Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Big Sick film review: stand up comedy, stand out social commentary

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 September 2017. Its a review that met a deadline, but I sent it wishing I had a bit more time.

Big Sick
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Big Sick is stand out comedy. Well designed and cleverly paced, it offers not only warmly human humour, but a stand out depiction of the complexity of contemporary life.

The movie generates movement through the skilful use of four distinct backdrops. One is the twenty something flat. The modern flat is a backdrop against which Pakistani migrant Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and American student Emily (Zoe Kazan) tumble into love. The flat contrasts with another backdrop, that of Kumail’s family home, in which he weekly fends of his Pakistani parents’ commitment to arranging his marriage. The pace is fast-paced, an energetic plunge into the complexity of commitment across two different cultures.

A second backdrop is the hospital. In waiting room and ward, the pace of the Big Sick is slowed by Emily’s illness. While sickness renders her silent, she is given voice by the arrival of her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). Kumail’s understanding of Emily is redefined by the insights Beth and Terry share. Western marriages might not be arranged. Yet Western parents are like all parents. They hold unique insights into the individuality of their children.

The triangles between each couple and their parents generate the exploration of a complex range of contemporary issues, including marriage, migration and Western attitudes to Islam.

A third backdrop is provided through the use of stand up. Comedy clubs are where Big Sick begins and ends. They are also a venue to which the movie returns at regular intervals. The result is a rhythmic repetition as we hear the same jokes. Yet with every repeated one-liner, the faces in the audience are becoming people that we know. It is like hitting refresh on the web browser. Big Sick offers familiarity in this repetition, yet enrichment as the plot develops.

These four distinct backdrops are threaded together by technology. The use of Uber, the role of fingerprint recognition in opening Emily’s iPhone and the vitality of following on Facebook nourish the on and off-again relationship of Kumail and Emily.

Religion is present in the Islamic practises of Kumail and his family. Early on, Kumail fakes his faith. His parents think he has retreated to pray in the downstairs basement. In reality, he spends his time practising cricket and watching Youtube videos. The corrosive effects of Western individualism present a stiff challenge to the future of Kumail’s childhood faith. “Why did you bring me to America, if you wanted me to marry a Muslim?” he angrily challenges his parents.

Four backdrops and the woven threads of technology ensure Big Sick is both stand up comedy and stand out social commentary. Well-crafted, cleverly paced, it offers a warmly human introduction to the ethics of modern living.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 11:05 PM | Comments (0)

Monday, August 28, 2017

the dangers of heavy in weight research

I have been wondering recently if different types of research carry different weight. In July, I was presenting two papers at two different conferences. One was on indigenous responses to Empire. Titled Converting empire: theologies of church and state in the encounter between British and Maori, it involved some pretty sad reading about the impact of the Great War of 1864 on Maori. A second paper was on Christian theology and sexual violence. Titled Sexual violence in the line of David: The possibilities and limits of recapitulation, it involved some equally sad reading on the impact of sexual violence.

Both papers also invited those who might listen into some difficult spaces. The treatment of indigenous peoples and sexual violence engage us body, mind and soul. Who knows who is in the room, and how they might respond, to presentations that engage heart and head.

I finished both presentations exhausted. There is always a degree of anxiety and nervous tension that goes into a presentation. There is a vulnerability in presenting work to peers. There is the inevitable imposter syndrome – the voices saying I’ve not read enough, that need to be met with the realism of “I never will.”

But this time the exhaustion seemed worse.

This was brought into sharp relief, the next day, when I began looking at a piece of contextual theology, a 63 page comic book titled How to Disappear Completely (2017). I had taken it as holiday reading, intending to enjoy it for pleasure. But within a few hours, I was enormously energised. I had sketched out 750 words. I had done an initial literature review. I found, in a 2nd hand book shop in Bristol, a Faber Gallery book on Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection paintings, which opened up a rich vein of potential comparative enquiry. I had spied a potential arts and culture journal and sent off an enquiry email. I was energised. This was fun.

Placing the two experiences of research side by side within the space of a few days was insightful. Sure it is always more fun (for me anyhow) to start something than end something. But something more was going on. I would suggest that some research is light in weight. Not light weight, but light in weight. It takes me into parts of being human that are creative. These are places of joy and life. Other research is heavy in weight. It takes me into parts of being human that are sad. These are places of pain and heartache. Both are important. I need to invest in both, to be light in weight and heavy in weight. For a time, for the time leading up to the two July conference presentations, I had become out of balance, too heavy in weight!

Unknown-2 Last week, the Stanley Spencer Resurrection paintings book arrived. It sits on my desk. I have made an addition to my research pipeline. Under conceiving new ideas and draft proposals, I have added an investigation into Resurrection today, looking at contemporary depictions

Visualising the resurrection in contemporary urban contexts

How to Disappear Completely is the latest offering from UK artist, Leeds-based, Si Smith. It is a 63 page comic that offers a sophisticated visual engagement with the Lenten journey and the city of Leeds, UK.  A commercial cartoonist by day, by night Smith expresses his faith in ways both visual and playful. Previous work includes 40, a creative imagining of Jesus in the wilderness, Stations of the Resurrection as a set of illustrations reflecting on Jesus’ resurrection today and 25 Advent Flatpack a series of paper-based figures to be assembled in the Christmas build up.
 
This research would bring How to Disappear Completely into conversation first, with the existing body of work, to chart the development of Smith’s visual work.  A key theoretical lens would the work of Scott McCloud, who in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993, 7) defines a comic as “sequential visual art” that works through techniques of “amplification through simplification.” This allows a reading of repeated visual motifs like smoke and pigeons in How to Disappear Completely as visual amplications of human ephemerality in the urban landscape.
 
Second, I would examine the way that Smith’s work can be positioned in conversation with painter, Stanley Spencer. A Spencer quote on page 2 of How to Disappear Completely offers words to introduce reflection on the nature of contemporary vocation. Spencer painted works on Christ in the Wilderness (1939-54) and Resurrection (1945-1950).  He sought to visualise resurrection as ascent, needing to be depicted in the urban streets on which he worked and walked.  How to Disappear Completely is, I would argue, a response to Spencer.  Both work as examples of imaging the resurrection in contemporary urban context.  Placed on conversation, they allow to consider a constant artistic challenge, that of visualising resurrection. They thus present contemporary attempts to visualise the resurrection not as a historical moment but an unfolding contemporary urban transformation.

After the recent heavy in weight research, I need some light in weight research. Both are important.

Posted by steve at 11:48 AM

Thursday, August 10, 2017

How to Disappear Completely: a (visual) review

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 August 2017.

how-to-disappear-coverHow to Disappear Completely

Films are visual storytelling. The film reviewer examines the craft of images. In this review, I want to examine images from the genre that is comic rather than cinematic.

How to Disappear Completely is the latest offering from UK artist, Leeds-based, Si Smith. A commercial cartoonist by day, by night he expresses his faith in ways both visual and playful. 40 is a creative imagining of Jesus in the wilderness, Stations of the Resurrection a set of illustrations reflecting on Jesus’ resurrection today and 25 Advent Flatpack a series of paper-based figures to be assembled in the Christmas build up. Each is telling of story through pictures.

How to Disappear Completely (2017) is a 63 page comic that offers a strikingly sophisticated visual engagement with the Lenten journey and the city of Leeds. The main character quits work, deleting his facebook account to enter a contemporary wilderness, an abandoned municipal tower. Artistic skills are turned loose on interior walls. Visually, what is abandoned is transformed from the inside out. The results are breathtaking, as the palette, initially black and white, morphs into life-giving blues and rich reds.

The theological work is biblical and imaginative. The 40 days of Lent are linked to the seven days of creation. It is a rich reading of Scripture, weaving creation into the life of Christ. The Biblical instruction of Genesis 2:15 – to till and keep –find expression in the wasteland of urban life. God’s glory is revealed in the work of human hands (Psalm 8:6), Incarnate amid modern day Leeds.

Temptations remain, despite the wilderness. The distraction of social media and the random violence magnified by the alienations of urban life, clamour for attention. As the monastic life has testified through time, isolation only amplifies the soundtrack of our inner world.

Intriguingly, a feature of How to Disappear Completely is the soundtrack. The comic genre might be paper-based, yet a playlist on page 2, provokes the question. Is sound a tempting distraction? Or a source of revelation? The main character is rarely without music. This provides a narrative continuity, first in the lyrics and second, symbolically, in the loss of sound as the iPod dies.

Si Smith works in conversation with painter, Stanley Spencer. A Spencer quote on page 2 offers words to introduce reflection on the expression of vocation. Spencer painted works on Christ in the Wilderness (1939-54) and Resurrection (1945-1950). He sought to visualise resurrection as ascent, needing to be depicted in the urban streets on which he worked and walked. How to Disappear Completely is a fitting response, a work of love for Leeds.

In its urban particularity universal questions are raised. What would it look like for Jesus to enter your town? Where are the abandoned places in which your vocation might be called to create?

How to Disappear Completely is available from Leeds Church Institute (from accounts@leedschurchinstitute.org at 5 pounds plus postage). For those seeking a contemporary reflection on vocation today, it is a life-giving purchase.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Posted by steve at 05:20 PM

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Wonder Woman as female Christ figure: a theological film review

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.

Wonder Woman
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Wonder Woman is fun. My three female companions loved it. Each appreciated a strong woman, doing what is right without needing a male savior. For one, there was delight in connecting with 1970’s childhood TV memories of Lynda Carter fighting crime with one golden lasso and two bullet-deflecting arm guards.

Wonder Woman was a comic character, created in 1941, for DC Comics. The opening scene of the Wonder Woman movie pays homage, with a Marvel van delivering a package. Inside is a photograph. It is a smart scene, connecting Diana (Gal Gadot) with the comic genre, locating her in contemporary time, yet with a photographic history that includes World War 1.

Wonder Woman was created by American psychologist and writer, William Moulton Marston. He sought a superhero who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love. “Fine,” his wife said, “but make her a woman.” (Lamb, Marguerite, “Who was Wonder Woman? Bostonia). In seeking inspiration, Marston looked to early feminists, including birth control pioneer, Margaret Sanger.

Given these feminist ideals, it is interesting to then ponder Wonder Woman as a female Christ figure. Historically, Christian theology has offered a number of ways to understand the work of a male saviour. Three have dominated, including Jesus bringing victory over evil, offering a moral example and as a substitute for sin. (There are other Biblical trajectories, including Jesus as our representative, as faithful witness, as adopting us into God’s family, as embracing us like the Prodigal Son and with us in solidarity.)

In relation to Wonder Woman, the act of sacrificial love is performed by the male, as Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) offers his life for the sake of the world. Diane takes another approach. In a climatic final scene, she presents in a crucifix position, arms outstretched, radiating white love from her heart to conquer darkness. It is an act chosen after an extended wrestle with the implications of free will.

It is a complex moral question, carefully explored over an extended final action sequence. Will you give someone choice, when they have the ability to choose evil? For Diana, the answer is resolved in remaining love.

“And now I know… that only love can truly save the world.
So now I stay, I fight, and I give – for the world I know can be.
This is my mission now, for ever.”

Confronted with the human potential to bring darkness, she triumphs not with fists or firepower, but with love. In so doing, redemption chooses to participating with humanity, active in a mission in which love wins.

Wonder Woman is packed with action and fun-filled humour. It provides connections for fans new and old. For new fans, Diana’s Amazon origins are describing, while for old fans, she appears in the opening scene in the same clothes as she wore in the much loved 1970’s TV series. At the same time, Wonder Woman is a serious examination of a female Christ figure who responds to the complexity of free will with a remaining love.

Posted by steve at 07:21 PM

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

two Steve’s in two places

Today, due to the wonders of technology, there are two Steve’s in two places.

First, there is diligent Steve, who is at National Assessment Weekend. I am working with 15 folk from across the Presbyterian Church. Every year, this group gathers in Torbay, Auckland, to discern those called to nationally ordained ministry within the Presbyterian Church. Over the weekend, there will be prayer, listening, questioning, engaging, as we seek to understand God’s call.

Second, with the wonders of technology, there is playful Steve. This person is working in Adelaide, South Australia. They are making a presentation in the Noel Stockdale Room, Central Library, Flinders University, between 2-5 pm. This is part of “Undisciplined Austen” a 2017 interdisciplinary research project run by Flinders Institute for Research in the Humanities.

I will be making a presentation on the role of religion in contemporary popular culture portrayals of Jane Austen. (I described a few weeks ago how this has come about). This type of research is at the margins of my Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership role. So all work done has been after hours. Tele watching in the evenings! On Monday evening I watched Pride And Prejudice And Zombies. On Tuesday evening, I put together my presentation. This involved examining the movie, looking for Biblical references, the portrayal of religious practices and theological themes and language.

I confess to being quite surprised. I began quite playfully. Almost flippant actually. But as I examined the role of sacramental practice in Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, I found myself pondering anew what the Biblical account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke might actually be saying.

I videod this and sent it to the conference organisers. It will be played today. The interaction of participants and other presenters will be recorded and sent to me. This will then shape the writing of a paper, which along with the other presenters, will become a special journal issue, on the “Undisciplined” i.e. beyond English literature engagement with Jane Austen.

My presentation is titled “religious piety and pig brains: the faith of zombies.” This use of technology will enable me to be Adelaide today, in a somewhat playful space, at the same time as I am in a diligent space in Torbay, Auckland. For those interested, here is “playful Steve”, talking about the faith of zombies in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

steve taylor zombie theology from steve taylor on Vimeo.

I am glad to be both diligent and playful. I actually think this is part my continuing to discern my call, to seek to weave together my desire to keep encountering a God of surprise, in the midst of prayerful search for understanding. I am glad to be part of discerning call. I am also glad to think theologically about popular culture, to review films and consider how religious resources are being used.

Posted by steve at 10:58 AM

Monday, May 08, 2017

One thousand ropes: a theological review

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 May 2017.

One thousand ropes
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

In February, I urged Touchstone readers watching Moana to keep watching Pacific pictures. One Thousand Ropes by Samoan New Zealander film director, Tusi Tamasese, provides a perfect opportunity. In 2011, Tamasese gave us The Orator, set in Samoa, with a Samoan cast speaking Samoan. Tamasese returns with One Thousand Ropes, again a Samoan cast, again speaking Samoa, but this time set in New Zealand.

Often narrative drives plot. In One Thousand Ropes the linearity of plot is displaced by time. Maea (Uelese Petaia) is a male midwife. Skilled at birthing the future, he needs deliverance from an ever-present past.

Instead, momentum is generated through Leon Narbey’s cinematography. The focus on small detail – lemons, hands, bodies and buildings – allows the plot to move. The movement of time is marked, not by changing seasons but by an apartment block being painted. Or through lemons, which in the beginning are offered by way of thanks. Placed on Maea’s kitchen table, they become an object of contemplation, before becoming liniment, rubbed on the belly of a pregnant woman. These visual details provide strands for continuity.

The reality of domestic violence haunts One Thousand Ropes. It is examined not by moralistic messaging, but in the interplay of symbol and the absence of certain sounds. Symbolically, the camera focuses on hands. They tenderly massage a placenta from a womb and beat dough into bread. They can also bruise the pregnant body of Maea’s daughter (Frankie Adams).

Then there is sound. A cake mixer pounds dough while men chose the violence of actions over the empathy that comes from words. Is it that men don’t talk? Or is it that these particular men from this particular culture, don’t talk? One Thousand Ropes seems to suggest that the actions of human hands are related to the absence of human words.

Controversially, there is the presence of the spirit of a dead woman (Sima Urale). She lives in the corner of Maea’s living room. Cinematically, the character provides a past presence that haunts Maea’s present. But what does her presence communicate about Samoan culture? And what should a Christian viewer make of this ghostly presence? Watching One Thousand Ropes, I wondered what to make of the Christian Scriptures. Old and New Testaments offer stories from life beyond the grave, including the Easter story of walking dead.

The church is absent in One Thousand Ropes. There is plenty of tradition, in the form of traditional medicine and cultural practice. But there is no trace of religion, whether as healing presence, caring community or moral judge. In this sense, the films fail to capture a dimension of culture essential to Samoan life.

Yet redemption is present, located in the actions of Maea’s daughter, Ilisa. Her midwiving father will not help her. Yet in giving birth alone, she finds courage. By her actions, she steps beyond the hands that have beaten her. She weaves instead, for herself and her father, a new future.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 08:35 PM

Monday, April 03, 2017

Silence: a theological film review

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 April 2017.

Silence
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Silence is recommended viewing in the season of Lent. The movie is an extended passion play, in which multiple characters follow Jesus to the cross. Two Jesuit missionaries (Andrew Garfield as Father Rodrigues and Adam Driver as Garupe) believe they are called by God to Japan. It is the seventeeth century and as they travel, they hear rumours of a persecution so brutal that their confessor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has committed apostasy. Silence thus becomes an absorbing, albeit bleak, meditation on the complexity of discipleship unto death.

The strong of faith will find in Silence there is room for doubt. There are the intellectual accusations and theological questions posed by the Japanese interrogator (Issey Ogata as Inoue Masashige). Is missionary religious zeal a commitment made at the expense of those the missionary professes to serve? How can belief in God be sustained in view of persistent failure? The verbal questions are sharpened by the multiple deeds of denial, as Japanese converts deny their faith and Father Ferreira turns to Buddhism. Silence poses to the strong in faith an unrelenting sequence of faith-denying words and deeds.

For the weak of faith, there is comfort in the character of Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubosuka). Unlike Judas, Kichijiro choses not to follow his denial by death. Instead his continual seeking of forgiveness becomes a test of the Christian commitment to forgiveness seventy times seven. Kichijiro’s enduring presence and repeated failures offer a strange comfort to all who doubt.

Silence: A Novel as a book was written by Shusako Endo, one of Japan’s foremost novelists. The movie rights were acquired by film director, Martin Scorsese over twenty five years ago. Scorsese claims a life long fascination with faith. He considers his movie-making an act of prayer, writing “I wanted to be a priest. My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else” (Detweiler and Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings: finding God in pop culture, 155). Silence allows Scorsese to apply all the learnings from a career spanning more than fifty years to the topic of religion.

Silence is a rich reminder of a director at the top of their game. At crucial times, the absence of sound amplifies the internal conflicts central to Silence. In silence – offering mass and considering apostasy – Rodrigues makes significant choices. Each choice drives the emotional register of the movie.

A further demonstration of directorial skill is the final scene, in which a dead hand holds an empty crucifix. The symbolism illustrates the unrelenting ambiguity of Silence. Is this a scene of hope, that one can hold onto faith unto death? Or is this suggesting the end of Christianity, as the Christian cross is reduced to ash in the Japanese funeral pyre?

Such are the questions Silence asks of each and every viewer. Keeping alive the questions of the cross is a central task of Christianity. Such is the gift of Silence to all who walk the Lenten journey.

Posted by steve at 10:35 PM

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Seeing Silence as Cinema

I presented a paper at the Seeing Silence: Interdisciplinary perspectives symposium today. My paper was titled: Seeing Silence as Cinema. In August 2016, in Korea, I had presented a paper on Silence at the International Association for Mission Studies. At that time, Silence the film had not been released, so my paper in Korea was somewhat limited, drawing mainly on Silence the book.

With Silence released in New Zealand in February, my paper today was a deeper engagement with the movie as cinema. My argument was that movies are a visual discipline, so we need to “see” Silence. I used a number of scenes from the movie, including the capture scene, to argue that movies allow us to pray with our eyes wide open. This was based on the quote from Martin Scorcese – “I made it as a prayer, an act of worship. I wanted to be a priest. My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else” (A Matrix of Meanings: finding God in pop culture: 155).

Unknown-5

Another key resource was Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film and his types of “Jesus: the movie star” movies. So for example, the capture scene is a fusing of three types: Christ figure, historical Jesus and Jesus art. As a result, Scorsese is changing the fundamental stance of the viewer, from watcher to immersed participant in the reality of God in silence.

My paper was one of six papers at the symposium.

Friday, 17 March, 7.45 – 8.45 pm
Linda Zampol – The Early Modern Jesuit Enterprise in Japan
John England – A Deeper Faithfulness than Martyrdom

Saturday, 18 March, 9.30-10.30 am
Roy Starrs – The meeting of Buddhism and Christianity in Silence
Lynne Taylor – Our Being becomes us: practising Ignatian Spirituality and becoming Christian

Saturday, 18 March, 11.00-12.00 pm
Richard Goodwin – Silence and Presence: The sacramental style in film
Steve Taylor – Seeing Silence as Cinema

The six papers, accepted after peer review, fell elegantly in three pairs – historical, religious and cinematic – and ensured a very rich conversation. We also gained permission from Fuller Studio to show a interview with Silence director, Martin Scorsese, which added a further rich layer. The audience was a mix of lay and academic, which definitely enhanced the conversation.

The event was part of the Christianity and Cultures in Asia series, a joint venture sponsored by Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, the Otago University Department of Theology and Religion, and Presbyterian Research Centre. Each partner brings distinct resources and ensured a thoroughly worthwhile conversation about how to live faith faithfully.

Posted by steve at 04:57 PM

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Hidden Figures: a social justice film review

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 March 2017.

Hidden Figures
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Hidden Figures” offers important insights in how to fight for justice. The time is the 1960’s, the place is the South of the United States, the backdrop is the Cold War. “Hidden Figures” weaves together four stories, of three African-American women who help NASA in one race to space.

After a slow start, the movie hits the rocket burners, deserving Oscar nomination for Best Picture. With the race to space essential to US national identity, it is the mathematical brilliance of Katherine Johnson (played by Octavia Spencer) that will calculate the orbit of spacecraft Friendship 7. She will also re-confirm the mathematical figures for re-entry and touchdown that enable John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) to become the first American to orbit the earth. Such is the hidden skill that powered the American space race.

In the celebration of hidden talents, “Hidden Figures” also showcases the multiple ways by which oppressed minorities can stand for justice.

First, there is the public anger of Katherine Johnson. Publicly, powerfully, in front of her all white work colleagues, she names the reality of her lived workplace experience. She is direct, describing her mile long walk to a segregated bathroom. She is honest, exposing what is being hidden by the separate coffee machines. Katherine Johnson reminds us there are times for public anger.

Second, there are the skilful words of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). To train as an engineer, she needs changes in state law. She acts in ways polite and pragmatic, seeking a respectful leave of the court to remind the judge of his place in history. “Your honor, out of all the cases you gonna hear today, which one is gonna matter hundred years from now? Which one is gonna make you the first?” Mary Jackson reminds us there are times for skilful manouvering through individual and persuasive legal argument.

Third, there is the shrewd foresight of Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Aware of changing technology, she acquires from the library a book on how to programme the newly computer. Next she works with her colleagues, helping them upskill. Finally, she announces she will not offer her newly learnt and suddenly essential computer skills unless all her colleagues are employed with her. Dorothy Vaughan reminds us there are times for solidary, when sacrificial leaders act with shrewd foresight and then stand with and among those they lead.

Each of these women face injustice. Each find different ways to respond. Together they are a reminder of the diverse options available in the fight for justice.

Director Theodore Melfi skillfully weaves together these four stories of three women and one astronaut in the same workplace. Opening and closing scenes are essential. In the beginning, the three women are together, needing to overcome the obstacle of a broken-down car on the way to work at NASA.

In the end, the three women are apart. From different places they watch a single event, the return of John Glen to earth. The women have grown. Each one has have found unique ways to connect their inner courage with external action. Such is the power of “Hidden Figures.”

Posted by steve at 06:11 PM

Monday, March 13, 2017

Seeing Silence: Interdisciplinary perspectives programme

Seeing Silence: Interdisciplinary perspectives symposium has come together beautifully. Silence: A Novel is a historical novel. Written by Shusako Endo (1923-1999), one of Japan’s foremost novelists, the book offers an absorbing, albeit bleak, meditation on the inability of the seventeenth century Jesuit mission to establish religious change on Japanese soil. The book is currently being made into a movie, directed by Martin Scorsese. This symposium welcomes a wide range of disciplinary perspectives on the themes of Silence. The call for papers last December has resulted in a historical, religious and cinematic feast.

Friday, 17 March, 7.45 – 8.45 pm
Linda Zampol – The Early Modern Jesuit Enterprise in Japan
John England – A Deeper Faithfulness than Martyrdom

Saturday, 18 March, 9.30-10.30 am
Roy Starrs – The meeting of Buddhism and Christianity in Silence
Lynne Taylor – Our Being becomes us: practising Ignatian Spirituality and becoming Christian

Saturday, 18 March, 11.00-12.00 pm
Richard Goodwin – Silence and Presence: The sacramental style in film
Steve Taylor – Seeing Silence as Cinema

There will also be a panel discussion and a video interview with the director, Martin Scorsese.

The event is part of the Christianity and Cultures in Asia series, a joint venture sponsored by Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, the Otago University Department of Theology and Religion, and Presbyterian Research Centre. Registrations ($20) to murray dot rae @ otago dot ac dot nz.

Friday 7:30 pm, March 17, until 1 pm, Saturday, March 18, 2017.
Venue: Otago University

Posted by steve at 08:18 PM

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Moana film review

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 February 2017.

Moana
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Moana is family fun and as such, has much to commend it. Moana is the daughter of Chief Tui and yearns to sail the ocean deep. Forbidden by her father, she finds inspiration in the stories of her sailing ancestors, the encouragement of her grandmother Tale and the resources of the ever-playful ocean. Setting sail, Moana seeks the demi-god, Maui, who is a needed companion in the question to return the heart of Te Fiti to its rightful place, thus replenishing food and fish for her dying village.

Moana is animated and as such, offers a rich and playful colour palate mixed with voice overs and catchy singalong songs. New Zealand actors are well-presented, including Temuera Morrison (Tui), Jemaine Clement (a greedy coconut crab called Tamatoa) and Rachel House (Tale).

Moana has many moments worth applauding. It skilfully tells a Pacific story. It provides resourceful, determined female characters, notably Moana and her grandmother. It affirms that leaders can be female and, in the interaction between generations, points to ways by which cultures might innovate and change. The power of grandmothers to bring change in cultures is a similarity shared with Maori films, Whale Rider (2002) and Mahana (2016) (reviewed here).

Consistent with Pacific understandings, in Moana the ocean is a character, playfully guiding Moana’s quest. On this ocean, Pacific people are highly skilled wayfarers. Watching Moana encouraged me to reach for Karin Amimoto Ingersoll’s, Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. She argues that for Pacific people, the ocean is not only a place for swimming and fishing. More importantly, it is a way of knowing and being in which are resources that help Pacific peoples resist the rising tides of colonialism, militarism and tourism.

Alongside these redeeming features, Moana glosses over a complex set of Pacific realities. In the real world of Kiribati, the ocean so glamorised in Moana continues to rise. This nation of 37 islands, none more than three metres above sea level, with a capital city more densely populated than Tokyo, desperately needs not only a demi-god returning Te Fiti’s heart, but people and nations willing to embrace more sustainable ways of living.

Another reality check comes as Moana is placed alongside 2011 movie, The Orator. The differences are stark. With Moana, Walt Disney invested over $150 million, to tell in English a story from another culture. In The Orator, Blueskin Films spent $2.3 million, to tell in Samoan a story of its own. One brings into focus a chief’s daughter, the other a dirt-poor taro farmer named Saili. In Moana, the animated bodies are beautiful, while in The Orator, Saili is a dwarf, bullied by taller Samoan villagers. In The Orator, hierarchies are challenged, not with the help of demi-gods, but by actions of courage, resilience from those on the margins of village life.

See Moana. But may it not be the only Pacific movie you watch as this new year unfolds. And please God, may each of us, and every viewer of Moana, find ways to act for climate change on behalf of the people of Kiribati.

Posted by steve at 04:19 PM

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Arrival: an (Advent) film review

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 December 2016.

Arrival
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”
Dr Louise Banks

Western culture tends to think in straight lines. We imagine a linear future getting brighter. Arrival invites us to think in circles and examine the consequences.

We begin with Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), grieving the death of her teenage daughter, Hannah. We end before the beginning, in the tender love within which Hannah is formed. The plot’s circular nature makes sense given the internal linguistic developments.

Banks is a gifted linguist. She is asked by the US military to establish communication with twelve alien spaceships that have suddenly arrived and positioned themselves around the globe. Taking a risk and drawing from the mathematical insights of fellow scientist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks begins to realize the aliens communicate in a circular form. It is a way of thinking that can only be grasped when the end of the sentence is understood before the beginning. The discovery enables Banks to not only avert a global conflict, but also make sense of her personal life. Hence the circular and philosophical logic of her question: “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”

The result is a plot that sustains both emotion connection and intellectual curiosity. A strong emotional narrative is generated, first in the joy shared between Banks and her growing daughter, second in the grief as Hannah succumbs to cancer. The alien presence and the resulting linguistic puzzle, offers a pleasing set of interlocking intellectual plot-circles.

Arrival is directed by Canadian, Denis Villeneuve, three-times a winner of the Genie Award for Best Direction. The film is an adaptation of Tony Chang’s Story of Your Life. Chang, American born of Chinese descent, has written fifteen short stories, gaining a string of literary awards (including four each of the prestigious Nebula, Hugo and Locus Awards).

As we approach Christmas, it is interesting to lay Arrival alongside the Christian understandings of a baby in whom is God. In other words, the arrival of mystery comes not in alien technology spread around the globe but in the vulnerability of a baby born in a particular Jewish stable.

Unraveling this mysterious communication from another place is not the domain of gifted linguists. Rather, it is for those who let the children come. The Christian God of Christmas speaks not in complex linguistic forms, but in baby babble. It brings to mind the words of the twentieth century’s most famous theologian Karl Barth. When asked to sum his whole life’s theology in one sentence, his reply was more circular than linear. “Jesus loves me, this I know.” It is a response in which complexity and mystery are enfolded in love. Such is the understanding of revelation present in the Christmas “arrival.”

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 06:54 PM

Friday, October 07, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings: a personal and pastoral theological reflection on memory

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 100 plus films later, here is the review for October 2016.

kubo Kubo and the Two Strings

Recently I shared dinner with the man who gave me my first job out of school. Strong, disciplined and resourceful thirty years ago, today he has Alzheimers. Over macroni cheese and salad, the conversation kept repeating itself. Yes, I was Principal of Knox. Yes, I have two daughters. Such is the cruelty of an incurable disease that slowly strips memory.

Later, over dessert, this same man began to share memories of his school days, some sixty years ago. They included playing cricket with my father, who died recently, an Alzheimers sufferer also. Suddenly it was my memory that had holes. Such is the complexity of memories. They are always richer when held in community.

A few weeks ago a friend, Professor John Swinton, (and 2016 KCML Inaugural Lecturer) was awarded the 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize. The Award, for the best contemporary theological writing of the global Church, was for John’s book, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God. Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby, in announcing the award, commended John for tackling one of the most important issues of our time – whether we can value people in other than economic terms. Swinton argues that our responses to memory loss say essential things about how we understand humans. Which in turn, say important things about how we understand God.

Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the finest movies I have seen. An animated story, it is enchanting, a technological triumph driven by the finest of storytelling. Kubo (Art Parkinson), a young Japanese man, is a storyteller who makes the imaginary real as he strums his magical guitar. Attacked by his aunts, Kubo learns he will only enjoy safety if he discovers his father’s sword, breastplate and helmet. He is joined on this quest by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai with no memory.

In a final climatic ending, Kubo battles not only the aunts, but his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Offered immortality, Kubo refuses. To live in the heavens will mean being deprived of the pain and suffering that for Kubo make him human. In the ensuing struggle, the Moon King loses his immortality, followed by his memory.

Lost, unsure of his identity, he finds himself surrounded by the villagers he has previously terrorised. In the absence of memory, the village community offer him another version of himself.

“You are the old man who feeds the hungry.”

“You are the one who taught my children.”

Are the villagers lying? Or are they offering another way of understanding memory?

In Kubo and the Two Strings, memories are not individual but communal. The counselling term is reframing. It is an approach that invites us to view life through a different lens. The theological term is recapitulation. It belongs to a second century Bishop named Irenaeus, who argued that in Christ are remembered all the stages of being human.

One response to those with Alzheimers is to regret their loss of memory. Another is for their community to hold more tightly their memories for them. Such is what God whispers in the making of humanity in Genesis 1. You are loved not because you remember, but because you are remembered.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 07:05 AM