An Addiction to Newness

I blog about this every so often (or at least I think I do), so forgive me if you’ve heard this one before, but I have an addiction to newness. And the reason I’m blogging about it is because, at least at the present moment, it’s become particularly irritating.

So what do I mean, and why does it bother me?

Because I haven’t seen a lot written about it, I’m not sure what the technical term is for it, so I can really only describe the symptoms for me. But it works like this:

I’m at my happiest when I’m starting a new project or buying or otherwise acquiring something new. The things that I get most excited about are new projects that I haven’t even begun or new objects that I don’t own.

That may not make perfect sense, so I’ll tell you how it breaks down across a number of areas:

Books – I love collecting books more than I like reading them. So subsequently I have approximately 150 unread books sitting at home that I haven’t read. Some of them dating back to when I was a teenager. And this 150, mind you, is after I culled all the books that I was kidding myself that I would ever get to read in the next 10 years. However, even despite having all this reading mapped out, I still often feel the urge to buy more.

Films – I have a reasonable DVD collection at home and several TV series on DVD on the go. And yet  I’m always excited by the idea of starting another TV series or watching another movie – much more so than finishing the ones I’m watching.

People – I love meeting new people. I always find it quite exciting to be in a room with a bunch of people that I haven’t met. The possibilities are endless. However, I find it really hard to maintain contact with most of my friends. (I feel a bit better this week because I organised a picnic to catch up with some of my friends from Brisbane, but still that was more of an exception.)

Where newness gets particularly draining is online:

Email – I’m always checking my email (which can be done even more frequently if you’re carrying an iPhone with you). Why? Because there might be a new email in there to make life exciting. However, I don’t show anywhere near as much interest in replying to emails that I already have.

RSS – I love coming across a blog that sounds good to read. So I add it to the RSS reader. But then I have hundreds of posts coming in, which I feel obligated to catch up with, and that takes time too. But I like them, because they’re new.

Window Shopping – I also find that if I go into any sort of store, like a CD or a DVD store, that I find myself eyeing off new things that I could get stuck into. And I like big new things as well. (100 CDs of Beethoven’s music? Sounds great! 32 DVDs of Seinfeld? Yeah, it’d be great fun to watch all them!)

However, I have lots of these sort of projects sitting at home, with virtually nothing happening to them. I’m still not completely finished all the extras on The Lord of the Rings extended editions, but I’ve bought lots of DVDs in the meantime. I’m still midway through The Complete Sandman. I do actually own the aforementioned 100-CD Beethoven set, and I’m still listening to that as well.

And let me tell you, good as these things all are, they were most exciting when they were in the bag on the way home from the shops (or when I first ripped open the parcel when it got mailed to me). After that, they become ordinary, less exciting. Still good, mind you, but not as exciting as the thing I don’t own or the thing I haven’t started. And I could point to hundreds of things, and possibly thousands of dollars I’ve spent on things which I want to do/read/watch one day, that I’m still not finished yet.

The closest I’ve come to a diagnosis of why I like new stuff so much is really, I think, the Bible’s teaching on contentment and wealth. While some people like to read the Bible and find a justification for a left-wing agenda, there’s not a lot of that in there really. There’s plenty of wealthy people in the Bible who followed God, and they only got wealthier. There’s not really anything wrong with that.

But the people who do get a mention and a talking to, are those people who make their life revolve around their stuff and particularly their pursuit of stuff. This I completely understand. If you’re not careful, you hit a point where the stuff means a lot less than the actual acquiring of stuff. But at least in my observation, I don’t think that’s just limited to things you buy. It could be that all of this is symptomatic of a discontentment with the things you’ve got, and a drive to get more / consume more. Which is really a way of saying that newness is becoming the focus of your life, the thing that determines what you do and don’t do. In the Bible, anything that determines what you do and don’t do is usually called your idol or your god. You may not think of it in those terms, but it is helpful for me to be reminded about how strong this thing actually is.

I’ll talk more about this hopefully over the course of the month, because to counteract this drive for newness, I’m going to implement something I tried a couple of years ago (which I found really effective) called a Newness Block. The idea was to see if I could stem the flow of newness into my life and free up more mental energy for other things. So I’m going to give it a try again. I’ll come back soon and explain a bit more about what it involves. You never know, if you’re as addicted to newness as I am, you might like to join in…

Book Review: The Family (B.M. Palmer / J.W. Alexander)

This is probably going to go down as the book that’s had the biggest influence on me in 2009. Though it should be said that it’s actually two books in one volume, published by Sprinkle Publications, a publishing house in Virginia which specialises in old Christian books from the 1800s, which they reprint in beautiful hardbound facsimile editions.

The first book in this volume is The Family In Its Civil And Churchly Aspects by Benjamin Palmer, pastor of First Presbyterian in New Orleans in 1876. It’s split into two parts. The first part explains how the Biblical model of family (monogamous husband and wife, with children) is at the very core of society.

Because God has created the institution of families, children grow up learning how to obey authority, how to treat each other kindly, in an environment with just the right mix of affection and discipline – thus preparing them to be model citizens of society.

He then goes on to expound this point with a chapter devoted to each role in the family (husband, wife, parents, children, and – most controversially – servants).

I must admit, I was expecting a book from 1876 to be full of cringeworthy advice along the lines of, “The husband calls the shots. The wife does blindly whatever she’s told. The children obey or get smacked.” I’m not sure why I thought this was the standard view of the 19th century – but that’s what I was expecting.

However, I was amazed at one of the most balanced descriptions of marriage and parenting that I’ve ever read. The chapter on the authority of parents is worth the price of admission in and of itself.

The second part of Palmer’s book on the church was a little bit less convincing for me, because I had more trouble tracing his line of thought, compared with the first part. I understand that he sees family as showing us something of the relationship of Christ and the church, but it wasn’t made as clear as the first part. Still worth a read, though.

After a very strong first book, I thought the second book in this volume would have to be a strong contender to match it. It was.

Thoughts on Family-Worship by James Alexander (pastor of a Presbyterian Church in New York) and originally written in 1847, is the most sustained and passionate argument for families to worship together in their homes that I’ve ever read.

Chapter by chapter, Alexander hammers home at families (especially fathers) that they should be gathering their family every day to read the Bible, sing praises to God and pray together. He spells out the benefits for fathers, for children, for families, for what it does in hard times, for how it benefits society, how it benefits the church, etc. etc.

While there are bits here and there that may be legalistic (for instance, I’m not sure where Alexander gets the idea that kneeling is the only legitimate position for praying), but the overall vision that he paints of what could be achieved in the church and amongst Christians if we took the time to focus on God every day (and he’s arguing for morning and night, by the way) is challenging and inspiring. It made me realise that if many of these old stalwarts of the faith were to show up in 2009, they might think those of us calling ourselves Christians are a bit soft . . .

Anyway, I didn’t need to read very far in the book, before I got back in the habit of gathering my family together and reading the Bible and praying straight after dinner. I’m not sure how many of my Christian friends (especially those who are fathers), would make the time to read two books written in somewhat flowery language from the 1800s, but the ideas in this book have given me the most refreshing re-think about my family that I’ve had in years.

5 out of 5.

One Further Thought on Tessitura Conference

Actually, while I think of it – this is a thought for my Christian readers. One of the most interesting things about the conference for me, was the sheer enthusiasm of people in the arts, not just for the Tessitura software, but for what they do.

Far from an irritating job that they don’t want to talk about – they could talk to the cows come home about their companies and what they do.

It made me think – and I heard a speaker say this a few weeks ago – could this highlight a problem with our churches? How often have you been at church, and found out that everyone is talking about the weather/football, etc afterwards? There’s almost a fear of talking about the God that we’re gathering to worship.

Imagine what it would be like going to a church where the congregation’s enthusiasm for the Christian faith matched the enthusiasm of the arts world?

CD Review: St Luke Passion (Bach)

This would have to be one of the more bizarre CDs that I own.  Very briefly, the St Luke Passion refers to the two chapters in the Gospel of Luke that describe Christ’s trial and death.  When the composer J.S. Bach died, one of his musical manuscripts which survived was a setting of this passion for choir, orchestra and soloists.  Half of it was written in Bach’s handwriting, the other half in his son’s.

Now, most people are familiar with Bach’s St Matthew Passion and his St John Passion as being the only two surviving passions, and this one has long been argued to be written by someone else, but just copied out by Bach because he was interested in it.  So we don’t really know whether it was by Bach or not.

Anyway, this particular passion was picked up in the early part of the 20th century by the composer Carl Orff (most famous for his Carmina Burana).  He had the idea of cutting out most of the part of the piece that weren’t just straight recitative (the story parts).  So apart from a few choruses here and there, most of this is just the straight words of Scripture, with different singers taking each character.

But what makes this so different from the other two real passions of Bach is that Carl Orff’s idea was to add percussion and more orchestration to these recitative parts (which were normally only accompanied by a harpsichord and low strings) to beef them up and make them dramatic.  Sadly, Orff’s version was destroyed in a fire.

So enter Jan Jirasek in the early 90s, now the third composer to be involved.  He went along and completed the piece, in line with Orff’s idea.

So what you end up with a piece that sounds as if it should be Bach, but with all sorts of bizarre touches (mainly percussion) thrown in.  However, oddly enough, it works really well, and I think both Bach lovers and people who like things a bit more modern could happily live with both.

Most importantly, from a Christian point of view, nothing detracts from the story being told – if nothing else, it becomes more dramatic.

4 1/2 out of 5.

Review: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (Jonathan Edwards)

I had long heard of this sermon, and had a little booklet containing the text of it lying around at home, but it was only recently that I finally got around to reading it.

Jonathan Edwards is a name that is becoming more familiar in Christian circles now (especially with the work of John Piper to keep reminding us).  Edwards was an American preacher in the 1700s.  Under his preaching (and others), America saw its first great revival.  One of the most legendary of these revival sermons was this one, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  It was renowned because of the effect it had on its audience.

Listeners writhed in anguish.  Some fainted.

I didn’t quite faint, but then again, I am a Christian.  The sermon is quite to the point for the non-Christian: you are only ever a split second away from Hell.  You may think you’re young and healthy, but there are a million ways that young and healthy people can die, and when you do, if you’re not a Christian, you’re going straight to Hell.

Expand that out, with some of the most extravagant language used to describe Hell, and you have a sermon that would have been fairly chilling to an audience of the time.

The most interesting thing that I found about this sermon was how markedly different the style of preaching was back then compared to now.  I’ve grown up getting used to expositional preaching, where the preacher explains what the Scriptures mean (and usually keeps pretty closely to the text).  In fact, preachers who take one verse and then run off on tangents are usually regarded with a bit of suspicion because they’re not really preaching the Bible.

But in this sermon, Edwards, takes a handful of verses and runs with them for what must have been at least an hour.  In fact, the sermon is so strongly designed to scare that I think we’d be horrified at any minister that dared to preach it now.

I’m at a loss to know how to review something like this, because, despite the huge difference in style: 1) Edwards’ point about the reality of judgment is correct (just because we don’t like talking about it, doesn’t make it go away) and 2) many people became Christians because of that sermon and his ministry.

So are we too soft nowadays?  I don’t know.  What do you think?

Book Review: Family-Based Youth Ministry (Mark DeVries)

Rachel and I are about to get involved with the youth ministry at our church, and so for that reason, we used it as an excuse to read this book that I’d been hearing about for a long time.

To sum it up very briefly, Mark DeVries’ take on youth ministry is that it does the church a great disservice because it separates young people from older Christian adults (especially their parents) and creates a subculture.  Then, when young people are too old for youth group, they don’t seem to fit into the church.

This is an idea I was fairly comfortable with, for no other reason than the Bible doesn’t really speak much about Sunday School and youth group, but it does speak a lot about parents training their children and older people training younger people.  So I think, just on the Bible along, you could mount a case for this type of ministry.

Oddly enough, DeVries doesn’t spend so much time building the case from Bible verses, but instead from a massively researched bunch of case studies, psychological studies, etc that demonstrate what is going on in youth culture, what happens when we make gaps between older and younger people, the impact of parents and mentors on kids’ faith, etc.  It’s fascinating stuff, and I think it really backs up what the Bible would have said all along.

The main dilemma with this book is that if you’re looking for a youth group system (ie – “Meet this week, do this study, then do this activity”), you’re not going to find it.  They have some suggested parent/young people activities in the back of the book and some studies that can be done with adults and children together, but on the whole, there’s no set system.  In fact, there’s an appendix that lists a summary of nineteen different models of youth group, just to give you an idea of what’s out there.

But for stimulating ideas and thinking, this book is well worth the read.

4 out of 5.

Film Review: Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

The thing that this film has left me pondering is this – why do we like to be horrified? Why do we like to spend time considering the bad things that happen in this world? It’s not just a matter of horror and gore, either. A Shakespearean tragedy or the vast majority of operas may not have buckets of blood, but we know from the moment it starts that everything’s going to go pear-shaped and that most of the main characters will end up dead.

So why on earth do we go and watch these things?

I’m still shaping my opinion on such things, and everybody will have a different answer. But I believe, first and foremost, it’s because horror is a reality check on the existence of evil. Over the last couple of decades (if not centuries), more and more, things that were considered wrong and offensive have become permissible in our society. Almost all forms of sex are acceptable. Divorce is not a big thing any more. Nobody really cares about swearing any more. With the “death of God”, a lot of things that were morally acceptable went out in society.

But all of us know, deep down, that there are rights and wrongs. There are some things that are so horrendously and obviously wrong, that they stand out in our mind like a freak of nature. And the fact that they are so blatantly wrong and horrible stirs us. It causes a reaction in us. A hundred years ago, it would have been scandalous for someone to leave their spouse. Now we wouldn’t batter an eyelid. But something like a serial killer or a cannibal – that still horrifies us and causes a strong reaction in us.

It is in this area of the strong reaction that the horror genre exists. I think most people who don’t like horror – and I can understand their reasons for not liking it – have a suspicion that people who like horror are somehow sick or like dwelling on unpleasantness. I don’t think that’s the case. The reason horror fans like their horror is because it causes a reaction. In the same way, a happy film makes the feel-good filmgoer feel all happy, in the same way the romantic comedy gives the romance-lover a mushy glow, the horror film causes a reaction in the watcher.

However, it needs to be understood, especially from a Christian point of view, that the level of horror of a particular story is really only relative to our perception of what is horrible before we go in. As I’ve said in previous posts, one of the problems I have is that the things that used to be perceived as horrible are now starting to become mainstream. For instance, when Saving Private Ryan premiered, no one had ever seen a war film that featured intestines hanging out, and limbs blown off. Steven Spielberg did this for shock value – and it worked. It was shocking.

But now this kind of thing is kind of mainstream. The most classic example is the recent 300. Here, decapitations and bloodletting are just portrayed as part of the action of war – and dwelt on so much that it’s quite clear that the filmmakers think it’s a bit of fun – and so do their audiences. If we were to watch Saving Private Ryan now, I think we’d find it a much tamer film, with a lot of its shock robbed from it.

So the only thing really left to horror filmmakers nowadays is to find new and more bizarre spins on gore, or to content themselves with the old trick that never fails – have a really quiet moment of suspense, followed by a horrific “jump” moment. Sadly, these gimmicks, while semi-effective at freaking audiences out, cannot replace what is at the heart of horror – a moral compass carried around internally by the viewer that recognises the horror of evil.

Anyway, I don’t know if that makes sense, but I think it’s important to preface why it is that viewers (and Christians are no exception) find films that deal with dark and nasty topics (like Sweeney Todd) so fascinating to watch. It’s an interesting one, because if you look at most Christian reviewers, they’re caught in a bind: as Christians, nearly all the events in this film (and other horror stories) are completely morally reprehensible, so from a moral viewpoint, there’s no good behaviour to commend in this film. And yet, they find themselves absolutely fascinated by the story. A classic example is to look at this page of reviews on You’ll notice that all of the reviewers said that the film was morally offensive (if not extremely offensive) as far as content went, and yet all their reviews of the film were positive.

Are they all sick? Of course not. The story is designed to be well told and to get a response from them – while at the same time, the filmmakers would agree with the audiences that the events it portrays are morally offensive.

So while some Christians might consider this a problem, to my mind, I think it would really be horrible if we saw this film and actually thought that everything that Sweeney gets up to is perfectly acceptable. (Which is why I got far more up in arms about the recent A History of Violence, where revenge killing is portrayed as an acceptable way of handling violence.) However, that said, some people are quite happy to avoid all thoughts of things dark and horrible, and I can understand that as well. The point is the maintenance of the moral compass by the audience and the filmmaker, not of the particular events that are being portrayed.

Prologue over, I’ll briefly talk about the film. For those of you who don’t know yet, Sweeney Todd (sung by Johnny Depp) is a barber who returns from London after years abroad. He was sent away 15 years earlier by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who wanted him out of the way so that he could make a move on his wife.

Sweeney comes back to his old home, above the pie shop of Mrs Lovett (makers of “the worst pies in London”), only to find his wife killed herself years ago and his daughter (now 15) lives with the Judge as his ward. Sweeney vows revenge and pulls out his old silver razor blades with thoughts of doing more than shaves. However, after disposing of someone else in a particularly nasty way, he and Mrs Lovatt see that they might be able to help each other out. He will kill people (only those with no families or relatives to trace them) and she will grind them up to give her meat for her pies.

And did I mention that all of this is done as a musical? Stephen Sondheim’s music, which I’ve never found particularly hummable, is nonetheless very clever and certainly gives an added flair to this story than would otherwise be there. Sometimes, the music is darkly in tune with the scenes, sometimes working in opposite directions, giving it a brilliant feel of irony.

And with Burton’s trademark “darkly beautiful” look, everything looks picture-perfect and dark. In fact, almost too dark on the print I was watching, which I felt was especially dark. But then maybe it was planned that way. Certainly, the almost monochrome look of the film works brilliantly because whenever we see blood (as demonstrated in the memorable opening credits) and when the first murder occurs (and the musical and the film both string this out with a very long buildup), the red is quite striking. In fact, red and black are the colours you’ll remember most from this film. And gory as all this is, the finale takes it all to spectacular new levels.

Just in case you think it’s all mindless gore set to music, I should say that the term “musical thriller” is apt, and there is actually a very clever storyline here at the same time. We soon realise that Sweeney is far more than a distraught husband and father out to fix up his life. Revenge utterly consumes him. The young man (whose name I forget) who accompanies him to London on the boat, meets Sweeney’s daughter and spends all his screen time in the film trying to rescue her. Sweeney, meanwhile, despite knowing that she is alive, never seems to care. He just wants to kill the Judge.

And, in this story, where the only authority figures are corrupt, the only justice and retribution in this story is going to be dished out by circumstances. And so ultimately the end is satisfying (but very dark).

As my 70-something uncle (who accompanied me on this movie trip) said afterwards, “It was good music. And I liked all the blood.” I don’t think I could say much more.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: The Case for Christ (Lee Strobel)

A couple of months ago, I was watching a DVD of a Christian talk, and the speaker asked the question, “Do you believe that what you believe is really real?” Now this was rather a thought-provoking question. Up until that time, while I had certainly dabbled in a bit of reading and thinking about subjects like Christianity vs atheism, creation vs evolution, I really hadn’t spent a lot of time with them.

To tell the truth, I’d been happy most of the time just to accept that, out of all belief systems, Christianity was probably the one that made the most sense.

But as to real . . . that’s a bigger leap than I realised. It’s effectively saying that all other belief systems are wrong. Not that I necessarily believed they were correct, I jus haven’t really thought through for myself exactly why they’re wrong.

So, I’ve felt a bit challenged, I must admit.

So, to that end, I decided that I shall brush up on my apologetics a little bit and (at some stage), I’m going to have to be prepared to start reading and addressing for myself the objections to Christianity that are out there and that are put forward.

I started with The Case for Christ because I’d started reading it several years ago and never finished it, so it seemed as good a place as any.

For those of you who haven’t read it (and as the picture says, there’s been over 2 million sold – so quite a lot of Christians have read it), Lee Strobel was a former journalist specialising in law and court cases in Chicago. He was also a dedicated atheist up until 1981. The reason for his conversion was that his wife became a Christian. Lee decided to research up on Christianity to prove to his wife that it was all wrong – however, in doing the research, he came to the completely opposite conclusion. He became a Christian, and is now a pastor.

This book is kind of a “reconstruction”, if you like, of his original quest for answers. It consists of Lee going around to various Christian scholars and getting their opinion on various questions like the reliability of the Gospels, evidence for the resurrection, etc. On its own, it’s fairly convincing.

I think if you, as a Christian, want a bit of a reminder that there are some rational reasons for believing in Jesus, this book is a good place to start. If what you want to do is tackle atheists, this can only be the beginning. For a number of reasons:

1. Lee is digging up Christian scholars, asking them his own questions that he had, and getting them to answer him. But to be effective against the current echelon of atheists, he needs to be asking the questions that they are asking.

2. Which brings us to the fact that he only addresses a few snippets from various atheist/agnostic books. Does this represent all their thinking? Or just the problems that he wants to answer?

As the Proverb says, a story sounds good until you hear the other side of the story.

I should say up front, I’m not in any way attempting to knock Lee’s book. I think it’s a very good introduction to what is known as evidentiary apologetics (ie defending the faith by using proofs and evidences – usually for the validity of the Bible and Christ’s death and resurrection). But my current line of thinking is: how do we answer the objections to Christianity that are currently out there? For instance, critics have responded to The Case for Christ. This feels a little bit like a (albeit well-meaning) one-sided straw man argument, written for people who haven’t done any reading up on the other side, and are unlikely ever to do so.

Sadly, the far bigger question is this – even if we do work out a definitive answer to these things, how do we change the minds of those people who just accept the status quo? For the most part, in our day and age, only a handful of people actually think through the big issues of what is true and false, right and wrong. The rest of the population is happy to just accept what everybody else accepts. So even if the academics (either Christian or non-Christian) present compelling arguments, how is that going to impact on everyone else?

The quest for answers continues, I guess . . .

In the meantime, this is a 4 out of 5.

Film Review: The Golden Compass

All right, shoot me now.  I’m Christian, and I went to watch The Golden Compass.

Right, now that everyone who is going to strike me off their RSS reader in disgust has done so, and stomped off in disgust, we can get into the review.

First off, I haven’t read the book.  Oddly enough, this was one of those books that I’d been keeping an eye on, though, for quite a while.  Even before I knew about the controversy about these books in Christian circles, I’d been hearing about this trilogy over and over again as being one of the most well-written and memorable of books written for children. (Obviously, not quite as big as Harry Potter, but the reputation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was very strong)

Then I’d heard about the controversy about the books – and now the film itself has made the issue even more public.  So, anyway, while it’s the kind of thing you can keep from your kids when they’re young and impressionable, it’s not the type of thing that you can ignore as an adult, so I thought it was better to see the film and actually understand for myself what the fuss was about.

The story of the film, very briefly, revolves around a girl called Lyra. She lives in Brytain, which is essentially alternative form of our world.  (In fact, the film starts with a voice-over narration announcing that there are many worlds similar to ours, but different in other ways.)  The most noticeable difference is that people’s souls, rather than being inside them, walk alongside the person in an animal form (called, for some unknown reason, daemons).

Lyra’s uncle, Asriel, is sent by the scholars of an Oxford-University like college to make an expedition far up north to discover the secrets of “Dust”, a strange element that connects all the parallel worlds (including ours) to each other and has something to do with people.  This expedition attracts the attention of the Magisterium, a mighty organisation that rules the world, and makes up rules to help people know how to live.

Now, in the course of this film, the actual workings of “Dust” are not explained.  (That’s for the sequel, I guess.)  But you only need to be tipped off a little bit about Pullman’s agenda to realise that the Magisterium are a thinly-veiled caricature of the church (or at least the mighty conspiracy-weaving church that atheists worry about in their heads – I don’t think the Presbyterian Church of Australia is going to end up becoming a Magisterium-like organisation in any hurry). And, obviously, with all the mentions of “a battle over free will”, etc. and from things I’ve read elsewhere, we’re going to find out about a conspiracy by the church to make people believe in God so they will do what they want.

So, yes, all the stories you’ve heard about the atheistic message are true, however, because this film is only one of three, nothing is that explicitly spelled out yet.  There’s certainly been no mention of God yet.

However, I found that the main problem with this film, aside from the atheistic stuff, is that, to be honest, it’s all style and no substance.  I’ve never watched a Harry Potter film without having read the book, but I’ve heard many people who’ve only seen the movies comment that they can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

I have a feeling that the legion of Pullman fans would say the same about this book.  The script (written by the director, which is often a bad sign) sounds as if it’s pared down the book to its bare plot elements, and the dialogue and plot just move from scene to scene.  There’s no real room for character development or anything that makes us empathise with the characters.  Maybe Pullman’s book is actually this unengaging, but I find it hard to believe that it got a solid reputation if this movie is an accurate representation of the book.

So, all we’re left with is, in the end, scene after scene of eye candy.  And I will tell you, some of it is brilliant.  The visual imagery of everyone having their own daemon is stunning, with an animal matching each person’s temperament (watch out especially for Nicole Kidman’s vicious monkey).  Also quite beautiful is the sets such as the alternative London (which looks like the architecture of the Victorian era went mad and became the dominant style) and the kingdom of the polar bears (all of whom talk and fight).

However, that was about it.  So, in the end, I could probably only recommend this film to Christian parents who want to their older children about some of the concepts like atheism, is Christianity rational?, God vs science, etc. For parents with younger children who are too young to think through these things, I’d keep them away from it, because you don’t know where the thinking will lead.  For those of you who are older, you can make up your own mind whether you want to see it, but I don’t think you’ll find it a particularly engaging film.

2 1/2 out of 5.

Further Note:  While looking for an image for this post, I just found out from Wikipedia that apparently the director deliberately toned down the anti-Christian nature of the book for the film.  So there’s deliberately no reference to God or the church, etc.  So it seems that if you want your real dose of atheism and good storytelling, you have to look to the books.  The sequel films may be more brave, but they’re not even on the agenda to be made unless this one does well at the box office. We’ll see what happens.

DVD Review: A History of Violence

Those of you Christian blog readers may have read the popular Christian book, Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. In it, he puts forward the theory that the reason men love war films so much is because it’s tapping into their innate desire to be involved in the battle against Satan.  These films bring out the warrior in them.

Actually, this is utter rubbish, and I find it even more offensive when it’s given a Christian sheen.  I’ll say it now – the average male (Christian or otherwise) likes war films because he likes watching violence.  The more violent, the better.

Sometimes, the violence is disguised by giving the hero a “cause” (such as a war to win, or an evil bad guy to fight).  But more and more nowadays, we’re seeing the rise of the “revenge” movie.  This is where a bad guy does something evil, and so the hero doubles or even triples the carnage to get payback.  (Kill Bill and Sin City would be the two strongest examples of these type of genres.)

Combine that with the fact that the realism and gore levels of films have been getting stronger over the years.  There have always been some violent war films, but the turning point was probably Saving Private Ryan.  For the first time, we not only saw people get hit by bombs and shot, but we saw their intestines hanging out.  Their limbs blown off.  Originally, it was meant to shock us – to show us that war is not for kids, but really gross stuff.

But you know what? All we’ve done is overall raised the gore level for films.  Horror films, dark thrillers and war films now all have disembowelment, dismemberment and beheadings.  It’s par for the course.  Why?  Because men (I don’t think there’s so many women out there) want to see violence.  There’s an aggressive streak in us that’s being fed by this.

Now, I must confess at this stage, that I like a bit of an action film/battle epic as much as the next man as well, and there’s certainly something attractive in visceral displays of violence.  But I’m not sure that’s a good thing.  We look back and wonder how the Romans could turn out in the thousands to watch people get killed in the arena.  But, as humanitarian as we are in this day and age, we’re as keen to watch violence as the Romans were.  We excuse it because it’s not happening to real people – but, seriously, did the Romans excuse it because gladiators and Christians weren’t considered as real as citizens of Rome? They probably did.

Anyway, I should say, that I’m not against all violence in films.  And it can be used to great effect (especially in a well-made horror film).  But the thing that worries me is that violence is losing it’s horror and becoming increasingly mainstream.

Which brings us to A History of Violence.  I was attracted to borrow this DVD because the reviews when this film was out were quite strong in praising it.  While reputedly violent, it was apparently quite a strong film.

Having now seen it, I can certainly agree that it’s violent.  What gets me, though, is what all the reviewers saw in it.  It’s certainly a well-made film, and I don’t fault the acting jobs of Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, etc in this film.  But what’s the point?

Either a) this film is meant to be an ultra-violent crime story or b)  it’s meant to be an indictment against violence.  If it’s a), then it’s all been done before.  If it’s b) then it fails miserably, because this film revels in its violence.  If it’s hoping to shock, then I’m sorry – it just gives us the level of gore that we’ve come to expect and want in this type of film.

The story, for those of you who need to know, is that Viggo Mortensen works at a little diner in a country town in America.  One night, two psychopaths show up and hold the place up.  Viggo shoots both of them.  He becomes a hero, but then Ed Harris shows up, playing a one-eyed mobster who reckons that Viggo used to be the gangster that blinded his other eye.  Is Viggo a former gangster or an innocent man caught in the middle?

I’m not going to tell you, but I didn’t feel that this film went anywhere different from other similar films.  In the end, violence won the day.

1 1/2 out of 5.