Sunday, January 22, 2006

Match Point and The Selfish Gene

In his bleak but marvellously written book “The Selfish Gene”, Richard Dawkins summed up his philosophy of life in the following words :"the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."
Rarely has this philosophy been so chillingly deployed as in Woody Allen's latest film “Match Point”.
Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a young former tennis professional who charms his way into a top-notch executive position in the City. We have no difficulty agreeing with Chris that his success is the result of incredibly good luck. He does not have to fight off any rivals for any of the positions that he is recommended for. He just free-wheels into them, the promotion that he is offered always being someone else's idea. All the while, he is saving his aggression for another area of his life: his passionate affair with Nola Rice, his brother-in-law's hapless fiancée. That is only the area of his life in which he takes any of his own decisions, and they turn out to be less than fortunate ones to say the least.
The upshot is that Chris's apparently amazing good luck is put to the test when he makes a reckless decision, leaving a trail of evidence that the most witless sleuth would be able to pick up. He bides his time, waiting for the axe to fall. But it doesn't. His position - elevated above the Thames and the crawling masses - remains unthreatened, but we get the impression that he actually feels cheated ... cheated by good luck!

Saturday, December 10, 2005


I have just been to see "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe". I think that on the whole it was a very good adaptation of the wonderful story by C.S. Lewis. Given the strangeness of the world that the children found themselves in, complete with umbrella-carrying fauns, centaurs, talking beavers, and Father Christmas (not to mention the lion Aslan) it could so easily have collapsed into a ridiculous pantomime-like Christmas show, all the sublimity of Aslan's costly victory over Jadis and the coronation of the four sons and daughters of Adam and Eve being completely lost. But the casting (and acting) was so good and the special effects so compelling, that this did not happen.

What I wonder though is how many people in audiences around the world will really grasp what a serious business myth-making of this kind (and of the kind that we have in Lord of the Rings) really is. For most people the story will come and go just as another "fairy-tale", to be dismissed to the realm of entertaining (or not so entertaining) fantasy, consigned to the periphery of life while the real business of living has to be got on with. But that would be to miss the whole point. Lewis and Tolkien both believed that there was nothing more serious, and nothing more real, than the truths that lay at the heart of their fantasies. What we call the "business of living" is indeed, more often than not, the means whereby we are distracted by the enemy of our souls (the being embodied in the LWW by the White Witch) from truths which we neglect at our peril. The things that occupy and entertain us are the equivalent of the turkish delight which the White Witch offered Edmund. They keep us from really getting to grips with the big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? Who put us here and for what purpose? When the children were drawn into Narnia, there they were confronted with these questions.

What is it going to take for us to realise that if God exists, if Jesus Christ was who he said he was and had come to do what he said he had come to do (and why shouldn't we face that possibility) , there is more to life than the "four walls" that surround us. Maybe there is a realm that we can barely conceive of now, but about which we occasionally hear the odd rumour or from which we occasionally see a light glimmering in the distance. Maybe we should follow these rumours to see where they lead. We might be in for a surprise!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Les Misérables

One of my favourite novels of all time is “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo. Few writers (Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky would undoubtedly count among the few) have so brilliantly and movingly portrayed the misery and the grandeur of the human condition. After his release from prison Jean Valjean, though clearly more sinned against than sinning, is not someone that we would relish the idea of meeting on our way home on a dark night. He is the embodiment of brutalised strength, seething with hatred and resentment. The author tells us that a man like this, unless “providence” intervenes, is among the most dangerous and destructive forces that one can imagine.

With a main character who is described in these terms right at the start of a long novel the author’s choice of title seems more than fitting! What kind of story can we expect?

When the saintly old bishop at the hostel where Jean Valjean was given food and lodging leaves his door ajar, having let his guest know where the silver was kept, we know what’s going to happen. The only thing that is in doubt is whether the bishop himself will escape with his life intact.

However, it isn’t long before Valjean is caught, his bag bulging with the bishop’s silver cutlery. The rest of the story is already writing itself in our minds: Valjean will be thrown back into prison, where he will become more and more depraved, and Javert’s opinion of him will have been amply vindicated.

We are no less taken aback than Valjean himself is when the bishop, instead of reclaiming his silver, asks him why he hadn’t taken the candlesticks as well! The bishop’s gift had after all been ALL the silverware, not only the cutlery. After the policemen leave, the bishop “reminds” Valjean of his promise use this gift to become a good man.

This encounter with goodness is the turning point of the novel, occurring though it does right at the beginning of it. The rest of the story is essentially Valjean’s earnest commitment of himself, body and soul, to the fulfilment of this promise, running parallel with Javert’s equally earnest endeavour to nail the “fugitive” and throw him back in prison. Javert stands for the cold, relentless application of justice, which can punish but cannot restore. The bishop, by contrast, stands for not only forgiveness but grace. Not content to refrain from pressing charges and let the matter drop, he gives Valjean the silver that he had intended to steal, and more of it besides. In doing so, he gives him something to be grateful for, and someone to be grateful to. It is this gratitude which transforms Vealjean from an embittered, hate-driven bandit into a humble, love-driven human being. In this transformation Hugo makes us witnesses to a revolution that proves much deeper than the one that has just engulfed the country, leaving a wasteland in its wake.

These events remind me of the words of America’s best-loved hymn, written, interestingly, by a former English slave-trader at about the same time as the events desribed in the first pages of "Les Misérables". (If only we could see more of the theme of this hymn in America's dealings with Iraq)

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.'

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed!

The Lord has promised good to me,
his word my hope secures;
he will my shield and portion be
as long as life endures.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
'tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The world shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun refuse to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Shall be forever mine.

Mind you, Jean Valjean could have taken the silver and let it take possession of him. The bishop knew that he risked not only losing his silver, but losing Jean Valjean as well. In that case this grace would not have been effective. But he knew that the risk was worth taking. It was a similar risk that God took when He became a baby about 2 millenia ago.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

homo incurvatus in se

Christmas is the time of the year when I am made most sharply aware of how narcisistic our society has become. The advertisements that bombard us, the charities that appeal to us for support, the films that are put on specially for the season all conspire to present us with an idealised image of ourselves, and we revel in it. It is the time when I realise how little difference there is between traditional religion (Christianity in the case of this country) and the secular faith that has, in most people's minds, replaced it. In the case of the former, it is assumed that we will fall in line with a series of "culturised" rituals. And fall we do, because it is only once a year, and, in any case, midnight mass and carols make us feel good about ourselves and about the world. As regards the latter, we merrily fall in line with the rituals of consumerism. Our self acceptance, and our acceptance of others, are bound up with the extent to which we and they are able to find a place within one or other of these sets of rituals, or both.

The problem with religions and their rituals, whether or not they are connected in some way with God, is that they require and reward unquestioning conformity. (Films like "Breaking the Waves" spring to mind). These rituals are sometimes represented as being liberating, but often they are actually deeply enslaving. At the time of Pope Leo X, celebrity friars drew huge crowds into churches, cathedrals and town squares to demand money in return for the "indulgences" which would secure the release of their loved ones from the torments of purgatory. Masters of marketing that they were, they blandished their symbols and chanted their jingles: "As soon as pennies in the money chest ring, the souls out of their Purgatory do spring." The upshot of it all was that people, even when they gave, never felt that they had given enough and so they were crippled both by guilt and by the prospect of having to endure these torments themselves. Martin Luther and others brought the truly liberating words and presence of Jesus Christ into this horrific scenario, and every effort was made to drive them out of the public square. Sadly however, the revolution they initiated later gave rise to the imposition of other sets of rituals. Many very religious "self-respecting" protestants still measure themselves against the degree to which they conform, and they are measured by others, often very subtly, by the same standard. And is this phenomenon not a characteristic feature of virtually all religious practice in every culture and society?: you are worth what you contribute, you exist in so far as you "toe the line". I suppose that this is one reason for the resurgence of oriental religion in western societies, and of neo-pagan practices. They seem like a breath of fresh air. They seem to provide the individual with more space to be themselves. But are the rituals that are associated with them actually any more liberating (or any less enslaving) than those that they are a reaction against?

Jesus was born into a deeply religious society. It is worth noting that many of his healing miracles were performed to liberate those for whom "religion" had done nothing. Take the story of the man lying at the pool recorded in John chapter 5. Contemporary religion had come up with this elaborate ritual whereby anyone who could find their way into the water when an angel came down and stirred it up would be healed of whatever problem they had. You had to be quick though, there would be plenty of others trying to get there ahead of you. This cripple had been there for 38 years hoping against hope that one day he would get to the water before anyone else. Needless to say, it never happened. Jesus came and, after asking him if he really did want to be healed (an important question - he might have been wallowing in self-pity) simply ordered him to get up and walk. That is liberation.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


I have recently finished reading Ian McEwan's latest novel, Saturday. What makes this novel stand out among the novels that I have read in the last few years is the fact that its main character is at one with rather than at odds with the world that immediately surrounds him. His work (he is a neurosurgeon) engages and challenges him during his week days, and at the weekend he is fortunate enough to be able to withdraw inside a cocoon of marital and domestic harmony. The opening of the novel depicts him, early one Saturday morning, gazing through the window of his home in central London. He alone, as it seems to him, is awake. The city sleeps, unaware of the threat that seems, to him, to be closing in on it. The threat turns out to have been no such thing, and the city wakes into its regular routine. Nevertheless, the threat was real while it lasted, and given the post 9/11 scenario, it gives the rest of the novel a sense of foreboding, a sense of something terrible lurking near the periphery of our all too cosy, rather too complacent society. Perowne slips out of the protective shell of his home, into the protective shell of his Mercedes and makes his way towards his much anticipated game of squash. It is at this point that the agitation of the outside world breaks through Perowne's protective shell in the form of a thug named Baxter and his cronies. Again the threat seems to pass, but Perowne's sheltered world has momentarily been shaken. Just when everything seems to have settled back into a regular pattern once again, the agitation and terror on the outside seemingly safely located on the other side of Henry's TV screen, or having been confined to the subject-matter of his argument with his daughter, they come crashing into the family home. With the help of his daughter and her poem, Henry succeeds in neutralising the danger - diverting the dark energy of the aggressor's brain into an unforeseeable aesthetic rapture.

However despite the subsequent restoration of order and harmony, one is left, as with many of Shakespeare's so-called comedies, with a sense of the skin-deep precariousness of the "shells" within which we all find protection from the agitation and the evil of the world. Perowne (and probably McEwan too) is sustained by love within his family on the one hand, and by the sense of wonder that the miracle of human consciousness, together with the whole pantheon of science, literature, music and art that it has given rise to, inspires in him. And this is something that our protagonist has in common with millions of people in the comfortable western world. But it is a world (the world that Perowne and all of us have constructed within our minds that is) which is governed by contingency. Everything that goes right for him, and for the world, is represented here as a stroke of luck. It could so easily be otherwise. Schrödiger's cat could so easily be found dead rather than alive.

That is the universe which is inhabited by those for whom everything that is is the result of a series of lucky (or unlucky) accidents. It might be possible for people like Perowne to draw comfort from such reflections. But what about those who have not been so lucky? Are they at the mercy of contingency? Is their only recourse, as they feel the darkness closing in, to make some kind of leap of faith into the arms of a hypothetical (but actually non-existent) supernatural being?

Just suppose however that the world and everything in it is not in fact governed by blind contingency. What if, contrary to Perowne's creed, human consciousness, together with science art and literature, is actually a gift? What if this world, outside of our little cocoons, is not in fact spinning out of control but is, despite the suffering that we see all around us, on course towards restoration? Such blind faith would presumably be dismissed by McEwan as not only wrong-headed, but dangerous. But this faith, faith in God, has sustained countless millions of people through terrible national and personal traumas in the past. And it is, even from a scientific point of view, by no means such an unreasonable faith as it was once assumed to be. If it could be seen to be not a blind leap of faith but the natural response to our true awareness of the miracle of consciousness, it would provide us with a much more solid reason to hope than the precarious and brittle shell that Perowne gazes out from onto the world on that memorable Saturday morning.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

"Never let me go" Kazuo Ishiguro

What is disturbing about this novel is not so much the chilling possibility of something like cloning and the use of clones for the harvesting of body parts actually occurring at some time in the future (which it might), but rather the way in which both the clones and their creators simply accept it as the way things must be. Here there is no Ewan McGreggor- led rebellion to bring down the citadel of the elite and liberate their slaves. What we have instead is unquestioning acquiescence: human beings who know full well that they are human in every sense, but who nevertheless accept their fate, and their "creators" who also know it but who refuse to face the truth, as the presence and role of these clones have become so central to the way things are. So many people are reaping the rewards of the donation programme, so much time and money has been invested in it, that no one, whatever their misgivings, is going to start rocking the boat now, are they? The scenario is poignantly reminiscent of the colonial economies that were sustained by the slave trade from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Africa, among the other resources that it supplied, was a harvest of human flesh, ripe for the picking. Virtually no one challenged this assumption, whether because they had no interest in doing so, or because they did not dare to, or because they were powerless to. Virtually no one publicly defended the human dignity of the slaves. On the contrary, the scientific establishment of the late 19th century actually seemed to make it possible for the white greed-driven elites to argue that these human beings were not human beings after all. They were little more than semi-evolved primates, at best arrested mid-way between ape and man. They were "reified", turned into merchandise. Ironically they were deprived of their humanity to bring relief to the troubled conscience of those who, supposedly, had advanced beyond them in the journey towards fully-fledged humanity. The parallels with Ishiguro's novel are unmistakeable.

So this novel raises some very fundamental questions. How do we define human dignity? What is the defence, in the current ideological climate of the western world, against something like the slave trade happening again, or against something like the world of Ishiguro's novel ever coming true (once again) in our world?

Shards of truth

The purpose of this blog is to discuss the worldviews that underlie and are articulated in the arts and the media. Whatever lipservice many might give to the truism that "truth is relative", and that all worldviews are equally defensible, it goes without saying that again and again we rule out this or that view as invalid, and indefensible. I envisage this blog as a forum where the contributors can freely advocate the worldview that they have come to embrace, and freely challenge as invalid and untrue those views which, however wonderful the medium through which they are conveyed, they do not find acceptable.

I am going to be contributing as a Christian believer. I believe the Bible to be the Word of God. I believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God. That is where I shall be taking my stand. But I imagine that other contributors will be defending other paradigms. I shall be starting up discussions on books and films that I have been challenged and or enriched by, and I shall be reviewing them from the point of view of a Christian believer. Having said that, I know that I have a great deal to learn from those who have seen the same films or read the same books from very different perspectives.

I look forward to some very thought-provoking discussion. Please feel free to have your say.