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.

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.

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

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

Posted by steve at 07:05 AM

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Poi E: The Story of our Song: a theological film review

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 September 2016.

Poi E: The Story of our Song

If Poi E – the song – is waiata poi, Poi E – the movie – is waiata haka, a challenge to how New Zealand sees itself. In 1984, New Zealand music was dominated by imports. In that year, of the seventeen number one songs, all but one was offshore in origin. On 18 March, Poi E a song by Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club, became number one. Without mainstream radio play or television promotion, Poi E would top the charts for four consecutive weeks, becoming 1984’s number-one single of the year. The song reentered the charts in 2009, and again in 2010, making it the only New Zealand song to chart over three decades.

Behind the genius of Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club lay a strong supporting cast that included a linguist and a local church.

Ngoi Pewhairangi was the linguist, a native Maori speaker committed to advancing her culture in order to ensure a genuinely bicultural nation. Ngoi Pewhairangi had already penned the 1982 hit song, E Ipo, for Prince Tui Teka. Dalvanius mixed E Ipo for Tui, turning his live performance into a recording that became New Zealand’s first ever number one song in Te Reo. In exchange, Dalvanius learnt from Tui of the lyrical gifts of Ngoi Pewhairangi. He took a tune to her home in Tokomaru Bay. Poi E – the movie – includes the playing of the first recording of Poi E. Dalvanius strums a ukulele and sings the lyrics gifted to him by Ngoi Pewhairangi.

The Patea Maori Club began as an initiative by a local Methodist church to encourage young people. Methodist Minister, Reverend Napi Waka poured his energy into the Club. As Jim Ngarewa said in a 2006 Touchstone interview, “Both the marae and the performance are important elements of Maori Methodism in Patea.” It is reminder of the influence that a local church, when it seeks to support art, culture and young people.

In producing Poi E, director Tearepa Kahi cleverly uses two techniques to ensure momentum. First, a set of scenes as Taika Waititi remembers and Stan Walker learns. Spliced throughout the movie, these scenes provide a narrative thread. Second, the clever way in which repeatedly the musical score runs on, despite the visuals changing. The result is an underlying musical continuity, consistent with the movie’s focus on song.

A few weeks before watching Poi E – the movie – I read the story of Flying Nun Records (In Love With These Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records, 2016). Author Roger Shepherd offers a David-and-Goliath-like tale, of local music struggling to be heard amid offshore imports. In 1984 – the year of Poi E’s release – this local record company achieved sales of $90,000, through promoting Pakeha bands like The Chills, The Clean and Shayne Carter.

In contrast Poi E – the movie – tells the story of Dalvanius borrowing money from local business to fund Poi E – the song. This is the waiata haka of Poi E: the reminder that local in New Zealand is much more than white boy bands and a Dunedin sound.

Today the Patea freezing works remain closed. Yet each week in a local church (now a cooperating parish), the Patea Maori Club still gather. May Pakeha accept the waiata haka of which their song speaks.

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

Posted by steve at 02:14 PM

Saturday, August 13, 2016

film and mission: Missiological approaches to the “Silence” of religious change

I’m presenting today at International Association Mission Studies, Korea. My paper is titled “regard as valuable”: Missiological approaches to the “Silence” of religious change. With the historical novel, Silence: A Novel written by Shusako Endo (1923-1999), being made into a film (release date as yet unannounced), I want to explore the possibilities and pitfalls when conversion seems fruitless, which it does in the context of Japan in the 17th century.

In order to engage Silence as a film, I will use Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film to provide a theoretical frame. I will then place Silence as film alongside a number of other movies that explore the fruitlessness of mission; including The Mission and God lives in the Himalayas.

I’m looking forward to bringing together my research in film and in mission. My conclusion is as follows:

The gift of Silence is that it allows us to see the face of Christ as death on a cross. To represent the fullness of Christ, both Christologically and missiologically, we need the “face of Christ” giving inspiration to artists at every stage of the Philippians arc. When Christ is the Victor, the “conversion-transformation” narrative is one of triumph. We do not ask art images of Christ the Victor or Jesus the baptised to express a complete Christology, expressing every stage of the Philippians arc. We let them stand as Christological snapshots. In Silence, we are offered an artistic gift, that of obedience to the point of death. This is a truthful missiology which voices Christ’s silence. Such is the Christological gift of Silence to missiology. It provides an essential snapshot, ensuring our accounts of conversion and transformation include not only narratives of triumph, but also narratives of solidarity with Christ’s silence.

Posted by steve at 12:31 AM

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Star Trek Beyond: a theological film review

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 August 2016.

Star Trek Beyond
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Star Trek was born 51 years old, with a pilot episode shot in 1965. Being 51 in the entertainment industry means the need to win new friends while keeping old ones.

“Star Trek Beyond” delivers. For old fans, there is the familiarity of ship, crew and the willingness to boldly explore strange new worlds. In “Star Trek Beyond,” this means seeking to rescue a ship ambushed beyond the nebula. For new fans, the action quickly moves to warp speed, as USS Enterprise encounters the evil technologies of Commander Krall. For all fans, there is old technology, of motorbikes and VHF radio as weapons in the defeat of Krall. For Kiwi fans, there is Wellington born, Karl Urban as Dr Bones McCoy.

Being 51 means adapting to a changing world. In “Star Trek Beyond,” Sulu (John Cho) is gay, with a husband and young daughter. In addition, strong female roles are provided by the well-known figure of Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the introduction of Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), becoming a rescuer despite the previous pain caused to her in an ambush by Krall.

Being 51 also means facing death. The first line in the pilot episode of 1965 belonged to Leonard Nimoy (“Check the circuit”). “Star Trek Beyond” pays homage to Nimony, who died in 2015, aged 83. This involves memorial credits, along with the young Spock (Zachary Quinto) of “Star Trek Beyond” finding strength in a photo of the original Star Trek crew, Nimoy included.

It is one thing to face the death of an elderly man, quite another that of an acting colleague in the middle of the Star Trek reboot. Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov, died in a freak automobile accident in June 2016, aged 27. It makes poignant Captain Kirk’s (Chris Pine) toast to absent friends and the liquor taken from Chekov’s locker. In a Western society obsessed with youth, navigating the strange new world of death is an essential dimension of being 51.

Star Trek has from the beginning blended technology, action and philosophy. The pilot episode was considered cerebral and intellectual. “Star Trek Beyond” embraces philosophy by mirroring two scenes. Early on Captain Kirk meets with Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo). In deep space, he describes how easy it is for a Captain to get lost. As the movie ends, Kirk meets again with Commodore Paris. Again Kirk notes how easy it is for Captains to get lost in deep space, yet the strength he finds in human partnership. It makes the warp speed action between these two scenes the unfolding exploration of humans facing the existential fear of losing their inner compass.

It is a question Jesus explores in Luke 15. Three parables are grouped together around the experience of being lost. What emerges is a different mirroring, in which direction comes not from human partnership, but from God, acting as seeking shepherd, searching woman and waiting father. Whether the “distant country” of Luke 15:13 can be stretched to include the strange new worlds beyond the nebula becomes the question of faith for every viewer.

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

Posted by steve at 06:53 PM

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Our Little Sister: film review

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 July 2016.

Our Little Sister
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Our Little Sister” is a window into rural Japanese culture. It is a politely, heart-warming, albeit slightly surreal alternative, to Japan as industrialised, high-tech and fast-paced.

Three adult sisters share life in the family home. Together they have found a way to live despite being abandoned by their parents: a father who left for another woman and a mother who disappears for fifteen years, crippled by grief.

At their father’s funeral, the three sisters meet their thirteen-year old younger sister for the first time. In the face of shared grief, she joins them in the family home. It sets in motion the facing of an unfolding set of bitter-sweet, until then unexplored, memories.

“Our Little Sister” began life as manga. Manga is comic and cartoon, a Japanese art form read by all ages. It is big business, an industry worth over $5.5 billion dollars. Manga includes more than action and anime. It has spilled into commerce and comedy, history and horror, murder and mystery, sci-fi and fantasy. There is even a Manga Bible, published in 2006 by Next, a non-profit organization. It aims to appeal to those who no longer attend church or find traditional Bible translations less than accessible.

“Our Little Sister” is Josei manga, a genre aimed at women in their late teens and early adulthood. It began life as a monthly serial: “Umimachi Dairy.” Created by Akimi Yoshida, “Umimachi” means Seaside Town in Japanese. It suggests a rural idyll common among industrialised urban dwellers.

The attempt by director Hirokazu Koreeda to turn the episodic nature of monthly serial into a plot arcing over 120 minutes is less than successful. Three patterns of life are introduced. Daily, there is the preparation and consumption of food. Food is a setting for memory making and community building. This involves repeated scenes both at home as the younger sister is slowly woven into domestic life and at the local diner. What emerges is an approach to food not as recipe books and celebrity chefs but as knowledge shared in inter-generational making.

A second pattern is seasonal. The movie is structured around Japanese rural idyll. These include the cherry blossoms of spring, the plum harvest of summer and the capture of white bait in season. These weave further layers in the unfolding of memories.

A third pattern is generational. In “Our Little Sister”, these involve funerals and memorials rather than births and weddings.

Each of these three patterns amplify the dysfunctional distortion at the movies’ heart. Food, seasons and funerals create memories, each of which is distorted by the strangeness of four sisters live in a mono-generational family unit.

Mono-generational makes sense when your manga market involves women in their late teens and early adulthood. But as way of life it ends up becoming a somewhat surreal “seaside” diary.

“Our Little Sister” is well worth the watch. Despite the attention required when reading subtitles, the humour is rich, the characters rewarding and the crossing of cultures endearing, even if slightly surreal.

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

Posted by steve at 09:43 PM

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Urban farming

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


Plant this movie: the International Urban Farming Documentary was on at the Rialto this Sunday morning. It was an inspirational watch. A few scenes moved me to tears, in particular the vision for culture change possible in decaying urban environments.

Movies like this make sense of my first degree, Bachelor of Horticulture, my love for gardens and some of my research and writing into community gardens – like Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods: Plot by Plot, Plant by Plant


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.

Posted by steve at 06:42 PM

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Jungle Book: theologies of creation and redemption

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 June 2016.

The Jungle Book
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

The Jungle Book is an unexpected surprise. What shaped as a well-worn tale for children is brought to stunning life by Disney’s dollars, digital animation and director, Jon Favreau.

There are two stars that make The Jungle Book shine. The first is technology. Bringing the stories from The Jungle Book to animated cinematic life is nothing new. It has been tried before, first, by Zoltan Korda in 1942, second in the Soviet Union in 1967 (celebrated with an accompanying postage stamp) and third as Japanese anime in 1989. What allows this latest visual telling to shine is technology. Shot entirely in a warehouse in Los Angeles, the film uses the latest in motion-capture filmmaking. The result is a human actor sustaining believable conversations with realistic-looking wolves, bears, panthers, orangutans and tigers. It is an act of human creativity simply wonderful to behold.

The second is Neel Sethi as Mowgli, the boy raised by jungle wolves. Sethi is the only visible human actor in the film. It is an extraordinary feat for a child of twelve years, let alone one that has never acted before, to sustain for 106 minutes, such an engrossing mix of courage and play.

The Jungle Book can be appreciated as a moral tale. Themes like stick together and never give up have been used by the Cub Scouts to encourage and mentor young people.

The Jungle Book can be read as political commentary. Shere Khan rules by terror, using random acts of violence to impose a fear-based fundamentalism: man-cub becomes a man, and man is forbidden.

The Jungle Book can be engaged as theology. The most overt reference comes through the peace rock. Shere Khan’s fundamentalism lives in tension with a deeper law of the jungle. When drought occurs and waters dry, a giant river rock is revealed. It is the peace rock. When that rock appears, all animals can visit the waterhole to drink in peace. It provides a way to understand the Christian Gospel. When the time of Messiah comes, a peace rock is revealed. When the three crosses of Golgotha appear, all of creation, animals and humans, can drink in peace from the waters of life.

A more disturbing theme involves theologies of creation. The Jungle Book reads like a modern day Psalm 8, chilling devoid of grace. Psalm 8 is written in two stanzas. One celebrates creation. Another celebrates human creativity. The Jungle Book has a similar beginning, celebrating creation as benign and beautiful. Swiftly, fear is introduced, the peace rock in tension with Shere Khan’s reign of terror.

The chill deepens when humans creativity is introduced. Humans have the creative, technological skills to make “the red flower” of fire. Such acts provide warmth yet wreak destruction. The entire plot is driven by this human use, and misuse, of one the four elements of creation. It is fire that enables The Jungle Book’s final enacting of justice. It is a chilling theology of creation, a portrayal of human creativity shorn of grace and compassion.

Posted by steve at 06:28 PM

Friday, May 06, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: 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 April 2016.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a wonderful tickle of the New Zealand funny bone. The people I sat beside wiped tears from their eyes, then as the credits rolled stood to applaud the script writing skills of director Taika Waititi and the acting of teenager Ricky Barker.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a road trip gone bush. Troubled teenager Ricky Barker (Julian Dennison) needs a home. At the end of a rural gravel road, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her silent partner, Hector (Sam Neill) are Julian’s last chance before juvenile detention. When tragedy strikes, Ricky goes bush. Tracked by Hector, their actions spark a national manhunt. At this point, with the end inevitable, interest is maintained by the insertion of the bizarre (extinct birds and selfie seekers) and creative rifting on pop-culture (Up, Goodbye Pork Pie and 1980’s Toyota advertisements).

New Zealand cinema has been typecast as dark and brooding (interestingly by Sam Neill himself), evident in the bleak cinematographic palate of a Vigil or the subject matter of Quiet Earth or River Queen. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a welcome reminder that rich veins of humour have always run through New Zealand cinema, from Goodbye Pork Pie and Came a Hot Friday to Boy (also directed by Taika Waititi).

What we are finding funny is worth pondering. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an adaptation of Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress. At the core of Crump’s books are men alone, a reference to the name of John Mulgan’s 1939 novel. In the literature of Crump and Mulgan, men are drift from conflict and commitment rather than embracing the emotional work required of long term relationships. Males alone are the core of Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The humour that surrounds Julian’s use of haiku is not only funny, but a reminder of emotional deprivation.

The sadness at the core of these constructions of being male is magnified by the shift in time. Wild Pork and Watercress, written by Crump thirty years ago, is contemporized in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. John Campbell reports for national news, while cell phone technology is used to track Julian and Hector. In New Zealand today, there are far too many Julian’s and the rate of child neglect remains unacceptably high. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a film well worth seeing, even as the lighthearted laughter involves themes that should weigh on our heart instead of tickle our funny bone.

Religion has a presence in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Director Waititi plays a church minister, his sermon a head scratching piece of nonsense. Shifting from funeral scene to plot development, Ricky and Hector’s act of going bush becomes a form of redemption. Isolation deepens the relationship between Ricky and Hector. The bush can bond. The result is a secularized affirmation of Christian understandings of the grace possible in creation and through relationship.

Go to Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Laugh until you cry. Return home. Commit to acting in ways that turn the tears of New Zealand children into laughter.

Posted by steve at 07:14 AM

Monday, April 11, 2016

Mahana: a theological 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 March 2016.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

He toi whakairo, he mana tangata.

The Maori proverb, translated in English as “Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity” is an apt summary of Mahana. Set in the East Coast in the 1960’s, two Maori families, the Mahana’s and the Poata’s, are locked in rivalry. Directed by Lee Tamahori (famous for Once were Warriors and Die Another Day), Mahana is an adaptation of Witi Ihimaera’s novel Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies.

The pacing is terrific, as screen writer John Collee turns 293 pages of Ihimaera’s prose into 103 minutes of silver screen. The rites of life, weddings historic and funerals contemporary, are the pivots around which tension is both focused and resolved. The ethereal beauty of the bee scene, with its haunting waita, is a rich window into Maori culture and the way people and place are interwoven.

While a period vehicle car chase and the annual Golden Shears provide authentic colour, the film is a reminder that life in 1960’s New Zealand was far from rural bliss. Mahana depicts family feuds and an entrenched racism that were a stain on the idyllic rolling green hills of our history. Mahana thus shares themes with Whale Rider, including drawing from Ihimaera’s imagination, being set in the world of East Coast Maori and depicting the courage required of teenagers caught in hierarchical patterns. Both Pai, in Whale Rider, and Simeon in Mahana, face the challenge of growing beyond a demanding and dominating grandfather.

In a Kiwi cast that includes Temuera Morrison (Grandfather Mahana) and Nancy Brunning (Romona Mahana), it is unknown Akuhata Keefe (Simeon Mahana) that steals the show. From Tolaga Bay Area School, the fifteen year old was in Auckland on holiday, when he was encouraged to audition. His repeated courage is the engine that drives the plot.

Turning from artistic excellence to human dignity, as might be expected in 1960’s rural New Zealand, religion is an ever present reality. Family meals around the Mahana family table begin with grace, while at the church, the priest buries and marries. Yet prayer and ritual seem unable to bring reconciliation in the family feud between Mahana and the Poata.

Instead, it is human dignity that provides freedom. It comes from Simeon Mahana. His belief in fairness and willingness to speak his mind are the means by which three generations are freed from their history. His courage is a reminder, from John 8:23, that the truth will set you free. It provides another way to begin the Maori proverb. Not “he toi whakairo” but “te hauto itoito pono tīari.” “Where courage and honest exist, there is human dignity.”

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is 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 05:00 PM

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Spotlight: a theological 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 February 2016.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Spotlight” is sobering, yet compulsory viewing. It is the story of Pullitzer Prize winning reporters from the Boston Globe, who broke the story of Boston’s systematic coverup of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The statistics are heart-rending, with 240 Priests implicated and over 10,000 victims.

Take a moment to consider those numbers before you read on.

Lest Touchstone readers point the finger and say “Only in America,” we have in Australia the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. At the half way stage, the Royal Commission had received 13,256 allegations, half of which relate to faith based-institutions, some of which involve priests who served in New Zealand. Research indicates that levels of pedophilia are the same in the Catholic church as in the general population. What “Spotlights” uncovers is the ability of institutions to play “here – surely – no evil, so speak no evil.”

The script is superb. To ensure factual accurancy the original reporters were interviewed. The unfolding narrative, while viewed through the reporters lens, allows us to meet victims, abusing priests, and clever lawyers. The result is an understated movie, in which illumination comes through fact, rather than emotion. This is reinforced by the actors. Stars, including Mark Ruffalo (as reporter Mike Rezendes), Micheal Keaton (as reporter Walter Robinson) and Rachel McAdams (as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer) act in ways that preserve the spotlight for the victims, rather than the red carpet.

“Spotlight” illuminates dark places in both church and city. It is the church that in the movie is shown to have paid victims to keep silence, while quietly shuffling priests into other positions. It is the city, including press, PR and lawyers, that let the perceived “no evil” of the church outweigh the pain of each child. As lawyer for the victims, Mitchell Garabedian, notes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.”

The movie raises significant questions for faith. How to trust ourselves to be the church, if the church does this? One place to turn is the work of theologian and ethicist Richard Burridge. In Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics, Burridge asks how we can trust the Bible, given it was used to legitimate apartheid. Burridge notes four common approaches to reading the Bible. These include proof texting to provide rules, applying principles to life, finding examples to follow and following an overarching, singular viewpoint. Each of these approaches was evident in South Africa, both to legitimate and to protest apartheid.

Instead of giving up on the Bible, Burridge encourages a community-based approach, which insists that Bible reading occur in communities that are open, diverse and inclusive. This requires disarming the power of the pulpit and cultivating the “ordinary reader” through contextual Bible study. For Burridge, it was a lack of openness that lead the Dutch Reformed Church to justify apartheid Scripturally. For “Spotlight,” it was the lack of openness in Boston that allowed the child abuse to remain hidden. This becomes our challenge, to raise our children in villages that are open, rather than closed.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is 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 03:43 PM

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Suffragette: A theological film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

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 February 2016.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Suffragette is compulsory viewing, a disturbing depiction of the power of patriarchy. The movie, directed by Sarah Gavron, is a fictionalised exploration of the fight for the right of women to vote in Great Britain. If follows Maud (Carey Mulligan), a working mother with a young child, who unexpectedly finds herself caught in a street protest. Amid, the shattered glass of a shop front window, she recognizes a fellow worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff.) Despite the protests of her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and threats from Polcie Inspector Steed (Brendan Glesson), she steps into the battle for justice. Forced out of home, imprisoned, brutally force-fed while on hunger strike, she embarks on an increasingly desperate quest for equality.

The movie is bleak, shot in tones of brown and drab. It is apt, given the film’s final statistics, which note the painfully slow journey toward equality. While New Zealand is a world leader, it was not until 1971 that women in Switzerland could vote.

Three places in Suffragette invite specific theological reflection. First, is the matter of unanswered prayer. The first time she is arrested, Maud’s son, George (Adam Dodd), prayed she would come home. Imprisoned for a week, his faith is shaken, both by Maud’s absence and the lack of answer to his prayers.

Second, is the ethics of protest. Are there any circumstances in which protest should become violent? This is the question around which Suffragette pivots. After years of protest through legal and political avenues, change has not occurred. The response of Suffragette is pragmatic. “It is deeds, not words, that will gain the vote.” Christian tradition has always been divided on the role of violence in the face of injustice. Martin Luther King said no, while Bonhoeffer gave his life as a yes. Historians still debate whether the violence of the women’s suffrage movement was justified. Despite the turn to violence in Suffragette, it was another sixteen years before women were given that vote.

Third, is the place of women in the church. Suffragette is set in England in 1912. Theologian Anne Phillips in her 2011 book, The Faith of Girls: Children’s Spirituality and Transition to Adulthood argues (nearly a century later) that the church remains church gender blind. Disturbed that it is mainly men that write about the faith development of women, Phillips talks to young woman about their faith. The experience helps her read the Bible afresh. She discovers richness in the vulnerability of Lo-ruhamah (Hosea 1), courage in the actions of Namaan’s slave girl (2 Kings 5(, faith in the slave girl in Philippi (Acts 16) and sacrifice on the part of the daughter of Jarius (Mark 5). Each are pre-pubsecent girls in whom the values of God are made visible. Hence Suffragette remains both a historic and a living challenge to the church. Will it value the spirituality of women? Or will it remain a place in which, to quote Inspector Steed, “their husbands deal with them”?

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is 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 06:19 PM