Book Review: unChristian (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons)

This one has been sitting in my reading pile for far too long. While only brief, I think it is one of the more important Christian books to be written in the last few years, and one that I would actually like all Christian leaders (actually, make that all Christians) to read and think about.

Quite simply, this book documents the results of a variety of surveys conducted on 16-29 year-olds in the United States to understand their attitudes towards Christianity. It was quite extensive, and covered both non-Christians and Christians. Dave Kinnaman is clearly a lover of statistics, and has done a great job, I think, of letting the results of the survey speak for themselves, rather than just putting in his opinions. Which is just as well, because the results that came back were pretty unflattering to Christians. I’d recommend reading the book to get into the details of it, but the summary of their findings were that most non-Christians aged  between 16-29 though that Christians were:

Hypocritical – always telling people what they should and shouldn’t do, but then living however they wanted.

Only Focused on Seeing Non-Christians “Saved” – keen to see non-Christians get “saved”, come down the front, pray a prayer, or whatever form it might take; but not actually interested in them as people.

Antihomosexual – Christians don’t just teach against homosexuality (which this book wasn’t disagreeing with), but many Christians have used that as an excuse to treat gay people as second-class citizens (or worse).

Sheltered – Christians hide in a bubble and have no real proper interaction with the world.

Too Political – Christians are too focused on taking over America via Republican politics.

Judgmental – Christians are more interested in criticising everyone’s actions, rather than helping people, and display very little grace.

The interesting thing about most of these statistics was that a lot of young Christians would agree with the above as well. I would too. As the book goes into, it’s not saying that Christians should completely compromise on their doctrines or never get involved in politics, etc. But they are suggesting that the way we’ve treated people and the fact that we’re more known for who and what we don’t like rather than any positive contribution to society, should give us pause.

The authors have lots of helpful suggestions along the way for how we can reverse this image problem, without compromising, and I think if many of their suggestions were taken on board by Christians, we’d have a lot less negative press than we do. While I don’t believe that people are suddenly going to flock to church if all Christians start treating them nicely, I do believe that we’d be getting closer to what the Bible talks about in the book of 1 Peter, where Peter says that we should live such good lives among non-Christians that even if they don’t particularly like what we stand for, they will notice a difference and want to know more about God.

If it’s ideas are taken on board, I think it will become one of the most important books for the next generation of Christians.

4 1/2 out of 5.

Film Review: Way Down East

Continuing on with the 1001 Films I Apparently Must Watch Before I  Die, we hit number 8, with yet another silent film of D.W. Griffith. It’s a bit surreal, actually, because I’m up to 1920 in terms of cinema years, but most of the teens decade has been seen through Griffith’s lens. I suspect that there are a lot of silent films that got axed from the list to make way for the stuff in the more recent decades, but I’m content with the ones I’ve seen so far. Silent films are enjoyable, but they are definitely more demanding on the modern-day viewer.

There is a sense in which perhaps this film is a bit redundant if you’re trying to get a feel for D.W. Griffith as a film-maker. You can get an idea of his melodrama from watching Broken Blossoms; you can get a feel for his epic style from watching Birth of a Nation; and, of course, to get it all in one astoundingly brilliant package, you can watch Intolerance.

But still, Way Down East is a fairly gripping film that stands up on its own, even if the melodrama feels dramatic. It starts with a caption reminding us that the Christian standard of marriage – one man, one woman – was a fairly new phenomenon, but one that is the best for all involved. However, it can be difficult persuading men of this … The caption said it much more poetically than this, of course, but we know straight away that we’re being set up for a tale of a woman who’s going to be abused by a philandering man.

In fact, the word “set up” is probably how I’d define this film. What gives it it’s strength is that it’s constantly setting up things that are going to go wrong later in the film. Thus, even in it’s nicest moments, there’s a constant air of tension in the air, and when things really do go pear-shaped, we’re already sucked right in.

The tale concerns young Anna Moore, played by Lillian Gish, who’s now had a major role in all of the Griffith films I’ve seen. Her mother sends her to visit her rich relatives to beg for some money, and in the process she is seduced into a sham marriage by the womanising Lennox Sanderson. (Who has the awesome caption: “Lennox Sanderson had three passions in life: Ladies, Ladies and LADIES!I love it.)

We know straight away, that this is going to end in trouble, but Griffith stretches out the romance and the seduction, thus making it all that more devastating when Anna finds out a) she’s not married, b) Lennox is not going to help her out at all with her pregnancy (and one can only imagine how scandalous a 1920s audience would have found all this!).

This is the opening setup, and it’s fairly harrowing, but the story then moves along to show Anna as she takes up residence as a maid with the Bartlett family. The Bartlett family open their arms to her, and I think the scenes of redemption are fantastic as this broken woman (beautifully portrayed by Gish, by the way) for the first time sees life getting better. There might even be some decent romance in her life, from young David Bartlett (portrayed by Richard Barthelmess, who played the Chinaman in Broken Blossoms – this time getting a white role). But Squire Bartlett is a harsh man, offering no forgiveness to those who break the Scriptures, and Anna’s “husband”, the rat Lennox lives nearby and is trying to seduce Bartlett’s niece…

We can tell it’s all going to come to a head, and so the melodrama of it all is relentlessly piled on by Griffith, until it all ends in a climactic scene in a blizzard. I’d love to know how all that was filmed, because it looked quite cold and realistic to me, even all these years later.

In short, your enjoyment of this film will depend on your moral outlook on life (the engine of the whole thing is a rather strict reading of Christian teachings on marriage) and your ability to cope with silent films and melodrama. But I found it a pretty gripping 2 1/2 hours.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: Does God Believe in Atheists? (John Blanchard)

This book is quite mammoth (655 pages). In it, John Blanchard has attempted the rather ambitious (but worthwhile) goal of attempting to construct both a critique of atheism and a defense of Christianity all in the one book.

He starts by going through a history of atheistic ideas, then proceeds to pull it apart on various aspects (everything from it’s failure to explain why everything is here, perceived design in the world, lack of a moral framework – the usual stuff). Blanchard helpfully takes things a step further by defining theism as Christian theism. This helps because rather than just defending the idea of God in general (which could encompass many religions which Christians wouldn’t believe in either), it’s tied down to the one faith.

It also means that, using that definition, an atheist can be someone from another religion who doesn’t believe in the Christian God, thus allowing for some critique of the other major world religions and agnosticism as well. (Though at the same time, he is careful to distinguish between them – so an atheist needn’t worry that he’s going to be painted in the same brush as a Muslim or an agnostic, for instance.)

Overall, I liked the structure of the book and I liked that John Blanchard was trying to write it for an atheist to be able to think through his or her own position, plus also the evidence for Christianity. This is good, because sometimes atheists don’t necessarily seem to have responded to all the arguments that Christians have put  forward, or they’ll just use a blanket dismissal of anything that comes from the Bible, just because it is the Bible. (But I’ll be the first to admit that Christians have spent a lot of time recently answering objections that nobody’s really raising as well, so it does take two to tango.)

It’s also a nice mix of all the different arguments involved – some are philosophical, regarding how you determine truth and morality. Others are evidentiary – what does historical evidence say about Christianity? So it tackles atheism on many levels.

As a broad brush introduction to the Christian responses to atheism, I’d recommend it, but I have two reservations about it, one minor, the other more major.

The minor quibble is just that the book is so formidably dense (it feels like an average of five endnotes per paragraph) because Blanchard is doing his best to represent a well-read critique of atheism that has actually understood his opponent’s position. However, I felt the same points could have been made in a shorter book.

But the more major point is that there is a large chunk missing in temrs of how the Bible reconciles with science. I believe Blanchard has written another book on Christianity and science and how they’re compatible, and I’m sure he left it out because of space reasons, but I think it leaves a gap in the argument. I believe one of the biggest issues that modern Christianity faces is that when Darwinism first arose, the weight of scientified evidence seemed to clash with the creation account in Genesis. I haven’t looked too closely into the issues, but I know many Christians who take the opening chapters of Genesis fairly symbolically – not to be taken as a literal account of creation. However, if I was a skeptic, I would want to know: if it’s okay to discount the opening chapters of the Bible because they clash with science, why insist so strongly that a guy rose from the dead – which also clashes with science?

I think the answer lies in understanding the presuppositions that support how we view the scientific evidence as well as an understanding of how the opening of the Bible is meant to be read, and I would have loved to have seen some thinking along that line.

But instead, Blanchard spends an entire chapter demolishing evolution, but never gets around to explain what he’s replacing it with. He clearly believes that God created the world, and that there is intelligent design – but how does that all work? Did the world evolve, but evolve in a designed way? Is it a young earth that looks old? An old earth with some reinterpretation needed for how we understand Genesis? I think all of this is imporant (especially with the attention being drawn to Charles Darwin in this anniversary time) because the perception that I get from many non-Christians is that Christians cling to believing in a book which can’t possibly be true, because science has disproved it. To my mind, while I believe there is strength in the notion of a creator to explain an ultimate cause for everything, and while I believe there is merit in intelligent design, I think it needs to be more strongly linked with the evidence that is out there. Anyway, that could well be in Blanchard’s other book, so I’ll have to track that down at some stage. (After doing some atheist reading, because I think it’s important to make sure we’re not misrepresenting the other side either.)

That said, this is a great introduction to various streams of Christian arguments against atheism, and it’s nice to see someone grappling with the arguments that atheists are using.

4 out of 5.

Film Review: Avatar 3D

I’m miles too late to review this film, because I went and saw it back in January, but my own sense of vanity insists that I must review it, just to show that I actually went and saw it.

However, there’s not really a lot to say that other reviewers haven’t already. The famed special effects took me about an hour to warm up to. When you’re told that you’re going to see the most spectacular film ever made, you tend to be a bit more cynical going in.

But eventually, Avatar works its magic. I think what makes this film so interesting is that the special effects actually help conjure up an emotional reaction to the story that I don’t really remember since Jurassic Park. By way of explanation – some of us might remember that up until the early 90s, we reacted to special effects slightly differently from the way we do today. Back then, we kind of could tell how the special effects were done. E.T. was a puppet. The original King Kong was a clay model. The 70s King Kong was a man in a monkey suit. The spaceships on Star Wars are big plastic models.

So given that we knew how these special effects were done, we tended to judge their effectiveness by how cool they looked. King Kong was a pretty awesome-looking clay model. The Star Wars spaceships were awesome. The man-in-a-monkey-suit looked crap. It was as simple as that.

But then Jurassic Park changed all the ground rules. I distinctly remember being 15, sitting in Greater Union on George Street watching the massive brachiosaur (or whatever dinosaur it was) come out and rear up on its hind legs. From there, a turning point was reached. Nearly all of us in the cinema were sitting there with our jaw dropped because for all intents and purposes we were looking at a real dinosaur. The only way we knew it was special effects was because there was no way that thing could be real. It was a magical moment for special effects because, in the same way that the scientists on the island were awestruck by beholding a real dinosaur, so were we as an audience. The effect was magical, and John Williams’ score for that moment was likewise one of the most beautiful sections of music he’s ever written.

The problem, however, with magic moments, is that if you have too many of them, they’re not magical any more. After a while, computer animated dinosaurs weren’t that much of a big deal any more. In fact, there have been so many perfectly-rendered computer-animated creatures that have flashed across our screens, we don’t feel that amazed any more. We know the nerds can do it, so it’s no big deal when it appears. And from then on, our judgment on special effects was different. Instead of judging how cool they were, we now judged them by how real they were. The line, “That bit was so fake” became a common catch-cry among teenagers. Whereas, my generation was used to fake.

So now – nearly 15 years after Jurassic Park, we’re all a bit cynical of special effects. We’ve seen it all.

Enter James Cameron.

The hype surrounding his film Avatar was that he’d put the magic back into special effects. I was a cynic, but I must confess, that I am converted. I think he’s done it.

First off, everything you’ve heard about this being  a by-the-numbers environmental/American Indian story set in space is true. I haven’t seen Disney’s Pocahontas, but this reminded me quite a bit of Dances With Wolves mixed with Last of the Mohicans. So there’s nothing particularly original about the story.

But what was different this time was the environment of the planet Pandora which James Cameron created is so compellingly beautiful, that when the inevitable rape and pillage of nature begins about halfway through the film, you’re already in love with the place. This is no mean feat. To make us truly care about the planet (and most audience members will respond emotionally to the plight of the Na’vi), the effects had to be real enough that we felt like we were watching a real environment and then likewise beautiful enough that we kind of wish we were there as well. So it’s a remarkable feat by both the design team and the geeks who have brought it to life that Pandora gradually rises up off the screen in all its beauty and glory and makes you feel like you’re actually there.

So what that means is that all these special-effects, far from being a bit of eye-candy, actually become the emotional driver of the film. As Sam Worthington’s character becomes more drawn into the world of Pandora, we do too. When it cuts back to the boringness of the human space base, we switch from gorgeously rendered trees and animals to claustraphobic box-like sets and we long for the film to get back to the jungle as much as Sam does.

So, all in all, whether you like the story – and all I’ll say is that it’s one of the most subversively anti-American storylines to appear in a mainstream film – the film will stay with you. The spectacle I was expecting – the beauty was a pleasant surprise.

4 out of 5 (until it gets usurped by a film with a better plot and the same level of special effects).

DVD Review: Dean Spanley

I watched this a couple of weeks ago, but it’s been tricky trying to find the time to put this down. I’m also aware that there’s a certain quirkiness that my last film review was The Lovely Bones and I’m now reviewing another film by a New Zealand director also dealing with the topic of life after death. That’s where the similarities end.

The problem with reviewing this type of film is that the less I say the more there is to enjoy, but if I don’t say enough, I don’t know if I’ll be able to persuade you to see it. So at the risk of saying too much, this movie tells the tale of a father and son – Fisk Junior (Jeremy Northam) and Fisk Senior (Peter O’Toole) who spend every Thursday together in a tortured ritual of going out to do things together. They’re not very close because ever since Fisk Junior’s brother was killed in the Boer War (did I mention this was all set in Edwardian England? Forgive me if I didn’t…) and his mother died of the heartbreak, his father has refused to acknowledge the tragedy except in a bitingly cynical way.

On one particular Thursday, they decide to go to the elegant home of an Indian cricketer living in England to hear a talk by another Indian gentlemen on the topic of reincarnation. The talk itself is pretty boring stuff, but Fisk Junior spots an Anglican minister there – Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) – the Dean being his title, not his first name. They also meet an Australian (Bryan Brown playing Bryan Brown), who can procure anything for anyone – at a price.

Anyway, it doesn’t take long in the film (though did take quite a while when we were watching it on DVD, because we had to keep chasing the kids around and pausing it, but Fisk Junior decides to start catching up with the Dean to find out why an Anglican was so interested in reincarnation. He soon comes to the startling revelation that when the Dean is plied with a certain rare and expensive Hungarian alcohol known as Tokay, he will open and regale listeners with tales of his past life as a dog.

From then on, the movie consists of the various alcohol-induced reminiscences that are dragged from the Dean while under the influence of his beloved Tokay. This either will sound amusing to you (in which case you’re going to love the film) or if you’re my wife, it’s just far too Roald Dahl-like to cope with.

If I’d stopped there, it would have been an amusing story, but when the whole film plays out (and I won’t tell you any more than that), it actually rises up its crazy concept to become a beautifully acted and deeply moving film experience about remembering childhood, dealing with grief, and all sorts of other things. All four actors (because it is essentially a four-hander) rise to the occasion. The Edwardian dialogue – stilted and formal in the earlier moments of the film – becomes absolutely brilliant when you hear Sam Neill rattling off his reminiscences in the gravest of tones. And if Peter O’Toole doesn’t tug at your heart strings by the end of the film – well, then, you’re probably my wife who was still trying to get her head around the whole dog concept.

I wish I hadn’t sent this back to Quickflix so quickly. It’s definitely worth a re-watch. Or a first watch, if you haven’t seen it.

4 1/2 out of 5.