Friday, June 29, 2012

Balls and wheels and thrones

Latest Courier article. Normal blog service may be resumed next week, DV.

I'm writing this shortly after England's victory over the Ukraine in the European Championships, which has – alongside France's loss to Sweden – meant that England have reached the quarter-finals, and are avoiding Spain. If only we get past Italy we have a very tasty semi-final with Germany to look forward to. (edit: ha!!)

One of the reasons why I love football so much is because of the rich human drama that is always thrown up by it. Consider poor Harry Redknapp (if a highly successful multi-millionaire could properly be considered 'poor'). Back in February Harry was on trial for tax fraud, and was facing a long stretch in prison if found guilty. He was acquitted, and on the very same day Fabio Capello resigned as the England manager – and those two things together seemed to be a 'sign' that Harry was destined to take on the England role, not least because Tottenham were playing so well. Yet since that day Spurs suffered a terrible run of form, have very unluckily missed out on the Champions League, and Harry not only didn't get the England job but he has been 'released' from his Spurs job too – despite what any unbiased observer could only describe as a period of success for Spurs. From the heights of acquittal and acclaim to being discarded and out of job. Of course, the story isn't over yet – one of the great comforts of football is 'there is always next season' – and it wouldn't be a surprise to find Harry rising up once more, and trusting that the wheel of fortune will be kinder to him on the next spin.

There is, in any human life, a very large element of 'moral luck' – and that language of 'wheels of fortune' is one of the ways in which we discuss it. Football throws up all sorts of ways in which that luck is obvious, and there are many non-football equivalents (think of the lottery). What I find interesting is how we are to respond to it. To reference Kipling, how can we treat Triumph and Disaster as equal impostors? This is an issue in our society simply because of the shallow way in which we treat success, and worship those who are successful as celebrities. Indeed, our society has decayed so far that it is now possible to develop a career purely as a 'celebrity', not based upon any virtue or character or natural talent at all (I would name names, but it would be rude and indecorous). Whereas – and here my inner Victor Meldrew asserts himself – in previous ages there was at least some lip service paid to the classical virtues (hypocrisy being the tribute that vice pays to virtue) now we live in a society where the failure to be virtuous is held up as itself worthy of emulation. Now, I do not wish to argue that previous ages were more moral than ours – some were, some were not – only to point out that we have lost any shared consensus about how to assess moral worth. We no longer have the capacity to talk about morality – which means our ethics, which means our character as individuals and as a society – and as a result our character starts to disintegrate.

Consider all the various talent programmes that are so popular. Sometimes they throw up a charming tale – as with Ashley and Pudsey – yet to me (as someone who admittedly very rarely watches) much of the desire to watch is associated with the inevitably humiliation heaped upon certain contestants. This is the how and why of Simon Cowell's success. This is the modern recapitulation of the Roman arena, where we watch slaves being thrown to the lions (fortunately with less blood – one of many ways in which we are more moral than that culture). Each programme represents a spin on the wheel of fortune, for the contestants and for the audience, all sharing in the illusion that the prize is worth the risk. This is the logic that leads us back to Roman culture, the inevitable end point of our decadence.

For me, these truths have for a long time been unmentionable in public and secular discourse, simply because they necessarily use language that cannot be translated into the nostrums of either science or public policy. How do you measure character? How do you heal a soul? However, because we all know that these things are of vital importance, and we want to learn about them, there is a very vigorous market for all those things which discuss it – through all the imaginative mediums of films and novels and theatre. This is where the interesting work is being done. For example, the very successful 'Hunger Games' sequence of novels is very good at digging out the underlying logic of our talent programmes, and it is not an accident that the society described there is called 'Panem'.

Which brings me to my latest interest, which is called 'Game of Thrones', a TV series based upon a series of fantasy novels, and in which there is simple motto of 'You win or you die'. At the risk of letting slip a 'spoiler', the first series (book) builds to a climax where one prominent character is executed – and that character is in many ways a moral exemplar. The world that is being described – in which we can, of course, read reflections of our own world – is simply one where being moral, being virtuous, is counter-productive, and simply leads to immense suffering for all those who are loved. The necessary skills for playing the Game of Thrones are deceit and treachery, subterfuge and ruthlessness – these are what enable a character to survive.

Is this a fair description of our world? And if it is, is this really the world that we want to live in? Can we do anything about it? I think the answer to those questions are: yes, no and yes – but explaining why will have to wait until my next article.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Finding Jesus in Sin City

You have to come here to get the unedited version of my Courier articles, and with the proper final word...

The other day, a friend commented that I had poor taste in films. Well, in many ways I am guilty as charged, but I thought I'd say a few things on the subject. Firstly, let's hear from my favourite philosopher, who went to the cinema every week to relax (he especially liked Westerns):

"A typical American film, naive and silly, can - for all its silliness and even by means of it - be instructive. A fatuous, self-conscious English film can teach one nothing. I have often learnt a lesson from a silly American film."

So the first thing I'd want to say is that, like Wittgenstein, the majority of films I watch are primarily viewed for relaxation. I spend such a lot of my average day thinking and reflecting in one way or another that I precisely don't want to engage in intellectual analysis when I'm relaxing! So I very much enjoy what I call 'popcorn movies', which do not require me to exercise much in the way of brainpower, but have plenty of excitement and drama and loud explosions – James Bond movies are the classic example, The Avengers my most recent joy. But that isn't the end of the story, as Wittgenstein hints. The thing is, the analytical muscles only go quiescent, they never get fully turned off, and the films that I most enjoy are the ones which engage the muscles without ever taxing them too much, and that primarily means allowing the story itself to do the work.

Now I am fully aware of, and reasonably conversant with, the way in which film is an artistic form of its own; I am also well aware of the way in which film is 'sculpting in time', and has an essential aesthetic element (primarily through the cinematography). Those things I can understand and appreciate, and get me on a good day and I will happily discuss those more refined areas. Yet most of the time what I am interested in is a) story, and b) character development, ie the exploration of what it means to be human.

But the point I really want to make is about whether a film is edifying, in a Christian sense. For in that conversation with my friend, we also touched on the film Sin City, which is one of my all-time favourite films. Sin City is an extreme and highly stylised portrait of present society which doesn't flinch from the cruelties of contemporary life. Now ‘Sin City’ began as a sequence of graphic novels written and drawn by Frank Miller ('graphic novel' is the the ‘correct’ term for comics-read-by-adults) drawing on some of the staple noir elements – hard-bitten ex-cons, troubled cops, prostitutes with hearts of gold etc – but putting them through a particular stylisation which makes the contrasts incredibly stark, and which Miller sought to have reflected through a very spare visual vocabulary – lots of heavy black blocking, outline drawing of characters, almost no colour. And Robert Rodriguez has faithfully reproduced that style in his film; it was very effective.

At this point, there may be the question: is this something that a priest should be reading? (or watching?) Isn’t it anti-Christian in some way? (Heavens, if Harry Potter is considered anti-Christian, then Sin City is enough to make such maiden aunts have heart attacks…. But then, these are the people who want to restore the Levitical purity codes.) Obviously, it isn't something that might naturally be seen as Christian. Yet I would argue that it is thoroughly informed by a Biblical outlook, and it is, in the most important sense, orthodox.

To my mind, the issue about any work of art, from a Christian point of view, is whether it is orthodox or not. Now I use orthodox here in a particular way. I don’t mean ‘has it signed up to saying “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Saviour”?’ I mean ‘is it informed by the resurrection’? Which I take to mean: are there signs of grace, forgiveness, redemption and hope? Or is it a work characterised by the opposite of the resurrection, which is nihilism, which is characterised by the absence of meaning, the denial of hope, the embrace of corruption and the elevation of inhumanity into a model to be emulated? Is death seen as the final evil, or are there ways in which death is overcome?

For it seems to me that the structures of the world, the principalities and powers (as St Paul describes them in Ephesians 6) to which we must forever be opposed are built upon the contention that death is the final evil which must be resisted. The resurrection is what demolishes those principalities and powers precisely because it says that we do not need to be quite so afraid of death; that there are things which death cannot touch; and that our life and our hope lie in the resistance, not necessarily the overcoming. To use the technical Christian term, this is what it means to live eschatologically, in the light of the end time.

Sin City seems to be a world where – to put it no more strongly – orthodoxy is possible. It is a portrait of a corrupt world, where the principalities and powers are overwhemingly present, and where the suffering that follows is rendered starkly. Yet in the face of these powers, there is redemption and love and self-sacrifice, rendered most obviously in the film through the character-arc of the Bruce Willis character, where any Christian will recognise a copy of the original Story: “An old man dies, a young girl lives. Fair trade.” Perhaps it’s the imaginative portrayal of reality in fantasy that makes the reality itself tolerable. The fantasy equips the mind with the tools that enable the reality to be digested, rendered meaningful. Is this not the shield of faith with which we can overcome the world? The link between imagination and faith is intimate, and the nurturing of our imaginations is a Christian task.

Two final points about Sin City. One: if Christians are not to spend time in Sin City, for fear of being corrupted by the violence and debauchery, then they must also close the pages of the Old Testament. Nothing in Sin City is as shocking as, for example, Ezekiel 16. Two: Sin City is the abode of those whom society has rejected. The sinners, the outcast, the prostitutes. I have no doubt that Jesus would choose to spend his time in Sin City. There live the ones who recognise Him for who He is.

That's what I most look for, when I am after an evening's entertainment. Something that will absorb me, take me somewhere away from my preoccupations for a little while, but, ultimately, something orthodox. After all, for me, at the end of the day, there is no rest or peace without Christ.

This article was based on two previous blogposts here and here.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Our most gracious Sovereign Lady

(Latest Courier article - in UNedited form!)

One of the quirks of working in an established church is that, before being ordained as a deacon or a priest, the person to be ordained has to swear an oath of loyalty to the Monarch of this country. So, in one of the small buildings next door to St Paul's Cathedral, in 1999, I said the following before the Registrar: “I, Sam Charles Norton, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law: So help me God.”

This was not an oath that I particularly wanted to give. When we were being prepared for our ordination, our Principal said that if anyone had any concerns about being able to say this oath, that he would be very willing to have a chat with them. I took him up on that offer. At the time my inclinations were not particularly monarchist – although I've never been an out and out republican, in anything except the US political sense. I just felt – in line with many recent comments offered up in these pages – that our monarchy was an anachronism, and that it bolstered a corrupt hierarchy. Talking things through with the Principal, however, I came to a point where I was content to say the oath – I placed great weight on the phrase 'according to law' – for if there was going to be a change in the arrangements I certainly wouldn't want the change to be carried out in a lawless fashion! Yet, as with many other things, my views on this have changed much. I'd like to pick out the one main error that I believe that I made when considering the issue all those years ago.

In discussing the constitutional arrangements, in an academic culture, the debate was about what was most rational – what was the best way to order our arrangements, what system made the most sense? Of course, the criteria used to assess the answer were all rational criteria, and this is not an accident. The purge of monarchies in Europe at the time of the French Revolution and after was intimately tied up with the project of the Enlightenment, the project to bring all of our understandings into a rational system. This is why the Republican regime in France abolished the existing calendar and replaced it with one that was much more systematic. Each month was split into three weeks of ten days each, and each day was split into ten 'hours', each of a hundred 'minutes'. I do not doubt that such a change – or many others of like character – can be defended as rational. In the same way, criticisms of our present constitutional arrangements can be admirably rational and logical. The trouble is, as I have come to realise, that such rationality takes no account of the quirks and gnarls of human nature. That is, we are not rational creatures; we are human beings, and our rationality is simply one part of a broader human nature.

If we were purely rational creatures, then developments such as those imposed by the French Revolutionaries would not have led to slaughter and horror – people would simply have said 'oh yes, that makes sense', the system would have shifted overnight, and nobody would have looked back. As it was, human beings fell into horror and long warfare, simply because their wider values were not taken into account. The Enlightenment project had a profoundly deficient understanding of what it meant to be human and placed far too much weight on our capacity to think, disregarding the importance of how we feel – and how our thinking and feeling interact. As part of this Enlightenment project all of the building blocks of human culture are dismantled and we become, not so much creatures planted in a garden, but programs operating within a computer. Fortunately, the problems with the Enlightenment project are now widely recognised, the ideal of a purely rational re-building project is rejected, and the monarchy tends mostly to be rejected by the crustiest of procrustean republicans who believe that it is somehow radical and revolutionary to be supporting a centuries-old project that has been a proven failure! At least, that is how I now view my former self.

As it is, my respect and admiration for our Queen has continued to grow year by year, and the meaning of that oath I swore has deepened similarly. We have so much to learn from her, so much to be grateful to her for, and we will surely miss her when she has gone. She has upheld the dignity of her office, not least through her reticence – and that is something which your Reckoning Rector particularly needs to ponder. In the meantime, I look forward to the festivities of the Jubilee, when we can celebrate her life and work and when I shall say with a glad heart these inimitable words from the Book of Common Prayer:
O LORD our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth: Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favour to behold our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen ELIZABETH; and so replenish her with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that she may alway incline to thy will, and walk in thy way: Endue her plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant her in health and wealth long to live; strengthen her that she may vanquish and overcome all her enemies; and finally, after this life, she may attain everlasting joy and felicity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen