Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Top Gun Maverick: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 165 plus films later, here is the review for July 2022.

Top Gun Maverick
Reviewed by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Time and tide wait for no man. Not even a fighter pilot catapulted off a naval aircraft carrier can outfly time’s inevitable creep. Top Gun Maverick offers a stunt-fueled ode to the inevitability of time and tide.

Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise as Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, was the highest-grossing film of 1986. Songs written for Top Gun, like Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” and Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” launched the movie’s soundtrack to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums.

Top Gun Maverick opens with the melodramatic sounds of the 1980s. “Danger Zone” blasts as the elite of the US Navy power off aircraft carriers and into action.

But we live in the 2020s, not the 1980s. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell – still a Lieutenant, still played by Tom Cruise,still a lone ranger – is facing extinction. Funding for Mitchell’s hypersonic “Darkstar” program is being redirected to drone programs. Drones, as Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris) informs “Maverick,” do not need sleep or toilet stops.

Recalled to North Island, the largest aerospace-industrial complex in the US Navy, Maverick’s age awaits him. The presence of a new generation of Top Guns, quick with nicknames like “Pops,” suggest a disturbing ageism.

Amid the action scenes, Top Gun Maverick draws on the past to provide emotional depth. One of the Top Guns that Mitchell must train is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Mitchell’s best friend, killed in action during Top Gun. Former girlfriend Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), now a single mother, is a North Island bar owner. Former rival, now mentor, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), has been rendered speechless with throat cancer. No matter how many stunts we pull, mortality confronts us all.

While Top Gun Maverick works harder at emotions and character development than Top Gun, both movies sound an anthem in support of the American military machine. America’s Department of Defense has an Entertainment Media Office, which assists filmmakers in crafting military stories. Alongside props like fighter jets and aircraft carriers come script suggestions.

Critics call this the Military-Entertainment Complex. Following the release of Top Gun, Navy recruiters set up stands outside cinemas. Applications reportedly jumped 500 per cent as Top Gun recruited a new generation of wannabe Top Guns.

In 1990, Tom Cruise announced that Top Gun glorified war. A sequel, said Cruise, would be irresponsible. Yet time, tide and the persuasive pitch of Director Joseph Kosinski mean the wait for a sequel is no more.

Reportedly, the lure for Cruise was Kosinski’s suggestion of a reconciliation movie. Push aside the glorification of war, wade through the machismo, ignore the ageism, and Top Gun Maverick offers a reminder of the human need to face together our times and tides. As Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky whispers to Mitchell, the pilots “need you.” In time, every maverick needs to fly in formation.

Posted by steve at 09:10 AM | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Prayer in local place

I preach monthly at our local Presbyterian church. They are a small group and as a visiting preacher, I’ve wrestled with how to engage them in meaningful and contextual ways. How to enable their unique local voice to be expressed in gathered worship? This year I have turned part of the thanksgiving and confession time into a time called “Prayer in place.”

I provide a photo of a well-known local place – the school, the local garden, the town hall and local park. I do a bit of research prior and craft a draft prayer.

But before I pray, I show the photo and ask if there are memories and stories and experiences of this place. This generates a buzz of conversation and a lovely sense of interaction, as folk share with me – the visitor – some of their local knowledge. Community is encouraged. The sharing also gives me some local and communal texture. I can pray, weaving some of the phrases and memories that are shared into the prayer.

“Prayer in place” takes about 15 minutes. It is a relatively simple exercise yet it is proving to be a great way of generating sharing and locating the worship in the unique texture of this community.

Here is the prayer from Sunday, for the Lady Thorn Dell Garden, in Port Chalmers.

As we pray, we recall the words of Scripture, from Colossians 1:
The invitation for us to see God’s original purpose in everything created
And so today, we look at the Lady Thorn Dell Garden
We see your original purpose in creating gardens of beauty, places of peace, moments to walk and wonder and draw aside to hear your voice in the garden more clearly.

Gardening God,
We say thanks for the beauty of flowers and the gift of rhododendrons
The hope as we see the buds begin to thicken
Promise of spring and colour

As we say thanks for the creation we see,
We also say thanks for creation that we cannot see,
Microbes and the worms and the agents of compost at work in the Lady Thorn Dell Garden
The leaves that play their role in CO2 absorption
Every individual leaf playing their small tiny part

We say thanks for special places
For how they help change our view of the world, how they offer a sense of peace and give special memories – of picnics and weddings and Carol services and Garden parties

We say thanks for people from the past who provided the Lady Thorn Dell Gardens, those who quarried the stone that made so many of the buildings we now admire, Lady Thorn, a former Mayoress of Port Chalmers, who dreamt of turning the quarry into a garden, the hard work by the local Lions Club, cutting the paths and planting the rhododendrons.

And so we pray that you will help us live out the original purpose that you created us for
Whether it is large, like building a garden
Whether it is small – like a smile or a caring comment or an unseen prayer for our grand children or picking up some leftover rubbish – help us share in your message of love and compassion and care for creation, Amen

Posted by steve at 09:33 AM | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 06, 2022

publishing contract for Making matters and practical theology in researching mission online

Signing a publishing contract is always a great way to start the day.

This piece of writing began as a conference paper delivered at the 2019 Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference. In the audience was Mary Moschella, who is Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling, at Yale Divinity School. At the time she was revising her book, Ethnography As A Pastoral Practice: An Introduction and emailed after the conference asking if I might consider writing up my research journey.

I had used Ethnography As A Pastoral Practice: An Introduction in some of my classes at Uniting College (a short blog review is here). The commitments to listening and living theologies made sense of how I approached leading change, especially during my time as Senior Pastor at Opawa Baptist. So I was delighted to rework the conference paper to make more visible my researching journey – my contribution titled “When Christmas Angels Tweet: Making matters and practical theology in researching mission online.” The revised edition of Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice is due out with Pilgrim Press in the US and SCM in the UK.

Posted by steve at 09:26 AM

Monday, June 27, 2022

writing – from beginning to end in 1 day

Today’s work covered the full span of the writing process, from beginning to ending.

At the beginning, I was providing peer review, asked to offer constructive feedback to an international press seeking blind peer review feedback on a proposed book.

In the middle, I did final edits and submitted major revisions of a journal article. Over the last few weeks, I have been working my way with colleague Dr Dustin Benac from Baylor University) through thousands of words of constructive blind peer review feedback. This is for an article presenting research into innovation and spiritual practices in NZ and United States during the pandemic.

Toward the end, I was responding to a sharp-eyed copy editor who has been polishing a chapter I wrote back in 2019 about how to research making as Christian witness. This is for a book by Mary Moschella from Yale University, a 2nd edition of her wonderful Ethnography as Pastoral Practice, that is about to be submitted for publication with 2 publishers in UK and USA.

Also toward the end, I chased up a page reference as part of checking final proofs for a journal article about to come out with International Bulletin of Mission Research.

Finally, receiving the 3 monthly statement for book sales on my The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change which is still selling the occasional copy 17 years after publication!

So there we are. From proposals to proofs to publishing! Five different parts of the writing process – all for international publications, all in the same day.

Posted by steve at 09:57 PM

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Duke film review: a secularised ubuntu theology

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 165 plus films later, here is the review for May 2022.

The Duke
Reviewed by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

The Duke is heartwarming drama. Set in Newcastle, Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) writes plays, hoping for BBC fame. At the same time, he also protests TV licenses. For Kempton, television reduces isolation and should be free for pensioners. Shaped by socialist beliefs, Kempton is imprisoned for refusing to pay his TV license. Freed, he is outraged to hear that the British government is spending taxpayer dollars not for pensioner TV license relief but on purchasing a painting for the National Gallery.

The film is based on a true story. In 1961, Newcastle man Kempton Bunton was tried at the Old Bailey for the theft of the “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.” It makes the central character a silent character. Hidden in the spare room wardrobe, the Duke of Wellington becomes a silent observer of Bunton family life.

Character contrasts drive the plot. Dorothy, married to Kempton, is superbly played by Helen Mirren. Her dogged determination is a splendid foil for Kempton’s mercurial wit and political passions. Trying to make their way in the world, brothers Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny (Jack Bandeira) embrace different approaches to law-breaking and law-abiding.

Amid the family tensions and building courtroom drama, The Duke offers a poignant meditation on grief. Marion Bunton is another central yet silent character. Killed in a bicycle accident aged eighteen, Dorothy mourns in silence while Jim needs to talk.

These different expressions of grief clash with Dorothy’s anger at “The girl on the bicycle,” the title of one of Kempton’s plays. For Kempton, these plays are a way of talking, and for Dorothy, this is “Making money from her memory.”

This festering sore in their relationship finds resolution as Kempton waits in prison. As the jury deliberates on guilty or not, Helen reaches her own verdict over Marion’s death. “You’re not to blame,” she declares. Her words of forgiveness offer healing from the past, even as the jury applies law and logic to Kempton’s present. Taking time to talk brings needed release.

On the witness stand, Kempton describes what shapes his plays and politics. As light illuminates his head, he professes faith; “A faith in people, not in God.” Washed out to sea as a teenager, Kempton waited. Floating, he trusted a neighbour might see his abandoned clothes and have the courage to come looking. This faith in neighbour saved his life. Since then, professed Kempton, “me-with-you” has shaped his life.

Hence The Duke offers a secularised ubuntu theology. Ubuntu is a distinctly African way of being. People and groups form their identities in relation to one another. Desmond Tutu, a South African bishop and theologian, located these relationships in God. For Tutu, “me-with-you” and “I am because you are” are possible because all persons are made in the image of God. The result was a practical theology of healing, seen most clearly in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu believed that a “me-with-you” talking in the community could meet the needs of the victims, offenders, and nation. Taking time to talk can bring release.

Posted by steve at 04:50 PM

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Ordinary knitters: theologies of making

From the ethics application:

I am researching whether Christians can witness through acts of making. Artist and theologian Makoto Fujimura argues that the theological journey includes seeing the importance of our creative intuition and trusting that the Spirit is already at work there. Such claims invite three research tasks. First, to capture the theological journeys present in creative intuition. Second, to discern the Spirit’s work in these journeys. Third, to develop a missiology of making.

To do this, I want to begin with knitters and how they might (or might not) see their making as a spiritual practise. Jeff Astley urges the study of ordinary theology, the need to value the everyday faith understandings of the whole people of God (Ordinary Theology, 2000). Applied to making, what theologies are being made by “ordinary knitters”? In the words of Fujimura, what role does creative intuition play in the theological journey? What are knitters thinking, praying even, as they cast on and off?

I want to interview knitters in several countries who have participated in knitting projects. Firstly, I also want to interview knitters of scarves for the Common Grace Knit For Climate Action in Australia. I hope to interview knitters either together or alone and explore why they participate and what meanings they make. Second, I want to interview knitters of Christmas Angels. These include groups in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Again, I hope to interview knitters either together or alone and explore why they participate and what meanings they make.

I will communicate to Christian organisations, for example Common Grace Knit For Climate Action and churches, that I am seeking participants. I will set up a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ordinaryknitters that has an advertisement along with details by which people can contact me. I will utilise a “snowballing” technique where participants could tell others about the project by referring them to the information about the project.

If you are aged over 18 years and have been involved in a knitting project (like Common Grace Knit For Climate Action or Christmas Angels or similar) and are willing to be interviewed about your experiences, we would love to hear from you.

Contact Steve Taylor (kiwidrsteve@gmail.com) or read more here or on the Ordinary Knitters facebook page.

Posted by steve at 03:28 PM

Monday, April 18, 2022

Bergman Island: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 165 plus films later, here is the review for April 2022.

Bergman Island is a delightfully plotted meditation on making. Director Mia Hansen-Løve offers creatively weaves reality and fantasy, probing the nature of imagination on the island of one of Europe’s finest filmmakers.

Creating as an act of fantasy and an embrace of vulnerability are central to island, plot and character. American filmmakers – Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps) – ferry to Fårö Island. Each brings their creativity to the craft of film. Tony will bathe in the adoration of fans following a screening of one of his films. Chris will work on The White Dress, which becomes over time a film set on the island of Fårö.

The island is the central character. It offers the actors of Bergman Island and The White Dress places to play, including forests to wander, beaches for night swimming and summer showers through which to cycle. In real life, the island is Fårö Island, where Ingmar Bergman lived and made movies for forty years. After Bergman’s death, family and friends turned his houses into places for writers to work. For readers with writing fantasies, real-life application forms are here.

Films make worlds, and Bergman Island celebrates this making in light-hearted and poignant ways. There is the magical realism of wooden ducks that make noises and beach houses that suddenly appear. Some characters move between films. Hampus (Hampus Nordenson) guides Chris around the island, appears as she imagines The White Dress and returns as film (Bergman Island) and film (The White Dress) search for emotional resolution.

The weight of creative expectation is palpable. Any retreat to write has expectations. The pressures are magnified when one writes in the house of a man who produced forty-nine feature-length films.

These expectations allow a thoughtful probing of the origins of creativity. Searching for a new nib for her fountain pen, Chris flips through Tony’s journal. His hand-drawn pictures, misogynist in nature, suggest that for some creativity comes wrapped in unhealthy shadows. Much modern art is fascinated with the darker dimensions of being human.

When Chris shares The White Dress with Tony, her act of imagination seems diminished by Tony’s disinterest. Much postmodern art is preoccupied with the role of reception as a source of creativity.

Early in the film, Chris questions if faith played a role in Bergman’s creativity. A simple response is to visit his grave at the Fårö church. A more challenging response is to probe the place of retreat in the Christian imagination. Time away, to pray, to meditate, is often lauded as a Christian virtue. But what might the valorising of isolation say about the ordinary and everyday? As Cambridge theologian Janet Soskice writes, “What we want is a monk who finds God while cooking a meal with one child clamouring for a drink, another who needs a bottom wiped, and a baby throwing up over [a] shoulder” (The Kindness of God).

A final scene of Bergman Island affirms the everyday as a source of creativity. As Chris leaves her writing desk to be reunited with her daughter, we witness the domestic energy which inspires her making.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is author of “First Expressions” (2019) and writes widely in theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 09:44 AM

Friday, April 15, 2022

Easter cross flowering as public witness

This Easter, I’ve been privileged to lead worship at Emmanuel, my local Presbyterian church. With Otago at a peak in terms of Omicron the decision was made not to gather for worship.

As a creative response, I moved the cross outdoors (left hand photo from Thursday). The “Home church Easter Friday” service I created included an outdoor benediction. Folk were invited to flower the cross outside the church at some point over the weekend.  As you can see from the Friday afternoon (right-hand side) photo, it’s allowed a delightful participation by the community.

The cross had some words attached, borrowed from a colleague, Rob Kilpatrick, who had done something similar during the covid lockdown in 2020.

There is a story
that the cross of Jesus
sprouted flowers and branches immediately after he died.
A reminder
that death is not the end.
Life springs from a seed ‘dying’
This cross is available
for anyone to flower
over Easter weekend.
To express our sadness for those who suffer pain and loss,
including in Ukraine and
invite us to hope
for new life.
Anyone is welcome to add a flower.

The outdoor flowering did a number of things.

  1. Public witness. Emmanuel has a large carpark on the main road through the village. A cross, with flowers being added, was a visible expression of Easter.
  2. It provided a chance for church folk to do something collectively, to express in a visible and communal way their devotion. For health reasons, folk could worship alone yet still have a way to worship together.
  3. The cross, wrapped in the colours of Ukraine, offered a way for folk to be in solidarity with Ukraine. (And practically, the blue and yellow ribbon also provided a way for flowers to be placed on the cross). I have deep concerns about Christian nationalism and the fusion of faith with national identity. Hence the words – “to express our sadness for those who suffer pain and loss, including in Ukraine” – which I hope focus on the horrors of war, rather than coopting God to the side of any one particular nation.
  4. As public worship, it was a chance for anyone from the community to also engage in devotion. Passers-by from the local community could add a flower and without having to attend worship.

There are risks. As I noted to the leadership of Emmanuel Church in testing the idea, it could get vandalised. A strong southerly wind could blow the flowers away. No one might put any flowers up. However the risks can be managed. The cross could be checked regularly including after strong winds. More flowers can be added if it’s a bit thin.

Importantly, the vulnerability is actually deeply congruent with the events of Easter Friday. A man is being exposed to violence and his disciples might not turn up to. So the risks resonate with the Easter story.

There is more to follow, with “Home church Easter Sunday” service going to invite another way to engage …. what this space …

Posted by steve at 06:09 PM

Thursday, April 14, 2022

The colours of easter

the colours of easter – a short 3-minute participatory all-age reflection I wrote for Easter Friday at my local Presbyterian Church – to listen click here.

Posted by steve at 10:09 PM

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Hybrid Christology as resistance and innovation

Published! ““Hapkas” Christology as resistance and innovation in The Mountain,” Melanesian Journal of Theology 36 (2020): 81-101.

There are lots of feels in this piece of work – a lot of fun to dive into anthropology, literature and art – a real interdisciplinary piece of research. And to write about the country of my birth – Papua New Guinea. Full edition of the journal is online here. That’s right, no paywall! Scroll down to page 81.

The article analyses The Mountain, a novel by Australian writer Drusilla Modjeska. It describes a contemporary Christology – in particular her use of Jesus as “good man true” and the shifts in understandings of hybrid identities in the term “hapkas” (which is Pidgin English for half-caste). I argue for a contemporary Christology of resistance and innovation, in which ancestor agency is affirmed and Melanesian masculinity tropes are challenged.

The article has taken quite a few years to get from acceptance to print. It offers a particularised, Melanesian, reading of some research I had published in Mission Studies in 2019. (“Cultural hybridity in conversion: an examination of “Hapkas” Christology as resistance and innovation in Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain,” Mission Studies 36 (3) 2019, 416-441).

After the article in Mission Studies was accepted in 2019, one of the peer reviewers reached out and on behalf of another journal they review for – Melanesian Journal of Theology – suggesting a reworked piece would be of benefit to their readers. The suggestion gave me the opportunity to tighten the argument, as well as include some unpublished research from a visit to Te Papa, plus undertake a literature review of Melanesian Christologies.

Given the Melanesian Journal of Theology retained the original date of publication, it also means I had seven academic journal articles published in 2020 – much of it fruit from my 15-week sabbatical from Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership in 2019.

Abstract – This essay assesses a hapkas christology in Papua New Guinea. A declaration of Jesus as “good man true” in Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain is located in relation to hapkas themes of indigenous agency, communal transformation, and hybridity, each in dialogue with New Testament themes of genealogy, redemption as gift, and Jesus as the new Adam. This hapkas Jesus who is “good man true” is then placed in critical dialogue: first, with Melanesian masculine identity tropes as described in anthropological literature and second, with Papua New Guinean christologies, including “wantok,” brother, and protector. The argument is that a hapkas christology acts in ways that both resist and innovate in the reception of the gospel across cultures. This demonstrates how a received message of Christian mission can be creatively transformed in the crossing of cultures and a hapkas christology provides resources in the tasks of contextualisation in a rapidly globalising world.

Keywords – Christology, gospel, ancestor, genealogy, Drusilla Modjeska, post-colonial, indigenous

Posted by steve at 09:38 AM

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Learn Local as a uniquely Southern resource

(written for Southern Presbyterians newsletter, April 2022).

Cheese rolls, Bluff oysters and tītī (muttonbird) are local delicacies. They remind us of the unique richness of this southern land. While often we look elsewhere for inspiration, there is plenty to savour in local churches across the Southern Presbytery.

The first Learn Local happened in October 2021. Amid the uncertainty of COVID, people from seven Southern Presbytery churches gathered in a community hall in South Dunedin on a wet Saturday morning. An outdoor community walk was paused. Instead, members of the Seedling Presbyterian ministry shared stories of what it meant to establish a missional community in South Dunedin.

Local immersion continued with lunch at Dunedin’s longest-standing traditional Chinese restaurant. In the afternoon, Student Soul led cafe worship in ways that demonstrated new approaches to technology. The spring weather had improved, so a walk around the University encouraged prayer for local mission among student communities.

Learn Local participants left stimulated by a day packed full of new ideas. There was excitement about different ways of being church, encouragement to work in individual giftings and affirmation of the value of small things with love.

So what? It is easy for resourcing to remain in the “good-day-out” basket.

During the following four weeks, Learn Local participants gathered online. They reflected on what they were learning as they walked their local communities. The questions asked by Learn Local Saturday generated further learning:

• getting started
• who else in our communities can help us provide service for God
• creating cultures of openness
• discerning paths forward
• staying anchored in Christ and motivated in mission
• discipleship and worship in forming faith
• ways to remain connected in mission

Learn Local offers a unique way of learning. Rather than learning from books, the community is the classroom, and the speakers are Southern Presbyterians involved in community mission. Generous funding from the Synod makes Learn Local possible.

A second Learn Local is planned for October 2022. Teams and individuals from Southern Presbytery looking for resourcing in local mission are strongly encouraged. To go on the mailing list for information regarding dates and details, contact Steve Taylor at kiwidrsteve@gmail.com.

Posted by steve at 01:43 PM

Thursday, March 31, 2022

“masterly” and “groundbreaking”: 7th academic review of “First Expressions” in Journal of Contemporary Ministry

There is another academic review of my First Expressions: innovation and the mission of God in the Journal of Contemporary Ministry 6(2022), 126-128 by Benjamin Jacuk. Benjamin Jacuk is an Alaskan Native reader, and a ThM, MDiv Graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary. The review has many affirmations.

– Taylor “masterfully develops a clear and contextual understanding of ecclesial innovation”
– “argues for the use of empirical data and theology working hand in hand to discern the working of God”
– “appreciated Taylor’s willingness to tackle the hard questions which are commonly asked concerning the demise of certain “first expressions” communities”
– “reveals the richness that can come out of these innovative movements within the larger Christian community”
– “groundbreaking in understanding new workings of the Spirit within the Church”
– “First Expressions successfully describes newer and contextual expressions of faith in Britain, providing distinct categories along the way without devolving into a “how to book.”
– “a rare account of church innovation that thoughtfully helps individuals creatively think and foster creative expressions of worship within their own contexts”

There is one critical reflection, on how I use the word indigenous. Thanks Benjamin for the careful read and for raising a point I will take into account in further writing.

This is the 8th substantive review of First Expressions: innovation and the mission of God. For each review, I am very grateful. The other reviews (that I’m aware of) are summarised by me –

  • here in International Bulletin of Mission Research
  • here in Theology;
  • here in Church Times;
  • here in Ecclesial Futures;
  • here in Practical Theology;
  • here in Ecclesiology;
  • here in Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal.
Posted by steve at 08:29 AM

Friday, March 25, 2022

Belfast: a theological mediation on film and music

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 165 plus films later, here is the review for March 2022.

Belfast
Reviewed by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

In 2001, our family enjoyed study leave in the United Kingdom. Top of the bucket list was Ireland. Arriving in Belfast by ferry, we went looking for a rental car.

The car we hired had a CD player, resulting in a search for Belfast music at a second-hand record shop stop. With Van Morrison turned up loud, we headed north, seeking links with ancestors and a Giant’s Causeway.

Belfast the movie is filled with Van Morrison songs, from well-known favourites like “Bright Side of the Road” to new songs specially written, like “Down To Joy.” For music journalist Stuart Bailie, Van Morrison’s Belfast is a “microcosmos of innocence and child-like visions” (Trouble Songs, 2018, 30).

Apt, given the way Belfast, the movie views the conflicts in Ireland through the eyes of 8-year old Buddy and his Protestant family. All the innocent Buddy wants is to talk with his dying grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) and walk to school with Catherine (Olive Tennant), a classroom crush. Instead, he must navigate life by avoiding armed soldiers and dodging religious tribalism.

“Belfast” is an ode to place. Central is a scene in which Buddy’s Ma (Caitríona Balfe) describes her street as a microcosmos. Every person is known, every child looked after by neighbours. It is these bonds of community that are being torn apart by
bigotry.

The perverse ways that nationalism and historical grievance can distort Christian faith is seen early in a fire and brimstone sermon. For weeks after, Buddy draws forked roads. But which, he asks his older brother (Lewis McAskie), is the narrow road?

Buddy draws with pencil and paper the existential challenge for his family. One response to violence is to fight and around Buddy and his family circle recruiters and troublemakers. Another is to flee. Buddy’s Da (Jamie Dornan) is offered work and accommodation in England. Such is the forked road for Buddy’s family and for all whose micro cosmoses are disturbed by bigotry and violence.

Fleeing Belfast is a recurring theme in the music of Van Morrison. His Astral Weeks album was released around the time Belfast the movie was set. “Madame George” is a song about leaving, while “Austral Weeks” paints visions of another world, another time, another land. Van Morrison uses Christian texts – a home on high, a stranger in this land, going to heaven – to justify a fleeing from reality.

Fleeing this world is a temptation ever-present in Christian theology. But what if the home on high that God is preparing is peace and goodwill in the here and now? What if, in the new song Van Morrison crafts for Belfast, faith is about coming down with joy? Such lyrics certainly harmonise with the glad tidings surrounding Christ at Christmas.

I returned to Belfast in 2018 to speak at an academic conference alongside music journalist Stuart Bailie. During my stay, I shared lunch with Presbyterian minister Rev Steve Stockman. Together with Fr Martin Magill, a Catholic parish priest, Stockman began 4 Corners Festival. Across religious tribes, they chose to neither fight nor flee. Instead, they offered innovative events that celebrate with joy the unique places that are Belfast.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is author of “First Expressions” (2019) and writes widely in theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 05:40 PM

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Don’t Look Up: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 165 plus films later, here is the review for February 2022.

Don’t Look Up
Reviewed by Steve Taylor

As the world is ending, a meal is enjoyed. With the table set, words of gratefulness are spoken, then those gathered are blessed by a simple prayer. It’s a compelling scene, a moment of slow and meditative grace, amid the biting political satire that is Don’t Look Up.

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) a Ph.D. candidate in Michigan State’s astronomy department, discovers a comet. During the celebrations, her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), calculates that life on earth will end for all when the comet strikes in six months and fourteen days.

Some truth is hard to share, let alone like. In a world willing to amuse itself in death, news of a comet is spun, memed, then polarised for political purposes. Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), the CEO of fictional tech giant Bash Digital, markets innovative technologies at the expense of scientific collaboration. “Don’t Look Up” rallies are political tools to revive the scandal-ridden career of President Orlean (Meryl Streep). Much of Don’t Look Up runs as a smart, funny, yet depressing mirror on our world today.

Although never mentioned, the polarisations around climate change motivate the movie. Adam McKay wanted to direct a film about the impending climate apocalypse. Hence the challenging line by Randall “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” When set alongside the moving shots of whales, bees, and birds, it’s a poignant reminder of the beauty of creation humans are called to till and tend (Genesis 2:15).

Amid the ironic commentary on contemporary life, Don’t Look Up does significant theological work. The ending contemplates two futures. One is the hope of another planet, a second garden of Eden, in which new life can begin again. Peter Isherwell and President Orlean flee the comet on a spaceship, frozen in cryo chambers. The musical score is an original composition by composers Nicholas Britell and Bon Iver. Titled “Second Nature,” a new earth is sought, not as a refuge for all. Rather as an outworking of a Darwinian survival of the wealthiest.

A second future involves prayerful thanksgiving. Kate and Randall gather with those they love. There are echoes of thanksgiving in the meal and thankfulness, the North American tradition of gratitude for new and shared beginnings. In Don’t Look Up, thanksgiving becomes an ending. Waiting for their world to die, Kate’s boyfriend, Yule (Timothée Chalamet), asks to pray. Raised evangelical, finding an adult relationship with God, he speaks
“Dearest Father and almighty Creator,
We ask for your grace, despite our pride
Your forgiveness, despite our doubt
Most of all, Lord, we ask for your love to soothe us through these dark times
May we face whatever is to come in your divine will, with courage, in open hearts of acceptance. Amen.”

Don’t Look Up is a contemplation of endings. Do we try in the hope of a better world for an elite few somewhere else? Or do we gather, after we have tilled and tended the gift of this world, in quiet trust in God?

(Don’t Look Up is available on Netflix, rated M for mature audiences).

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is author of “First Expressions” (2019) and writes widely in theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 01:01 PM