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An Evolutionary Crisis?

Newfrontiers Theology - 7 hours 52 min ago
An Evolutionary Crisis? primary image

For a brief time between graduating and starting a PhD I worked at London’s Natural History Museum. Each day on the way to the entomology department I had to pass an exhibition about Darwin, and each day I felt an inner conflict about the question of origins.

The Natural History Museum is a temple to Darwinism, and any questioning of the received dogma would result in ridicule. Still, I had my doubts about Darwinian evolution – both because of my Christian faith, and because the scientific foundations of the theory seemed so wobbly. Evolution by natural selection is a beautiful theory, as it can function as a theory for everything: any aspect of the natural world or the human experience can be analysed through Darwin’s lens. Yet while evolution at the micro-level seemed observable and provable, I couldn’t get my head around Darwinian evolution being a mechanism for macro-evolution. There were too many gaps that were too large, both in terms of missing fossils, and the extraordinary complexity of many biological systems. It was at this point that the ‘modern synthesis’ seemed to enter the realm of speculation rather than demonstrable experimentation.

In the end, I grew weary of trying to work it all out (weary of the aggression of the new atheists, and weary of the dogmatism of some six-dayers), decided to mentally park worrying about the details, and simply enjoy the knowledge that God is creator and Lord of all. (And I never finished that PhD.)

Questions of origins won’t go away though. At last year’s THINK conference, Andrew was desperate to get us onto the typology of the Exodus but all people wanted to talk about was origins!

I’ve just read Michael Denton’s Evolution: Still a theory in crisis. Denton is a medical doctor and biochemist without any particular faith conviction, but many doubts about Darwinism. In this fascinating book Denton argues the case for ‘structuralism’ – that due to the fine tuning of the universe there is a natural law to nature that results in the lifeforms we see today. Just as chemical crystals form the shapes they do as a result of innate structures, so, argues Denton, plant and animal life are inherently the way that they are, rather than as a result of adaptive selection.

While recognizing the reality of adaptive evolution in limited extent (for example, the development of different bill shapes in Galapagos finches) Denton argues for ‘saltation’ (major step-changes) being a better explanation for species development than natural selection. He calls as evidence plant and animal features that are type-defining but lack any apparent selective advantage, insights from the new field of evolutionary developmental biology, the lack of fossil evidence of intermediate stages, and the lack of any ‘plausible well-developed hypothetical evolutionary sequence’ for biological systems like the cell.

Denton’s thesis will no doubt infuriate Darwinians. It will also fail to satisfy the more literal-minded creationist, as he does believe in evolution, and is most definitely not a young-earth creationist. He would also hugely benefit from a strong editor to help his argument be expressed with greater clarity and to do away with some of the repetition and irritating stylistic ticks that dog the book. But as a scientific rebuttal of Darwinism I found this tremendously helpful – it has given me some of the answers I was reaching for as I walked through the corridors of the Natural History Museum all those years ago.

Categories: Front Page

Donkeys, Alexander and Christ

Newfrontiers Theology - Wed, 18/01/2017 - 07:00
Donkeys, Alexander and Christ primary image

About a year ago, I was teaching on the doctrine of Scripture when I suddenly realised that I didn't understand the book of Zechariah. At all. So I bought a series of teaching sessions on Zechariah 9-14 by Peter Leithart and James Jordan, and I've been slowly working through it with the text in front of me. It has been a fascinating journey into one of the trickiest parts of Scripture, and it has been full of intriguing suggestions. One of the most striking ones is the idea that the famous prophecy of Zechariah 9, in which a king enters Jerusalem on a donkey, refers in the first instance to Alexander the Great, who then serves as a sort of type of Christ.

The central idea is that if the oracle of Zechariah 9:1-8 is taken to be about Alexander, as it usually is, then it would seem natural to read the well-known triumphal entry prophecy as referring to him as well. Conversely, if 9:9-10 is about Jesus, then it would seem that we should also take 9:1-8 that way, which leaves us either shoehorning in completely unknown events to make things fit, or spiritualising a section that seems for all the world to be about real nations and real battles. The opening oracle is as follows:

The burden of the word of the Lord is against the land of Hadrach
  and Damascus is its resting-place.
For the Lord has an eye on mankind
  and on all the tribes of Israel,
2 and on Hamath also, which borders on it,
  Tyre and Sidon, though they are very wise.
3 Tyre has built herself a rampart
  and heaped up silver like dust,
  and fine gold like the mud of the streets.
4 But behold, the Lord will strip her of her possessions
  and strike down her power on the sea,
  and she shall be devoured by fire.
5 Ashkelon shall see it, and be afraid;
  Gaza too, and shall writhe in anguish;
  Ekron also, because its hopes are confounded.
The king shall perish from Gaza;
  Ashkelon shall be uninhabited;
6 a mixed people shall dwell in Ashdod,
  and I will cut off the pride of Philistia.
7 I will take away its blood from its mouth,
  and its abominations from between its teeth;
it too shall be a remnant for our God;
  it shall be like a clan in Judah,
  and Ekron shall be like the Jebusites.
8 Then I will encamp at my house as a guard,
  so that none shall march to and fro;
no oppressor shall again march over them,
  for now I see with my own eyes.

This, it would seem, is a fairly clear description of an invader from the North (Damascus) moving south down the Mediterranean coast, capturing Tyre as he does so, and then four of the five the Philistine cities, before stopping short of taking Jerusalem because the Lord is camped “at my house as a guard, so that none shall march to and fro.” Alexander, of course, did just this, and was the only person to capture Tyre (in a remarkable attack that involved building a causeway). The correspondences between the text and the event are so close that many interpreters assume the text was written after the event.

Then, with no break other than the one we insert in our Bibles, comes this:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
  Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
  righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
  on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
  and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
  and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
  and from the River to the ends of the earth.

This, Leithart and Jordan argue, would surely have been taken as a continuation of the previous text: following this military campaign, Jerusalem is kept safe, and the conquering king arrives in peace, on a donkey, rather than in war, on a horse. Alexander, in that sense, will foreshadow Christ. He will move through the land, then enter the holy city in peace—but with the obvious and ominous threat that if people reject the peaceful king who rides on a donkey, he will come back again on a horse, and nobody will be able to withstand him.

Which, if correct, sheds fascinating light on this (otherwise uncorroborated) passage from Josephus’ Antiquities XI:

... [Alexander] gave his hand to the high priest and, with the Jews running beside him, entered the city. Then he went up to the temple, where he sacrificed to God under the direction of the high priest, and showed due honour to the priests and to the high priest himself. And, when the book of Daniel was shown to him, in which he had declared that one of the Greeks would destroy the empire of the Persians, he believed himself to be the one indicated; and in his joy he dismissed the multitude for the time being, but on the following day he summoned them again and told them to ask for any gifts which they might desire ...

As I say: fascinating stuff.

Categories: Front Page

Sermon Illustrations from a Hollywood Monster

Newfrontiers Theology - Tue, 17/01/2017 - 07:00
Sermon Illustrations from a Hollywood Monster primary image

“You’re a tree of healing, I need you to heal!” the boy cries.
“And I shall,” replies the monster, and shivers run down my spine.

Insofar as it is possible for a big, deep, booming voice resonating around a cinema to bring to mind the ‘still, small voice’ of God, this voice did. It was the kind of voice that left no room for doubt, and was both awe-inspiring and deeply comforting. It sounded like the feeling of being wrapped in a thick, warm blanket; powerful and safe.

The monster in this superb film, A Monster Calls (based on a novel of the same name by Patrick Ness), is the embodiment of an ancient yew tree that stands in the churchyard on the hill that is visible from Conor O’Malley’s bedroom. The animation is incredible, and the film would be worth seeing just for that (if you’ve missed it, or are a ‘book first’ sort of person, I highly recommend you watch the trailer at least). But I loved it most for its depiction – whether conscious or not – of a figure who reminded me rather a lot of God.

Quick synopsis: Conor’s mother is dying of cancer. Conor knows this, but won’t let himself believe it. He is hoping against hope that each new treatment will work, will heal her. Yet he has a recurring nightmare in which his mother is swallowed up by the earth (as, fascinatingly, is the church on the hill. Symbolic, maybe?). Conor tries to hold onto her but cannot, and she falls from his grip into the belly of the earth.

One night Conor awakes from this nightmare only to enter what seems to be another one – the tree on the hill comes to life and starts walking towards him, crushing walls, fences and streetlamps as if they were made of matchsticks, and punching through his bedroom wall to grab him. Yet this enormous beast is gentle, too. It doesn’t crush the boy, but talks to him. Conor wants the monster to heal his mother, to fight off the disease that is eating her up, but the monster just wants to tell him stories. “I will tell you three stories,” it says, “And then you will tell me a fourth. Your truth, your nightmare will be your story.”

For those of you who preach and need sermon illustrations, you’ll find some really great ones throughout what follows. Here are a few I picked up:

1) We need (and have) a God who has a bigger, longer, deeper perspective than we do.

The stories the monster tells are parables, each illustrating that things are not always what they seem; it becomes very clear that the information the boy is given and his expectations based on prejudice and past experience are not sufficient to equip him to make the correct judgements about people’s hearts or the consequences of different actions.

The fact that the monster is a yew tree is no accident – they can grow for thousands of years, their bark, sap, berries and wood are deadly if misused, but have also been used for centuries for their healing properties, and they have long been associated with eternal life. This God-figure is timeless, is to be respected and not misused, but is able to heal and to bring life.

2) The truth will set you free [NB There’s a BIG plot spoiler in this paragraph – skip to point 3 if necessary!]

The story Conor has to tell the monster is about the truth of what happens in his nightmare. The truth is, he lets his mother fall. He could have held on longer, but he just wants it to be over. The film does a brilliant job of building the tension to this revelation, and of illustrating how much it costs Conor to admit it. He is afraid that it will actually kill him to confess – it’s such an awful truth – but as he himself falls into the abyss, the monster catches him. He raises him up and speaks the truth over him – again, with that huge, all-encompassing, still small voice. He speaks the truth, and Conor is set free, and is able to curl up in the embrace of the tree’s roots and fall asleep.

It’s not a confession that brings forgiveness, and in fact there’s a recurring theme of Conor not being held responsible for his actions throughout the film - nor is there any scapegoat/Christ figure, so you won’t find a substitutionary atonement illustration anywhere, but the truth line is a useful one anyway.

3) The answer we need is not always the answer we want

The monster assures Conor that he will bring healing, but it is not until much later that he reveals he meant he would heal Conor, not his mother (I haven’t flagged this up as a spoiler because really, it’s so predictable. If you didn’t see it coming then you need to get out more, watch more movies and read more books!). When Conor spoke the truth, the monster was able to heal him and give him the strength to cope with what came next – it was only while he was trying to hide and carry it all inside that he felt like the monster wasn’t coming through for him.

A quick synopsis could leave you thinking this was a film about unanswered prayer, but a closer viewing reveals that it is all about prayers answered – differently to how we wanted, maybe, but by someone bigger and wiser than us.

4) We humans are good at deceiving ourselves

After Conor has confessed his deep secret, he tries to get to grips with how his thinking managed to get so muddled, how he could convince himself that his mother’s treatments were working, whilst knowing that they were not. The monster explains:

“Humans are complicated. They believe comforting lies while knowing full well the truths that make them necessary.”

You could write reams and reams on that – it’s a study in itself. I’ll let you ponder it and see how it fits in your situation but our culture is adept at telling itself comforting lies (‘Abortion doesn’t hurt anyone’, ‘I could quit any time I like’, ‘Disagreement equals intolerance’…the list goes on). If this monster is right, the lies are often held to most vociferously when the truth is rattling the doors of a person’s mind. That gives me hope that somehow, if we can find the right key, we can unlock those doors and bring the truth out into the light, where it can begin its work of healing.

There’s probably more in the film that I missed, and I’ve bought the book, too, so I can read it in more depth, but I highly recommend it. See it, if you possibly can. As a secular depiction of a God-like figure, it’s got some incredible insights.

Categories: Front Page

Woke Church

Newfrontiers Theology - Mon, 16/01/2017 - 07:00
Woke Church primary image

Here is a superb message from Dr Eric Mason on "Woke Church." If you know what the slang refers to, you'll probably be interested; if you don't, you probably didn't click here in the first place, but a good summary of the label for white people (along with some warnings about running too fast with it) can be found here. It's a wonderful, quotable, passionate and clarifying call to recognise racial injustice and do something about it, delivered at Dallas Theological Seminary by an anointed and gifted black leader. It's well worth your time.

Happy Martin Luther King Day.

 

Categories: Front Page

Here and There, Week 1 2017

Luke's blog - Fri, 13/01/2017 - 14:58
My friend Jon Brown took this beautiful photo of me being prayed for last weekend
If keeping a Sabbath sounds like a miserable thing to do, get some perspective from Joshua Gorenflo on what this command from God is really about.

I love Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell novels, and this consideration of them alongside her autobiography, by Patricia Snow, sheds new light on them.

Anne Jolis tells how her local parish priest blessed her at a time of terrible sadness.

Was Orkney the most significant place in the British Isles five thousand years ago? The BBC series, Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney, has a lot of interesting stuff among the usual documentary bluster.

Finally, if your arms are shorter than mine, you might find this way of changing your duvet cover helpful, if not life-changing...

How Many Otters Can You Possibly Imagine?

Newfrontiers Theology - Fri, 13/01/2017 - 07:00
How Many Otters Can You Possibly Imagine? primary image

I suppose I should take being parodied as a compliment, as per yesterday's effort from the Otter (the writer of which, I am embarrassed to admit, I was not able to identify). Nevertheless, I feel like some sort of lutrine retaliation is needed—and happily, my friend John Finnemore has the ideal material for doing so.

How many otters can you possibly imagine? Because if I say I can imagine a million otters, I’m obviously lying. I can’t really even imagine a million pounds. I know what it could buy, but I can’t imagine an actual million actual pound coins. Still less otters. They’re famously harder to imagine than coins. Now, a thousand pound coins I think I can imagine. I can certainly imagine a thousand page book. But I don’t think I can imagine a thousand otters. But then, what are my criteria here? To qualify as being imagined, do I have to be able to imagine each individual ottery face, and be able to distinguish in my imagination young Tasmania the Otter from Old Uncle Winchelsea the Otter? (I’m assuming here that otters use broadly the same naming system as Wombles.) No, I don’t think so. I think I just have to be able to imagine what that mass of otters would look like, how much space they would take up, and how cross they’d be about it. I can imagine eight otters around my dining table, for instance, but I can’t really imagine a thousand otters. My guess is that that’s about a double decker bus full, but I can’t imagine whether that’s a tightly packed RSPCA nightmare of a bus, or whether the otters are lounging in relative comfort. (Remember they can sit under the seats as well as on them. And in the aisles).

Now, the ADC Theatre in Cambridge seats about 220, and I reckon I can imagine that full of otters. (An otter on every seat, that is. They only sit under them on buses. I mean, come on, they have to be able to see the stage). This is good - let’s ramp it up. The Garrick theatre in London has a capacity, so Google tells me, of 656… but with regret I must admit I can’t really imagine that full of otters. I mean, I can… but if I’m honest with myself, I’m just imagining the theatre, filling the stalls with otters, and then mentally clone brushing those same otters into the dress circle and upper circle. I’m not even certain I’m imagining the otters at the back of the stalls. I’m just imagining ‘a theatre full of otters’. And now, confidence crumbling, I’m beginning to doubt my feat of imagination with the ADC. Did I really imagine 220 otters? Even the ones at the back, and the sides? Or am I just imagining 220 seats, and then tacking the word ‘otters’ over the word ‘seats’? Hell, can I even imagine one otter? Let me check. Right, I’ve checked, I definitely can imagine one otter. He’s called Barney, he’s slightly over medium size, and he has a white mark on his muzzle where a larger otter named Velasquez snatched a trout from his mouth. From this we can draw two further conclusions: 1) I can imagine two otters. 2) The Womble naming system is not invariable amongst otters.

So. I’m confident I can imagine those two otters and their struggle to come to terms with that terrible summer’s day when Barney’s trust in Velasquez was forever shattered; but shifty about those 220 otters enjoying a patchy but basically competent student production of The Duchess of Malfi. So, maybe the thing to do is avoid any helpful framing device like a theatre or a bus or a netball team, and just imagine an increasing number of otters in a blank white void. No, that’s too depressing. I’m just imagined Barney there alone, and it’s breaking my heart. I’ll imagine them in my garden. Ok. One otter. Check. Two otters. Will Barney ever forgive him? Three otters. Easy. Four otters. Piece of cake. Five otters. Yep. Six, seven, eight - yes. Nine, ten, eleven. I think so, yes. Twelve otters… ... ... ... ... no. I can’t imagine twelve otters. Not really. When it comes right down to it, I’m just imagining six otters twice. And if I don’t break it down into sub-groups like that, it’s basically no different from my image of eleven otters. Come to that, I’m not sure my eleven otters were that different from my ten. What about my ten from my nine? No, there is a difference there. That’s interesting. Because that seems to suggest that the number of otters I can possibly imagine… is ten. Ladies and gentlemen, it was funny because it was true.

Categories: Front Page

Eukarysmatic

Newfrontiers Theology - Thu, 12/01/2017 - 07:00
Eukarysmatic primary image

One of my many theological goals for 2017 is to finish a draft of the following book, Eukarysmatic (Ring of Bright Water, 2018). This book, and in fact this title, are an attempt to share my main theological passion at the moment: the idea that you can have the best of both worlds, plants and animals, mitosis and meiosis, sexual and asexual reproduction, the cellular and the spiritual.

There are a number of things that distinguish we Eukarysmatics from the less spiritually developed Prokarysmatics:

We like repetition or predictability, where the same set of words is used every week, because this is like the predictable behaviour of organelles.
We like things that make it harder for visitors to participate, because visitors are like a virus, that can infect the body.
We like the idea of the minister telling the congregation to do something, and then all of them having to do it, because this is the natural order of things.
We like it when the rite of worship (or meeting plan) cuts across what we are doing and tells us we need to move on to the next bit, at the same time every week, because it reminds us of the relentless energy production of mitochondria.
We like routine, because it is like photosynthesis.
We like setting aside regular chunks of time to do something that isn’t singing or preaching, and we like the sense of compulsion that comes with it, because a cell has to do what a cell has to do.

Eukarysmatics are the true kernal of the church (εὖ “true”, κάρυον “kernel”), and won’t be distracted from our call and purpose. Sometimes we are accused of being a bit religious, formal, stuffy, inauthentic – tedious even. But that’s life – eukarysmatic life!

 

Categories: Front Page

Proverbs versus President Trump

Luke's blog - Wed, 11/01/2017 - 18:00

May God have mercy on us all. Many people around the world will express a sentiment along these lines as Donald Trump becomes President of the United States of America this week.

A long time ago, as Trump began to make headway in his seemingly-unlikely campaign to become the Republican candidate for the presidency, I was reading through the book of Proverbs. This is perhaps the most practical book in the Bible, defining and describing what godly character looks like, and what it doesn't. Proverbs contrasts the wise person with the fool, admonishing the reader to get wisdom and avoid folly.

Unbidden, Trump's face and antics began to appear on every page. It was almost uncanny how particularly and spectacularly he fails the basic biblical tests of character in Proverbs, and how he revels in doing so. It would have been comical to me - as well as none of my business as a citizen of another country - were it not for Christian leaders in America approving of and even anointing Trump to be their representative.

Now, not as many evangelical Christians voted for Trump as we've been led to believe, and leaders like Russell Moore have spoken with courage and righteousness against what has happened. Of course I know that people, and therefore politics, are messy and complicated, and I'm aware that Hillary Clinton had plenty to discredit her to the conscience of a Christian voter. But the ungrudging nature of Trump endorsements, the lack of caveats or regrets expressed by men who should know better demands comment. I leave those comments to the book of Proverbs, of which these are just a sample...
There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers. (6:16-19) When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (10:19) Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool,
but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding. (10:23) Whoever belittles his neighbour lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent. (11:12)The vexation of a fool is known at once,
but the prudent ignores an insult. (12:16)A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion. (18:2) A fool's lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating. (18:6) Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets;
therefore do not associate with a simple babbler. (20:19) A wicked man puts on a bold face,
but the upright gives thought to his ways. (21:29) Trusting in a treacherous man in time of trouble
is like a bad tooth or a foot that slips. (25:19) Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
a stranger, and not your own lips. (27:2) There are those who are clean in their own eyes
but are not washed of their filth. (30:12)So Proverbs points at the fool with disdain: and I saw Trump. And as I saw him, day after day, I began to notice how often I was noticing him - and this concerned me. I don't read the Bible looking for anyone in there except God, and the person who I'm most concerned with warning and rebuking from its instruction is me. Proverbs itself tells me to do this, but too late I realised that I had fallen into a trap. Remember a few moments ago as you read those Proverbs, how you nodded along, maybe even laughed wryly as you saw Trump's character laid bare? Here's the sting:
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him. (26:12)I am still convinced that those Christian leaders who happily endorsed Trump were wrong, by the terms of God's own book. But I also know that congratulating myself for recognising this puts me in more danger than a fool. May God have mercy on us all.

With One Obvious Exception

Newfrontiers Theology - Wed, 11/01/2017 - 05:53
With One Obvious Exception primary image

Charismatic pastors don't like formal liturgy.*

We don’t like repetition or predictability, where the same set of words is used every week.

We don’t like things that make it harder for visitors to participate.

We don’t like the idea of the minister telling the congregation to do something, and then all of them having to do it.

We don’t like it when the rite of worship (or meeting plan) cuts across what we are doing and tells us we need to move on to the next bit, at the same time every week.

We don’t like routine.

We don’t like setting aside regular chunks of time to do something that isn’t singing or preaching, and we don’t like the sense of compulsion that comes with it.

It all feels a bit religious. Formal. Stuffy. Inauthentic. Tedious.

*unless it’s the offering

Categories: Front Page

The Parable of the Sort-of-Shoes

Newfrontiers Theology - Mon, 09/01/2017 - 07:00
The Parable of the Sort-of-Shoes primary image

It's common these days for baby sleepsuits, or onesies, to come with sort-of-shoes built in. My son has several of them. The material around the feet becomes bumpy, and firmer, almost as if its very presence will enable the baby to walk quicker. So when it comes to putting the baby's flexible shoes on, you find yourself fitting the shoes, not around the baby's feet, but around the sort-of-shoes in the onesie. Which is awkward for you, and very uncomfortable for him.


The trick is, of course, to focus on the feet rather than the sort-of-shoes, acknowledging that the sort-of-shoes are helpful, and reasonably similar to the feet, but nevertheless shaped somewhat differently. But oddly, it’s easy to forget. The sort-of-shoes are so structured, so clear, so emphatic in their definition, that you are unconsciously inclined to fit what you’re doing around them, rather than the softer, more erratic, more uncontrolled, less defined, and more fundamentally human entity they are there to serve.

Systematic theologians, take note.

Categories: Front Page

Without Prejudice

Newfrontiers Theology - Fri, 06/01/2017 - 07:00
Without Prejudice primary image

This email is so good that I just had to share it. It's one of those emails that begins with courtesy, moves to confusion, and gradually builds in rage until it explodes forth in hysteria and bombast (as well as making the counterintuitive suggestion that adherence to the creeds makes you more likely to be a cult). The sign-off, for me, is the best bit. Behold:

Hi,

Can you please let me know your statement of faith?

Thank you for enquiring about our statement of belief. It is as follows:

As part of the universal church, we hold to the ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’, Nicene-Constantinopolitan, Chalcedonian and Athanasian Creeds).  As Protestant Christians, we affirm that justification is by faith alone, and stand in the tradition of Reformation confessional documents like the Heidelberg Catechism, although we believe water baptism is only for believers.  As contemporary evangelicals, we also affirm modern statements such as the Lausanne Covenant and the Evangelical Alliance statement of faith.

Every blessing,
Yours etc [on behalf of Newfrontiers].

Thanks for your reply.

I’m a little confused with this answer - I expected a clear statement of faith with Bible proofs; not a mixed-up, contradictory bunch of nonsensical statements about belief in semi-biblical creeds made by lukewarm church attenders.

How can a “protestant” Christian be involved in ecumenism? Ecumenism is cancer to the body of Christ. Ecumenism will lead to the One World Religion.

I’ll leave the rest to the leaders of your cult to work out their salvation with fear and trembling - their judgement is nigh.

Without prejudice,

[name]

Categories: Front Page

Film Review: Silence

Newfrontiers Theology - Thu, 05/01/2017 - 14:00
 Silence primary image

A black screen. The escalating hum of cicadas. One word appears on screen as the noise stops. Silence. Then, the camera slowly reveals hot springs in the Japanese mountains, almost a beautiful sight until you realise why we are there. Five western missionaries are having the scalding hot water poured slowly over their skin, while a sixth, Padre Ferreira, is forced to watch.

It’s a stark, disturbing and gripping opening to Martin Scorsese’s latest. It lets you know that you are in for a harrowing 161 minutes, as relayed by someone in complete control of his craft. Silence is a masterpiece and it led to probably the most profound spiritual encounter I’ve ever had in a cinema*.

The next thing we find out about Ferreira is that he has, apparently, apostatised. His two young Jesuit protégés, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe this of their old master and they embark on their own trip to Japan to find him. They are told that the persecution in Japan is so relentless and powerful that they shall be the last priests sent there. Their mission is not just about Ferreira, but the eternal fate of an entire nation. What follows is the two zealous priests witnessing an onslaught of torture and execution, as well as remarkable displays of faith as hidden Christians attempt to live out their faith in the face of extreme persecution.

I’m no Scorsese apologist, as I’ve struggled to connect with his films in the past, but it is clear in Silence that you are watching a master (or several masters) at work. Japan, under Scorsese’s eye, is as bleak and unforgiving as it is beautiful. Everything here is stripped back, from its almost imperceptible score and sound design to frames that carry very little visual information. While there is rarely true silence, this is nevertheless a film of remarkable quietude. Some have called it a slog, and there were numerous walkouts when I was watching it, but I was mesmerised.

He’s backed up by some of the best names in the business. His regular collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker edits so well you barely notice her work (editors are like your church’s PA team in that sense; you often only notice them when they’re going wrong.) Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto seemingly lights everything with only candle-power and makes haunting use of close-ups, while production designer Dante Feretti recreates 17th-century Japan to striking, stark effect.

Scorsese’s unflinching eye for bleakness does make Silence an exceptionally hard film to watch at times. Three hidden Christians are exposed and executed by being tied to a cross and drowned by the rising tide. At one point, there is a swift and shocking beheading. One crane shot I will not forget swoops out to show a family being burned alive. Such violence against Christ-followers isn’t a thing of the past – over 320 Christians are killed for their faith every month, often by similar methods. As such, any recommendations to see this film come with the caveat that it is, at times, intensely uncomfortable viewing. Yet such brutality (which is never excessive or there to thrill) also makes Silence a powerful and relevant film; it should stir you to pray and act.

What elevates Silence beyond a gruelling, well-made depiction of persecution, however, is the weight behind its ideas. Watching it is like witnessing Scorsese himself wrestle with some of the most complex ideas in theology. Rodrigues’ greatest test comes when confronted with the suffering of others – he is prepared to suffer himself, but instead he is regularly confronted with the suffering of others, namely poor and downtrodden Christians. Their faith throughout this all is their balm, a very real embodiment of Romans 8:18. Rodrigues cries out in anguish to God regularly throughout it, and Garfield’s haunted, physical performance conveys both depths of devotion and equally powerful doubt. He veers wildly between the two states and both feel like credible responses to his experiences.

Meanwhile, their guide to Japan is Kichijiro, played with a manic energy by Yosuke Kubozuka, a man who regularly denies God before coming back to Rodrigues to beg for forgiveness. At one point Rodrigues looks at the tragicomic character and you hear him pray in his head “how could you forgive a wretch like this?” Kichijiro is, at best, a Peter and, at worst, a Judas. Yet there’s something uncomfortably real in his weakness – would we act any differently in the face of such unimaginable punishment? Few films confront the tension between suffering and faith in such a gripping way. One film that comes close is Scorsese’s own The Last Temptation of Christ, a theologically wonky but undeniably fascinating approach to the life and sacrifice of Jesus.

The screenplay, by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, is remarkably even-handed and complicated. The motivations of Rodrigues are muddled as he longs so much to mimic Jesus that he strays into seeing himself as a saviour. The missionaries are accused, with some validity, of cultural imperialism, yet Rodrigues fires back that the truth is true all around the world. It’s a provocative film; few people in the audience will remain comfortable as every worldview is put under the microscope. The central dilemma, of whether to profane an embossed image of God (a fumie) by stepping on it in order to end suffering, comes with no easy answer.

Silence isn’t a film that can really be spoiled, but for the rest of the review I will mention developments in the final act that I can’t not talk about as a Christian approaching this film.

Rodrigues eventually finds Ferreira as a man who has given up his faith and is ultimately confronted with the same choice as his old mentor. Five Christians are being dangled upside down in pits, moaning in agony, as Rodrigues is presented with an image of Christ to step on. “It’s just a formality,” he is told, insidiously, by his translator. Then, something truly remarkable happens; as Rodrigues stares at the image, Jesus breaks the silence. The whole film builds to this decision. To trample on the fumie is an act of apostasy, but it would end the pain of countless Christians. In a moment of silence, Rodrigues hears Jesus speak, saying: “Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.”

At this point, Silence became more than just a powerful piece of cinema; I was deeply, spiritually moved. I left the cinema partly looking inwards to see if I would endure the same for the gospel. But mostly I left with a sense of astonishment at the sufferings of Christians and grateful for a God who would suffer, too, for the sake of me. Earlier in the film, Rodrigues quotes Psalm 22 when asking why God has forsaken him. What he didn’t realise was that while he was using the lines of the psalm to question God, he was also providing himself with God’s answer.

 

Silence is out in cinemas now.

*I must make an exception for visits to my parents’ church, as they actually meet in a cinema.

Categories: Front Page

Film Review: Silence

Newfrontiers Theology - Thu, 05/01/2017 - 14:00
 Silence primary image

A black screen. The escalating hum of cicadas. One word appears on screen as the noise stops. Silence. Then, the camera slowly reveals hot springs in the Japanese mountains, almost a beautiful sight until you realise why we are there. Five western missionaries are having the scalding hot water poured slowly over their skin, while a sixth, Padre Ferreira, is forced to watch.

It’s a stark, disturbing and gripping opening to Martin Scorsese’s latest. It lets you know that you are in for a harrowing 161 minutes, as relayed by someone in complete control of his craft. Silence is a masterpiece and it led to probably the most profound spiritual encounter I’ve ever had in a cinema*.

The next thing we find out about Ferreira is that he has, apparently, apostatised. His two young Jesuit protégés, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe this of their old master and they embark on their own trip to Japan to find him. They are told that the persecution in Japan is so relentless and powerful that they shall be the last priests sent there. Their mission is not just about Ferreira, but the eternal fate of an entire nation. What follows is the two zealous priests witnessing an onslaught of torture and execution, as well as remarkable displays of faith as hidden Christians attempt to live out their faith in the face of extreme persecution.

I’m no Scorsese apologist, as I’ve struggled to connect with his films in the past, but it is clear in Silence that you are watching a master (or several masters) at work. Japan, under Scorsese’s eye, is as bleak and unforgiving as it is beautiful. Everything here is stripped back, from its almost imperceptible score and sound design to frames that carry very little visual information. While there is rarely true silence, this is nevertheless a film of remarkable quietude. Some have called it a slog, and there were numerous walkouts when I was watching it, but I was mesmerised.

He’s backed up by some of the best names in the business. His regular collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker edits so well you barely notice her work (editors are like your church’s PA team in that sense; you often only notice them when they’re going wrong.) Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto seemingly lights everything with only candle-power and makes haunting use of close-ups, while production designer Dante Feretti recreates 17th-century Japan to striking, stark effect.

Scorsese’s unflinching eye for bleakness does make Silence an exceptionally hard film to watch at times. Three hidden Christians are exposed and executed by being tied to a cross and drowned by the rising tide. At one point, there is a swift and shocking beheading. One crane shot I will not forget swoops out to show a family being burned alive. Such violence against Christ-followers isn’t a thing of the past – over 320 Christians are killed for their faith every month, often by similar methods. As such, any recommendations to see this film come with the caveat that it is, at times, intensely uncomfortable viewing. Yet such brutality (which is never excessive or there to thrill) also makes Silence a powerful and relevant film; it should stir you to pray and act.

What elevates Silence beyond a gruelling, well-made depiction of persecution, however, is the weight behind its ideas. Watching it is like witnessing Scorsese himself wrestle with some of the most complex ideas in theology. Rodrigues’ greatest test comes when confronted with the suffering of others – he is prepared to suffer himself, but instead he is regularly confronted with the suffering of others, namely poor and downtrodden Christians. Their faith throughout this all is their balm, a very real embodiment of Romans 8:18. Rodrigues cries out in anguish to God regularly throughout it, and Garfield’s haunted, physical performance conveys both depths of devotion and equally powerful doubt. He veers wildly between the two states and both feel like credible responses to his experiences.

Meanwhile, their guide to Japan is Kichijiro, played with a manic energy by Yosuke Kubozuka, a man who regularly denies God before coming back to Rodrigues to beg for forgiveness. At one point Rodrigues looks at the tragicomic character and you hear him pray in his head “how could you forgive a wretch like this?” Kichijiro is, at best, a Peter and, at worst, a Judas. Yet there’s something uncomfortably real in his weakness – would we act any differently in the face of such unimaginable punishment? Few films confront the tension between suffering and faith in such a gripping way. One film that comes close is Scorsese’s own The Last Temptation of Christ, a theologically wonky but undeniably fascinating approach to the life and sacrifice of Jesus.

The screenplay, by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, is remarkably even-handed and complicated. The motivations of Rodrigues are muddled as he longs so much to mimic Jesus that he strays into seeing himself as a saviour. The missionaries are accused, with some validity, of cultural imperialism, yet Rodrigues fires back that the truth is true all around the world. It’s a provocative film; few people in the audience will remain comfortable as every worldview is put under the microscope. The central dilemma, of whether to profane an embossed image of God (a fumie) by stepping on it in order to end suffering, comes with no easy answer.

Silence isn’t a film that can really be spoiled, but for the rest of the review I will mention developments in the final act that I can’t not talk about as a Christian approaching this film.

Rodrigues eventually finds Ferreira as a man who has given up his faith and is ultimately confronted with the same choice as his old mentor. Five Christians are being dangled upside down in pits, moaning in agony, as Rodrigues is presented with an image of Christ to step on. “It’s just a formality,” he is told, insidiously, by his translator. Then, something truly remarkable happens; as Rodrigues stares at the image, Jesus breaks the silence. The whole film builds to this decision. To trample on the fumie is an act of apostasy, but it would end the pain of countless Christians. In a moment of silence, Rodrigues hears Jesus speak, saying: “Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.”

At this point, Silence became more than just a powerful piece of cinema; I was deeply, spiritually moved. I left the cinema partly looking inwards to see if I would endure the same for the gospel. But mostly I left with a sense of astonishment at the sufferings of Christians and grateful for a God who would suffer, too, for the sake of me. Earlier in the film, Rodrigues quotes Psalm 22 when asking why God has forsaken him. What he didn’t realise was that while he was using the lines of the to question God, he was also providing himself with God’s answer.

 

Silence is out in cinemas now.

*I must make an exception for visits to my parents’ church, as they actually meet in a cinema.

Categories: Front Page

Why Cell Phones to Millennials are like Booze to an Alcoholic

Newfrontiers Theology - Thu, 05/01/2017 - 07:00
Why Cell Phones to Millennials are like Booze to an Alcoholic primary image

This 15 minute riff on Millennials from Simon Sinek is well worth your time.

Sinek’s framework for understanding Millennials is very helpful, but those of us from other generations can be far too constrained by technology too. If you are the kind of person who likes to make new year resolutions, planning regular tech-abstinence might be worth considering. In 2017 let’s put down our phones, and actually talk to one another!

Categories: Front Page

Is There A Connection?

Newfrontiers Theology - Wed, 04/01/2017 - 07:00
Is There A Connection? primary image

Two brief observations, then a question.

1. The last generation has seen a dramatic rise in the number of women in eldership and/or priesthood in Protestant churches, for all sorts of reasons. I don’t have the statistics, but I doubt anyone is going to disagree with me on it.

2. The last generation has also seen substantial shifts both in the terminology that is typically used for church government offices, and in the way that words like “pastor” and “pastoral” are understood, from implying traditionally paternal functions (like defending, admonishing, confronting and guarding) to traditionally maternal ones (like nurturing, caring, developing and encouraging). Both features have always formed part of the job description of the priest/pastor, of course; anyone who has read pastoral manuals from previous centuries will know that. But it is not uncommon today to hear people use the word pastoral virtually as a synonym for sympathetic, sensitive, relational or therapeutic, and even as an antonym for combative, robust or confrontational. You frequently hear comments like, “X’s position on divorce and remarriage may not be as biblically robust, but it is far more pastoral,” or “Y’s approach to same-sex relationships is not very pastoral.” I may be giving a slight caricature, but I’m guessing most readers recognise it.

So here’s my question: are those two things connected? And if so, is that because the former causes the latter, or the latter causes the former, or—as I suspect—something else causes both? Answers on a postcard.

Categories: Front Page

2017 and the Recalibration of the Expert

Newfrontiers Theology - Tue, 03/01/2017 - 12:35
2017 and the Recalibration of the Expert primary image

A cartoon in the New Yorker, showing a man in a plane with his arm raised: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” All other arms are raised.

That cartoon was much retweeted, and captured much of the spirit of 2016, but I think the New Yorker may have been missing its own irony. The thing is, no one questions the expertise of airline pilots.

2016 marked the ‘death of the expert’ and I am not so gloomy about that as many commentators; probably less so than the New Yorker. A positive outcome of the cultural shakeup of the past twelve months would be if expertise is put back within its proper limits – rather than the death of the expert, perhaps we are seeing the recalibration of expertise.

Expertise is valuable in areas where we are confident it produces consistent and predictable results. No unqualified passenger thinks they should take control of an airliner – every time we get on a plane we willingly entrust ourselves to experts. We trust this kind of expertise because a pilot is performing functions for which he has been well trained and which follow well tested protocols. That is the kind of expert we trust.

But the limits of the expert have been cruelly exposed when it comes to things less predictable than programming a flight path. From Gary Lineker promising to present Match of the Day in his underpants if Leicester won the Premier League, to all those experts who called Brexit and the US election the wrong way, we have been firmly reminded about the embarrassingly small capacity of human beings to accurately predict future events. In fact, we are so consistently poor at predicting the future the really surprising thing is how enthusiastically we continue trying to do so. 2016 simply underlined that even the cleverest and most informed people (would it be cruel to draw attention to Andrew’s predictive abilities again?!) are not expert when it comes to accurately predicting the future.

A backlash against the arrogance of experts who think they can predict the unpredictable might be a very useful recalibration. It doesn’t have to mean that we all become ‘post-truth’. Actually, it might enable us to be more truthful. More humble and honest, “I really don’t know” commentary would be welcome, and more true.

This morning I was reading Proverbs 16. There is some good advice for us all there, especially those who consider themselves to be experts: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” 2016 demonstrated that in spades – that’s not post-truth, it’s gospel.

Oh, and for those who have fallen into the “2016 was the worst year ever” trap, take a look at these statistics, and begin the year with a smile: it’s almost enough to make me post-millennial.

Happy New Year everyone!

Categories: Front Page

Ten Theological Goals for 2017

Newfrontiers Theology - Mon, 02/01/2017 - 07:00
Ten Theological Goals for 2017 primary image

No posts I write attract more mockery from my friends, or eye-rolls from my wife, than the lists of things I hope to achieve in a year. But I remember the time when "blog" was still short for "web log": an opportunity to tell your friends what you were up to, whether travelling, writing, reading, cooking, playing sport or whatever. I have also found it helpful to make some goals public, for accountability as much as anything—and I sometimes get asked what I'm working on, if I'm writing anything new, and so on, so it seems a good idea to write it down. So in that spirit I shall heroically defy the scoffers once more, and list ten theological goals for 2017.

1. Finalise my PhD for publication. The marvellous Jennie Pollock is doing most of the editing on it—that woman is a magician with an index—and I’m hoping to get the final version of The Warning-Assurance Relationship in 1 Corinthians off to Tübingen in January. It’s a privilege to have Mohr Siebeck including it in their Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament Zwei series (although I’ll be the first to admit that it won’t be the most commercially successful book I’ve written).

2. Read a book a week. Last year was an anomaly for me, because of a job transition, and I was also given a prophetic word at a key time by Mick Taylor, which challenged me to work hard in this fallow year. This year things are different, and I’ll do well to read half as many. But it’s good to have goals, methinks.

3. Fast social media for Lent. As usual.

4. Complete the manuscript for my next book, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing the Theme of Redemption through Scripture, which is being published by Crossway and co-written with my friend Alastair Roberts. A chance conversation with Bobby Jamieson last year convinced me that popularising is probably the thing I’m best at, so rather than trying to write deeply original and profound things, I might be better off using my time to translate the deeply original and profound things that more intelligent friends are saying, and present them to a popular audience. Hence this project, which I am massively enjoying writing. In a nutshell: the exodus makes appearances everywhere in Scripture, you’ve probably missed many of them, and it will enhance your understanding of the Bible and your joy in God if you encounter some more.

5. Teach a three day THINK conference on reading Galatians 500 years after Luther. Preparing for this takes months of reading and preparation, but it is well worth it (at least for me!)

6. Finish a draft of the following book, Eucharismatic (Zondervan, 2018). This book, and in fact this title, are an attempt to share my main theological passion at the moment: the idea that you can have the best of both worlds, the old and the new, the liturgical and the experiential, the depth and the bounce, the eucharistic and the charismatic. I’m sure I’ll be saying more about this in the months to come.

7. Communicate and embody this vision at a couple of conferences in the US. Specifically, I’m going to be in the DC area in July and Oklahoma in October, and this idea will probably pop up in both of them. My sense is that the divorce between eucharistic and charismatic is more obvious in America than the UK, but I could be wrong.

8. Focus on the Gospels in my personal devotions. The last two years I’ve had an Old Testament focus in my devotional times, but this year I want to spend a lot more time in the Gospels, with the help of Richard Hays, Stanley Hauerwas and no doubt others. I’m really looking forward to this.

9. Get my head around the eighteenth century. My ignorance of this massively important period is embarrassing; the map of Europe is an enigma to me, the Spanish Wars of succession a total fog, and I only realised two weeks ago that the Battle of Blenheim didn’t take place in Oxfordshire. I’m hoping to fix that a bit.

10. Engage more with open theism. More people take this seriously than I would have thought, given what seem to me to be extremely shaky exegetical, historical and philosophical foundations. I’ll probably read, think and write a bit more about this in 2017.

More importantly than any of this, of course, is the regular work of study, prayer, preaching, family, and following Jesus in everyday life—so all of these goals are conditional on having the time, capacity and spiritual space to pursue them. But if so, these are some of the things I’ll be shooting for. Happy New Year!

Categories: Front Page

Staring out of a wall

Luke's blog - Fri, 30/12/2016 - 11:19

He sits between a full-length portrait of King Charles II of Spain in all his royal finery, and a full-length portrait of an unnamed woman in nothing but her natural finery, so you would be forgiven for missing him, but I still remember the shock of seeing him twenty years ago. Miss Robinson took our A-level history class here to show us some culture, and when I walked into this room in the National Gallery, he looked so real that I almost thought he was sitting there in person.

He is Archbishop Fernando de Valdés, and the great Velasquez painted his portrait, possibly after his death. Maybe that explains how threatening and slightly disconcerted he looks. He does not look like someone who has ever expressed joy in his life, which is sadly inappropriate for a Christian leader.

Returning to his gaze after a long absence, I was grateful for the power of artists and the generosity of a teacher who bought some ambivalent teenagers down to London to see wonderful things.

The Film Year in Review

Newfrontiers Theology - Thu, 29/12/2016 - 07:00
The Film Year in Review primary image

2016 has been one of the most exciting and busy years for me yet, but the flip-side is that I’ve seen far fewer films than normal. Never letting something like that stop me from talking like I know everything (and assuming I’ve still seen more films than the average Think reader) I thought I’d run through some of the films that I’ve enjoyed the most this year. There’s a depressing lack of foreign and niche cinema in my list, while I’m annoyed to have missed films such as Your Name, Ethel & Ernest and Embrace of the Serpent. In fact, there is a whole host of apparently excellent cinema from 2016 still to be seen so, more than most years, this is a far from exhaustive list. Everything on this unordered assortment of titles is, at the very least, interesting, well-made and has something to recommend it… hopefully.

The films that made me smile

The year hasn’t even ended and I’m already tired of people lamenting how bad 2016 has been. Judging by current trajectories, 2017 is only going to be worse, so such complaints feel moot. The world is broken; for Christians that should be old news. However, even saying that, 2016 does seem to have been unusually packed with depressing stories. Perhaps in some unconscious response to this general malaise, two of my favourites this year are films that made me smile in a big, big way.

If one film this year has to take the number one spot, it is probably Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This tale of a “troubled” teenager who has been ferried around foster homes is joyous and funny from start to finish. It features one of the worst eulogies in cinematic history, stunning New Zealand scenery and a warmth towards its characters that won me over entirely. The other feel-good winner for me was Sing Street, a musical about an improbably talented school band in ‘80s Ireland. The tunes are great, the characters are beautifully drawn and its cheesy ending is entirely earned.

I also found myself smiling a lot at two wonderfully old-fashioned children’s films. The lukewarm reception of The BFG proves that we don’t value Spielberg enough. This is children’s storytelling at its most effortless and it’s a delight. Pete’s Dragon is an update of a little-loved ‘70s movie that creates a magical, earthy atmosphere and it enthrals even with a relatively slow pace.

Genre movies with ideas

2016 was a largely dismal for blockbusters, but genre cinema still had a strong showing across the board. Sci-fi fans were treated to the magnificent Arrival, a thoughtful, mesmerising twist on the alien invasion thriller. The drip-feed of information and sensory cinematography made watching this an immersive experience, while the gut-punch of a conclusion lent it real emotional weight. Mostly, I loved it because it showed me things I hadn’t seen in cinema before. Midnight Special, from one of my favourite young directors Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), also had big ideas, a whole load of religious imagery and a divisive final act that I loved. Read it as study of parental grief and it takes on a whole other level of meaning.

For the second year in a row, after 2015’s Crimson Peak, I’ve found horror cinema creeping into my list. While I failed to convince my mum that I was quite ok after watching The Witch, the images and ideas of that film have stuck with me. Few films create an atmosphere as well as Eggers’ puritan fable, although the Girl With All The Gifts came close. That British zombie movie worked wonders with a small budget, creating a convincing apocalyptic landscape on an impressive scale. See it for provocative ideas, striking cinematography and an ending that (again) divided audiences.

Animation sensations

It wouldn’t be one of my end-of-year reviews if I didn’t mention at least one animated film. Thankfully, there were enough in 2016 to merit an entire paragraph or two. Kubo and the Two Strings from stop-motion studio Laika was a visual marvel about the power of storytelling. It says something about the state of big-budget CG destructathons that the year’s most memorable action sequences emerged in an animation that involved tiny moving puppets on hand-made sets.

When Marnie Was There was an enchanting tale of love and loss by the masters of the medium, Studio Ghibli. Japan also produced The Boy and the Beast, which received a very limited release but deserved a wider audience. Perhaps its dizzying tale of an underworld populated by ancient gods was too culturally oblique for British audiences, but it was about as exciting and imaginative as cinema can get.

Those three were my favourites, but The Red Turtle, The Little Prince and Moana all had their own unique magic.

Oh the dramas

Remember back in January when all the Oscar and BAFTA films hit cinemas? That was when two difficult but thrilling films were released – Spotlight and Room. It’s almost irrelevant to say this after both won Oscars, but they really are terrific films.

Many other dramas impressed me this year, including the Turkish film Mustang, about five school girls who find that their home is increasingly a prison. Vibrant direction from Deniz Gamze Ergüven made this serious topic come alive; while it never shied away from the harsh reality of the girls’ lives, it still captured the rebellious energy of childhood. Captain Fantastic, which followed a family of “philosopher kings” growing up in the mountains and rejecting modern life, was not quite the hipster utopian tale that trailers suggested. Sharp writing and universally strong performances made this a fascinating study of ideological grey areas and it treated all of its characters with generosity. If you’re after something even more low-key than that, the eventless Paterson is a gentle, thoughtful treat about contentment and artistic desire.

Would that it twere so simple

Almost as rare as horror films appearing on my end-of-year lists is any acknowledgment of comedy. The vast majority of pure comedies released in cinemas just aren’t particularly funny. This year, however, two films (both of which played at the excellent Glasgow Film Fest) made me bray like a donkey with laughter. Hail, Caesar! – the latest from the dependably excellent Coen Brothers – features the two best scenes of the year. The first is a song-and-dance number called No Dames and the second is an increasingly absurd scene of enunciation direction. Hail, Caesar! is a funny, deceptively emotional love letter to cinema, with a side-order of religious pondering. Love & Friendship, meanwhile, was Jane Austen as you’ve never seen it before. Cutting, perfectly paced and relentlessly hilarious, it’s the most I’ve laughed at the cinema this year.

The Worst

Having less time to visit the cinema this year has meant that I’ve mercifully avoided some of its greatest stinkers. Thanks to my “friend” Paul, however, I had to endure both Gods of Egypt and American Pastoral. The latter, which is Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, is inexcusably dull, an aimless meander through one family’s life without any semblance of storytelling skill. Gods of Egypt, meanwhile, has to be seen to be believed, a CG-fuelled mess so incompetently made it’s almost mythological. It’s close to being so-bad-it’s-good, but really it’s just incoherent, overlong and features effects that would have looked dated in 2001.

And finally…

I also loved the documentary 13th, which is on Netflix and should be compulsory viewing before anyone talks about race in America. Unlike many documentaries with important messages, this is also really well made (it’s by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma) and its relentless pace will leave you crying out for justice. It’s probably the only film this year I would deem to be essential viewing.

Categories: Front Page

Review of the Year 2016

Newfrontiers Theology - Wed, 28/12/2016 - 07:00
Review of the Year 2016 primary image

The last week of the year is an excellent opportunity to review it, enabling me to revisit (and enjoy once again) many of my favourite moments, and to share them with those of you who may have missed them. The usual caveats about the personal and whimiscal nature of the list, and its mixture of humourous and serious, irenic and polemic, statistical and anecdotal, all apply ...

Best TV show (fictional): The BBC’s The Night Manager was the best of an outstanding batch of programmes they released between Christmas and Easter, which also included And Then There Were None, War and Peace, and the excellent Undercover. If you then chuck in The Crown, The Missing and Line of Duty, you’d have to say that for the first time in decades, the UK made more compelling new shows than the US.

Best TV show (factual): Planet Earth II. No contest:

Favourite hashtag: Back in January Derek Rishmawy started the ridiculously niche, but amusingly ridiculous, #HeresiesAs80sSongs, which included Like A Virgin (Ebionites), Two Hearts (Nestorianism), Take A Look At Me Now (Iconodulism) and You Can Call Me Al (Islam).

Most provocative sentence: Robert Jenson, in his commentary on Ezekiel: “The ancient church rightly assumed that the Eucharist is a sacrifice.” I’m still pondering that one.

Best fake news: I was actually quite gutted when I discovered that the best of the Clinton-Blair transcripts had been made up (although based on some which were real). But they remain some of the genuine laugh out loud items of the year, especially on Leeds Castle and punching a ham.

Best movie: no idea. I don’t think I watched a single new film in 2016, so hopefully Nathanael will tell us tomorrow.

Best word: it was a delight to discover the word Götzenopferfleisch in my research on 1 Corinthians. It means “food offered to idols.”

Tweet of the year: This:

Being 28-2016: I’m not ready for a relationship
28-1816: I have 13 kids
28-1000BC: I lived a good life, thrice I ate a berry and once a pear

Best blog post title: Racial Held Evans.

Best typo: John Piper, 1 May: “Christ is not glorified by a spiritual experience that is not based on the knowledge of Chris.” Even Trump couldn’t beat that.

Best new book: Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots.

Most important book I read: Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind.

Think Theology posts of the year: Our most read post this year was not actually written this year, but remains our most popular article ever—Phil Moore’s “What Your Biology Teacher Didn’t Tell You About Charles Darwin.” The only two others which were read over 20,000 times were “What’s Wrong With the Passion Translation?” and “On Throwing the Baby Out With the Bethelwater.”

Best talk of the year: The two best talks I heard this year were both at Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit, which we hosted at King’s London: Patrick Lencioni on hiring people, and Erin Meyer on culture mapping. The level of communication skills, as well as the very insightful content, was a cut above any other leadership content I have previously heard taught.

Best meme: Robert Petersen’s “Rare image of a shark stepping on a Lego.”

Best new worship song: “Lion and the Lamb,” by Leeland Mooring, Brenton Brown and Brian Johnson. Wonderful music, wonderful lyrics, and beautifully performed.

Best review article: Fred Sanders’s review of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance. People who think reviews should always be encouraging rather than primarily critical will struggle with it, but Fred shows his working, and yet demolishes the book for its handling of Trinitarian theology.

Post of the year: Alastair Roberts addresses the crisis of discourse in the contemporary West, and makes some fascinating connections to the way sex and gender are thought about. Although Francis Spufford’s piece on spiritual literature for atheists, which I only saw this January, is also worth an honourable mention.

Happy New Year.

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