’s argument. It is a poor one that commits some very basic logical fallacies. If the author of Christian Morality has the opportunity to read my critique of this argument, I hope he gives it the same level of consideration that I have given his. In this first instalment, I want to state, as clearly as I can, the argument offered by Dowling and make an initial assessment. At the end of his essay, Dowling declares that ‘the best weapon against the religious[*] is their own Holy books.’ The reason for this, according to the author, is that ‘it is difficult to use reason, logic, facts and evidence in debates against them [the religious].’ This difficulty is ‘[b]ecause religious belief is a form of insanity.’ In other words, because religious people are insane, there is no point in trying to reason with them. Instead, you use their holy books as weapons against them. How do you do that? By showing that the teachings of the holy books cause
  • Persecution of the Jews
  • The condoning of slavery
  • The burning of witches, pagans, and heretics
  • Hostility to sex and women
and, finally, provide ‘the psychological underpinning and conditioning for authoritarian undemocratic political regimes.’ Dowling is, apparently, elaborating on an argument from Dr Joachim Kahl’s book The Misery of Christianity who, according to Dowling, says has led to ‘centuries of outbreaks of violence, mass psychosis, perversion, sadism, cruelty and neuroses.’ There is an extra sentence in the online version of Downing’s article which clarifies his essential claim even more pointedly. He writes:

You do NOT need a Holy Bible to tell you to give charity to the poor and sick, but you DO need the Holy Bible to tell you to persecute the Jews, burn alive witches, pagans and heretics, condone slavery, justify hostility to sex and women and obey authoritarian dictatorships … (emphasis in original)

This is a very clear statement of Downing’s argument. He is claiming that, to be moral, you don’t need a Holy Bible. There are other ways of knowing what is moral. However, in order to act immorally in the ways he describes, you need the Holy Bible.[†] For Dowling, the Bible is the necessary condition for immorality. In other words, persecution of Jews, burning of witches, pagans and heretics, slavery, hostility to sex and women, and obedience to authoritarian dictatorships would not occur if there wasn’t a Bible. You need a Bible for these things to occur. Without it, they wouldn’t occur. Before looking at his evidence that the Bible teaches such immoral behaviours, we need to point out the first of Downing’s logical fallacies in this paper: the fallacy of causal reductionism. Causal reductionism is when one tries to explain something using one cause when, in reality, the cause may be very complex or multifactorial. (Lindsay). For Dowling to suggest that the cause of all of these evils is the Bible is to ignore a whole range of other possible factors in the development of them – political, cultural, developmental, economic, and so on. It is easy to show the simplistic nature of this belief. Take slavery, for instance. If we can show that slavery occurs in the absence of the Bible, then we know that the Bible is not a necessary nor sufficient cause of slavery.[‡] A quick look at the article on slavery in Wikipedia informs us that ‘[s]lavery predates writing and evidence for it can be found in almost all cultures and continents. Its many origins remain unknown.’ (Slavery 2006) There we have it – slavery has many origins and occurs across continents and cultures. The cause of slavery is much more complex than Dowling suggests. Finding a logical fallacy so quickly and early in Dowling’s article serves to warn us to be cautious as we examine the rest of his argument. What about the claim that it is difficult to use reason, logic, facts and evidence in debates against the religious because religion is a form of insanity? Dowling is drawing on an article by Richard Dawkins (cited in Dowling (1996a)) entitled Is Religion a Form of Insanity? The idea that religion might be a form of insanity is not new. For example, Emmet F Fields wrote:
Once we can look at religion objectively and impartially, it becomes entirely obvious that religion has all the characteristics of a form of insanity. To one degree or another the religious mind must accept, and believe in, another world; a supernatural or unnatural world, a world filled with all sorts of imaginary beings called gods, devils, angels, saints, demons, etc. These imaginary creatures are talked to, asked for favors, guidance, "signs", or miracles, and then blamed or thanked for natural events that follow. Except for the cloak of religion, such beliefs and actions would otherwise cause an individual to be judged insane, and committed to an institution for treatment. (tom 2004)
But do you see what is happening here? Firstly, the language suggests that the writer is looking at this topic ‘objectively … impartially’ and the conclusion is ‘obvious’. It would be a courageous person indeed who would argue against what follows, for the implication of such a response would be that the person was biased, partial, and overlooking the obvious! However, this writer is begging the question. Insanity is defined as believing in something imaginary. Religion is assumed to be imaginary. Therefore religion is insanity. But this is true only if the claims of religion are imaginary. And that is the very thing under debate. It so happens that I have a mental health background and have worked with those who are “insane”. One of the essential features of insanity is a lack of reasoning ability. Thought processes are usually disturbed. Anyone who takes the time to pick up a Christian book on apologetics will immediately recognise that reasoning well is highly valued by Christians.[§] To suggest that a carefully reasoned book arguing for a religious position, even if one disagrees with it, is a symptom of insanity is to indulge in an argument from spurious analogy. (Lindsay) Just because insanity includes imaginary experiences and religion is believed by some to include imaginary experiences doesn’t mean that insanity and religion are both the same. So the heart of Dowling’s argument is deeply flawed. Logic, evidence, facts – all of these are valued by Christians as any brief reading of the best of Christian theology will show. And, as Dowling’s fallacious reasoning shows, even the “non-religious” can think poorly! Dowling goes on to provide what he considers evidence that the Bible provides justification for his list of social evils. Despite the fact that Dowling’s main argument is flawed, I plan to look at these other claims. Even if the Bible is not the cause of this list of social evils, does it provide justification for them? Looking at this question will be the topic of the next post. References Dowling, DR 1996a, 'Christian Morality', S.A. Humanist Post, pp. 8-9. ---- 1996b, Christian Morality, Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc, viewed 9 December 2006, Lindsay, D A List of Fallacious Arguments, viewed 9 December 2006, Slavery, 2006, Wikipedia, viewed 9 December 2006, < tom 2004, 15. religion, Urban Dictionary, viewed 9 December 2006, Footnotes [*] Although the author uses the term ‘the religious’ to refer to all religious believers, the majority of the evidence offered by Dowling is Christian-oriented. The title of the essay is ‘Christian Morality’. The author seems to have a particular aversion to Christian belief. [†] Notice the change from a to the in Downing’s paragraph. Another evidence that his particular concern is Christian morality. [‡] This, of course, doesn’t mean that the Bible is not a sufficient cause. But that is not what Downing is arguing. He is suggesting that the Bible is a necessary and sufficient cause. [§] That is not to say, of course, that all Christians value good thinking or that no Christians are insane. Like any human group (including atheists) there are some who are insane within Christianity.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Movie Review: The Descent

You may have read somewhere in the hype that The Descent is the scariest movie since Alien. Believe everything you have read! The Descent is a genuine on-the-edge-of-your seat horror/thriller that left me totally exhausted by the end of the movie. A year after a horrible tragedy that led to their separating, a group of six women decide to get back together and go caving in the Appalachian mountains to re-bond and heal emotionally. The only problem is the cave they are exploring collapses and the only way forward is down - hoping they will find another exit to the surface. As they journey further into the darkness, they realise they are not alone! I'm not going to reveal anymore of the story than this because it will spoil the experience of watching a movie that leaves the mindless gore-fests coming out of Hollywood in the shade. The Descent is brilliantly plotted, superbly photographed, and Neil Marshall, the director, has conveyed the intense claustrophobia of a cave as the situation of the women gets more and more dangerous. Not only is there intense suspense, but the plot includes some heart-rending moral decisions and surprising twists, especially at the end (enough said!). So if you want a really genuine suspense/horror/thriller experience, don't miss The Descent. It will have you so breathless you'll feel like you are in a cave yourself! My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review 'It's the most intense, unpredictable and thrilling cinematic experience I've had the pleasure to squirm through in ages.' - Sean Axemaker/Seattle Post-Intelligencer Negative Review 'Compulsively watchable, with its fair share of effective sledgehammer shocks; it just isn't very good.' - Scott Foundas/LA Weekly Content Advice strong violence/gore and language AUS: MA USA: R

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

'Arrows for the War' (The Nation)

Here's a fascinating article from The Nation by Kathryn Joyce entitled Arrows of War about a recent new movement called Quiverfull. The members of this movement believe that people should accept whatever number of children God gives them and avoid all contraception or family planning practices. They believe that God is going to change the world by them producing as many children as possible and outnumber those who are anti-God. It makes for interesting reading and shows, yet again, how some people are prone to extremist views of Scripture.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Movie Review: The Prestige

The Prestige is a very clever, demanding movie which is structured around a stage magician's trick. The movie itself is a beautifully crafted illusion that is truly mindbending. The title of the film refers to the final phase of an illusion. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two stage magicians in turn-of-the-century London who were both friends and who, through an incident during a stage illusion, become bitter rivals, always trying to outdo each other with the ultimate illusion that the other can't explain. Their rivalry eventually becomes an intense battle where both are obsessed with winning, willing to sacrifice everything in the process - those they love and their morals. The movie begins with Borden in jail for the murder of Angier -- but not all is as it seems. We are taken back to the beginning of the story and we follow the journey of these two men as they ruthlessly battle with each other. The actual plot of the movie is difficult to describe without giving anything away -- so I won't. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan are responsible for the screenplay with Christopher directing (the Nolans brought us the brilliant Memento). The Prestige is superbly crafted - plot, cinematography, acting (except for Scarlett Johansen who, disappointingly, is not up to her usual form) - all providing a rich, engaging, intelligent piece of entertainment that will leave you scratching your head when you leave the cinema. Those whose appreciation of good film has been dulled by late night television movies may find it unsatisfying -- it is hard work. Not your average film by any means! The Pledge is likely to be an Oscar contender next year. Definitely worth a look! My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'To talk more about the movie's layers is to risk giving away too much. I'll say only that this film confirms Nolan's status as the director whose work I look forward to more than any other.' - Lawrence Toppman/Charlotte Observer Negative Review 'Thus, we find ourselves watching an ice-cold movie about competition that contains not a shred of rooting interest.' - Mick LaSalle/San Francisco Chronicle Content Advice violence and disturbing images AUS: M USA: PG-13

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Book Review: Why Good Arguments Often Fail

It is a well known fact that people are rarely persuaded to change their point of view on something just because an argument is good. Why is this the case? James W Sire tackles this important issue in his book Why Good Arguments Often Fail: Making a More Persuasive Case for Christ. Sire is an apologist for the Christian faith so this book has as its ultimate goal helping Christians to think more carefully about their own beliefs and about the ways they persuade others. Despite this, it is valuable, in a general sense, for the perspective it brings on persuasion and argument. The book is divided into three parts: 1) Common Logical Fallacies; 2) Good Arguments that Often Fail; and 3) Good Arguments that Work. In the first part, Sire shares a brilliant story that makes the point that logic is not always as useful in real life as it is alleged to be! He then surveys some of the most common logical fallacies committed by people, giving real life examples. He makes the important point that everyone can commit these fallacies, including Christians about their own beliefs. The second part of the book examines the role that arrogance, aggression, cleverness, misreading the audience, worldviews, relativism, and moral blindness play in arguments not working. The last section looks at two good arguments that work -- the Apostle Paul's presentation in Athens to non-believers and an argument that Sire himself has frequently given - and draws out practical principles for making arguments more persuasive. It's an excellent little book, superbly and simply written, excellent examples illustrating the points the author makes, and full of profound insight about human nature and the way it often prevents us from discovering or accepting the truth. The book concludes with an extensive annotated reading guide for further study. All Christians should read this book - even if it is only to get our own thinking in order and to promote intellectual humility in our own approach to thinking. Related Links

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Movie Review: The Road to Guantanamo

Those of us who live in Australia know about Guantanamo. One of our citizens, David Hicks, is imprisoned there and our government is doing nothing about the abuse of his human rights (the right to a fair trial, amongst others). He is not alone in his incarceration. Over the years, around 750 people have been held by the American government without charge on suspicion of being involved in terrorism. Of the 750 prisoners, only 10 have ever been charged with a crime and there has never been a conviction. Prisoners are tortured on the assumption that they are guilty in an attempt to get them to "confess" to their crimes. The Road to Guantanamo is the story of three English Muslims - Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed, Shafiq Rasul, and Monir Ali - who were arrested and imprisoned at Guantanamo because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This docudrama tells their story. Even if they had been guilty, and if what this movie shows about their treatment in Guantanamo is true (and there is no reason to disbelieve it given what we know from other sources), then what is going on there must be some of the worst abuses of human rights we have seen. Asif (Arfan Usman) travels to Pakistan to meet his future wife. When he gets there, he rings home and invites his friend, Ruhel (Farhad Harun) to join him to be his best man. He agrees and flies to Pakistan with two other friends, Shafiq (Riz Ahmed) and Monir (Waqar Siddiqui). Whilst walking around the streets they enter a mosque and hear a religious leader speaking of events in Afghanistan and calling for humanitarian aid. They decide to take a trip to Afghanistan to see for themselves what is happening there and to lend a hand. Through a series of coincidences and misunderstandings, three of them (Ali disappeared during a mass exodus of Konduz and has never been located since) are handed over to the US military and, ultimately, sent to Camp Delta, the "interrogation centre" in the US Army's base in Guantanamo, Cuba. The three men have become known as the Tipton Three. They were held for two years until they were finally released without charge or apology. What happens to the Tipton Three is very difficult to watch. They are tortured, abused, and humiliated in unimaginable ways in an attempt to get them to "confess". The drama is interspersed with brief interviews of the three men telling parts of their story. The cinematography is incredibly realistic -- deliberately designed to give us a sense of the events being filmed in real time. The performances of the non-professional actors is authentic -- they look so much like the real men that it is hard to tell the difference. How these three men survived their ordeal and remained sane is incredible. The way they were treated by the US soldiers is completely immoral. Ironically, outside the Guantanamo facility, there is a sign saying how the US wants to preserve freedom. The treatment of people at Guantanamo is absolutely contemptible and shameful. I was seething with anger when I left the cinema - the hypocrisy of a country which sanctions others for abusing human rights is, itself, blatantly and self-righteously ignoring them. The Road to Guantanamo does not prove or disprove the guilt or innocence of the Tipton Three, although it does assume they have done nothing wrong. The motivation behind their actions and decisions has been hotly debated. But that is not really the point of the movie. It is to describe their experience as they see it. It's a very tough 95 minutes, but it is an important and powerful film - absolutely essential to see to remind us of what evil can be perpetrated in the name of freedom. My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review 'A film that must be seen to understand the sad truths of our times. It's been made with a sensitivity and creativity that's come to exemplify Winterbottom's work.' - Ruthe Stein/San Francisco Chronicle Negative Review 'By inviting us to take on trust the Tipton Three's accounts of what they were doing in Afghanistan, Guantánamo falls into a familiar trap of agitprop filmmaking - turning the victim into a hero. The movie gives us no particular reason to believe that they were up to anything nefarious - or that they weren't.' - Ella Taylor/LA Weekly Related Links Content Warning Language and very disturbing violent content AU: MA US: R

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Movie Review: Flags of Our Fathers

War is often on our minds nowadays and cinema reflects that concern. But many movies are more interested in underlying issues than merely describing the events. And that is the way it should be. Clint Eastwood's latest offering, Flags of Our Fathers, tells the story of the famous image you can see at right. During WWII, the US landed on Iwo Jima, a very small island of great political and strategic significance. There were thousands of Japanese soldiers holed up and the US Marines casually landed thinking there was noone there -- then found themselves in the middle of a bloodbath. During the following days, the US finally dominated the island and the famous photograph was taken and became a rallying point for the US. The government capitalised on it by bringing back the surviving soldiers in the photograph to raise money to finance the war effort. The only problem was that what looked like a heroic action in the middle of battle was not what it appeared to be. I won't go into details about the events, suffice it to say that Eastwood strips away the mythology surrounding this photograph, showing how a whole idea -- a concept -- can be fabricated and used to seduce a nation.Cynical cinema goers may expect a movie like Flags of Our Fathers to be jingoistic. But Clint Eastwood is a director who rarely portrays things as simplistically black and white. Here we see all sorts of tensions in real characters who struggle with moral questions, both on the battlefield and back home. The battle scenes are powerfully and realistically rendered -- reminiscent of the famous opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. CGI is used to stunning effect as we see a vast fleet of battleships converging on this small island. This is alternated with close up shots of the men in the thick of battle trying to deal with an overwhelming flood of death and then scenes back home as the "heroes" are manipulated to propogate their inspirational valour while underneath they suffer from guilt and vulnerability. Flags of Our Fathers is a powerful, unsentimental film that avoids overly criticising the US goverment or blindly praising it. In many ways it's a simple story that speaks for itself and shows how easy it is to believe what we want to believe -- and how easy it is to get those who desperately need something to hang on to in desperate times to believe what we want them to. Flags of Our Fathers is the first of two movies Clint Eastwood is directing about this same event. This movie portrays the story from the point of view of the US soldiers. In his next movie, he will be depicting it from the Japanese perspective. This should be fascinating -- for how often do we take the time to try to understand things from more than one point of view? My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'As he did in "Unforgiven," "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby," Eastwood handles this nuanced material with aplomb, giving every element of this complex story just the weight it deserves. The director's lean dispassion, his increased willingness to be strongly emotional while retaining an instinctive restraint, continues to astonish.' - Kenneth Turan/Los Angeles Times Negative Review 'Flags of Our Fathers fails as fact or legend. It's woefully incompetent as narrative moviemaking.' - Michael Sragow/Baltimore Sun Content Warning Sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language AUS: MA USA: R

Monday, November 06, 2006

Movie Review: God On My Side

Whatever side of the political or religious walls people come from, they like to claim that God is on their side. Many of you will immediately think of Islamic extremist terrorists who blow themselves up in the name of God. But there's another group that wants to claim God is on their side and managing world affairs to God's timetable. They are represented by the Christian televangelist/broadcasters who come together once a year at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Texas. Andrew Denton, an Australian TV personality who conducts in-depth interviews on a weekly show (Enough Rope), travelled to Texas to find out more about this group and has produced a compelling documentary, God On My Side. Denton is very respectful as he wanders around the convention asking believers about their views. Apart from one or two moderate individuals who seem to have an intelligent head on their shoulders, these fervently faithful followers of God are, at one moment embarrassingly absurd and, at other moments, terrifyingly fanatical, and yet at other times laugh-out-loud funny. There is noone more dangerous than a person who knows they are right and knows that God is working through them. Dogmatic arrogance can lead to all sorts of evils -- some "benign" and some downright terrifying. The strongest thing that came through for me in watching Denton's superb documentary was the inpenetrable certainty of these believers who, while finding war, famine, earthquakes, and tsunamis sad, also "celebrated" these disasters and suffering as sure signs that Jesus was about to return and put everything right. The range of views of Denton's subjects ranged from the downright ridiculous to those who were more balanced and thoughtful -- from the man who tries to convince Denton that little beads of Spirit light have appeared on Denton's hands as a sign of the end to a director who was critical of some of the ways Christians represented their faith to a man who was content to stand back and, with a cynical smile, say he didn't share the rest of the convention's theology. Doug Batchelor, an American televangelist, features quite a bit in the documentary and clips from a film he has produced are included showing, in graphic detail, the fate that awaits the wicked (death, disease, drowning, rocks falling on them) as the righteous (all white and radiant) are transported up into the sky to meet the Lord. It doesn't take long to realise that, underneath all of the promotion of the latest technology (machine and psychological) to spread the gospel, there is a lot of money and a huge political agenda. George Bush is God's man for this hour in world history and the decisions he is making are the decisions that God wants. And those decisions may, if necessary, include war and, for one person, the reluctant use of nuclear weapons if it means that events work out well in the Middle East. This is scary stuff that makes us realise that there is extremism and fanaticism on both sides of the religious and political divide. God On My Side is not all serious -- there are some wonderful comedic moments (although, these are not always intended to be so by the people concerned!) and some who seem to have a genuine story to tell about how God has rescued them from a life that was on the rocks. It would be so much more believable, though, if everyone wasn't so well-dressed and seemingly well off! God On My Side is a must-see movie. It is funny, scary, disturbing, fascinating. In many ways, it is a simple observation of a slice of modern Christianity. Denton remains respectful, gently probing, asking some difficult questions. When Denton places a single verse of Scripture on a black screen at the end of the film, the point hits home -- the contrast is telling (I won't spoil it for you by telling you what it is). God On Our Side is Denton's debut documentary and it is possible to criticise him for not being ruthless enough in uncovering the darker side of the convention along with a few issues that are slipped over with little attention -- abortion, gay marriage, creationism/evolution. But Denton is calm and clearly engenders trust in his subjects -- much as he does on his television show. He never takes a cheap shot even when interviewing the most bizarre of his characters. But Denton's humour twinkles through on more than one occasion and his narration keeps the film moving along smoothly. Don't miss this movie -- and make sure you stay through the credits. Those in Australia will be fortunate to see it on television later this year (2006). But seeing it on the big screen is worth it. My Rating: **** (out of 5) AUS: PG

Sunday, November 05, 2006

"I don't know" - the most important thing to be able to say

Sir John Houghton is a physicist considered to be one of the world's experts in global warming. He was Professor in Atmospheric Physics at Oxford University. He has won a number of awards including Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is also a Christian. Have a listen to this interview with PBS's Bill Moyers on the program Faith & Reason where he discusses his views on science and faith. He concludes with the assertion that one of the most important things a believer needs to be prepared to say is, 'I don't know'.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Movie Review: Children of Men

Terrorism. Illegal immigration. Racism. Religion. Inhumane refugee camps. Euthanasia. The divide between rich and poor. Global warming. All of these features of our modern world are prophetically envisioned in Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of PD James's dystopian Children of Men. We are in London in 2027 and the world has fallen headlong into violence and moral chaos as a result of oppressive government policies and the fact that there are no children left on the planet. The world is in shock as they gaze at the ubiquitous TV screens where newsreaders are announcing that the youngest person alive (an 18 year old) has just died. The future is hopeless -- women are infertile (for some unknown reason) and avoiding governmental fertility checks is a crime. A group of scientists are rumoured to be working on the problem of women's infertility -- The Human Project. Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a one-time activist, lives moment to moment in this world surviving on alcohol and cigarettes and an unfulfilling job. Walking the streets is dangerous -- bomb blasts can rock the streets at any moment; gangs roam the roads attacking at random and harassing civilians. The streets are littered with filth and vermin and illegal immigrants are hoarded into wire cages for transportation to refugee camps. Governments operate on the basis of fear. It's a grim but believable world. Theo's world (such as it is) is turned upside down when he is kidnapped by a band of underground activists who want him to obtain travel documents so they can escort a black woman out of the city to safety. He discovers she is pregnant. As far as anyone knows, she is the only woman to be pregnant in the whole world. Suddenly, she becomes the centre of political rivalry -- whoever has her will have power. Theo decides to help her travel to a meeting point out at sea where she can be taken by ship to The Human Project -- a sanctuary of safety where her child can be cared for. On the way, he is helped by the eccentric Jasper (Michael Caine) who lives in an isolated house caring for his wife who is now a non-responsive survivor of brutal torture -- torture by her own government justified by the fear of terrorism. Children of Men is superbly shot with depressing colour and a brilliant rendering of a future world that is not so different from the present to be unrecognisable, but very different in so many significant ways. Cuaron has taken incredible risks in bring this story to the screen. Every shot is laden with incredible detail and, if you can take it all in fast enough, the backgrounds contain allusions to an array of contemporary issues that trouble our planet so that, in every scene, there is a shock of recognition. The acting in this film is excellent and conveys a constant sense of anxiety. Children of Men is saturated with ideas about issues that should concern us all. There are a number of biblical allusions in the film (eg, note the name Theo; a child with no known father; a traitor.) Some may feel let down by the ending. But that is only to undervalue the journey on the way. Children of Men is a thinking person's sci-fi drama/thriller that will haunt you. It's a demanding, intelligent, intense film that is most definitely worth the effort! My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review 'Based on the PD James novel, this futuristic London thriller is so well filmed and acted that it grabs hold of us and never lets go.' - Rich Cline/Film Focus Negative Review 'An ugly mix of contemporary issues is hacked to unrecognizable bits in this tame, at times insipid thriller trying to impress with impossibly generic analogies to our own time.' - Boyd van Hoeij/European-Films Content Warning Strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity AUS: MA15+ USA: R

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Book Review: Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart

The self-help shelves in bookshops are choking on superficial drivel that is making more money for the authors than actually helping anyone. At times, though, amongst all the rubble, you can find a pearl that has grown from adversity and that has some substantial insights on the human condition. Gordon Livingston has been listening to people's problems for more than thirty years as a psychiatrist. He has experienced adversity himself, losing both of his sons in one thirteen-month period -- one to leukemia and one to suicide. Out of this wealth of experience has come his little book of wisdom, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now. In brief chapters that get straight to the point, he discusses what turn out to be "obvious" truths. Here are a few:
  • If the map doesn't agree with the ground, the map is wrong.
  • We are what we do.
  • It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place.
  • The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas.
  • Any relationship is under the control of the person who cares the least.
  • Feelings follow behavior.
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good.
  • The most secure prisons are those we construct for ourselves.
  • Happiness is the ultimate risk.
  • And many more...

Listing them like this might give the impression that they are witty platitudes. Far from it. Reading this book is like listening to a wise mentor who understands life and its ups and downs and who has insights that speaks so often to the realities of life. A gentle, insightful read that will inspire some real change in the way you view your approach to living.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Darwin Online

This is no debate about the significance of Charles Darwin and his impact on our culture. Now you can read anything that Darwin wrote online and check what he actually said. You can find the whole library available here.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Genesis - literal or symbolic?

On a discussion forum, a poster recently wrote (in part):

If you choose to disregard the first two chapters of the bible in Genesis that specifically state that God rested the 7th day of creation and want to interpret it in a way that you see fit by your own reasoning that is your choice.

I cannot in good conscience - in full assurance of God's grace and acknowledgement of His Sovereignty in creation - forgo His stated word in scripture against the claims" of science. We either are or are not his created beings... sorta kinda maybe doesnt work for me.'

People who criticise those who wish to read Genesis 1 and 2 as symbolic/metaphorical constantly imply that they are rejecting what Scripture says. This is an incorrect assertion. Those who wish to read Genesis in this manner are not suggesting that we disregard the first two chapters of the bible -- the point is that we need to interpret it correctly. These interpreters may be wrong about their interpretation -- but it is important to recognise that they are just as concerned to respond to the authority of Scripture as the literal readers are. (In any case, to describe people as literal or metaphorical interpreters is too simplistic). Augustine once pitted the claims of science that there were humans living in the Antipodes against Scripture. He said it was absurd and impossible that this was so because Scripture didn't teach it. Science proved his interpretation of Scripture wrong. Scripture didn't teach what he thought it did. There was nothing wrong with science in this case. There was nothing wrong with Scripture, either. The problem was Augustine and his interpretation. Too many people only see two components in the alleged warfare between science and Scripture:
Scripture ---------------- Science
They argue that if science says something and Scripture says something different, then Scripture must be right and Science wrong. The problem is that there is a third component that many are unwilling to consider -- the interpreter:
Science -------------- Interpreter --------------Scripture
The issue is not whether Scripture is right about science or not. And it is not about whether science is right about Scripture or not. Scripture and Science are concerned with different issues. The question is whether the interpreter is right about science and Scripture. Science deals primarily in observations of empirical data which must be interpreted to arrive at conclusions -- it's a tentative, dynamic, ever-improving process of understanding. Scripture deals with ultimate concerns and must be interpreted for Christians to come to conclusions. It, too, is a tentative, dynamic, ever-improving process of inquiry. There are two possible issues to consider:
  1. The scientist may interpret the empirical data incorrectly.
  2. The Bible student may interpret the biblical data incorrectly.
Far too many Christians assume that their interpretation of Scripture is correct and if any scientific statement disagrees with their interpretation of Scripture then science must be wrong. There are two potential problems that need to be corrected:
  1. A naive understanding of science.
  2. A naive understanding of Scripture.
Both of these problems reside in the interpreter. Here's my approach: I am not a scientist so am unqualified to pass judgment on many scientific findings. Despite the fact that I may understand some aspects of science, I have to admit to not being expert enough to follow some of the complicated reasoning around scientific theories of origin. I have made it my business, however, to study the nature of science (the philosophy of science). In fact, a significant part of my responsibilities as a supervisor of higher degree students is to understand the nature of scientific inquiry. In my view, many of the statements about science made by many, many Christians show a complete lack of understanding about what science actually is and how it actually works. As a Christian, I have been studying the Bible all my life and, as part of that process, have studied the process of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) and so, in comparison, know much more about the Bible than I do about science (I'd like to know a whole lot more!). Scientists need to make sure that they get their side of the story right. Christians need to make sure that they get their side of the story right. Scientists may be wrong in their conclusions. Christians may be wrong in their conclusions. OUR job as Christians is to get our conclusions about Scripture correct. Some Christians need to stop suggesting that, because a fellow Christian says (or implies) that Christians need to make sure our interpretation of Genesis is correct it means they are denying the reliability of Scripture. The implication that interpreting Genesis in any other way than a literalistic, scientific, historical account of origins (in the way 21st century people understand science and history) is somehow being untrue to Scripture is a false implication. In all biblical interpretation, what is important to consider is:
  1. the original authorial intent - the purpose of the text.
  2. the original historical and cultural context -- understanding the text as the original readers would have.
  3. the genre of the text (poetry? history? narrative? etc?)

Open up at least three commentaries (preferably from different perspectives) and have a look at the sections on authorship, genre, culture, and history of Genesis. Discover that these questions are not as simple as we sometimes try to make them appear to be!

Genesis 1-3 contains incredible truth such as (adapted from Waltke):

  1. God is the reason and power behind the whole mysterious universe.
  2. Human society is in a mess because people have left God out of their reckoning.
  3. God is patient and forgiving, but God is also Judge of all disobedience.
  4. Fallible human beings can be used to achieve God's purposes.
  5. Faith means trusting God alone and following God even when doing so seems crazy.

You don't need to read Genesis as science to believe these important truths.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

A Review of Dawkins' 'The God Delusion'

I haven't read Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion yet so can't directly comment on it. However, Terry Eagleton has. Check out Eagleton's review here which, as far as I am concerned, accurately depicts Dawkins' approach to religion judging by what I have heard and seen of Dawkins' at other times. I'll have to read Dawkins' book to see whether Eagleton has accurately reviewed it; but what Eagleton says describes Dawkins down to a 't'!

Literal and Symbolic Truths

So many people argue over whether we should read Genesis, particularly Genesis 1-3, as literal or symbolic. Have a listen to this interesting series of video clips suggesting that if we don't read Genesis 1 (in particular) as symbolic/metaphorical, we are actually missing out on the very thing that it all means.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Movie Review: The Departed

When Hollywood remakes foreign films it doesn't often do a good job. But in the case of The Departed, we have a movie worthy of the original Hong Kong movie, Infernal Affairs, on which it is based. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants to be a police officer but, because of a lapse in self-control which results in him losing his badge, is pressured into becoming an undercover agent in the Irish Mafia in order to bring down Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a notorious gangster who perpetrates violence and bloodshed with disdain for the law. Billy has to penetrate into the deepest level of organised crime over a number of years as he transforms himself into the "genuine" article to get close to Costello. At the same time, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is undercover in the Boston State Police Force for Frank Costello and provides inside information to "Father" so that Frank can avoid being caught when engaging in his criminal activity. Costigan and Sullivan are not aware of each other but their paths inevitably cross in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. The Departed is directed by Martin Scorcese and is an in-your-face action-packed, intricate, gritty crime drama/thriller. When I saw Infernal Affairs in Hong Kong I really enjoyed it -- lots of action and a plot line that required enormous concentration -- especially reading subtitles! The Departed is equally enjoyable but more character driven than the Hong Kong version, making it a greater movie in some ways. Nicholson, Damon, and DiCaprio are all excellent in their roles (although Nicholson is sometimes a little too self-indulgent in his portrayal of Costello). The plot twists and turns without letting up and the dialogue is brilliant. It's hard-hitting and gritty as the protagonists are required to struggle with the ethics of deliberate deception along with other crimes than prey on their consciences. The Departed is extremely and explicitly violent and there is lots of bad language-- so it will not suit everyone. But there are obviously people who live in the world that the movie portrays. And not everything is black and white -- to a great extent, the characters are the product of their environments and upbringing and, despite the opposite sides of the fence from which they come, end up having to struggle with their consciences, issues of loyalty, and profound loneliness. The Departed is an incredible, exciting, confronting movie that bursts on the screen with incredible power. Not for the faint-hearted! But definitely for those who want to see what will be a classic piece of cinema in years to come. My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'The Departed is Scorsese's most purely enjoyable movie in years. But it's not for the faint of heart. It's rude, bleak, violent and defiantly un-PC. But if you doubt that it's also OK to laugh throughout this rat's nest of paranoia, deceit and bloodshed, keep your eyes on the final frames. Scorsese's parting shot is an uncharacteristic, but well-earned, wink.' - David Ansen/Newsweek Negative Review 'Scorsese in his prime might've made better use of this hamming, but this picture feels like an exercise by a Scorsese clone who has tackled the master's themes - without his energy and economy of style.' - Lawrence Toppmann/Charlotte Observer Content Warning (take this seriously!) strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material AUS: MA15+ USA: R