Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Godless

Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading AtheistsGodless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists by Dan Barker

I have mixed feelings about this book. Part 1 of the book entitled "Rejecting God" is the most interesting as it is the author's personal story of his journey from fundamentalist Christianity to atheism.

Part 2, "Why I am an atheist" is very dense and philosophical - and I appreciated some of Barker's arguments and critiques regarding God and the various arguments often offered for God's existence by Christian apologists - some of which are clearly wanting.

Part 3, "What's wrong with Christianity?", was the worst part of the book. It consists of a hurried survey through the Bible intended to prove that inerrantism is unsustainable (I agree that it isn't sustainable). But in this section Barker proof texts in much the same way as many fundamentalist Christians do - he gives almost no consideration to context (cultural, historical, or textual) unless it serves his purpose. For example, he criticises what he sees as the moral commands of the Beatitudes and doesn't realise that these are not moral commands. The context is Jesus blessing the marginalised oppressed group of people in front of him who were going through the experiences he was describing in each of the Beatitudes. While some Christians see the Beatitudes as a moral code, this is not the only way of reading the text. Baker's book fails in genuinely engaging with the text and sharing alternative perspectives with the reader. It is highly biased towards Baker's conclusions (which may not always be wrong but are not offered fair-mindedly).

Because Barker came from a fundamentalist background, he falls into the trap of treating the text of the Bible as a flat set of propositions. Apart from the fundamentalist, few educated Christians would take it that way. So this whole section of the book, in my opinion, would have been better left to another, more scholarly book, rather than plonked into this book in the way it is.

Part 4, "Life is Good!" becomes a boring listing of all the people Baker has met that he deems important to the atheist/humanist cause (it is hard to avoid thinking he is engaging in name-dropping) and events he has participated in. There are a few autobiographical stories that are of interest. His brief discussion on the scientific hypotheses for the origin of religion and his discussion of the basis of meaning and morality without God are worth reading but are overshadowed by the interminable minutiae of the rest of it.

In summary, Part 1 is worth reading to gain an insight into Baker's journey and what was going on inside his head as he struggled with the loss of his faith. I think there are other books that do a better job of the material in the other parts of the book. Baker needed a good editor to make this book shorter and more powerful.

Movie Review: Melancholia


Lars von Trier’s Melancholia would have to be the “deepest” most demanding movie in cinemas at the moment. The word melancholia refers to profound depression, apathy, and withdrawal. In the movie, it also refers to a planet that is about to collide with earth bringing the world to an end and to the experience of one of the main characters of the story, Justine (Kirsten Dunst).

The movie opens with a stunning series of slow motion scenes (snapshots of what is to come) to the music from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The images are surreal and dark and create a degree of anxiety with an impending sense of doom. Following this prologue, the rest of the movie is in two parts – Part 1 is “Justine” and Part 2 is “Claire”. These are two estranged sisters and the story of the impending end of the world is told by focusing on each of them in turn, comparing the way in which each of the sisters deal with the end of the world. The whole movie takes place in a mansion owned by Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), beginning in the first part with Justine’s wedding reception and, in the second part, with Claire caring for Justine as she descends into a profound depression. Justine’s depression begins in the first part of the film and traverses the second part until she begins to improve just before the end of the world occurs.

There are many layers to this film and many possible “readings” of the story. The director has, however, left those things to the viewer to work out – there is no preachiness, no exegesis, just superb storytelling that leaves us deep in contemplation when it is over.

Melancholia is ambitious in using a cosmic event to parallel Justine’s depression. Dunst is superb in her role and, as someone who has experienced a major depressive illness, I resonated with much that she portrayed as she descended into her private hell. Ultimately, for me, the film portrays the different ways that people might face the end of the world (and depression) – opting out before it happens (in the case of John), becoming fraught with anxiety (in the case of Claire), or facing it head on with calm acceptance for what it is (in the case of Justine).

The end of the world is stunningly portrayed by von Trier. There is no cliché, no sensationalism, no “Hollywood” happy resolution. In fact, there is nothing clichéd about this movie at all. It is deeply courageous film making and will, therefore, not suit every viewer. It is tough to watch; patience is required as some parts move slowly; there are nuances to observe; and the subject matter is bleak and confronting.

Apparently, the idea of this movie grew out of von Trier’s own depression while he was in therapy. He came to understand that depressed people could, in the face of impending doom, act with rationality. Because of their experience managing depression, they could perhaps deal with this sort of event better than others (see Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald for more on this).

God and/or religion is nowhere to be found in this movie. This is the end – that’s all there is. For many Christians, this will be an omission that is significant for them. Most Christians cannot conceive of people dealing with depression or obliteration without God. But they do – and often with ultimate peace and tranquillity. (Feel free to comment on this issue in the comments area below!)  Melancholia is a stunning piece of moviemaking – except it is a bit long and slow in the second half. If you want to bypass the superficial fare of the holiday period, check this one out!


You will probably enjoy this movie if you liked Solaris, The Tree of Life, The Virgin Suicides, or The Antichrist.

Positive Review
'Leave it to von Trier to conceive an intergalactic sci-fi metaphor for a psychological disorder – and then make it work so astonishingly well.’ – Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald

Negative Review
'Melancholia is his latest pile of undiluted drivel, nauseatingly filmed by a wonky hand-held camera and featuring a crazy, mismatched ensemble headed by Kirsten Dunst, who won an acting award in Cannes last year for looking totally catatonic.’ – Rex Reed/New York Observer

Content Advice
some graphic nudity,sexual content and language

Friday, December 23, 2011

Book Review: Heaven is For Real

Heaven is for real

Right up front, let me say that I think Todd Burpo’s book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back is one of the most naive, superficial, and disturbing “Christian” books I’ve read for a long time.

In brief, the book purports to tell of a 4 year old’s journey to heaven during a surgical procedure for a severe ruptured appendix. Following the procedure, and over a period of months and years, Colton, Todd’s son, gradually “revealed” bits and pieces of his alleged journey to heaven. Here’s what he “discovered” and/or “experienced” on his journey:

  • angels sang to him while he was in hospital
  • he was sitting on Jesus’ lap while he was in heaven
  • while in heaven, he saw his father praying in a small room in the hospital and his mother in a different room talking on the phone and praying
  • he met John the Baptist in heaven
  • Jesus has a rainbow coloured horse and wears a golden crown with a pink diamond
  • he was given “homework” to do in heaven while he was being cared for by his deceased grandfather – Pop
  • everyone in heaven has wings and flies around from place to place – except for Jesus who who levitates up and down like an elevator
  • everyone in heaven has a light above their heads (Todd Burpo interprets this in the book as a halo)
  • God is ‘really, really big’ and is so big he holds the world in his hands
  • Jesus sits at the right hand of God, Gabriel sits on God’s left, and the Holy Spirit is “kind of blue” and sits somewhere in the vicinity of the other three.
  • the gates of heave are made of gold and pearls
  • after Colton’s return to earth, he became obsessed with rainbows because of the incredible number of colours he saw in heaven
  • at times, following his return from heaven, Colton saw ‘power shot down from heaven’ while his dad was preaching
  • there are swords  and bows and arrows in heaven that the angels use to keep Satan out of heaven
  • the weaponry described above will apparently be used in a coming battle that destroys the world – and Colton’s dad will be fighting in that battle
  • the final battle will be against actual dragons and monsters while the women and children stand and watch the men fighting them
  • he meets ‘a sister’ in heaven – who was lost through miscarriage by the mother years before – and which the parents claim they never spoke to Colton about
  • he claimed to see Satan in heaven but wouldn’t say what he looked like
  • and he described what Jesus looked like, comparing people’s ideas of Jesus in their artworks as not right, until he was shown a painting of Christ by Akiane Kramarik which he said got the picture of Jesus right

There are a few more “revelations” in the book, but these are the essential ones. And all this was discovered in 3 minutes in heaven!

There are a number of reasons one should be highly sceptical of this book. Firstly, Colton was just 4 years old when he began to talk about his experience mostly prompted by his father – except for the first of his comments about the angels singing to him when he was having his surgery. Four year old children are renowned for making up stories and not being able, at this age, to distinguish fantasy from reality. After all, many children have imaginary friends and use their imagination constantly in making up stories while engaging in play. It would seem that the parents are still thinking like four year olds if they take what their kid says as literally true!

Secondly, why so many months and years for the story to develop – with the prompting of the parents? Surely if a child visited heaven they’d come back and be talking about it excitedly all at once – at least to start with. Haven’t we all heard children bubble over with enthusiasm after having an exciting experience? Not Colton. He doesn’t even mention it until he happens to say something about where his parents were during his operation. But given that it takes years for his whole “story” to come out, one has to wonder how much of it was constructed in response to his father’s questioning.

Thirdly, the “information” provided by Colton is so obviously consistent with an evangelical fundamentalist view that it is not hard to see it has being informed by this culture as he grew up. Colton’s father is a pastor and he admits to reading Bible stories to Colton as he grew up. He would have attended Sunday School and  been exposed to all the detail he has described even if unconsciously. It’s not surprising that his description of heaven draws on that culture.

Fourthly, Colton’s father holds to a literalist reading of the biblical Book of Revelation which most people quite rightly understand to be highly symbolic and figurative. Colton describes things like swords and horses (rainbow coloured, no less, obviously similar to the children’s Rainbow Brite toy!) in heaven and his father believes they are truly in heaven because verses in Revelation confirm it! So does Colton’s father believe there is really a slain lamb/lion creature actually there too?

Fifthly, if Colton’s descriptions of God on thrones with angels using swords to keep Satan out of heaven are to be taken literally, then God has been caught in an Old Testament era time warp. Are they really suggesting that God has eternally sat on thrones, ridden horses, fought with swords against real dragons? Most biblical scholars (and most Christians) would have a much more mature view of these issues than the childish view that Colton and his parents have. But then, of course, according to this book, we are to become like little children in our faith and just accept all this stuff without question.

Finally, the idea that Colton has told them a few things that he just couldn’t have known about is highly unlikely. Church communities are renowned gossiping communities and it is much more reasonable to assume that he heard some of these things than to believe they are supernaturally revealed.

There’s a lot more that could be said about this book. But the above will do. Heaven is for Real is simplistic, superficial, and naive. The most disturbing thing about this book is that it has become so popular – which doesn’t say much for the people that swallow it whole without a second thought – even to the extent of stating that they have had their faith strengthened by it. If this is all it takes to reaffirm faith then, to my mind, that faith is pretty fickle.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”