Friday, November 13, 2015

Steve Taylor, “Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods: Plot by Plot, Plant by Plant”

My practical theology of community gardens is now online, published by Urban Seed. It is one of 16 contributions, which are summarised here. They were all presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, which was a grass roots missiology conference organised by Urban Seed on October 17-18, 2014. Conference contributors were invited to submit their presentations, which were then peer reviewed and copy edited, before being made available online – in order to enhance access.

-1 Here’s the summary of my contribution:


Gardens offer rich insight regarding how we might inhabit our neighbourhood. This paper considers gardens in Scripture, start, middle and end. It researches the development patterns of two inner-city Australian community gardens. The story of each is brought into dialogue with Scripture, including Luke 10:1–12 and 1 Cor 3:6–9. The insights from this dialogue between Scripture and two urban garden case studies is then enriched by consideration of two movies. Gardening with Soul is a documentary about an urban missionary who turned the lawn of her religious community into a community garden. Grow your Own is the story of a stranger’s gift that grows healing among a well-established British allotment garden. Both point to the power and potential of a seasonal spirituality. Throughout this paper, beginning and end, is also woven experience—mine—into the place and potential of gardens in mission and ministry. The argument from Scripture, case study, film and experience is that gardens invite us and our neighbours to become good, plot by plot and plant by plant.

In this small thing is all of creation! God made it, God cares for it, God loves it. (A Paraphrase of Julian of Norwich)

In some ways, “Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods: Plot by Plot, Plant by Plant” is is something I’ve been writing all my life. It became words because I wanted to reflect missiologically on community ministry, specifically community gardens. There is my personal interest in gardening, woven with research into inner-city community gardens, Scriptural reflection and my film reviewing. It is online here.

Posted by steve at 07:01 AM | Comments (2)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

“regard as valuable”: Missiological approaches to the “Silence” of religious change

Abstract (1) for 14th Assembly of International Association of Mission Studies, August 11–17, 2016, Seoul, South Korea

Conference theme: Conversions and Transformations: Missiological Approaches to Religious Change

Title: “regard as valuable”: Missiological approaches to the “Silence” of religious change

Accounts of conversion and transformation within the Christian tradition are often linked to narratives of success and expansion. Yet a truthful missiology needs to engage the entirety of the Christian story. Silence is a historical novel that 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 and due for release in 2016, it will undoubtedly rekindle debate regarding conversion and transformation, including how to understand the mission in the gaps and silences of history.

This paper will examine three missiological approaches.

First, the work of Donald McGavran who has argued that lack of success in conversion and transformation is due to the strategies being deployed, particularly a lack of resources focused on evangelism.

Second, the work of David Bosch who has argued that suffering is at the core of Christian mission and that silence can be an evangelistic action.

Third, the work of Philip Jenkins who has argued that the Christian understanding of Easter, in both death and resurrection, is a more Christian paradigm for understanding religious change than that of progress.

Each of these missiological approaches to religious change will be applied to Silence, both the novel and movie (if released in time). The argument is that missiological approaches that speak of silence are consistent with the Apostle Paul, who asks the church in Philippi to “regard as valuable” the story of Epaphroditus.

Posted by steve at 10:15 AM

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The gift: film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for October 2015.

The Gift
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

It is a very ordinary domestic beginning. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to California. Buying houses, finding furniture, they unexpectedly met Gordo, a former high school classmate (Joel Edgerton).

Into what is domestic slowly creeps a sinister edge. These are built by clever use of symbol, pop culture and Scripture. Memorable quotes and images are used repeatedly. With each return, darker meaning is generated.

Take the windows, which in the opening scene offer Simon and Robyn as new home buyers spectacular views out into the valley below. Yet as the plot progresses, the glass that looks out because both mirror of, and window into, the increasing isolation between Robyn and Simon. Finally the windows are shattered by an act of rage that heralds the end of their shared domestic bliss.

The pop culture references work in a similar way. A reference to the movie, Apocalypse Now, as the newly purchased sound system is fixed, when reintroduced announces to Simon the beginning of his judgment. A showering scene that follows Robyn’s morning run references Alfred Hitchcock. With every repeat, her vulnerability is magnified, caught in the brooding tension between Simon and Robyn. This use of symbol and cultural reference is subtle, artful and essential in the plot development.

A similar pattern is evident in the use of Scripture. It begins with the first dinner, shared between Simon, Robyn and Gordo, at which Gordo quotes the well known verse, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It continues when Gordo meets Robyn’s dog, and references “Ask and you shall receive.” Each verse, removed from Biblical context, offers multiple meanings. Is Gordo a Christian? Or in fact is God being conscripted as a character, the unseen judge, coopted to work on behalf of those seeking justice?

It is clever, enriched by the character development that also cleverly unfolds. Simon, Robyn and Gordo each have mystery in their history. The plot hides as often as it reveals, artfully using suggestion and innuendo to turn domesticity into a eulogy on revenge.

In three characters we find three responses to experiences of pain and betrayal. In Gordo we find revenge is indeed a dish best served cold. In Robyn we find withdrawal in an attempt to rebuild. In Danny (P. J. Byrne) we find anger expressed as rage. His act, shattering the windows of Simon and Robyn’s house, unleashes the final drama that so powerfully destroys the domestic bliss with which the movie begins.

Given the movie’s use of Scripture, it is fitting to place each of these responses alongside the story of Jesus. The act of Easter is a choosing not of revenge, withdrawal or anger. Instead, it provides another way to interpret Scripture. It is a refusal of Gordo’s co-option of images of God as Judge. Rather, Easter offers a considered decision to intentionally absorb pain and betrayal. Claims of “eye for an eye” are undone by a set of actions in which revenge is trumped by love and withdrawal is overcome in the prayer of “not my will but yours.” In choosing to absorb, love wins. Such is the gift of Christianity.

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

Posted by steve at 10:01 AM

Monday, September 14, 2015

Last Cab to Darwin: a theological meditation on outback place

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for September 2015, of Australian film, Last Cab to Darwin.

Last Cab to Darwin
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Last Cab to Darwin is a visual introduction to contemporary Australian stereotypes. Indigenous men drink and fight. White fella Australians drink and fumble emotionally. English women tourists are blondes willing to sleep around.

Death strides into the midst of these caricatures. Rex (Michael Caton), a taxi driver from Broken Hill, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. With three months to live and afraid of hospitals, he hears of Dr Farmer (Jacki Weaver), advocating in the Northern Territory of Australia for the right to euthanise.

Last Cab to Darwin is based on a true story, including the gaps in Australian law between Territory, State and Federal parliaments. It offers the potential to dwell in complexity. The reality is that the road trip genre becomes an excuse to speed past rich cultural complexity.

Driving his cab to find Dr Farmer, Rex encounters Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), who proceeds to fight and drink his way with Rex toward Darwin. Their narrative journey is broken by a set of clichés, including watches that stop, feral cats hung from outback trees and Tilly’s salvation through sport, if he can beat the bottle. Speeding toward yet another stereotypical scene (Darwin sunsets), Tilly has a one night stand with English barmaid, Julie (Emma Hamilton), who wraps herself into their journey. These images, of indigenous men, white fella Australians and blonde English women tourists simplify the complexity that could ennoble Australia today.

I refer to the lens through which the outback is viewed. The desert landscape depicted in Last Cab to Darwin is simply a dusty red backdrop through which visitors pass, collecting experiences on a road to somewhere. There is no sense of another story, of “anhangha idla ngukanandhakai,” the indigenous (Adnyamathanha) understanding of living in memory.

This understanding of outback is beautifully depicted in the recently published Yarta Wandatha. It is a rarity, a theology book with colour photographs of outback landscape. Unlike Last Cab to Darwin, these scenes are never backdrop on a trip to somewhere. Rather, each is story, around which memory is wrapped. Interpreted in Yarta Wandatha by indigenous woman Denise Champion in creative dialogue with the Christian story, we find the unfolding of a very different outback story.

Last Cab to Darwin introduces two indigenous women. Polly (Ningali Lawford) is Rex’s neighbor, having an affair they are both scared to make public. Sally (Leah Purcell) is Tilly’s wife. The movie provides stereotypical similarities of these indigenous woman. Both are abandoned by their menfolk. Both approach conflict by shouting angrily at those they love.

Such is the simplicity of stereotype. In contrast, when Denise Champion tells the story of Awi-irtanha, the Rain Bird, we encounter a more complex story, in which indigenous resources, considered in light of Jesus, avoid the ugly consequences of unresolved conflict.

Watching Last Cab to Darwin I kept waiting for the road trip to engage these stories on the road between Broken Hill and Darwin. The only hint is when Tilly locates Sally’s mob as fighters against colonial invasion. Once again, 40,000 years of rich and storied memory is lost, replaced by the stereotypes of recent arrival.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is becoming of Knox College for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan, 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 01:29 AM

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Inside out film review: orthopathy – a theology of emotions

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for August 2015, of Inside Out.

Inside Out
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Inside Out” is a 21st century Psalm. It animates the reality that each of us are fearfully and wonderfully made (as it affirms in Psalm 139:14). Both words help us describe the impact of “Inside out.”

The plot runs on two tracks. In the outside world, eleven-year old Riley is uprooted by her parents. The transition from rural Minnesota to urban San Francisco involves new school, house and hockey team.

The circumstances unleash inside Riley an inevitable surge of feelings. Five core emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust – are given character. They become the heroes of “Inside Out”, essential in Riley’s growth and development.

This is the genius of “Inside Out.” We meet memories, both short and long term. We encounter imaginary friends, dreams and nightmares, the latter lurking within the dark depths that are Riley’s subconscious. There’s even a train of thought. Each of these are wonderfully animated, a reminder of the complexity inside every human being.

“Inside Out” is made by Pixar. Begun in 1979 as a high-end computer hardware company, it found, in 1995, with “Toy Story, a way to merge computer with art. In the 20 years since, it has produced 15 feature films. Almost all have not only been blockbusters, but have also gained a string of industry awards, including 15 Academy Awards, 7 Golden Globes and 11 Grammy’s.

To make “Inside Out,” Director Pete Docter recruited not only animators and storyteller, but also psychologists, including Dacher Keltner, from the University of California. It ensures that the unfolding narrative provides a view of being human that fills us with both wonder and fear. Wonder, at the emotional complexity that is inside each of us, children and adult. Fear, at how this complexity might be parented, especially in the face of life’s inevitable transitions.

So is “Inside Out” a children’s movie for parents? Not according to film scholar, Nicholas Sammond, who argued that Walt Disney always argued that he was making films for families, not for children. This insight makes sense of the emotional twist that ends “Inside Out.”

Joy comes to realise that for Riley, there are times when sadness is needed in order that joy might be felt. In a world of Hollywood happy endings, this is a surprising reality check. Every parent wants their children’s childhood to be a playground of joyful memories. Yet in “Inside Out,” Joy as a character must also develop emotionally. She must step back and allow sadness room inside Riley. The result is empathy and the creation of a whole new set of memories for Riley and her family.

This is orthopathy (defined as right feelings). It is as important as orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxis (right actions). This climax ensures that Inside out is thus not only a 21st century psalm of childlike wonder at human complexity. It is also a petition, for parents and teachers and all those charged with the fearful responsibility of nurturing eleven-year olds in their inside out journey toward orthopathy.

Posted by steve at 10:41 AM

Monday, July 13, 2015

Tomorrowland: a theological film review

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for July 2015, of Tomorrowland.


Jesus told stories. The technical word is parable. The Kingdom of heaven was like a mustard seed. What starts small will become a shelter for all. The Kingdom of heaven is like a net. It catches everything for final judgement.

The parables act as extended metaphors. They invite a new imagination and suggest a new attitude. Invest in small seeds, for from little things God’s big things grow. Act now your preferred future, because all actions will be caught up into God’s all embracing net.

Like all metaphors, when pushed too hard, they begin to break down under a literal gaze. What if the mustard seed died during drought or was dug up by the neighbours dog? If the net is cut by a glass bottle, won’t the fish escape? The reality is that metaphors are not maths equations. They are not meant for literalists. Rather, they function to change the hearer and how the hearer acts.

Tomorrowland performs a similar function. It is a metaphor, albiet extended for 130 minutes. To use the words of Jesus, the Kingdom of heaven is like a lapel pin. Touch it and you enter another world. The hearer needs to change. Act now, with hope, for climate change is not inevitable. Trust science and the optimism of the young, for they can save.

Tomorrowland moves between times. It is framed, start and finish, by the cynicism of Frank Walker (played by George Clooney) and the optimism of Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), viewing a set of screens documenting global disaster. It is a visual and storified explanation of hermeneutics, two different standpoints viewing the same world.

The movie then interweaves two storylines. In New York in 1964, a young Frank Walker displays his scientific invention. In Florida, a teenage Casey Newton works to halt the decommissioning of a NASA scientific space exploration site.

Touching a lapel pen, she finds herself in a different world, that of “tomorrowland”. To save her world, she must convince a now old Frank Walker to act again in hope. Acting accolades go not to star George Clooney, but to Raffey Cassidy as Athena. Her wide-eyed stare makes her the perfect child robot. Aged 11, she carries much of the comedy that drives the middle section of the movie.

As with all metaphors, the plot suffers when a literal gaze is applied. Why are the robots chasing Casey not present in “tomorrowland”? How is the final scene possible, given all the characters appear in the same field that Casey had earlier experienced as limited by the confines of her Florida house?

Perhaps the animation genre of Ratatouille, The Simpsons and The Incredibles is still shaping the directorial work of Brad Bird. More likely, such questions miss the metaphor. Tomorrowland is an extended motivational speech encouraging action to halt climate change. It hits all the right notes. The future will be safe if optimistic, can-do, young females are willing to place their faith in science to save.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Posted by steve at 09:51 PM

Monday, June 08, 2015

Sunday film review: a ‘downunder’ Before Sunrise

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for June 2015, of Sunday.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Sunday is a ditch-crossing story. Australian (Dustin Clare as Charlie) meets Kiwi (Camille Keenan as Eve). They fall in love, enfolded by Australian sun and surf. In time, Eve finds herself pregnant. Unwilling to raise a child in a relationship in which Charlie is absent for long periods with work, she returns to Christchurch.

Charlie crosses the ditch to see her. Together over 24 hours, they explore their past, examine their present insecurities and ponder their future. Their conversation, a mix of romance, comedy and pathos, is set against the backdrop of Christchurch post-quake. The dancing diggers, twisted metal fences and wrecked cathedrals are an arresting visual and a probing metaphor. Is it worth either of them investing in a rebuild of their relationship? Or will their past remain a scene of untended destruction?

Sunday echoes the plot line of the Richard Linklater directed generational trilogy, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. (For my review of Boyhood, see here). All of these films involve a couple exploring their relationship; past, present and future. In each, tension is built by the immanence of a departure. In every one, the geographic backdrop is an important character. At the risk of being accused of being parochial, Christchurch post-earthquake is far more impressive than Vienna, Paris or the Greek Islands (of the Linklater directed trilogy). The dawn scenes as Eve takes Charlie to the airport, past cathedrals, walled containers and the quirk that is Gapfiller, is disturbingly beautiful.

In another similarity, as with Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, the writing of Sunday is a collaborative activity. In the Linklater trilogy, director and actors, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, worked together on scenes and script. Similarly, the actors and director (Michelle Joy Lloyd) of Sunday spend time workshopping the characters and themes. Each actor then wrote different scenes, which Eve (Camille Keenan) edited, to ensure coherent voice.

Sunday does little explicit theological work. The title is not a reference to a religious day of rest. Rather it is one potential baby name. Outside the broken (Catholic) cathedral, we hear that the baby, when born, will be christened. But the conversation then drifts to the absurdness of a christening gown being wedding white. The faith present in Sunday is a faith of ritual and impractical irrelevance, dissected in front of a broken and empty building. It seems to have little to offer a couple, or a city, contemplating a rebuild.

Sunday is a work of artistic love. Directed by Michelle Joy Lloyd, it was self and crowd-funded. In the search for an audience it became the first movie in history to be released simultaneously on five platforms; cinema, online, TV, airline, DVD. It remains available to download, hire or buy as DVD, on either side of the ditch, from here. It might be low-budget, but it remains an appealing treat, perfect for a high-quality Sunday evening in with friends.

Posted by steve at 08:55 PM

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Big Eyes: a theological reflection (on the power of fundamentalisms!)

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for May 2015, of Big Eyes.

Big Eyes

Big Eyes is a feel-good biographical drama, based on a true story, drawn from the life of contemporary American artist Margaret Keane. The title is a reference to Margaret’s approach to art, in which her subjects, mainly women and children, are painted with oversized eyes. While, it was a distinctive style that brought mainstream applause in San Francisco throughout the 1960s, behind the big eyes was a darker story that needs to be heard.

Big eyes are not only an approach to painting. They are also a posture. Two key scenes in the movie involve big eyes looking down the camera lens. In one, two males eye the paintings of Margaret and her husband Walter, debating their quality. This “big-eyed” scene sets up the early plot tensions, including the gatekeeping role of galleries and the patriarchal male gaze that would trap Margaret for much of her creative life.

In a second scene, toward the end of the movie, Margaret Keane eyes her art works. She is alone and this scene, in which pairs of women’s eyes gaze intensely, painfully at each other, artfully captures the big-eyed lies in which Margaret finds herself trapped.

Big-eyed is also a theological theme, a way to understand the movie’s portrayal of faith. As the movie reaches for its feel-good climax, Margaret finds herself lonely in Hawaii. She is befriended by door knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses. In a pivotal conversation, Margaret’s daughter (Madeline Arthur) asks the Jehovah’s Witnesses if their God is OK with suing.

The question results in the climatic court action, through which truth is told and justice enacted. It is a reminder of the ethics that result when one has faith in a “big-eyed” God who is understood as speaking up for the rights of the widow and orphan.

Director Tim Burton, his skills honed over forty movies (including Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland), continues to showcase his movie-making skills. Big Eyes offers some lovely directorial moments, including the appearance of the actual artist, sitting on a park bench in the background, as Walter and Margaret first meet. It provides an ethical reminder that this story is being told with Margaret’s approval, unlike the web of lies spun around her by her first husband, Walter.

The script writing of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewksi offers some memorable dialogue. These include the multiple levels of irony in Margaret Keane’s statement, that the eyes are a window to the soul and Walter’s delighted cry, “We’ve sold out” at the end of another successful art show.

The movie, in dialogue, plot and character explores the moral complexities of art and celebrity.
Alongside the fine performances by Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), Big Eyes provides a heartwarming, yet revealing, window into the soul of contemporary culture and an object lesson in the Christian affirmation that truth shall indeed set you free.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He is the author of The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan, 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 07:31 PM

Monday, April 27, 2015

Accepted – “Inhabiting our neighbourhoods: Plot by plot, plant by plant”

News today that my chapter on community gardens in urban spaces has been accepted for publication. It was written for the launch of “Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods”: a flagship publication of Urban Seed’s new Urban Studies Centre and was a proposal for a contemporary urban missiology for community mission.

The editors commented: “We really enjoyed this piece. One of us said, “The more I read the more fascinated I became, and I’m not into gardening!””

Here’s the abstract for the chapter, which I’ve provisionally titled Inhabiting our neighbourhoods: Plot by plot, plant by plant

Gardens offer rich insight regarding how we inhabit our neighbourhood. These include opening ourselves to the stranger’s gift, the slow, seasonal work of prayer-as-composting and celebrating life together.

This chapter begins by bringing the development patterns of two inner-city Australian community gardens into dialogue with Scripture, including Luke 10:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 3:6-9. Stranger’s gifts emerge when we act in ways that enable our community to be neighbours, both good and diverse.

These insights are enriched by consideration of two movies. Gardening with Soul is the story of an urban missionary who turned the lawn of her religious community into a community garden. Grow your Own is the story of a stranger’s gift that grows healing among a well-established British allotment garden.

The argument, from case study, Scripture and film, is that gardens provide rich insight, in practices, processes, patterns and postures, regarding how we might inhabit our neighbourhoods.

It should be out in the middle of the year.

The only major suggestion for change is to make the structure a little more like a garden. This involves making a little more room for wildness, less linear logic and more ripe vegetables and fistfuls of herbs! Which was how I presented the spoken paper, but in writing, sought to conform to a more academic style, so I will gladly conform!

I was one of very few academics present and I’m delighted to be able to add some missiology reflection into what was a gritty, community-engaged conference. It’s also the first time some of my monthly published film reviews (which now number nearly 100) have been woven into a publication, along with what is a personal hobby. So it all feels nicely integrated. It also brings to six the number of pieces of work written in 2014 that will now be published. A good year indeed!

Posted by steve at 01:06 PM

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Chappie: a theological film review

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for April 2015, of Chappie.


Bullying is soul destroying. It corrodes confidence, shredding the individual of self-worth. Yet a scene of bullying is instrumental in the success of Chappie.

Chappie, like other films directed by Neill Blomkamp, including Alive in Joburg (2005) and District 9 (2009), is set in South Africa. Similarly, Chappie like District 9, Elysium (2013) and the upcoming Alien project, sees Blomkamp continuing to explore the interplay between human and alien.

In Chappie we are plunged into a future in which crime is soaring. In a city out of control, the South African Police send in robots, equipped to detect and disarm.

As Chappie begins, there is little to love in each of the main characters. Deon (Dev Patel), scientific conceiver of robots, is a workaholic geek. Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a work colleague, is the disgruntled loner, determined to build a meaner, more military robotic option. Ninja and Yolandi (named after themselves) are gangsters, needing millions of dollars to pay off a drugs deal gone bad. Chappie is a Police robot, number 22, repeatedly damaged by his encounters the likes of Ninja and Yolinda.

This means that Blomkamp has some major directorial work to do. He has to help us, the audience, find emotional connections with at least one of his unlikeable main characters.

Blomkamp’s answer is bullying. Ninja and Yolandi capture Dion who, in exchange for his life, agrees to load the damaged robot number 22 with artificial intelligence. It generates a classic ethical dilemma, a confrontation between good and evil.

Dion as the robot’s maker expects number 22, now named Chappie, to refuse to commit crime. Ninja, as the gangster, works to enlist Chappie in order to repay his drugs debts. Thus Chappie finds himself exposed to the real world, where he will be stoned by a group of boys and tortured by Vincent Moore.

It is these scenes of bullying that allow the audience to connect with a robot. It is an astonishing piece of storytelling. Chappie, a robot becomes a loveable main character. Through pain, a piece of metal gains our affection.

In doing so Blomkamp ushers in a wide range of theological themes, including identity, faith and hope. Watching Chappie with a church group would open up significant discussions about the Christian understanding of being human. The downloading of consciousness to create a new body opens up ways to explore the Christian understanding of the resurrection of the dead. The conversation in which Chappie asks Deon why he built him to die offers a rich introduction to Christian notions of freewill in a created creation.

Despite Blomkamp’s feats of storytelling and the resultant feast of theological themes, Chappie comes with significant plot holes. The movie unsettles as it wobbles uneasily between comedy and pathos. The genre of comedy works because it amplifies (for more see the brilliant Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art). What Blomkamp chooses to amplify leaves the viewer caught. Watching Chappie a robot, being stoned is as funny as it as disturbing. But then perhaps that is actually how bullying starts, as what begins as fun for one ushers in pain for another.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He is the author of The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change, (Zondervan, 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 11:16 PM

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Selma: a theological film review

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for February 2015, of Selma.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

At the end of “Selma,” no one moved. As, the final credits rolled, those present remained seated, motionless and silent. Only as the cinema cleaner entered did people finally collect their belongings and begin to exit.

It was a fitting tribute to a moving story, powerfully told. “Selma” documents the American Civil Rights movement, in particular the period during 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr worked in the town of Selma, Alabama, to galvanise protest over the right to enrol to vote. We witness the tactics of non-violence, the hostility of Southern white response and the unfolding story, which resulted in the Voting Rights Act and the provision of Federal Government enforcement of voting fights for all minorities.

What is striking in “Selma” is how these acts of protest were shaped by a faith as political as it was domestic. In prison, pondering his decision to picket around voting rights rather than protesting poverty, King is reminded by his advisers of Scripture (Matthew 6:26-27). Needing courage, King calls a friend, seeking solace in the singing of an old Negro spiritual. Preaching in Selma, at the funeral of a protestor, King asks who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson?

“Every white lawman who abuses the law to terrorize. Every white politician who feeds on prejudice and hatred. Every white preacher who preaches the bible and stays silent before his white congregation.”

It is a powerful reminder that in the hands of the church, Bible study has at times magnified injustice, rather than worked to further God’s dreams of justice and liberation. “Selma” is a powerful reminder of how faith is political, both for good and bad.

The movie is well made, including the clever mix of actual black and white footage of protest along with the typewritten telegraph text documenting FBI surveillance. David Oyelowo is superb as Martin Luther King, as is Carmen Eiogo as King’s wife, Coretta. However, they are shaded by the standout performance of Henry G. Sanders as Cager Lee, mourning in the morgue his murdered grandson, Jimmie Lee Jackson.

It is a predominantly male cast, with King constantly surrounded by male leaders. It is a visual reminder that following the gaining of civil rights would need to come the struggle for gender equality.

This interweaves with another prominent theme, faith domestic as well as political. Time and again, Selma locates us, the viewer, in the ordinary. The movie begins with Luther worried about his tie and dreaming with Coretta of being a pastor somewhere small, with a house to call their own.

It is these domestic touches – the kitchen scenes of Southern hospitality, the putting out of the rubbish, the tucking the children into bed– that drive the humanity of the narrative. They create the empathy against which the violence that was the Civil Rights movement can be projected large.

This is “Selma” and this is why no one in the movie theatre moved. Faith, powerfully presented, with hope, that the eyes of all peoples in all of life may indeed see the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He is the author of The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change (Zondervan, 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 10:56 PM

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Water Diviner: a theological film review

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for January 2015, of Water Diviner.

The Water Diviner
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“your sons … have become our sons as well.” Ataturk, 1934

One hundred years ago, New Zealand invaded another country. It was an unprovoked act of war that many argue gave our country the twentyfirst keys to nationhood. Soldiers went as the boys from Taihape, Clive or Ashburton. They returned as New Zealanders.

Perhaps it was the fact that war touched almost everyone. One in seventeen New Zealanders died or were wounded in WW1. Perhaps it was that sense of participation. Mate with mate in the trenches. Values of solidarity and loyalty and courage under fire.

Whatever the reasons, it was the nation we invaded that in time would show us how to remember. Ataturk, present at Gallipoli, who became leader of modern day Turkey, would inform us in 1934 that “your sons … have become our sons as well.” It remains a gracious and compelling way to respond to those who invade you.

In this centenary year, New Zealanders are invited to return to Gallipoli. Organisers have limited attendance to 10,500, a sign first of the enduring place that Gallipoli still holds in ANZAC memories and second, of the narrow beach and steep terrain on which so many died.

The Water Diviner provides a mature addition to the inevitable national discussion that continues to flow in regard to Gallipoli. Russell Crowe not only directs, but also acts as Connor, an Australian father who in 1919 journeys to Turkey, searching for his three sons, all reported lost at Gallipoli.

The story that unfolds provides a rich intercultural study of the impact of war. The plot is helped by character: the pairing of Connor with Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), a Turkish widow and also with Hassan (Yilmaz Erdogan), a Turkish soldier. This provides a Turkish perspective on the events of Gallipoli, including their death toll (70,000 in comparison to 10,000 Anzacs) and their descent into civil war in the years following our invasion of Gallipoli.

While the plot was compellingly mature, the acting is limited at times. One reunion scene in particular, involving Russell Crowe, was strangely wooden.

From a theological perspective, three threads intrigue. First, the comment made of Connor’s search, that “the father looks.” It is one way to understand God, as One who looks. Connor’s actions through the movie can thus be read as a contemporisation of Luke 15; the shepherd who looks for lost sheep, the housewife who looks for the lost coin.

Secondly, the role of the church. Connor’s priest (played by Damon Herriman) portrays, in contrast to Connor, a religion more intent on doctrinal precision than pastoral care. The heartlessness of the priest is accentuated by a masterful moment of cinema, in which the sound of the grave being dug outside carries forward the plot, rather than what is happening onscreen in the church. Sound is the generator of action, rather than dialogue or visual symbolism.

Third, the comment made by Hassan, that it is not forgiveness or redemption that is needed after Gallipoli. Rather it is truthful memory. In that sense, it is fitting that The Water Diviner was released not only on ANZAC soils, but also in Turkey (titled Son Umut which means “The Last Hope”)

For surely all sons, yours and ours, Turkish and ANZAC, deserve to be remembered rightly. Such is the work of The Water Diviner.

For more Anzac Day resources, including worship, sermons and others of my writings, go here.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He is the author of The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan, 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 04:54 PM

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Interstellar: a Christmas reading

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for Dececmber 2014, of Interstellar. In particular I play with Dr Mann and Christ as the new Adam.

A film review by Steve Taylor

Interstellar begins on earth, in order to send us to space. Human love becomes a fifth dimension, able to guide the human heart through the final frontier. So suggests Interstellar, which offers a visually stunning, but emotionally overbalanced meditation on the perils of climate change.

The film begins in rural America. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), once an astronaut, is now grounded. He farms an ever-decreasing crop of corn, bitten by blight, shredded by dust. Facing starvation, the only hope for earth becomes the finding of another planet. Cooper is sent spaceward, the one pilot able to guide earth’s last hope through a wormhole, in the search for a new earth.

Interstellar is great entertainment. Directed by Christopher Nolan, the sights and sounds are simply stunning. The multiple dimensions of space, digitally manipulated, become objects of stark and starlit beauty.

The cast is similarly star, including Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, Jessica Chastain as Murph (Cooper’s adult daughter), Anne Hathaway as fellow astronaut Brand and Michael Caine as her scientist father.

In order to enable an emotional intensity through the voids that are outer space, Christopher Nolan uses the opening scenes to establishes a depth of relationship between father (Cooper) and his adolescent daughter Murph (McKenzie Foy). While this provides emotional intensity, it reduces the other characters to cardboard cutouts. This includes the role played by Cooper’s son, Tom (Timothy Chalamet). It also makes cold the movies’ other father and daughter relationship, between Hathaway and Michael Caine.

The film seeks an intellectual sophistication. Symbolic meanings abound. The space ship Cooper will pilot is named Endurance. He will seek a Dr Mann (Matt Damon), who has gone before, and if found, might offer hope of a better place. The dialogue references Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and name drops Lazarus. The dust storms that blow through Cooper’s rural cornfields echo John Steinbeek’s Oaklhoma dustbowl.

Theologically, the move in Interstellar from earth to heaven invites some rich reflection on the opposite move in Christianity from heaven to earth.

A central character in Interstellar is the mysterious Dr Mann, sent from earth to heaven, in the hope of saving humanity. It provides a contrast to the development in the New Testament of Jesus as the new Adam, sent from heaven to earth, a new human through whom humanity will be saved.

As Interstellar unfolds, Mann’s character flaws put in stark relief the sacrificial life and love of Christ. Dr Mann will end his life in selfish pursuit of his own ends. In contrast, Christ ends his life praying not my will but yours be done.

Such is the Interstellar Christ of Christmas, revealing the love of God in every dimension, whether first or fifth, of human reality.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 07:09 AM

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Boyhood: a theological film review

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for November 2014, of Boyhood.

A film review by Steve Taylor

“The good news is that you’re feeling stuff.”
Father to son in Boyhood

We have either all had one or observed one.

I refer to boyhood: that process by which a child grows into an adult. “Boyhood” the movie follows Mason from age five to eighteen. Through his eyes we experience broken marriages, domestic violence, bullying and various male rites of passage deemed essential to contemporary Western cultural life. We face the pain and potential of becoming adult.

“Boyhood” was twelve years in the making, twelve short stories, each written over the shooting period. It was collaboratively, director and actors together shaping the narrative direction.

Director Richard Linklater is known for movies including “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight.” Each of the three “Before” movies focused on one twenty-four hour period.

Each explored generational rites, earning Linklater a reputation as the definitive cinematic capturer of 20-something contemporary culture, a visual Douglas Coupland.

In “Boyhood,” that one day becomes thirteen years. Academics call it longitudinal studies, repeated observations of the same variables over long periods of time. They also call it particularity, in which the focus on the singularity makes accessible what is universal. It’s impossible to watch “Boyhood” without thinking of your own becoming of age.

Each of the “Before” trilogy also features Ethan Hawke, who in “Boyhood” faces his own need to grow, from 20-something to father of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). She is also Linklater’s daughter. After the first three years of filming, she wanted out, asking her director father to find a way to kill her “Boyhood” character.

If Linklater is master of the capture of contemporary culture, then what are we seeing as we look in the “Boyhood” mirror? Reflected back are images of developing technology, the seduction of education, the corrosive power of alcohol, the potential of parents no matter life’s circumstances.

The theological notes are intriguing. Good news, a phrase rendered cliché and clunky by so many Christian churches, becomes in “Boyhood” the appreciation “that you’re feeling stuff.” It sets up the final scene in which Mason asks if we seize the moment? Or do the moments seize us? Hence good news becomes feeling the experiences of the now.

It is an intriguing attempt at theology, given that growth over time, grasped through a sense of unfolding memory lies at the movie’s core. This is best depicted by Mason and Samantha’s mother (Patricia Arquette), as she faces the adulthood of her children.

“This is the worst day of my life. I knew this day would come, except why is it happening now? First I get married, have kids, end up with two ex-husbands, go back to school, get my degree, get my masters, send both my kids off to college. What’s next? My own funeral?”

For her to experience the now is news more bad than good. Which perhaps is the real message of “Boyhood.” That growing up is for adults.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 08:51 PM