Wednesday, June 07, 2017

a fake films film review: Their Finest

ticket-1543115-640x480 Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for June 2017.

Their Finest
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Their Finest is well-made entertainment, directed by Danish director, Lone Scherfig. Scherfig has won previous acclaim, with An Education gaining three Oscar nominations and applause in Touchstone (November, 2009) as “a triumph for the directing skills of Dane Lone Scherfig.” Scherfig seems able to draw exceptional performances from women leads. In 2009, Carey Mulligan gained as Oscar for her performances as Jenny in An Education. In 2017, Gemma Arterton shines as Catrin Cole in Their Finest.

Their Finest draws on the third novel (“Their Finest: A Novel“) from the pen of Lissa Evans. Movies about movies are a well-worn cliché, with over 100 listed on one IMDB database. In war-torn England, a secretary finds herself a script writer. In the aftermath of Dunkirk and the blitz on London, England needs stories of hope. But in the world of cinema, truth soon finds herself playing second fiddle to politics. Is fake news in fact a historic reality? The lines between truth and propaganda become blurred as womens’ roles are cut and new characters inserted, in search of favour from audiences home and American.

The result is a set of ethical questions. Is British propaganda more virtuous than German propaganda because winners are grinners? Is making movies about the process of making movies clever? Or is the whole industry self-referencing narcissism? And is that the point being made by Their Finest?

While Their Finest is based on an exceptional performance by Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, both men in the developing love triangle (Sam Claflin as Tom Buckley and Jack Huston as Ellis), are less than loveable. A chain smoking mansplainer and a philandering artist suggest their is little nobility in wartorn English manhood.

What becomes clear as Their Finest rolls on is that for some, war will be more of a liberation than a deprivation. With a shortage of men, women (like Catrin Cole) who want to script write find themselves achieving in domains previously unattainable. Hence war becomes a theatre in which the emancipation of women is enhanced.

The movie mixes comedy and war time drama. Sometimes the mix is smooth, including the scene in which the German bombing of a London fashion reveals bodies not of humans but of dummies. At other times, the mix is barely believable. A central scene (spoiler alert), concludes with a war-time tragedy that abruptly ends a romantic relationship. As the body is rushed to hospital, the camera remains focused on Catrin Cole. It makes good cinematography, centralising every ounce of grief in one lonely figure. But leaving a victim alone in shock and grief seems a scarcely believable response, in war or peace.

Perhaps this is the dilemma at the heart of Their Finest. The war offers liberation, but only for individuals present in moments of opportunity. It seems a less than fine approach to feminism and opportunity. Does feminism need individual women grabbing opportunity, only to find themselves making fake news? Or does it need a societal restructure, in which solidarity together brings needed change? Their Finest offers entertainment and a pleasing range of puzzling ethical complexities.

Posted by steve at 01:55 PM

Sunday, June 04, 2017

The emerging church in transatlantic perspective

Just out in the latest edition of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2017: 1-11) is a really interesting article on the Emerging Church by Matthew Guest, of Durham University. Matthew did his PhD in the area and we shared a joint article in 2006. (“The Post-Evangelical Emerging Church: Innovations in New Zealand and the UK,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 6 (1), 2006, 49-64).

In The emerging church in transatlantic perspective, Guest offers a first attempt at sketching the “global dimensions” of the Emerging Church movement (1). He notes that such cross-national analysis remains “substantially under-researched.” (The exception is Marti and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (2014), which examines only the relationship between US and Ireland). As a result, appreciation of the sociological influences of global flows of economic and cultural capital are underdeveloped.

Guest notes the now extensive number of existing sociological studies that have adopted a case study approach to the ECM at a local, regional or national level. These now provides a “wealth of empirical data” from which to theorise the movement as a global phenomena (2).

“A global perspective calls for a theorisation of its contours that takes seriously the particular cultural and historical experiences that framed its emergence” (2).

The ECM is defined as prioritising a conversation over a body of doctrine, valuing an authenticity in dialogue with culture, offering a creative ritual expression that tends toward pick and mix and fostering inclusive spaces for those damaged by mainstream Christianity (2). Guest points to a “single master narrative” (1), that of postmodernity, used as a trope to emphasize the novelty of the movement (1). This trope is enhanced by the “expert theorisers” whose “intellectual capacities in critiquing church and culture contribute to the illusion that they … have effectively disentangled themselves from the institutional and cultural constraints that limit the efforts of the mainstream.” (2, citing The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity ( 2014:81)). The ECM becomes an extension of the entreprenurial tendencies of contemporary evangelicalism, made distinct by this positioning in relation to gospel and culture. Having established this commonality of “entrepreneurial evangelicalism” (3), Guest however argues for national differences, shaped by different denominational structures and local histories.

First, he notes how ECM in Australasia emerged from Baptistic-type churches. This was made possible by their focus on the local expression of church, which gave space for innovation to happen and made sense as an early rapid response to cultural change. Many of these early adopters were central city churches and/or nourished by artistic communities. He contrasts this with the UK, in which many early adopters groups were attached to Anglican churches.

Second, he reflects on the gradual mainstreaming of the ECM. This is sociological, as groups have aged, settled into careers and had families. This has opened up a generational gap. Recent research among university students in the UK suggests that ECM’s priority on authenticity is not shared by today’s Christian young adults (5). “Faced with the much more visible, vibrant, and populous evangelical churches that affirm a clear, accessible and explicit theological essentialism, few young people are attracted by the subdued, small-scale, meditative tone of ECM worship.” (5)

Third, he examines national differences, in particular in the US. He notes the strong reaction against the religious right and megachurches in the US. This produces a stronger sense of identity among ECM adherents. Hence “the ECM localizes most coherently and most enduringly within contexts in which a dogmatic evangelical Protestantism is also a culturally salient presence” (7). This is enhanced by the strong voluntarist culture of the US.

In conclusion, Guest notes the global flows of entrepreneurial capitalism and conversionist Protestantism. ECM benefits from these cultural resources, including individual self-expression and the forming voluntary associations, magnified by the high levels of IT competence, artistic creativity and theological literacy. At the same time, Guest argues that clusters of cultural affinity as essential vehicles for the transmission of identity (8). He suggests a cluster of affinity between US and Northern Ireland, based on being a counter-sectarian response to dogmatic evangelical Protestantism. This is not shared in UK and Australasia, which share a more heavily secularised contexts.

I have a number of points of nuance and critique, but that is for another post. What is interesting is that the emerging church continues to enjoy academic research.

Posted by steve at 10:56 PM

Thursday, June 01, 2017

my research pipeline

Last year, I found a helpful article – “My Writing Productivity Pipeline.” A researcher, juggling a variety of academic commitments, began to imagine their research and writing as a pipeline, with work at different places. Proposals were at one end, published work at the other. The aim is to maintain work in every section of the pipeline and to keep that work moving.

I have found it a very useful tool. I took the categories from the “My Writing Productivity Pipeline” article and turned them into a table (click for a better image).


Along the top are the various stages of the research and writing process. Down the side are the types of writing – separating book chapters, journal articles and books. This is about the time taken – it takes a lot longer to complete a book than an article, and also helps me look at workflow over a year and in relation to sabbatical projects.

The table sits on my laptop. It helps me keep track of various projects. It helps me to say yes and no; offering accountability in time management and focus in my research.

Posted by steve at 10:01 PM