Well, to all my American friends and family, Happy 4th July. I wish you a great day of celebration and fun. That is always a little strange coming from a Brit. After all, you did rebel against us. But I think we’ve kinda gotten over it now (as you might put it). But it’s well-meant. America is a country I’ve grown to love (or at least certainly the bits I’ve visited). And as Bono has said more than once (perhaps explaining why he’s never forsaken his Irish roots despite his love for the US): Ireland’s a great country, but America is a great idea. And that’s what the 4th is all about at its best. A great idea. Read more
20 years ago my parents bought a south-facing wheat-field off a local farmer. As an investment. It’s about 10 acres in beautiful rural Norfolk (here’s a view from the church tower right) So how would you invest?
Back on Saturday from a wonderful family time in Sicily. The last week was spent at the foot of Mount Etna. It was only a few days ago that this great volcano was erupting, but during our time, we only saw her steaming. Impressive nonetheless. One day we took a cable car (only 6-seater, so not for the vertiginally challenged!) up to 2500m and walked around for an hour or two. An extraordinary, eerie lunar landscape, and if you stray from the trodden tracks, you find yourself in gravelly lava fields. Walking in them is hard work, rather like trudging through fresh deep snow. Spectacular though. Read more
One of the most moving films of recent years has been Into the Wild (dir by Sean Penn). Here are some clips backing the version of Jerry Hannan‘s song Society, sung by Eddie Vedder (who did the whole soundtrack). The song has a bewitching melancholy – but also carries a prophetic voice about the absurdities of western materialism. The film is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young graduate who turned his back on it all, by fleeing into the wonders and brutalities of the Alaskan wilderness.
The film’s agony is that McCandless thought he could be free from a materialistic society by escaping society altogether – only to discover (too late, tragically) that what he desperately needed was not the absence of society, but the reality of a truly redeemed society.
Just back from a week over New Year in the glorious Derbyshire Peaks. We walked up Dovedale several times over the week, including a wonderful ascent (which makes it sound far grander than it really was!) of Thorpe Cloud just as the sun was setting. Truly magnificent. I can assure you that no filters have been used in the production of these images…
A hatched together panorama from Thorpe Cloud looking due west:
Some views along Dovedale:
Then some from earlier in the week
Click here to see the whole set…
Every now and then I come across something that takes my breath away. And recently, I’ve found this happen more and more with contemporary Chinese artists. Q regulars may remember the powerful impact of Xu Bing’s work with his meaningless words. Well here’s another…
As this picture above illustrates, Chinese classical art is world-renowned for its stunning landscape painting (especially for the ways that the natural world is evoked by the slightest of brushstrokes).
But check this out.
Here are a few variations on the theme by the remarkable artist, Shanghai-based Yang Yongliang. At first sight, they seem to follow closely the path and styles of the old masters. But look closer – and you see that all is not as it first seems – for a start, they’re actually produced on an inkjet printer. Then he’s presented an incredibly powerful subversion of the style, as a way of exposing the way that aggressive capitalism and environmental exploitation have destroyed so much of the uniquely beautiful Chinese landscape.
No wonder that they have been appropriated by the China Environment Protection Foundation. No idea who or what they’re like, but i sure hope they’re able to stop at least some of the insanity.
Artificial Wonderland by Yang Yongliang
- Mark Ashton writes powerfully and movingly about his battle with terminal cancer. Part 1 here.
- Not normally a total devotee (as some are in the habit of being!) but Mark Driscoll is at his most trenchant when talking here about ministry idolatry.
- Anglican Mainstream have helpfully listed the numbers of Anglicans around the world – of whom 80% now live in the ‘global south’.
- BBC History Magazine has a great article in last month’s edition about the times when Britain has called a National Day of Prayer.
- Love this idea: 66 books of the bible each summed up by one of its verses. I would quibble with one or two – but take my hat off to the attempt. (HT Beth)
- A fascinating American perspective on the UK Leadership debates from Hendrik Hertzberg.
- What war can do: a comparison between Kabul in 1970 and 2010:
- There’s been a whole load of kerfuffle (lost in the General Election storm) about the recent Digital Economy Bill (one of the very last acts of the previous parliament). Lots of potentially foolish and even frightening stuff in it. Tom Watson, PPC for West Bromwich East, has some very sensible Digital Pledges. There’s also this, rather more ‘direct’ response!
- And while we’re on th topic of technology affecting our lives, Wired has a salutary investigation about the effectiveness (or not) of CCTV cameras in the UK. Did you know that Shetland Islands Council has more CCTV cameras than San Francisco?
- A 6-year old gets a polling card – this is how he’d vote.
- Obama dancing with heads of state: a timelapse compilation from the Washington Nuclear Summit
- How China mourns an earthquake: websites go black and white (HT 22 Words)
- The new unit of measurement in UK life: “THE TESCO“
- Check out the British Library’s coming Magnificent Maps exhibition. Some amazing ones on the website
- A wonderful slideshow celebrating the 20 years’ achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope
- Oops – not a great start to a driving career.
- What should you do with spare bits of lego? You can do a LOT worse than what this guy’s done…
- Beware the small print – you might sign away your own soul. Literally.
- This is pretty amazing: a CG version of Stockholm library… a fabulous library that dreams are made of!
Have already drawn from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places – and I think I will do so a few more times. One striking motif from the book is the way in which the natural world, and especially wild places, puts us and our lives into perspective.
I picked this up in his previously quoted experience of inverted vertigo – but he sums the whole phenomenon characteristically well: “To reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history.” (p7) A few aspects of this struck me. This image below is of another place in Scotland Macfarlane visited.
1. Wild Time
So, here he is in the same valley of Loch Coruisk on Skye:
As we were walking the final miles back down the side of the loch, the weak sun seething in the water drops still on our skin, and the river beside us shaking out its own light, I saw that a rainbow had formed in the sky over the valley below us, joining both sides of the sanctuary. We walked on towards the rainbow, and as we advanced, it seemed always to retreat, keeping the same patient distance from us. I recalled a quotation I had once written down in a notebook, but for which I had lost the source: ‘Landscape was here long before we were even dreamed. It watched us arrive.’ (p59)
Then I just love this idea of wild time:
To be in the Basin, even briefly, is to be reminded of the narrow limits of human perception, of the provisionality of your assumptions about the world. In such a place, your conventional units of chronology (the century, the life-span, the decade, the year, the day, the heartbeat) become all but imperceptible, and your individual gestures and impulses (the lift of a hand, the swimming stroke taken within water, the flash of anger, a turn of speech or thought) acquired an eerie quickness. The larger impulses of the human world – its wars, civilisations, eras – seem remote. Time in the Basin moves both too fast and too slowly for you to comprehend, and it has no interest in conforming to any human schedules. The Basin keeps wild time. (p61)
2. Wild Scales
But it is not just the perspective of time that is important – it is also the way the wild pierces the pride of our autonomy.
[Wallace] Stegner argued that a wild place was worth much more than could ever be revealed by a cost benefit analysis of its recreational economic value, or its minerals and resources. No, he explained, we need wild places because they remind us of a world beyond the human. Forests, plains, prairies, deserts, mountains: the experience of these landscapes can give people ‘a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost.’
But such landscapes, Stegner wrote, were diminishing in number. The ‘remnants of the natural world’ were ‘being progressively eroded.’ The cost of this erosion was incalculable. For if the wild places were all to be lost, we would never again ‘have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.’ We would be ‘committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New world of a completely man-controlled environment.’ (p82)
3. Wild Life
But what of the animals that fill these wild landscapes? They remind us of our reality as well…
So few wild creatures, relatively, remain in Britain and Ireland: so few, relatively in the world. Pursuing our project of civilisation, we have pushed thousands of species towards the bring of disappearance and many thousands more over the edge. The loss, after it is theirs, is ours. Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres: such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise, that live by voices inaudible to you. (p306-7)
Correctives and Convictions, Grandeur and Grace
I write this post, having read this book, in the heart of London W1 – an area that has been a thoroughly urban environment for centuries. You will hardly find a more ‘man-controlled environment’ on the planet. Which is why I love the stature and dignity of the trees growing in the grand Georgian squares; which is why I love the early-morning cries of gulls gathering on local rooftops; which is why I love to escape London from time to time (despite it being my home, my birthplace and my roots). And through this book, I can imagine being away from it all. Without these reminders and correctives, I will easily fall into the trap of thinking that I, a mere human being, might just be the master of all I survey. What nonsense… This is reason enough, surely, for doing all that we can to preserve the world’s wildness…?
But there is a flip side. We mustn’t fall into the opposite danger: of thinking that we are therefore irrelevant, helpless and hopeless, infinitesimal specks in the overwhelming, unfeeling grandeur of the cosmos. For the wonder of believing in a created order and a divinely imagined and imaged humanity is that we are both profoundly connected to the natural world while still, in essential ways, separate from it. We are neither indistinct from it nor independent of it. The miracle of grace is that we matter in this cosmos because we matter to the one who made it.
To be cut off from the wild and natural is to be insulated from the scale, grandeur, provision and power of God’s world. To be cut off from the wonders of divine grace in Christ is to be insulated from the meaning, purpose and sense of place within it. Which is why insulation is so dangerous…
Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places is one of the most beautifully written and evocative books I’ve read. It is the sort of book that reminds one why we read (and should read) books in the first place, and it’s done for me what Joseph Banks and Captain Cook did for armchair traveller William Cowper.
MacFarlane is an English Literature lecturer at Cambridge – and in this book, he has gone in search for the last remaining places in the UK & Ireland that could genuinely be described as wild. In 15 chapters, he records his visits to the different wild landscapes to be found in the 5000 islands of the British archipelago. The descriptions are so compelling, and his references to literature, history as well as science so wide-ranging, that we feel as if we are learning and broadening our horizons with his every step. More importantly, I want to visit them all – and yet, conflictingly, yearn for them to stay wild.
Anyway – I found myself underlining bits on almost every page – a sign of an enjoyed read. Here, in the chapter called ‘Valley’, he visits the area around Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye (there are various photographs of it on Flickr, of which the one below by landscapepics is one of the best).
A hundred yards or so out across the loch was an island. Just a shallow hump of bare black rock, smoothed by the passage of the glaciers, and no more than a foot above the water at its highest point. It looked like the back of a whale, and its form reminded me of the outline of my beachwood.
I swam across to it, clambered out and stood there, dripping, feeling the roughness of the rock beneath my feet, and the warmth it had already gathered from the sun. Then I lay down on my back, tucked my hands behind my head and looked into the sky.
After three or four minutes, I found myself struck by a sensation of inverted vertigo, of being on the point of falling upwards. The air was empty of indicators of space or time; empty, too, of markers of depth. There was no noise except the discreet lapping of the water against the island. Lying there, with no human trace except the rim of my own eyes, I could feel a silence that reached backwards to the Ice Age. (The Wild Places, p60)
I love that concept of inverted vertigo – it is very suggestive: ‘falling upwards’ is exactly how it feels to look up into a deep blue sky. I just wonder though whether there is something here analagous to a relationship with God, who is higher, greater, more overwhelming and yet more magnetic than anything else in human experience. Isn’t that in a sense what worship is…? The gravitational pull towards the grace of the greater? Just as the psalmist feels and sings in the songs of ascent like Psalm 122.
When the Mayor of London starts writing about aliens, as Boris Johnson did in yesterday’s Telegraph, you know that something rather extraordinary has happened. (Incidentally, politics aside, Boris’ column is a wonderful guilty pleasure!) But it seems that he and I were provoked to scribble having both seen the biggest grossing movie of the aeon this weekend (what enlightened company Q seems to keep).
Now this is by no means going to be a thorough-going analysis. Loads of people have been doing that. Even the Vatican has weighed in. Here are just a few bullet-pointed thoughts that occurred to me. BUT BEWARE – one or two PLOT-SPOILERS AHEAD!
- The Beauties of the Beast: There is no doubting the film is a beast – its creation demanded the sort of megalomania only normally associated with Field-Marshals. But since the greatest efforts were applied to Avatar’s visual conception and execution, it is no surpirse that the greatest impression is effected by its look. And wow! It has to be one of the most staggeringly beautiful cinematic experiences ever created. Pandora, the world inhabited by the Na’vi, is a sight for sore eyes, an Edenic paradise. I still find my mind’s eye frequently drifting back to the fluorescent wonders of its nighttime forests (and to a lesser extent to the floating mountains which, being a bit picky, I found less convincing). No wonder people find the drab beiges and greys of the real world less beguiling. Though I’m not sure I could ever come to love the appearance of the Na’vi – or is that me simply expressing grotesque alienist prejudices?
- Full Fantasy Immersion: neither is there doubting the immersive effect of the action (we saw it in 3D, but i grew less aware of that as the movie progressed). It is bombastic, overwhelming and emotive: in other words everything you pay for in an escapist blockbuster. The whole point is to escape – in this case light-years away – so no wonder people have struggled to come back to earth. But it explains why I thoroughly enjoyed it – as did my 11-year old son Joshua.
But all of this also explains my tolerance at the time with the film’s:
- ultra-shallow characterisation – each is a mere cipher:
- crippled ex-marine gets legs (!) so goes native on ethically dubious undercover mission (Sully);
- military commander sees no shades of grey (Col Quaritch);
- determined female scientist (Augustine) battles those male bastions of military might and of corporate greed (personified by Selfridge (no doubt a descendant of the department store family)), to protect the precious objects of her study (Sigourney in Gorillas in the Mist, anyone);
- feisty female helicopter pilot suddenly disobeys orders and nobly sacrifices self for new cause (Chacone) etc etc),
- derivative plot
- ham-fisted moralising.
In fact, it’s rather ironic, is it not, how often 3D films have such 1D characters and plot. I can’t help but feel a degree of frustration that the decade+ amount of work invested in the incredible visuals and technology wasn’t ALSO applied to the traditional virtues of story, dialogue and character. Technology can never dispense with them. Cinema is merely a newly mediated advance on the Homeric bard telling stories of ancient heroes and wars. Which brings me to the next point
- Ancient Derivations: It’s always intrigued me how often science fiction reaches back to ancient history for templates – the Star Wars saga has always had resonances for classicists who studied the volatile power transfer from the senate of the Roman Republic to the imperial throne of the Augustan ‘Golden’ Age. And Avatar does something similar, despite the façade of extreme technological advance. It is that old archetype of more technologically advanced and aggressive power seeks to overcome the weaker but infinitely more noble savage society. The things said by the corporation miners about the Na’vi echo what has been said by imperialists down the ages – for instance, the Romans said some pretty rum things about the ancient Britons’ habits and fashion sense and about the virtues of the civilisation they were bringing (aka imposing). And then when it was our turn in the empire queue, the British had some pretty excruciating things to say about Africans and Asians. Etc etc. Now – to be clear, the virtues of the greatest science fiction is that it helps us to see present fact more clearly. But there are ways of doing this well, and not so well…
- Clod-Hopping Morality: but the biggest waves made by Avatar are surely political and religious. You have to be deliberately trying to ignore the point to miss them. Resonances with the invasion of Iraq are blatant (hey, look! – they invade to get hold of a precious raw material, and the offensive is even called ‘shock and awe’!!). And in the movie humans with their raw materialism (both philosophical and economic) and destructive, forest-raping and life-crushing technology (boys with their toys) are BAD (got that?); Na’vi with their Gaia-goddess tree-hugging spirituality (it’s raw pantheism and animism, in case you’re interested) and peace-loving (huh? sorry that should be peace-defending) bows & arrows are GOOD (got that too?). In fact, knowing that a war was coming (I’d checked it out to see whether this 12A film would be OK for an 11 year old boy – apart from a few scary monsters near the start, it basically is), I guessed almost immediately after meeting all the different protagonists, that the uber-baddy (Quaritch) would never be protected by his awesome techie toys but would end up at the uncomfortable end of a spear. Ha! That’ll learn him! That’s what comes of those who meddle with forces they could never understand!
Now, I don’t mind if movies have worldviews and messages that differ from mine. That’s expected and sometimes, even the point – and part of the function of good and great art is to help me experience someone else’s shoes for a time, to be immersed in another’s world. That’s why, for example, I love Homer (the poet not the Simpson – tho I enjoy him too) – I’m fascinated by the polytheism of ancient Greece not threatened by it. It’s why I love historical novels, why I’m enthralled by the Turkey of Orhan Pamuk’s books, the Baltimore of The Wire and the philosophical intelligence of Andrew Niccol’s science fiction films. Of course, it is brilliant if a Christian worldview can be convincingly and honestly articulated artistically (all too rare, sadly). But that’s not why I’m passionate about the arts.
So for all my enjoyment of Avatar — and yes, I would like to see it again (in 3D, preferably at an Imax!) because seeing it is its greatest asset — Avatar doesn’t really succeed. It is an incredibly sophisticated sledgehammer to crack the ecological nut (which is, of course, not to say that we shouldn’t find ways to get the human race to be good stewards of the planet). And sadly it will have absurd cultural effects (no doubt, just as Boris Johnson predicted), not least because we’re apparently in store for 2 sequels (I can’t wait!).
And after all… you know what happened when Pandora’s box got opened…
You wouldn’t expect John Stott to change his tune in his 89th year. And of course he hasn’t. The Radical Disciple is his 51st book – and while his thinking has developed and deepened over the decades, he has never changed direction. He’s always faced Jesus – and he does so all the more eagerly in the twilight years before the eternal dawn.
Vintage Prose and Pithy Clarity
If you’re familiar with his writing and speaking, then you won’t find anything surprisingly innovative or any marked departures – and much of what this book contains he’s said before in other places. But that’s not the point. What matters is that he has picked these characteristics of Christian discipleship to expound – despite calling them ‘selective’ and ‘somewhat arbitrary’ (p137). Each is touched on lightly and briefly, but with all the hallmarks of Stott’s vintage prose and pithy clarity of thought still firmly in place:
- Non-Conformity: “we are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world” (p19)
- Christlikeness: “we are to be like Christ in his incarnation, in his service, in his love, in his endurance, and in his mission” (p38)
- Maturity: “may God give us such a full, clear vision of Jesus Christ, first that we may grow into maturity ourselves, and secondly that, by faithful proclamation of Christ in his fullness to others, we may present others mature as well.” (p53)
- Creation-Care: “God intends our care of the creation to reflect our love for the Creator” (p65)
- Simplicity: “All Christians claim to have received a new life from Jesus Christ. What lifestyle, then, is appropriate for them? If the life is new, the lifestyle should be new also” (p71)
- Balance: “We are both individual disciples and church members, both worshippers and witnesses, both pilgrims and citizens. Nearly all our failures stem from the ease with which we forget our comprehensive identity as disciples.” (p102)
- Dependence: “We are all designed to be a burden to others… The life of the family, including the life of the local church family, should be one of ‘mutual burdensomeness.‘” (p113)
- Death: “If we want to live we must die. And we will be willing to die only when we see the glories of the life to which death leads. This is the radical, paradoxical Christian perspective.” (p135)
He chooses these because, as he reflects on western (which I suppose primarily means UK & USA Christian culture), he is anxious about their dwindling importance. We’d be utter fools to ignore the observations of so wise an elder statesman. Their challenge is straightforward and unavoidable – not least because John practises what he preaches. It is quite something, is it not, for a man in his 9th decade to be making an appeal for people to be radical?! Retirement is usually the time for conservatism and comfortable ease, not the prickly and disturbing calls for Christ-like discipleship.
The chapters are not even, in the sense of being similarly structured or equally expository:
- the Christlikeness chapter takes a topical approach, touching on various aspects of Christ’s life and character we should emulate;
- the Non-Conformity and Creation-Care chapters are also topical, but show a sustained awareness of contemporary issues: hence his helpful articulation of 4 challenging trends in the former (pluralism, materialism, ethical relativism and narcissism) and 4 ingredients of the current ecological crisis (population growth, depletion of earth’s resources, waste disposal and climate change). Not bad going for someone who’s 89 in April.
- the Simplicity chapter is essentially a publication of a statement issued after a Lausanne consultation led by John and Ron Sider in 1980. The whole statement plus commentary is online: An evangelical commitment to a simple lifestyle. I’d not come across it before and was profoundly challenged by it.
- the Balance chapter is somewhat unexpectedly an involved exposition of 1 Peter 2:1-17 – but I’d never quite seen before the way Peter mixes his metaphors in the chapter and this was illuminating (as newborn babies we are called to growth, as living stones to fellowship, as holy priests to worship, as God’s own people to witness, as aliens and strangers to holiness and as servants of God to citizenship).
Pastoral Reality with Personal Candour
But despite the chapters’ varieties of style or approach, they are always biblical and theological, and yet also pastoral and real. It is so helpful to have thumbnail sketches of people he’s been challenged or influenced by, some widely known, others not so, some British, most not. These ground the book.
What is new, perhaps, is that as the book draws to a close, Uncle John becomes increasingly candid. He’s always been an honest and humble man, but no one could remain unaffected by the poignancy of the last 2 chapters particularly. I well remember that Sunday morning in 2006 (described in chapter 7) when he was getting ready to preach at All Souls, but tripped in his flat and broke his hip, which resulted in an emergency hip replacement operation. We were involved in the All Souls week away down in Devon that weekend, but heard about it very quickly and we were all shocked. But it still didn’t prepare me to read his own agonising account of that morning:
I knew at once that I had broken or dislocated my hip, for I could not move, let alone get up. I was able, however, to push the panic button I was wearing and kind friends immediately came to my rescue…
… as this chapter progresses please do not forget my earlier experiences, spreadeagled on the floor, completely dependent on others. For this is where, from time to time, the radical disciple needs to be. I believe that dependence involved in these experiences can be used by God to bring about greater maturity in us.
…There is another aspect of the dependence which I experienced which was new to me, which I am tempted to gloss over, but which my trusted friends have urged me not to conceal. It is the emotional weakness which physical infirmity sometimes brings to the surface and which finds expression in weeping. (pp104-105)
There are few who would be prepared to turn so private and painful an experience into so public and challenging a lesson.
This really is John’s last book! His previous one – The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor – was heralded by some as his last but he seems to have known that he had one more in him. But there really are no more – and he concludes the Radical Disciple with a poignant farewell to his readers.
However, it is fitting, I think, to see these last two books as of a piece. They have a neat symmetry to them, as he concludes a long ministry.
- In The Living Church, he expounds the key hallmarks of what constitutes Church life, in all its diversity, challenges and joys.
- In The Radical Disciple, he expounds the key hallmarks of a Christian’s life, again in all its diversity, challenges and joys.
Of course, there will be things that people disagree with, no doubt. Some of the areas in the books are hot topics (e.g. Christians and the environment). And some have criticised what is seen as an obsession with balance when things are supposedly more complex or wrinkled. In neither of these books will we find in-depth analysis or argumentation to make his case.
But then why should we?! John has spent a lifetime doing just that, thinking, teaching and writing, often at great length and with great care (see this non-exhaustive bibliography). But these two books are more a summation, a last will and testament. They form a fitting conclusion to his legacy, one which it will probably take decades fully to appreciate.
It remains to be said that if this legacy is to be sustained and grow, then people need to give themselves to it deliberately. One way is for people to pray for and give to the Langham Partnership – for which he appeals at the end of the Radical Disciple – you can do that here.
But the best way is surely for us to live just as we are called to in these two books… just as, in fact, he himself has sought to live.
A wondrous wander in a frozen Regent’s Park on Wednesday inspired these. Another magical winter’s walk…
But beware the Regent’s Park sharks…
I know very little about Annie Leonard but she made this video about our rampant consumerism and it is a trenchant must-see. It first came out in 2007 – and is more relevant than ever. A very simple format: it’s essentially a 20 min animation/lecture about the nature of the global systems we thoughtlessly exploit and the realities of our dwindling global resources. I found the quotes from post-2 World War economists particularly chilling.
Here’s the first bit. Click on the banner (right) to get to the website and see the rest.
Went to see Wall-E on Saturday with the kids – bizarrely we went in the morning as we were expecting folks to come in the afternoon and it was raining, and we’d promised we’d go (it all felt a bit wrong to go to a cinema in the morning, but was fun and felt sort of rebellious). Anyway I’m a total fan. It’s beautifully made, visually stunning, and weirdly engaging (I mean it’s actually pretty surprising to find yourself emotionally caught up in a relationship between two robots who don’t talk but that’s exactly what happens). But the reason I felt a blog coming on as I sat there goggle-eyed at 11 in the morning is that it is absolutely chock-a-bloc with illustrations and provocations, as in fact are all the best Pixar films (which i suppose is what makes them so widely enjoyed)
Of course, some have gone so far as to suggest that it is to family films what Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth is to documentaries. Well, there are a lot of strong messages on this line:
- The Mess the World is in: the earth has been deserted because of callous human expoitation and (to put a more theological spin on it) a total failure to fulfil the creation mandate of stewardship. There is of course lots of debate about the arguments pro or con global warming, and we mere non-scientific mortals can feel like punchbags in the war of words. Whatever the case, though, it is surely absoultely inexcusable not to be good stewards – which surely means reforming our throw-away society at the very least. The hero is simply a robot programmed to clear up the mess (his name stands for: Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class)
- The real must be better than the virtual: humanity has been reduced to orbiting goggle-eyed tele-addicted lardcakes, so much so that they are unable to walk unaided, and are completely oblivious of their surroundings (in their hedonistic virtual paradise). [And there we were watching a film in the morning]. Plenty of illustrations of this – eg the thousands who live within their galactic paradise, but are so fixated with what’s on the little screens on their floating deckchairs, that they fail to see the beauties of the cosmos outside or to notice the fact that they have been lying by a beautiful swimming pool for decades. It reminded me of Neil Postman’s analysis of the differences between Orwell’s 1984 (where people are ruled by fear) and Huxley’s Brave New World (in which people are controlled by pleasure). The film doesn’t fully develop this of course (it is a family dystopia after all!) but it doesn’t take much imagination to see where it can go – especially with the omnipresent and omnipotent multi-galactic corporation Buy-n-Large looming large.
- The robotification and mod-conification of their universe then has deprived these human beings of their humanity – they never touch, they never see, they never think, they never really need to learn. They just exist within a world swamped by pleasure. Does that sound familiar? The irony is that Wall-E and his love interest Eve learn how to love from decrepit video tapes of a Michael Crawford and Barbara Streisand (singing in Hello Dolly!) of all things. And they then are the catalysts for human beings being able to relearn the art.
But here’s where it gets interesting:
- Noah’s Ark: the spaceship on which humanity lives is called Axiom (interesting name – would be interested to hear why you think it is). In preserving the human race in the face of ecological disaster, it has parallels I guess with Noah’s Ark. But it is not a perfect fit – not least because it is a man-made solution to a man-made problem, rather than a God-given solution to a man-made problem. But what it did make me think of more (perhaps because I’m currently immersed in Isaiah for a number of talks next week) was the parallels with the Babylonian Exile.
- Babylon: the people go into exile because of their rank and rampant injustice, idolatry and spiritual hard-heartedness. They simply don’t care about what’s right or wrong, or about the consequences of their actions (eg Isaiah 5). The result of which is political chaos, invasion and agricultural carnage. They are then carted off into Exile. It is a problem of their own making. The only hope is for a miracle.
- A Miracle: In Isaiah 7, 9 & 11, the miracle is promised – a child who will be a sign, a light in darkness and a seedling of life amidst a barren wasteland and descrated forest. Without giving too much away, this is not dissimilar to what happens in the film. And the result of this miraculous life enables the beginning of the future – for humanity can return to start rebuilding their lives, homes and world. Very small beginnings in the film of course – there is a VERY long way to go. But my hunch is that the way the characters feel in the movie is not unlike how the first returning Exiles felt about reaching the crumbled walls and residue of Jerusalem (after Cyrus’ decree).
But for all its gloss and beauty, humour and character, this film is pretty dark – it really is a dystopia that bizarrely enough provides fun for all the family (we were all in stitches at various points). And there is nothing wrong with dystopias – especially if they jolt people into thinking about reality. And in fact, there is something almost prophetic about it (in the OT sense of the word). The prophets are always going on about ‘if you carry on like this… you’ll end up like that…’
Who ever said that was not a message that children let alone adults should not hear or heed?
We’ve had a week off – marvellous to get out of the big smoke and get away from the hubbub and demands. But unlike lots of mates who have been doing the sound thing this week, we’ve not gone to New Word Alive, even though that would have been a very sound thing to have done. And so when friends asked where we were going for our holiday, we correctly answered, “Sheffield”. Their responses tended to be fairly unanimous – “Oh… er… that’s nice.” And i want to say, “Yes, it is”.
You see, we lived here for 4 happy years – both children proudly bear the place of birth on their passports as Sheffield – and and we loved it – even though we had been totally ignorant southerners who had no idea about existence north of the Watford Gap (until you get to Edinburgh – they have culture, up there, you know, because they actually have a festival). Well, we’ve been having a lovely time. And i thought i would correct the mockers and doubters by giving lots of reasons why it is such a groovy place.
- It is beautiful.
- No, it is very beautiful. In case you don’t believe me, you need to check this out.
OK – this is not exactly how people imagine Sheffield. That’s because it isn’t. It is the Hope Valley in Derbyshire – but that is just 20-25 mins out of the west side of the city. (They’re trying to beautify the city centre because it is a bit of a concrete nightmare – but that’s life I suppose). Quite pleased with this picture actually – a nice panorama from about 8 different ones, taken from the exit of the Treak Cliff cavern (where they mine Blue John). Apart from the blasted cement works (in the right of the picture) this would be the closest you can get to a classic northern English rural idyll. Now you can’t get anything like as good as this within 25 minutes of London, can you?
- They’re much more friendly here. (I’ve not been able to figure out how to get this to carry on from the previous number bullet!) Even though we left 7 years ago, we went into the Co-Op yesterday and the lady behind the till recognized us but couldn’t quite place us, and so just blithely entered a conversation that had probably been left off 7 years ago. She didn’t have to do this. We didn’t oblige her to. But she did. Q.E.D. – they’re more friendly here.
- We’ve got lots of friends here – and they’re very friendly too.
- There’s actually lots to do with children around here – and what’s even better is that while London schools are on holiday this week, everyone’s gone back to school up here. So we are undisturbed – apart from the school trips that dog us at every turn.
- I overheard a schoolgirl on one such school trip yesterday – and she actually shouted to a friend, “Ey, up”, presumably to get the friend to slow down. It felt great to be home.
- Sheffield University has the highest stay-on rate of any British university – i.e. that means that more people who graduate from Sheffield stay on in the same city than for any other university in Britain. Or something. You know what I mean. That says something, surely?
So there you go – this is a GREAT place for a holiday.