Popular culture

why I’m yet to be convinced about 3D movies

I don’t know about you, but I’m yet to be convinced about 3D movies.

I mean I like all the pyrotechnics. I suck in my breath along with everyone else when they do something visually gob-smacking with the new technology.

I guess I even appreciate the realism of seeing characters that look like I could reach out and touch and interact with them.

I recognise the power of its immersive effect. I can see how it might help me suspend my disbelief when I’m watching a romance unfold between giant blue warriors (or whatever).

So … yeah, it’s a great storytelling advice. It can help absorb and entertain me for two or three hours (although Ethan and Joel Coen’s True Grit is a resolutely 2D experience that thoroughly absorbed and entertained me).

But I’m yet to be convinced that it can really help a film move me — whether to tears or laughter or seat-clenching anticipation or fist-pumping exultation.

In the end, I feel that the ‘reality’ promised by 3D technology is overrated. What I want from my movies is not reality but life.

I want movies to live. Rather than being things I simply watch, I want them to be things that get a grip on me: lifting me, shaking me, dropping me, cracking open the world in whole new (and even uncomfortable) ways.

What I want is something a little bit like what the literary critic Eric Auerbach famously says biblical narrative offers (Mimesis, page 15):

Far from seeking … merely to make us forget our reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.

That’s why I’m yet to be convinced about 3D movies.

news of spirituality’s demise has been greatly exaggerated

“More and more people are noticing how their digital lives are inhibiting their face-to-face relationships.”

— Luke Gilkerson, ‘Family Unplugged – How technology disconnects us from deep relationships’

It’s a familiar refrain.

Two of the most common complaints Christians voice about contemporary information and communication technologies are:

  1. They foster skin-deep connections — with thousands of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ — in place of the genuine relationships face-to-face communication supposedly delivers.
  2. They teache everyone ‘continuous partial attention’ rather than full and focussed attention.

Maybe it’s just me, but this feels a bit like Life Was Better And We Were All More Godly In The Fifties reactionism.

And yet I’m in no hurry to endorse the equal and opposite adulation with which some greet every new technological development. (I fear the authors of The Church of Facebook may succumb to this.)

Of course technology can be harnessed to sidetrack us spiritually. And of course it makes certain particularly noxious distractions more readily available.

But even frequent abuse doesn’t render proper use impossible.

In fact, the very technology that creates the distractions is also providing us with some means to combat them — as for example with the incorporation of a Readability-style feature in the latest version of Safari or the promising programme Freedom.

I’m not trying to suggest that new developments in technology haven’t resulted in changes or that they should be above suspicion.

It’s just that from what I can see, most of the claims made about their effects tend to be overstated — for better and for worse. (For a cautious example of ‘better’ check out this and for ‘worse’ check this out).

In reality, things are just way more complicated.

Some of the complexity we’re experiencing is captured well by this recent article on Wired. It suggests that the rise of Twitter and Facebook is not destroying so much as relocating long-range analytical thought.

Just as with analytical thought, I feel news of spirituality’s demise has been greatly exaggerated.

I’d love to explore this further. But I’m not sure if anyone has done any sustained studies (based on more than anecdote and instinct).

Any suggestions?

what Joel and Ethan Coen can teach us about reading the Old Testament

I’ve been wondering what the relentless realism of the Coen brothers’ films can teach us about reading the Old Testament.

Earlier this week Stanley Fish posted a provocative appreciation of the Coen brothers’ latest film, True Grit (a remake of a John Wayne movie). I say provocative because Fish concludes by contending:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

I’m keen to see the film. Not least because Fish’s review reminded me of this imagined conversation between Karl Barth and Joel and Ethan Coen about No Country For Old Men.

I can’t say that I’ve found many of the Coen brothers’ films enjoyable to watch. Especially not No Country.

But neither can I say that I enjoy reading a whole lot of the Old Testament. The historical narratives in particular often leave me feeling bewildered — and a little bit nauseated.

To me, biblical Israel’s history resembles nothing so much as a horrendous car wreck in slow motion. Perfect source material for Joel and Ethan Coen!

Of course, there are flashes of grace. There are hints anticipating God’s ultimate triumph. Indications that he does have purposes — good purposes — that he’s patiently working out in and through the messy, tragic humanness of it all.

But these flashes don’t point to some fulfilment of an intrinsic trajectory within human history. As if there were some promising germ of perfection within it — buried deep but straining continually towards realisation (lurking somewhere in the special identity of Israel perhaps).

Instead, they point to God’s apocalyptic, unlooked-for, in-person invasion of human history. Not to cancel it out. Or offer an escape from it. But to finally perfect his original intentions for it — in liberation, redemption and glorious transformation.

That is, they point us to Christmas. And beyond it to Christ’s return.

I don’t think this resolves all the problems we might have reading the Old Testament.

But I am convinced that learning to face reality squarely (from the likes of the Coen brothers, for example) may help us embrace God’s governance of history without smoothing over its tragic angularities — either in the Old Testament or in our own experience…

why Facebook isn’t radical enough

We watched The Social Network the other day. Anything involving Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher and Justin Timberlake was bound to be awesome. But I left the cinema feeling sad and bitter.

It had a little to do with feeling yucky about the people represented. But mostly I was just really really disappointed with the way the film represents the motivation for the genesis of Facebook: a desire to leverage the status of being at Harvard in order to pull chicks.

I have a very fond affection for computer geeks. I miss daily working with programmers and being able to hang out with the IT department. Like Alison, I got a kick out seeing the technology of my life on screen.

Furthermore, I love the radical hacker ethic that went hand in hand with the development of the internet; an ethic that seeks open access, freedom of information, decentralisation grounded in a radical democratic ideal and mistrust of authority, love of beauty, and judgement based on merit rather than status.

I’ve been thinking lately about how that same ethic could intersect with academic anthropological research.

Facebook is not part of this radical hacker ethic.

Over at St Eutychus, Nathan has posted a review of the film and makes this comment:

I hear a lot of Christians bagging out Facebook because it “doesn’t promote real relationships” or it has replaced time with real people or because it promotes superficial relationships over deep ones.

My problem with Facebook is exactly that it reproduces all the status of real relationships. It was created out of a desire to reproduce exclusivity and what Lupe Fiasco might call ‘the cool’. It has none of the imagination or ethical commitment of a hacker ethic.

And the problem is, we all think it’s cool too.

science, religion, atheism and violence

I’ve been given a copy of a new volume of essays, The Future of Atheism.

I’m planning to read it over summer — although, no doubt it will cover a lot of by now fairly familiar ground:

Has science ‘disproved’ God (whatever that means)? Do we need religion to ground morality or does it simply foster intolerance, bigotry and violence? Is there any future for the traditional theistic ‘proofs’ of God’s existence (or something that resembles them)? Might religion itself be explicable scientifically? Etc, etc…

I’ve culled a sample of recent ‘takes’ on some of these issue  from around the web dealing:

  • On The Stone Frans De Waal published this follow-up to his earlier article, in which he argued that (monotheistic) faith provides no basis for morality — although he allows that it may provide compelling after-the-fact rationalisation. Amusingly, he seems genuinely surprised to have stirred up a hornets’ nest.
  • Sarah Coakley serves up a fascinating pair of articles that propose a more constructive way of configuring the relationship between science and faith — HERE and HERE.
  • Michael has apparently put together some material on the ‘myth of religious violence’ — although he hasn’t posted it online yet (it will presumably have a lot to do with this review he posted earlier in the year)
  • For the visual learners among us, you can watch Miroslav Volf offer some preliminary comments about violence in the name of faith (h/t Steve).
  • And while we’re on the topic of violence, Stanley Hauerwas takes to task the Pacifism Is An Unrealistic Luxury Parasitic On Those Who Are Less Squeamish About Violence argument: Part One and Part Two. Provocatively, he concludes the second piece by insisting that the church is the alternative to war — would that it were so!

is this the end of theoblogging?

I’ve noticed something recently — perhaps you have too: the pace of theoblogging seems to have slowed … significantly.

Maybe it’s only the blogs I check regularly. Michael Jensen is still prolific — it’s just that The Blogging Parson isn’t really where the action is any more. Ben Myers only seems to post once or twice a week (although the quality and lyricism of his recent writing has occasionally moved me to tears). I’ve hardly heard a peep out of Halden for weeks. And don’t even get me started on the pastors who’ve hit the brakes on blogging!

So what’s the elephant in the (virtual) room of theoblogging? What — if anything — has changed?

Now I’m not sure there’s a generalisable explanation (or that I’m even on the money with what I’m observing). Although, I have been pondering whether, beyond the loyalty of readers who’ll follow a blogger wherever they go, there might be something intrinsically project-related about blogging. I’m certainly familiar with the nexus that forms between the interests I happen to have when I scan through whatever lands in my RSS reader in the morning and the bloggers who hold my attention.

I’ve also observed that the discussion-generating function that theoblogging can sometimes serve (and, to be honest, that’s more than half the thrill of it!) gets satisfied in different ways these days. Several people I know use Facebook to workshop in hours the sort of thing that may have taken days with a blog post (or maybe never even got going). Shifting over to Facebook has its costs — things tend to be briefer and less subtle. But there are obvious rewards too. For instance, by starting with just your ‘friends’, you decrease the chance of a troll hijacking the conversation.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that news of theoblogging’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. But I wonder if the current slowdown might afford an opportunity to refocus on the ‘end’ of theoblogging in another sense — namely, its aim or goal.

Let me throw it over to you: If Facebook takes over some of what theoblogging used to do, what’s it still good for? Why do you read (or write) posts that have to do with theology?

To get the ball rolling, let me share how there’s something about the public and ‘occasional’ nature of theoblogging that helps me get outside my own head.

A recent Copyblogger post suggests that looking outside your own head is a great way to generate content for your blog (and then, in characteristic style, bullet-points 50 ways to do it). But apart from this strategic imperative, I find profound ethical reasons for valuing what emerges from the attempt to maintain a theologically-informed conversation about life and ministry in public.

All of which is a long way of saying that with a new 0.4 job taking me to a full complement of working days each week, there may be some changes around here too!

time is a cultural construct

Well, time itself may not be. But the way it impacts on our actions, the way we think about it, interpret it, and respond emotionally to it are.

Check out this fabulous little gem delivered by Professor Philip Zimbardo at the RSA and animated by Cognitive Media:

I’m tempted to reflect on which one of these perspectives is the ‘most Christian’ — Zimbardo certainly suggests that a future-orientation goes with a religious disposition. But the thing is, I read Ecclesiastes and it sounds pretty ‘present hedonistic’ according to Zimbardo’s categorisation. I reckon the bigger challenge is figuring out how to be a Christian within the time perspective in which you’ve been enculturated.

do you know Australian secrets?

Greens Pool, Denmark, WA

I found it interesting that Chris’ post yesterday about an Australian heart language elicited a couple of comments that reflected pretty iconic Australian images (e.g. the coast, the outback, Les Murray).

I’ve recently come across a theory in anthropology that suggests that you really only understand a group (nation, sub-culture etc) if you share with them in ‘Cultural Intimacy‘ (proposed by Michael Herzfeld). So, for example, the theory proposes that in many nations there is a idealised representation of the nation which covers over a bunch of secrets that we protect from outsiders and which really constitute nationalism. Herzfeld did his research in Crete, and he discusses the way that in Crete, sheep-stealing is a symbol of Greek manhood that exists in tension with the representation of Greece as a modern (and also ancient) law-abiding democracy and that animal theft is therefore hidden from outsiders. And it elicits a weird combination of shame and pride.

These ‘secrets’ – the things that we know about ourselves as a people or group, but which we keep hidden behind the facade of our group imaginary – are what actually define us as insiders.  The group imaginary is how we represent ourselves to outsiders, but the secret tensions reveal our self-knowledge. The secrets are how you can say “Oh, she just doesn’t understand, she’s not one of us….”

The Australian national imaginary includes things like this… we’re an egalitarian country, full of larakins who don’t play by the rules, shaped by the harsh and dangerous environment of the Australian outback, full of adventurers who enjoy our outdoors lifestyle. But I think this belies a bunch of Aussie secrets about deeply entrenched inequality, a love for obeying the rules (we hate ‘queue-jumpers, for instance), and that most of us live pretty safe, suburban lives, are overweight and spend more time in front of a screen than in the sun.

Tim Winton and Les Murray to some extent buy into (and even help create) the Australian national imaginary — I wonder what parts of pop culture reveal Australia’s secret self-knowledge?

do you speak Australian?

A couple of weeks ago, Natalie and I had a terrific conversation with some friends that’s been percolating away in the back of my brain ever since.

One thing we talked about was the idea of the Australian heart language.

‘Heart language’ is a concept that Bible translators and missionaries would be familiar with. It’s traditionally carved out in opposition to the trade language. It’s like the Kriol into which the Bible was finally translated in 2007 so that indigenous Australians could encounter God’s Word in a more direct and meaningful way.

But I’ve been wondering whether the concept’s got wider application to helping us promote Jesus in contemporary Australia. Basically, I’m not sure we’re hitting the mark when it comes to presenting the good news in terms that connect deeply and directly with people.

Let me give a personal example. A few years ago I read North American novelist Don Delillo’s book Falling Man, which is set in New York City in the wake of 9/11. It contains explicit, extensive discussion of the problem belief in God in the face of such large-scale suffering. It’s language and register is very close to what you’d find in articles and online. But it left me feeling cold.

In contrast, a novel like Tim Winton’s Dirt Music resonated much more powerfully with me as it handled similar issues. It just seemed to speak much more directly to my heart.

Reflecting on this sort of experience has got me thinking about whether I speak a language other than that in which most Australians think and feel as I seek to communicate the good news of what God has done in Jesus. I’ve started asking myself: Are the words, images and stories that I typically reach for when speaking of Jesus recognisable? Or are they too ‘high culture’ — or, worse, too evangelical Christian sub-culture?

What I’d love from you are suggestions about novels, TV-shows, radio-programmes — anything really — that you reckon speak the Australian heart language? I urgently want to tap into them so that I can get better at promoting Jesus to the people I know!

how to use the Old Spice technique to promote Jesus

Well, I reckon it’s safe to say that the current Old Spice advertising campaign is a marketing hit — if not a phenomenon! Although I’m not sure how much Old Spice it’s selling (UPDATE: its apparently boosting sales 107%), it works a treat for raising brand awareness.

And it’s got me thinking about what technique Christians should use to promote Jesus.

Try to picture this situation:

A work colleague asks, ‘What do you make of the whole boat people situation?’ You desperately want to give an enticing and distinctively Christian response. You know, something gracious and seasoned with salt? Something that points to Jesus in a compelling and meaningful way without hijacking the conversation altogether. But what you manage to blurt out sounds a lot like the Old Spice add –‘Look at your question … now look at Jesus … now back to your question … now back to Jesus … Jesus is on a horse’.

Sound familiar?

Maybe I’m being unfair. I’m sure your responses usually makes more sense than that. But that’s how I sometimes feel when I’m trying to articulate why I believe in Jesus and how that makes a difference to my whole life.

Obviously there’s work to be done in joining the dots — figuring out how to get from Jesus to our urgent real world problems and questions (and back again). But I wonder if the Old Spice technique is really all that bad. I suppose it probably depends on how high we set our expectations. On what we hope to achieve in those few moments before the topic of conversation changes.

Would it be so terrible to embrace raising Jesus’ ‘brand awareness’? After all, we know that not everything necessarily hinges on that one moment of conversation. And yet in terms of the rich tapestry God is weaving even such a slender thread may prove incredibly significant. Especially if it declares: ‘This Christian person is actually convinced that Jesus makes a difference — a real difference’.