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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?


listen to your life

Posted by on Sunday, 5 January, 2014

So I’ve been agitating and provoking my friends to start blogging again. I’m not sure I expected anyone to actually respond, but it seems I underestimated my powers! Sam has got back on his soap box. Vox is lifting up his voice again. Espero is doing her honest and hopeful thing as only she can. A few faithful bloggers had never gone away (like Kevin and Sharon and Dave and Gemma). Others have started up recently without needing any poking from me (Wee Frizz). I’m hoping a few more will join the party over the next few weeks and start or revive their blogs (I’m looking at you, Rachel and Lorraine).

(Update: it turn out wee Wylie-Neill had beaten me to it and has broken her long silence here. Word is that wandering Wendy is also waivering. Jenzo has been blogging away so we have lots to catch up on. Small Corner is feeling hard done by but a quick check confirms she wrote one blog post in 2013. So, you know, get your blog on. More updates will appear here as they break.)

I value the conversation that can be stirred up by blogs. Someone asked me why I prefer the conversation on blogs to the kind we can have on Facebook. I think it’s something to do with slowing down. Facebook is fast, always changing and updating. It’s easy to drop a quick comment, a quick like, it costs nothing, we don’t even have to stop watching TV to do it. I find it compulsive and addictive and entertaining and mostly unsatisfying.

But when someone sits down and writes something about their life, about their thoughts and ideas, their hopes and fears and joys and sorrows, about what is inspiring or depressing them – well then I think that deserves a few minutes of my time to brew some coffee, and then to read and digest and ponder. And then maybe a few minutes more to respond – to agree, to disagree, to cheer, to celebrate or lament with them, to say “me too!” or “yes, but…” or “what do you mean by…?” or “I wonder if…” We blog to know we’re not alone.

The challenge I’m setting myself is to learn to write a  little more about the everyday and ordinary. I tend to live in a world of ideas. I’m most comfortable writing about my latest theological and philosophical musings than about about what’s going on in my life and my heart. And partly that’s OK, that’s the way I’ve been wired, that’s what I love and maybe what I’m good at, so for me to write honestly about my life will include writing about Big Ideas.

But I’d also like to learn to pay attention to the small things that particularly stir my heart – whether they are things in movies or books or music, or things I see walking down the street, or things that happen in our little home, or things that rise up in me without any obvious cause. This little quote from Frederick Buechner has long been a favourite and I guess it kind of sums up what I’d like to learn to do:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

I’d like my writing to be a way of being awake, paying attention to the story of my own life, looking for signs of grace, listening for “whispers from the wings of the stage.” Another quote has been following me around for the last couple of weeks, this time from a novel by Walker Percy:

Not once in his entire life had he come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself from some dark past he could not remember to a future that did not exist. Not once had he been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream. Is it possible for people to miss their lives the way one can miss a plane?

I guess my hope is that maybe blogging can be a way of being present to my own life, because I don’t want to miss anything. And maybe reading and responding to each other’s blogs can be a way of being present to each other, listening to each other’s lives as well as our own. Anyone else want to get on the plane?

all of it was music

Posted by on Monday, 30 December, 2013

“And some people say it’s just rock and roll,

Aw, but it gets you right down to your soul.” (Nick Cave)

I’ve long ago given up on trying to keep up with what’s current when it comes to music, and settled for looking for good stuff from any era, mainly through the recommendations of wise friends. So it’s a surprise to find that four of my top five discoveries of 2013 were actually released in 2013. Get me, here on the cutting edge of culture and all! Here they are:

Hadestown (Anais Mitchell)

For Foes (Sullivan & Gold)

Vampires of the City (Vampire Weekend)

Push the Sky Away (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds)

Meet Me At The Edge Of The World (Over The Rhine)

I should confess that one half of Sullivan & Gold is a friend, so I’m not pretending to be impartial, but I found their debut record a delight from start to finish. Vampire Weekend is just a great pop record, which put a grin on my face and had me dancing round the living room with the kids. And the new albums from Nick Cave and Over the Rhine have both been slow-burners which crept up on me and won me over, after initially striking me as a disappointment in light of former glories. If I revisit this list in a few weeks I suspect they may be pushing for top spot.

But right now my number one slot, for the second year running, goes to a young folk-singer from Vermont called Anais Mitchell. Last year I was floored by her Young Man In America, and that sent me digging through her previous releases. What I found was a strange and wonderful album that is best described as a “folk opera” which retells the Greek myth of Orpheus in the underworld.

It features many different voices taking the different roles in the drama, including Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), Ben Knox Miller (of The Low Anthem) and Ani DiFranco, as well as Anais Mitchell herself. The story they tell works as a simple (tragic) love story, but also as a kind of spiritual parable, full of a Screwtapish insight into the diabolical thinking of the dark side:

“The first will be first, and the last will be last,

Turn your eyes to heaven – you’ll get a knife in the back.

Nobody’s righteous, nobody’s innocent,

Now that the chips are down.”

The setting for the story seems to be Depression-era America, but it casts all kinds of provocative and prophetic light on the greed and excess of our more recent history and our present. And if all of that sounds a bit worthy and dull, the music is just beautiful and a whole lot of fun – ranging from heart-breaking folk-ballads, to country, gospel, jazz, and foot-stomping Tom Waits-style blues. My kids love this record too, and it’s the most enjoyable, original, surprising and thought-provoking collection of songs I’ve found this year.

Other records I’ve enjoyed this year which just missed out: The Beast in its Tracks (Josh Ritter), Rhythm and Repose (Glen Hansard), Repave (Volcano Choir), Live in London (Leonard Cohen) and 69 Love Songs (The Magnetic Fields). That last one also provided my song of the year, The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side, which was played in our car at least a hundred times in the last few months, and sung at the top of our lungs by the whole family.

As ever, I’m relying on y’all to tell me what my next new favorite album should be…

“To those I’ve wronged, please forgive me.

I hope this song helps you believe me.

The holding on, the letting go,

It all gets buried soft and low,

But even then a song might grow,

And all of it was music. ” (Over the Rhine)

a room without books is like a body without a soul

Posted by on Sunday, 29 December, 2013

So without further ado, here are the five (fiction) books which have most inspired and intrigued me this year:

A Place In Time (Wendell Berry)

For Whom the Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway)

Lilith (George MacDonald)

Wonder (R.J. Palacios)

The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot)

I loved all of these books, but the Wendell Berry short story collection at the top is my run-away first choice. I find it hard to put into words why his fiction impacts me so deeply. He has been writing about the same fictional small town of Port William for several decades, and in this collection he revisits characters we have met in other stories and novels, over several generations of life in this unremarkable place. I have no idea how these stories would impact someone who hasn’t read any other Port William fiction. I would recommend starting with the novels Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter and Andy Catlett.

But coming to these stories after being steeped in those others, I found them profoundly powerful and beautiful. Simple. Funny. Heart-breaking. There is almost no other fiction I’ve read that even comes close to the same impact (maybe only Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and a couple of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels). I’m guessing it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those with ears to hear, this is something special.

Other books I enjoyed this year which didn’t make the final list? Transatlantic and Let The Great World Spin (Colum McCann), Silas Marner (George Eliot), And The Mountains Echoed (Khaled Hosseini), Canada (Richard Ford), The Secret Scripture (Sebastian Barry), John (Niall Williams), Harvest (Jim Crace) and The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton).

And if I was includinf a few non-fiction books, the most significant have been Darrell Johnson’s Discipleship on the Edge (studies in Revelation), No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin (on the life of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt), and an astonishing little book called The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart (a reflection on God, evil and suffering in the shadow of the Asian Tsunami).

Sooooooo what about you? Which books have opened up new worlds, new pespectives, new hope for you this year?

moving pictures 2013

Posted by on Saturday, 28 December, 2013

(A reminder of the rules – these best of lists are based on the films, books and music that were new to me this year. They may or may not have been released or published in 2013.)

Here are the five movies which moved me most deeply, stayed with me long after they were finished, made me think and made me wonder:



A Separation

Searching for Sugar Man

The Perks of Being a Wallflower


And here are the next five which just missed the cut: Lincoln, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, To The Wonder, The Boy With The Bike

And here are five which were just good old-fashioned, uncomplicated, pop-corn-munching, cinematic fun: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Argo, Looper, Good Vibrations, The World’s End.

I also watched and enjoyed a lot of kids’ movies, of which the most delightful were The Croods, Wreck-it Ralph, Turbo and Despicable Me 2.

Biggest disappointment of the year for me was The Master, with honourable mentions for Moonrise Kingdom and Star-Trek: Into Darkness.

And by far the worst movie I watched this year was the absolute mess that is AI: Artificial Intelligence. I’d never got round to watching it, but always wondered what happens when you mix the eccentric genius of Stanley Kubrick with the populist story-telling of Steven Spielberg. Now I know. (I would also include Star Wars Episodes I-III in this category but I couldn’t even stay in the room for their horrible duration).

And finally, the TV series I have most enjoyed this year have been Mad Men, Borgen, Community, The Good Wife and New Girl. After five seasons I’m now ready to officially induct Mad Men into the premium “five star” category along with some very select company (West Wing, Friday Night Lights, Firefly).

Now it’s your turn. Which flickering images on the wall of your cave have most captivated you this year?

in defence of “best of” lists

Posted by on Saturday, 28 December, 2013

OK so I’m not going to actually make a defence of the strange compulsive practice of making end of year “best of” lists. It’s something some of us like to do, that’s all. I’m also not going to make a defence of my own choices in my end of year lists (coming soon!), which are my personal choices and therefore beyond criticism  – although I’ll still enjoy a good argument if you tell me I’m wrong.

But I guess want to make a modest defence of the quantity of pop cultural consumption reflected in my end of year lists. Why do I feel the need to make a defence? Partly because there is a strong stream running through our religious culture which suggests that “secular” culture should be avoided by people of sincere faith in order to “come out of Babylon” and keep our minds pure.

And also because I partly agree with those who suggest that, as a culture, we are in danger of “amusing ourselves to death,” and filling every quiet moment with whatever noises and moving pictures are close at hand, even if it’s just chewing gum for the eyes and ears.

My modest (and not very original) suggestion is that the alternative to either retreating down the Christian rabbit-hole or mindlessly consuming junk-food for the soul, is to seek out the “best of” what is being created in our culture, and enter into conversation. If we believe God is everywhere present, that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” then we need to look for the glimmers of light and signs of life which are scattered through our culture like treasure from a shipwreck.

Here are two quotes from two of my favourite writers, which make the case better than I can. First, here’s George MacDonald:

And between the dances I read two or three of Wordsworth’s ballads to them. For I thought if I could get them to like poetry and beautiful things in words, it would not only do them good, but would help them to see what is in the Bible, and therefore to love it more. For I never could believe that a man who did not find God in other places, as well as in the Bible would ever find Him there at all. And I have always thought that to find God in other books enables us to see clearly that He is more in the Bible than in any other book, or all other books put together.

And this one is from Frederick Buechner:

From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein…

Literature, painting, music – the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.



Lewis, you told me this

Posted by on Friday, 22 November, 2013

It doesn’t take much to make me emotional, but one of the things that always moves me to tears is joyful old men. When I see an old man expressing genuine gladness I’m just gone. I’ve always assumed this is mostly to do with my paternal grandfather, who shared a home with us during my earliest years, and who was the most joyful old man I ever knew.

But I’m wondering if it may also have to do with a Belfast-born writer who died 50 years ago today. C.S. Lewis was only 65 when he died, but he exists in my imagination as a joyful old man. I owe him more than any other writer I have ever read and loved. I sat in a coffee shop in Coleraine this morning trying to hold back the tears, thinking about how much I’ve received from his writing. I want to try and express my gratitude but I don’t think I have the words.

I started reading C.S Lewis as a child (Narnia of course) and I’ve never stopped. I read Mere Christianity when I was maybe 15, and by the time I was a student I’d read pretty much everything he ever published. Since then, I feel like I’ve spent my life re-learning what Lewis had already taught me. In my favourite class at Regent we read ten “spiritual classics” from Christian history, including Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas a Kempis, Martin Luther – and in every single case what I read took me back to things I’d already encountered in Lewis. It became a running joke in our class that I would inevitably claim that “C.S. Lewis says the same thing, only better.”

My friend Ben has just released a beautiful album with his band Sullivan & Gold (which you should all go and buy now for everyone you love for Christmas) and on my favourite song he sings “Lewis, you told me this.” I’m not sure what Ben was thinking about, but it expresses what I’ve felt so often. Every time I think I’ve had a profound and original thought I realise Lewis has already said it much better.

I know lots of people love Lewis as an apologist, someone who provided logical arguments in defence of the reasonableness of the Christian faith. And I certainly appreciate this aspect of Lewis. He helps me think clearly. He makes the complex simple. He is persuasive and articulate, full of robust common sense.

But what I love most deeply about Lewis is not the way he defends the truth, but the way he evokes what is good and beautiful. There is a quality of joy and delight in his best writing that draws out my deepest desires and feeds my soul. Someone said reading Lewis is like “opening a window in a stuffy room.” He wakes me up. His writing is healing and restorative for the parts of me that are most weary and lost.

In the movie Shadowlands we hear C.S Lewis say that “we read to know we’re not alone.” Lewis has been a companion and friend to me in my journey. No other writer has more often expressed what I’ve felt but couldn’t articulate, or what I’ve thought but never dared say out loud. He makes me feel less lonely.

Maybe the best I can say is that Lewis’s writing creates in me the kind of joyful longing which he himself describes. The shyness and awkwardness he describes is what I feel in trying to tell you why I love his books.

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.

We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past.

But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.

These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

This is from an essay called The Weight of Glory which may be the best thing he ever wrote.

Thank you, Jack.

I didn’t notice the glory

Posted by on Monday, 31 December, 2012

And finally my favourite movies of 2012. This will be quick, because it’s 1o:30pm, and because I didn’t watch a lot of great movies this year (and didn’t keep a careful note so may have forgotten some gems):

  1. The Tree of Life. I watched this in January and it has stayed with me all through the year. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The parts that tell the story of a family growing up together are in themselves as beautiful and truthful as anything I’ve seen in a movie. But the sequences that place this human story in the context of the whole drama of life on earth, the birth of galaxies and stars and dinosaurs, take this to another level. I know some people think it’s pretentious nonsense. But they haven’t read the book of Job. It’s the most theologically serious of films, yet full of quiet joy. Not everything works and the ending is a bit mushy. But this is breathtaking film-making. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
  2. The Lives of Others. Everyone I trust had told me long ago that this is a brilliant movie. I have no idea why I waited until now to confirm that they were 100% right. It’s a simple movie in many ways, a good story well told, and acted with understated dignity. Very moving, very powerful. One of the great movies of our generation.
  3. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a sign of the lack of memorable films this year (apart from my top 2) that I’ve picked a movie I admired but probably didn’t love. This is classy film-making, clever and slick, flawlessly acted, keeping the tension all the way through, but never quite stirring the heart and not leaving much to think about when it was done.

Other movies I enjoyed this year: Midnight in Paris, Never Let Me Go, The Artist, Lawless, Drive, I’ve Loved You So Long, Kickass, The Hobbit.

I have a very long list of movies I want to watch as soon as possible in 2013, including The Master, Rust and Bone, Lincoln, To The Wonder, Silver Lining Playbook, Argo, Django Unchained, Life of Pi.

What are the movies that have stayed with you from 2012?

Peace to you and all you love in this New Year.