Archive for category Uncategorized

I don’t want to be cool, I don’t need to be right

Posted by on Monday, 1 January, 2018

It’s getting harder to hear my heart these days,

harder to hear my heart

there’s so much culture in the way…

Those lyrics from Romantica ring deep and true for me, at this moment in time. Our culture is noisy, and most of the voices I’m bombarded with every day are distracting and confusing and do me no good. And yet, when I’m paying attention, there are also always voices that enlighten my mind and nourish my heart. When I seek those voices, I find them. There’s treasure hidden in the junkyard of our culture.

And so, as usual, I’m celebrating the end of another year by making lists, of the best new things I’ve found in the world of music, books and movies. As usual, these are new to me in the past year (not necessarily released in 2017). And as usual, I’d love to hear about the treaures you have found too.

First, the novels:
1. “The Brothers K” (David James Duncan)
2. “My Name is Lucy Barton” (Elizabeth Strout)
3. “Days Without End” (Sebastian Barry)
4. “Remembering Laughter” (Wallace Stegner)
5. “The Underground Railroad” (Colson Whitehead)

Second, the non-fiction books:
1. “Liturgy of the Ordinary” (Tish Harrison Warren)
2. “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” (Alan Jacobs)
3. “Dirty Glory” (Pete Greig)
4. “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (Eugene Peterson)
5. “Life Essential” (George MacDonald)

Third, the movies:
1. Silence
2. Dunkirk
3. Arrival
4. Hell or High Water
5. La La Land

And finally, the music:
1. “Shadowlands” (Romantica)
2. “Gathering” (Josh Ritter)
3. “Treasure of the Broken Land” (Mark Heard tribute)
4. “Home” (Josh Garrels)
5. “The Burning Edge of Dawn” (Andrew Peterson)

you are what you love (3)

Posted by on Tuesday, 21 March, 2017

Sorry for the delay in writing up this chapter! Hopefully now we’re back on track and I’m determined to blog once a week until the book is finished. If anyone is still listening, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

This chapter reinforces and underlines the claim that we can’t simply THINK our way to new hungers and desires. What really hit home for me was the image of the author “reading Wendell Berry in Costco.” This was uncomfortably close to the bone for me. Wendell Berry has been for a long time one of my favourite authors. His Port William novels are my first love, with their gentle reflections on community, place, belonging, membership, forgiveness and grace.

But I’ve also been inspired and challenged by Berry’s essays, which most often deal with issues relating to food, farming, and the land. I’ve read his words and been intellectually persuaded of their truth, their rightness. But they have made very little difference to my own eating habits. I’ve read Wendell Berry in McDonalds and in Starbucks, noting the irony in my mind but not changing my practice. And not only Berry – I’ve gone on to read Michael Pollan’s wonderful books examining the same issues, and Barbara Kingsolver’s delightful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’ve taken notes and underlined, and read quotations to my friends. My mind has been persuaded, my intellect converted… and my habits deeply and stubbornly unchanged.

So I’m fully in agreement with Smith’s claim: “You can’t just think your way to new hungers.” My hungers have been shaped and formed by years of (bad) habits and (unhealthy) practices. And they can only be reformed by new habits and practices. This is true in relation to my physical hungers, but also in relation to my spiritual hungers and desires.

Again, Smith is not dismissing the need for good and deep thinking. But “reflection should propel us into new practices that will reform our hungers.”

So once again I’m sitting in Starbucks nodding along to an author who has persuaded my mind and convinced my intellect. But if this book is going to have any deeper impact, my big question is this – what exactly are these practices and habits and disciplines which will retrain and renew my hungers and desires? I need him to be specific. I need this spelled out in small words. Pictures may help.

Well, I’m hoping later chapters will help to answer this question and paint a picture for me. But this chapter starts to answer the question first by insisting we shouldn’t look for the dramatic or sensational. The habits we will be formed by will be “the ordinary means of grace” – he mentions “Word and Table,” “the church’s worship,” “prayer and song, preaching and offering, baptism and communion.” These are the ordinary, undramatic places where God meets us and shapes us by his life-giving Spirit.

Now, I like this quite a lot. But I have a question – just as I’ve noticed that lots of intellectual knowledge of Scripture and theology doesn’t necessarily lead to deep heart-and-life-change, I’ve also noticed that many of us have repeated these ordinary practices faithfully and regularly, for years, for decades – and our desires and hungers have not necessarily been deeply transformed. So have we been doing them wrong?

Smith points to one way in which he thinks we have been approaching worship wrongly – we have placed our focus on our actions and on expressing ourselves in worship. This tends to lead to a straining for “authenticity” and freshness and novelty. Which can be exhausting. He suggests that we shift our posture so that our focus is on God’s actions as he forms us through these worship practices. Instead of striving to express ourselves, we come open and expectant to receive.

There’s something deeply encouraging and restful about this perspective. “Worship is not primarily a venue for innovative creativity but a place for discerning reception and faithful repetition.” I’m interested to see where Smith goes with this. Does this line of thinking lead naturally to a preference for old songs, written prayers, and traditional formats? He says his concern is not about “traditional” or “contemporary” but I still suspect his thoughts lean towards the former – “we inherit a form of worship that should be received as a gift” and which contains “the accumulated wisdom of the body of Christ.”

An observation – many of those I know from “low church” evangelical churches (myself included) often feel tired of the expressive paradigm, the constant straining for freshness and authenticity, the need to always find “our own words” – and we can feel very drawn to the liturgical. We are tired of paddling our own canoe and want to push into a current that is deep, and ancient, and let ourselves be carried. That sounds NICE. But many of those I know who come from “liturgical” traditions are also tired – they are tired of a repetition that came to feel dry, and formulaic, and constraining. They long for freshness, for freedom to express love for God in new ways, for variety and creativity. They feel their canoe has been drifting aimlessly, and they long for some energy and direction.

Maybe I’m misjudging where Smith is going? I’m mostly with him, but I have plenty of unresolved questions and wonderings. What do you think? We’ll let Oscar Wilde have the last word:

Do you wish to love? Use Love’s Litany, and the words will create the yearning from which the world fancies they spring.


grace along the road less travelled

Posted by on Saturday, 2 January, 2016

A friend complained today that I had only posted my end of year “best of” lists on Facebook, therefore excluding my wisest and sanest friends (who are not on Facebook) from the conversation. So here they are, without comment (except to say these were all “new to me” this year, not necessarily released or published in 2015).


1. “Didn’t He Ramble” (Glen Hansard)
2. “Carrie & Lowell” (Sufjan Stevens)
3. “Islands” (Bear’s Den)
4. “Something More Than Free” (Jason Isbell)
5. “Sleeping Operator” (The Barr Brothers)

I also enjoyed “Monterey” (The Milk Carton Kids), “Nashville Obsolete” (Dave Rawlings Machine) and “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” (The Decemberists). Biggest disappointment after all the rave reviews – “Lost in The Dream” (The War on Drugs).


1. Inside Out
2. Birdman
3. Leviathan
4. My Neighbour Totoro
5. While We’re Young

Other movies I enjoyed this year: The Martian, Nightcrawler, Tomorrowland, Mockingjay 2, Foxcatcher, The Way Way Back, Back to the Future 2, and Cinderella (seriously). Worst movie I’ve seen this year: Serena. And no, I haven’t seen Star Wars yet.


1. Visions of Vocation (Steven Garber)
2. The Pursuit of God (A.W. Tozer)
3. The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (Nicholas Carr)
4. Why Work? (Dorothy Sayers)
5. A People’s History of the USA (Howard Zinn)

I also enjoyed Slow Church (Smith & Pattison), Reading for Preaching (Plantinga), Praying the Psalms (Brueggeman) and Finding God in the Psalms (Wright).


1. The Big Rock Candy Mountain (Wallace Stegner)
2. Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner)
3. The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan)
4. History of the Rain (Niall Williams)
5. The Chosen (Chaim Potok)

I also really enjoyed A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler), A History of Loneliness (John Boyne), Nora Webster (Colm Toibin), Chidhood’s End (Arthur C Clarke) and The Book of Lights (Chaim Potok). Most infuriating waste of time and paper: The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt).

I’d love to hear about your favourite discoveries and recommendations too…

Happy New Year!

cake or death?

Posted by on Friday, 27 March, 2015

It’s the kind of story that makes people shake their head and roll their eyes. “It could only happen in Northern Ireland,” we say. “You couldn’t make it up.” And “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

We want to laugh because we’re all talking and arguing and going to court and having public meetings about… a cake. Or rather the absence of a cake. With Bert and Ernie (not) on it.

We want to cry because… Well, you know why. Raised voices, polarised and entrenched positions, simplistic arguments, very little listening – we’ve seen it all too many times before, over flags and parades… And now a cake. It’s hard to see how an argument like this has any winners.

I don’t actually want to write about the specifics of the Ashers case.  Plenty has been said already, though I wish there was more room in the public discussions for some nuanced views. I appreciated this article in the Belfast Telegraph because it breaks out of the predicatable polarised positions and talks a lot of sense. (It’s also maybe a good primer for those from saner parts of the world who have no idea what I’m talking about).

What has troubled me more and more as the story has rumbled on is the wider “campaign” or “movement” being stirred up in Christian circles in support of the bakery. I don’t doubt for a second that many of those joining that campaign are doing so for good and sincere reasons, but I wonder if we need to pause and take a breath.

Two and a half thousand Christians packed into the Waterfront Hall to show their solidarity with Ashers – the Telegraph ran a front page picture with the headline, “The Christians fight back.” A few weeks ago an event was held in a hotel round the corner from our house and our church, under the title, “Faith under Fire.” And people are taking to Facebook and other social media to publically show their support and call others to do the same.

Here’s the heart of my concern: there’s a story being told here, a wider narrative, about Christians being persecuted, faith being under pressure and under fire.  And I think that narrative is deeply, deeply unhelpful, and damaging to the cause of the gospel in our land.

It was clarified for me when I heard a member of the baking family refer to the court case as “David against Goliath.” Now, that analogy might work if it’s just a matter of a family business against the Equality Commission. But once you pack thousands of Christians into the Waterfont and stir up a wider campaign of war, the analogy becomes embarrassingly, painfully inappropriate.

Because evangelical Christians in Northern Ireland are not David. We are Goliath.

Christians have been in a position of privilege and power in western Europe since the time of Constantine. That privileged position has been waning over the last century, but for various complex reasons it has taken a lot longer to fade here in our wee country. It is now undoubtedly fading. But this is what we need to pause and think about – the loss of privilege and power is not the same thing as persecution. It can feel like it, and it can certainly be uncomfortable. But it’s not persecution, and claiming it is makes us look ridiculous, and thin-skinned, and hypocritical. (Especially since, when we held that position of power, we didn’t always have a great track record of using it to defend and protect the rights of minorities and those who disagreed with us).

Here’s a quote I find tremendously helpful (from Simon Barrow at the Christian think-tank Ekklesia):

We need to be theologically clear amidst the siren voices of alarm. That Christians do not rule others in the way they once did, does not amount to ‘persecution.’ Instead, it is an invitation to rediscover patterns of church life in a plural society which show the heart of the Christian message to be about embracing others, not isolating ourselves; multiplying hope, not spreading fear; developing peacableness, not resorting to aggression; and advancing compassion, rather than retreating into defensiveness.

In the middle of thinking about the whole mess this week, I received an email with a request to pray for a Christian leader in another corner of the world, who had found himself the object of an unprovoked media attack denouncing him and others as “a corrupter of young minds.” His response to this genuine persecution moved me to tears. “My biggest prayer request hasn’t changed since I moved here five years ago. May God make me invisible, but incredible. Invisible for the enemies of God’s mission, incredible for his kingdom and the church.”

Crying persecution too quickly or too lightly causes great damage to the public image of the church. And even when we are persecuted, Jesus made it pretty clear how we should respond. Not by manning the barricades, demanding our rights and launching a full-scale culture war. But this: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Maybe this is what I find saddest in all of this – there’s a thread running all through the biblical story that connects food with the heart of the gospel. Isaiah dreams of a feast which God will one day prepare for all people, “the best of meats and the finest of wines.” Jesus eats with notorious sinners and scandalises the religious establishment. He says the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast to which everyone is invited – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. He gives us a meal of bread and wine which speaks of the grace and generosity and hospitality of God extended to the world in his broken body and poured out blood.

And right now, Christians in Northern Ireland are being associated in the public mind with a refusal to make a cake for our neighbours. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, that image as an outcome is tragic. There’s every chance we could win the arguments and win the legal cases, but lose the hearts and minds of our friends and neighbours.

So I think we need to pause, and breathe, and reflect, and pray. We need bucket-loads of grace and humility and wisdom. We need kindness and gentleness as well as courage. My friend Kevin wrote these words recently in talking about something else, and they seem a good place to finish:

The work of the people of God is quiet prayer and gentle hospitality and patient listening. Seeing, and hearing, and welcoming without wanting to win is the work we should be doing.

P.S. I know some of you will disagree with me on all this. And that’s OK. I would genuinely love to hear your thoughts. But can I make a small plea – can we try to engage with the wider issues I’ve raised here, rather than simply have another debate about the specifics of the Ashers case, or about homosexuality? There have been plenty of spaces for those debates, and my modest hope is that we could have a little space here for a slightly different discussion.



three books

Posted by on Wednesday, 31 December, 2014

I’m going to ignore all division into fiction and non-fiction, new and old, Christian and whatever, and just tell you about three books that have deeply impacted me this year by making me laugh or cry or think in some new way…

Lila (Marilynne Robinson): I only finished this one today but it would have made the list no matter when I read it. I’m hesitant to even try to describe it. I often found myself almost holding my breath as I read it. I found myself slowing down, not wanting it to end. The writing is just beautiful, a kind of miracle in itself, a gift, a means of grace. It struck me when I finished that this is a book about the most painful and difficult of themes – the story of someone who was neglected as a child, and then lived a life of bare survival, punctured by moments of horror and brutality, and about how hard it is for someone wounded in those ways to ever recover, to heal, to trust, to find peace. But unlike so many modern writers who like to rub our noses in the grime, Marilynne Robinson writes about these hard things with gentleness and grace, somehow writing a beautiful book about the hardness of life. Oh, and how many other novels contain profound reflections on the book of Ezekiel? Buy it quickly, read it slowly.

God at War (Greg Boyd): This is a long book, and a serious one –  a sustained and systematic exploration of the theme of “spiritual conflict” in the Bible. I know that doesn’t sound like fun bedtime reading! But I found this to be, honestly, a thrilling page-turner of a book. I was carried along by the force of Boyd’s argument and his conviction that these things really matter. In a nutshell, his argument is that when we think about suffering only in relation to “providence” and “the will of God,” we end up creating an unsolvable moral and intellectual problem and tying ourselves in knots trying to resolve it. But when we remember that we live in a war-zone, in the midst of a cosmic war with real powers of darkness, a war which intersects with life here on earth – then suffering and evil become a practical problem to be overcome, not an intellectual problem to be solved. He’s a bold thinker and I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, but I found his basic argument totally persuasive. I don’t want to learn to “accept” the evil in the world as part of a mysterious divine blueprint. I want to be part of the resistance and fight against it with every weapon God has given me – weapons of prayer and faith, as well as love and compassion and hard thinking and hard work. This is a book that has changed my thinking in a profound way about some of the biggest questions we can ask.

Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner): This autumn I read two novels, one after the other, which were both set mostly in the world of academics teaching at a small-town college – this one and Stoner by John Williams. While Stoner, like its name, was kind of hard and cold (though well written), Stegner’s novel was the very opposite. He takes us into a world most of us don’t know, and one that could easily seem dull or pretentious or too far removed from real life. And he makes us care about these people and their lives, their hopes and fears and failures and small victories. And that’s about as much as you can hope for in a good novel. Stegner is a classic American novelist with more than a dozen novels to his name, so discovering him now feels like finding a seam of gold I can spend the next few years excavating. Wonderful stuff.

Other books I really enjoyed this year included Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman), We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler), The Shock of the Fall (Nathan Filer), The Spinning Heart (Donal Ryan), Tinkers (Paul Harding), American Gods (Neil Gaiman) and lots of bits of Eugene Peterson.

I’d love to hear about your favourite reads from this year. We read to know we’re not alone.

three films

Posted by on Wednesday, 31 December, 2014

This has been a good year for movies, and I’ll mention a few I loved at the end. But first, I want to pick out three that delivered a deep impact on me and stirred my soul in some way:

Calvary: This one came right at the end of the year and if I’m honest, I’m still reeling. I sat in silence at the end, unsure how to respond. It’s not a comfortable watch, dealing head on with Ireland’s recent history of sexual abuse and the entanglement of the church in the worst of it. There’s a layer of dark comedy which makes it even more disconcerting to watch, making you unsure of the ground under your feet. But it’s not a film that simply targets the church as scapegoat – it makes you wonder, if we burned down every church and killed every priest, would any of us feel any better? Would we be any better? I carried away a sense of an emptiness at the heart of our culture, a cynicism and detachment covering up darker stories of addiction and violence and twisted desires. And a need for forgiveness. I felt like the only appropriate response at the end was to pray, “God forgive us all. And God help us all.” Which is quite a place for a movie to take us.

About Time: And now for something completely different! This one is a bit of a surprise. I’ve never been a fan of Richard Curtis movies, not so much because they are romantic comedies with plenty of schmaltz, but because I always picked up a layer of mean-spiritedness under the froth. So I have literally no idea where this came from. I loved everything about it. It’s goofy, daft, sweet, funny, moving and thought-provoking. It uses time-travel as time-travel should be used, not just to mess with your mind, but to make you think about, you know, the meaning of life, and time, and these days we’ve been given. It deals beautifully with fathers and their sons. I makes you want to live your days with wonder and gratitude. And the music is perfect, including lovely use of Nick Cave’s Into My Arms, The Waterboys’ How Long Will I Love You? and Ben Folds’ The Luckiest. Lay aside your cynicism and let yourself be delighted.

Short Term 12: This is a small, low-budget movie made with a cast of mostly young people who are not professional actors. And it’s just wonderful. It’s set in a short-term care home for troubled teenagers, and it simply turns a compassionate and honest eye on the stories of these kids and those who care for them. It’s gritty enough to be truthful in facing the depth of the problems and the wounds some young people are carrying. But hopeful enough to leave you inspired and not in despair. And it makes it so clear that we’re all in this together, the kids and their helpers, those who hide their scars and those who show them to the world. We all need a little help. We all can give a little help. I wish movies like this got more attention – simple, powerful, beautiful, profound.

There were lots of other movies I really liked this year, including: Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Her, The Broken Circle Breakdown, 12 Years a Slave, The Past, Mud, Away from Her and Gone Girl.

And several weird and wonderful documentaries left me intrigued and wondering (and sometimes disturbed): The Imposter, The Act of Killing, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Stories We Tell.

I’d love to hear about the moving pictures that have fired your imagination this year…

three albums

Posted by on Monday, 29 December, 2014

I haven’t done a good job this year of keeping any kind of record of my listening, watching or reading over the year. So I’m not even going to pretend these will be definitive “best of 2014” lists, even if we agree that means “the best of the random and tiny selection of stuff that has crossed my path.” I’m inevitably going to forget something amazing I listened to in February.

A more modest goal this year: simply to make a note of three records, three movies and three books that have stayed with me and followed me around, that made some kind of lasting impact, that have lingered in my memory and my thoughts. You might like them too.

Southeastern (Jason Isbell): OK so if I was attempting a “best of” list this would undoubtedly top it. This has been far and away my favourite musical discovery of 2014. Musically, it reminds me of Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac (which is a very, very good thing) with the laid-back and world-weary vocals, the lovely touches of fiddle, the wonderfully crafted songs. It gets better every time I listen. And the lyrics get under your skin too – this is a man who has lived a rough life, and just about survived, and the songs are full of honest self-examination:

In a room
By myself
Looks like I’m here with a guy that I judge worse than anyone else
So I pace
And I pray
And I repeat the mantras that might keep me clean for the day

But they are also full of (dark) humour, delightful word-play, and a kind of bruised and unsentimental hope. Essential listening for anyone with a soul.

Borderland (John Mark McMillan): I’ve always been a little thrown when I see this guy’s name written down. It’s so similar to my own name, there’s a tiny moment where I almost wonder if maybe I wrote a song or recorded an album and forgot about it. I’ve also probably hesitated to explore his music because it’s categorised as some kind of (alternative) Christian worship, which is something I have an uneasy relationship with. But trustworthy friends encouraged me, and I’m glad. This is a wonderful album, musically inventive and full of great songs, with a kind of textured, atmospheric quality that makes it great late-night listening. The lyrics can be direct and full-blooded in their expression of faith, but at other times they “tell it slant” with surprising images and suggestive phrases: “we are fragile creatures on collision with our judgement days.” The guy can’t help his name – give him a chance. (You can read a great review of the album here).

Kiss the World Beautiful (Martyn Joseph): If I’m being honest I’m not really including this because of the record itself, but because of the live gig it will always remind me of. Going to see MJ has become a kind of annual pilgrimage for us, gathering with a familiar crowd in the Errigle Inn to hear familiar songs and few new ones. We’ve never been disappointed – this is a man who tears up his heart on stage every night, veins popping and sweat and spit flying as he tries to tell the truth about the world from where he’s standing, in songs full of anger and sadness and beauty and hope. But this year’s gig was something else. He was a man inspired. He sang about all the most ugly and broken and shameful things in our world, but still urged us to hang on to hope in a bigger love,  a possibility of healing, a coming dawn when things might just be made new and whole and well. ” We do not have the luxury of despair.” By the end of the gig I wanted to put my arms round my friends and hold them close, sing loud and proud that “there’s still a lot of love round here,” reach a hand out to those who are hurting or lonely or lost or afraid, raise a fist in the air in defiant hope.  Every now and then, music can do that. (Every penny from sales of this record go to MJ’s “Let Yourself Trust” which raises funds for small, local projects that are making a difference for good in different parts of the world.)

I’d love to hear about the music that has followed you around and reached the deepest parts of you this year.


the bleak will inherit the earth?

Posted by on Friday, 5 September, 2014

I’m going to just pretend it hasn’t been six months since I wrote anything on here, and just pick up where I left off with some more thoughts about sad movies…

Last weekend was a three-movie weekend, which is a rare and beautiful thing these days. I finally caught up with two I’ve been wanting to see since Oscar-season. Nebraska was lovely, the kind of slow, gentle, bitter-sweet story I love, full of flawed and foolish and utterly human characters, and beautiful black and white shots of rolling landscapes, big skies and time-lined faces. Inside Llewyn Davies was a delightful surprise. I’ll watch pretty much anything the Coen brothers make, because you can guarantee it will be crafted with such love and skill – but I’ve often come away feeling there’s something missing (emotional sincerity?). This one works on every level – it’s their funniest, saddest, warmest, most enjoyable film since Fargo.

But the movie that has lingered most in my mind was a Belgian drama called The Broken Circle Breakdown. In a time-fractured narrative which reminded me of Blue Valentine, it tells the story of a musician couple and their falling-in-love and the slow unravelling of their relationship under the strain of shared suffering. It features the kind of natural, effortless acting that is so rare in English-speaking cinema, and the best bluegrass soundtrack you’ll hear in a movie, all played by the actors themselves. But when Espero asked me how it was, I (sheepishly) admitted it was “a bit depressing, even for me.” There was something unrelenting about the misery that left me feeling slightly bludgeoned.

It got me thinking about a wonderful lecture I heard this summer, delivered by my old friend Sharon Jebb-Smith at the Abbey Summer School in Edinburgh. She talked about the tendency among critics of “serious literature” to praise writing which is full of “death, sorrow, uncertainty, anxiety,” and to dismiss anything hopeful or happy as naive, escapist, “not serious.” Sharon spent several years immersed in the works of Samuel Beckett, and found that over time his work had a depressing effect on her own mood. Beckett was someone who spoke unapologetically about the importance of facing despair unflinchingly. His was a deliberate “refusal of consolation.”

I suspect there’s a similar tendency in the world of “serious” cinema and film criticism. Happy endings are inherently suspect. Artistic integrity demands brutality and despair. As I wrote before, we need artists who will tell the truth about brokenness and heartache. But I’m struck by Sharon’s reflections on the possibility of deliberately refusing consolation and shutting our hearts to the possibility of hope. She contrasted Beckett’s nihilism with writers like Lewis and Tolkien, who wrote plenty about sorrow and death and struggle, but also believed in the possibility of “eucatastrophe” – a sudden turning towards hope, joy breaking into the story from “beyond the walls of the world.”

Lewis wrote about some of the acclaimed modern writers of his day, that their work was “astringent, tough, unmerry,” and that it was “serious but not necessarily profound.” I wonder if that isn’t a fair description of some of the critically-adored movies and TV series of our time? And if so, what is the cumulative effect of sitting in the dark being immersed in that kind of “dark vision” for hours at a time?

On the flip side, what does it mean to deliberately choose to embrace consolation, and hope? Can there be a serious pursuit of joy and cheerfulness? And are there artists who can help us in that pursuit?

Two final quotes to finish. G.K. Chesterton reminds us, seriously and playfully, that Satan fell because of his gravity, while “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Julian of Norwich writes, sternly and cheerfully, that “it is God’s will that we should hold on to gladness with all our might.”

stumbling towards something true

Posted by on Wednesday, 19 March, 2014

A confession: I’m kind of a snob when it somes to movies. Which means I’m also kind of a slave to reviews. I have my favourite reviewers in whose good taste I trust. Mark Kermode is king. Pete Bradshaw is eccentric but mostly helpful. Metacritic allows me to scan what the reviews have said and get a quick consensus. This is mostly not a bad thing – it helps me avoid wasting time and money on movies that are just “chewing gum for the eyes.”

The thing is, I’m becoming aware that I’m losing my ability to really think for myself. To know what I like and why, without someone with cultural authority endorsing my decision. And that’s a bit sad. I think I may need to wean myself off the reviews for a while.

Here’s an example that has me kind of confused. I recently watched three movies in quick succession which are all made by a young Canadian film-director called Sarah Polley. And I’m confused. I’m not sure what I think about them. Maybe you can help me.

First I watched a documentary she made called Stories We Tell. I’m pretty sure I loved this one. All of the Guardian’s film-critics had named it in their movies of the year for 2013, so I decided to check it out. It’s a film about Sarah Polley’s own family, especially her mother, who died when Sarah was a child. There has always been a rumour in her family that the man she called “dad” was not really her father – and so she goes searching for the truth. She just points her camera right into the heart of her family and its memories and stories of love and betrayal and lies and forgiveness. “Unflinching” and “uncompromising.” Those were the kind of words that came to mind as I watched. I was mesmerised. I think you should go and watch it too.

So then I went looking for other movies by this same bold, young director. And I watched Take This Waltz. This is a drama about the breakdown of a marriage, starring the wonderful Michelle Williams and (improbably) Seth Rogen. But here’s the thing. Before I watched it, I read this review by Pete Bradshaw, which is as scathing a demolition of a movie as I’ve ever read. (Only Mark Kermode on Transformers comes close). I mean, he hated this film. It’s not hard to see why they didn’t quote him on the poster – “unendurably precious” is not going to sell tickets.

And it coloured my watching of the movie. Because he’s partly right. There’s something a bit forced and contrived and clunky about the dialogue.It’s all trying a bit too hard to be profound. I nearly turned it off about five or six times. But something else was intriguing me. So I kept watching. And this movie has got under my skin more than anything else I’ve watched this year. I think it’s trying to say something about marriage and faithfulness and domesticity and novelty (and sex) that is really kind of genuinely true and profound.

And it’s all a bit awkward and imperfect, maybe even a bit embarrassing. I’m not sure it’s a good movie in the ways that brings praise from the guardians of cool and good taste. But it’s provoked me to think and wonder. I want to get a bunch of thoughtful people together to watch it together and then argue about it. I’m not sure if it’s “good” like Breaking Bad is good. But I think it might be stumbling towards something true. (And I think Pete Bradshaw was having a bad day and badly misread the whole movie).

Finally I got around to watching Sarah Polley’s most acclaimed movie. Away From Her  is a drama about a couple who have been married for 40 years, and are now dealing with the wife’s early symptoms of Alzheimers. It got rave reviews and a couple of Oscar nominations, and it deserved all the praise and more. As with Take This Waltz, there are moments that are a bit clunky, trying too hard, a bit “art-school” in their reaching for profundity. And there’s no doubt Polley’s movies are all on the depressing side. This is heartbreaking cinema. Unflinching, uncompromising, these are her hallmarks.

But as I argued in my last post, we need artists who will tell the truth. Even when the truth is painful and prickly, uncomfortable and embarrasing. I’m not sure if Sarah Polley’s movies are cool or tasteful or hipster-approved. But she is courageous and compelling and determined to try and tell the truth. And I think that’s something worth paying attention to.

in defence of sad movies

Posted by on Thursday, 23 January, 2014

A few weeks ago I wrote something that was a kind of defence of the the amount of time I spend in the world of movies and novels and popular culture. My basic argument was that artists help us pay attention – to the world around us and to our own lives.

The woman I live with asked a troubling question (as she tends to do) in the comments which I’ve been pondering ever since: “why is it, Jayber, that much of this good art you watch, read, listen to, is so melancholy and even at times disturbing?” I’ve been asked this question more than once in the past, and I have more than one friend who has declared they will “never watch a movie on JM’s recommendation again” after watching something they found tedious, depressing, disturbing or baffling.

I’m quite happy to attribute some of this to differences of personality and taste, and to accept that my own mind is, for whatever reason, often drawn to the strange and the startling and the melancholy.  But I also want to make a modest case for why, in general, we all need some of the art we engage with to be sad and even disturbing. (The “some of” is important here – we all need some pure escapist entertainment in our life, which is why God invented New Girl and Community and Firefly).

I guess it comes down to this: if the role of good art is to help us to pay attention to the world, and if the world we live in is in some real sense broken, damaged, not-the-way-it’s-supposed-to-be… Then we need artists to tell the truth about that brokenness. Even if that truth is at times uncomfortable or troubling. Art which tells the truth is an ally of the gospel. When a movie pretends that our troubles are trivial, so that any difficulty which arises can be resolved neatly by the end of an hour-and-a-half narrative, it distorts the truth. That old, melancholy prophet Jeremiah put it this way:

They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

One of my favourite movies is called The Ice Storm. It’s a movie that tells the truth about the impact of “the sexual revolution” of the 60’s and 70’s on families and children, on trust and community. And so it’s one of the saddest movies you’ll ever see. But it is a film which, I contend, does us much more good than a hundred chirpy romantic comedies which pretend that infidelity and casual sexual encounters are a right laugh.

In the same way, I would suggest that any war movie which is not difficult to watch, or which leaves us with a warm glow and a simple moral “message” is not telling the truth about the horror of war. A voice in The Thin Red Line tells the truth: “war doesn’t ennoble men… it poisons the soul.” I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave yet, but I find myself agreeing with those who have written about it and said that a movie about slavery should not (must not) be easy to watch.

Sometimes a desire to only watch things that are “wholesome” can lead us to prefer comfortable illusions rather than uncomfortable reality. Steve Turner expresses this beautifully (and I think this applies to the art we consume as well as the art we create:

Christians have [0ften] thought that they should only create art with a Pollyanna quality to it: paintings of birds and kittens, movies that extol family life and end happily, songs that are positive and uplifting – in short, works of art that show a world that is almost unfallen where no one experiences conflict and where sin is naughty rather than wicked.

Now here’s my slight pull-back, and where I’m thinking a bit about my own habits. It’s one thing to tell the truth about brokenness. It’s another thing to tell the truth without hope. And I think it’s undeniable that some of our culture’s storytellers look at the world through a lens that is hopeless, leaning towards cynicism or despair, or a kind of nihilistic shrug.

We need help to face the truth. But we must not give in to cynicism or despair. We must be people of hope. And if we spend enough time in the company of those who look at the world through a cynical lens, it starts to wear away at our hearts. So I’ll confess I’ve abandoned both The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. And I’ll take some convincing to embark on a five-season journey into the heart of darkness with Breaking Bad. (This is maybe a bigger issue with a long TV series than a one off movie).

Some of you will make a spirited defence of the shows I have named here (please do!), and wonder how I can stomach the relentless melancholy of Mad Men. (Why do I remain hopeful, against all reason, for Don Draper?) But that’s where I think there’s a need for quite personal discernment here. It’s not for me to tell you what to watch. We need to pay attention to the effect these things have on our own minds and hearts and souls. I think I’ve been careless here at times, and too much influenced by what the critics I trust say is “great art.”

But to swerve back towards my main argument. To say we need hope is not to say we need comfortable stories with easy answers. Genuine hope is a grittier thing than shallow optimism or naivety. Which is why – forgive me! – The Shawshank Redemption is a decent piece of entertainment but not the great movie about hope it is sometimes claimed to be.  Hope faces the darkness and “wrestles with despair,” as Dr. Cornel West puts it:

The categories of optimism and pessimism don’t exist for me. I’m a blues man. A Blues man is a prisoner of hope, and hope is a qualitatively different category than optimism. Optimism is a secular construct, a calculation of probability. Black folk in America have never been optimistic about the future – what have we had to be optimistic about? But we are people of hope. Hope wrestles with despair, but it doesn’t generate optimism. It just generates this energy to be courageous, to bear witness, to see what the end is going to be. No guarantee, unfinished, open-ended. I’m a prisoner of hope. I’m going to die full of hope.

I’m interested in your thoughts. Which artists help you face the truth about the world with genuine hope? Which sad movies do you think we need? Which movies and TV shows and novels do you find tipping over into cynicism? How do these works of art impact your soul?