Many-Splendored Things: a Review of The Singing Bowl by Malcolm Guite

What is poetry? To seek an answer is to find a seeming infinity of thought. There are many fine and famous replies to that question.

In one beautiful line, Lamartine tells us that “poetry is the morning dream of great minds.”[1] And it seems a thing inexhaustible, for in one sonnet, John Keats wrote “the poetry of earth is ceasing never.”[2] Then too, Jonathan Swift never wrote a better line than when he said: “truth shines the brighter, clad in verse.”[3] And to these sterling thoughts, so many more might be added.

Still, when reading them, one thing seems certain: we will never find the last word on what poetry is. But we may find something like a welcome and star-like host of words that point to the realm of poetry, with all that beckons there.

 * * *

Some fine books of poetry are like that: they point to places of possibility—in everything—from the commonplace to the transcendent.

The Singing Bowl, by Malcolm Guite, is such a book.

At its heart, the range of subjects covered in this collection of verse holds the bright secret to its appeal, for clearly, Dr. Guite (of Cambridge University in England) is a questing poet.

For example, one rich sequence of poems is written conversation with Dante, another reverent cluster of three poetic sequences centers on the practice of prayer in somber seasons—with explorations of what it means to persist in the presence of a God who hears and knows us in time of trouble.

Other poems seek “heaven in the ordinary,” amid “local habitations.” They remind us of common grace, and the anyplace where it might be found. One superb poem in this part of the book is “Cowper’s View, All Saints Hartford.”

Here, we look with gratitude upon “the Great Ouse,” and see “flood-meadows holding scraps of sky.” At the same time, there are kind reflections on the despair that sometimes overwhelmed Cowper. These bring comfort, though Cowper knew so many days that eluded solace. Last, we find this moving close that evokes a sense of kinship and gentle sympathy, mingled with a subtle, yet undeniable hope—

 

I watch with Cowper through my darkened days,

And wait with him till we shall see sunrise.

 * * *

Throughout this collection, Dr. Guite’s sureness as a technician, and sureness of touch as a artist are blended in equal measure. His book may be likened to a canvas of many hues, where every brush-stroke tells.

And one is so often grateful for his insight as a poet, as in these lines:

 

Begin the song exactly where you are

Remain within the world of which you’re made

Call nothing common in the earth or air.

 

Here, and throughout The Singing Bowl, Malcolm Guite has given us a book rich in things that hallow what it means to be human. Take up this book. Travel its paths of pilgrimage. Discover many-splendored things.

***

An award-winning author, Kevin Belmonte has written and edited over a dozen books, including biographies of William Wilberforce and G.K. Chesterton. He is also a columnist for BreakPoint magazine, and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.



[1] See page 348 of Memoirs of Celebrated Characters, vol. 1, by Alphonse de Lamartine, (London: Richard Bentley, 1854).

[2] See page 49 of The Complete Works of John Keats, vol. 1, ed. by H.B. Forman, (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1900).

[3] See page 174 of The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift, vol. 6, (Edinburgh: A. Donaldson, 1759). See also page 205 of The Complete Poems, by Jonathan Swift, (London: Penguin Books, 1983).

The Bible Miniseries from The History Channel: A Review

The History Channel just wrapped up their 5-week mini-series called ‘The Bible.’ Of course, like many other historically informed dramatic re-interpretations, the mini-series had its moments that left its audience scratching its head in curiosity. Did it really happen that way? It was almost as entertaining to follow social media during the first few weeks of the mini-series and catch a sense of how some within the Evangelical community felt about the series’ fidelity to the biblical text. Not to mention the commercials. I could go the rest of my life and not see another Christian Mingle ad and be completely overjoyed about it. As for the series itself, there were times during the first three episodes when my own kids questioned the way certain events were portrayed. However, each episode began with a disclaimer that this was to be expected. Be that as it may, the mini-series creators also insisted that they desired to stay faithful to the spirit of the story. For the most part, I believe they did, especially when the events portrayed in the mini-series began to focus on the life of Jesus.

The_Bible_-_Title_Card

All too often, historic retellings of biblical events often start from a place of suspicion, as if there is no way the events found within the pages of scripture are plausible, or, at worst, as if they suggest that to believe these stories is tantamount to madness. This mini-series offered no such revision and offered no apology for not suggesting otherwise. Too many times, those of us who are actively involved in apologetics are so conditioned to having our assumptions about scripture critiqued, that we can be less than charitable when an honest effort is made to retell the story as found in the pages of scripture. Our collective guards are always up and we are, at times, too fast to point out anything that we might identify as an inconsistency.

For example, there was quite a bit of chatter in our living room and via social networks during the episode that covered the Babylonian exile and the life of Daniel. It seemed that the story tellers got the names of some important people very wrong; however, come to find out, the primary texts utilized by the producers seem to support Ezra’s text and not Daniel. For all the following conversations that developed around the topic of biblical literacy, perhaps this was an indictment on my own lack of familiarity with the Bible itself?  When was the last time I allowed a story to challenge and reinvigorate? How much more should that be the case when that story is our story?

No doubt, theologians and historians (to name just two) might be right to point out some of the deficiencies that one might expect when trying to condense thousands of years of history into ten hours, but let me suggest some of the material that I found to be quite honest and refreshing:

  • An account of human origins that began with God’s creative fiat
  • The created world being thrown into a state of disjointedness because of man’s sin. With that, sin demands justice and no one, not even God’s people, was immune from it
  • God’s selection of Abraham, and subsequently Israel, as central to his redemptive plan
  • God’s involvement in salvation history through what we might identify as the miraculous (Including dreams and visions)
  • The problem and reality of evil, incarnated in the person of Satan
  • An orthodox view of the Incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus (including his miracles)
  • An outstanding temptation scene where each temptation, especially the third, gives the audience a clear image of what is being presented to Jesus after his period of wandering in the desert
  • The real tension that existed between Rome, the Jewish nation, and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom (Jesus challenged both the political and religious powers of his day with his proclamation of the Kingdom)
  • Life after the resurrection, including what happened at Pentecost, the spread of Christianity,  and the disciples’ continuing mission amidst persecution (including Stephen’s stoning, salvation and the Holy Spirit coming to the house of Cornelius, and the journey of the disciples to foreign lands)
  • Paul’s zeal both pre/post conversion

To be sure, this mini-series was not without its own issues. Those issues are worth discussing if it assists in someone coming into a fuller view of who God is as revealed to us in scripture.  Dr. Matthew Milliner, associate professor of art at Wheaton College summed it up best (via Twitter):  this mini-series was uneven at times, but occasionally wonderful, and serves as a good educational resource. In a world where the Bible and its Christian adherents are often presented as a religious expression of the will to power, it’s no small thing that the History Channel would be willing to air a mini-series that presents the story in a way that affirms what billions have believed for millennia. Perhaps their willingness to do so suggests something else: an admission affirming the integrity of the historical record as presented in The Bible.

***

Mario Alejandre lives in Salt Lake City, UT.  He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Utah and an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University.  Currently, he leads a weekly class called Christianity Explored, a look at what it means to be a human in the midst of God’s story. You can follow him on twitter at @u2gospel.

 

Red Booth Notes: A Review of Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes

Few biographies are at once an unriddling of chronology, seminal events, and a study of character. Yet all these traits are clearly present in Amity Shlaes’ superb new biography of America’s 30th president, Calvin Coolidge.

That he was not without flaws is certainly true, and Ms. Shlaes’ book discusses them with balance and insight. But Coolidge possessed many counter-intuitive strengths, and her exploration of them lends her book much of its appeal. In so doing, she achieves the difficult feat of showing how his life shaped the times he lived in, particularly the 1920s, and the ways his life and career speak with power to our own historical moment.

Supremely, he did all he could to be a wise and prudent steward of American fiscal policy. His tenure was marked by historically-low unemployment and budget surpluses. He understood the art of delegation, and knew what it was to mine the wisdom of gifted colleagues. He let their strengths become his own. He learned from them, and acted in concert with them. Wrongly caricatured as a loner, Coolidge understood how important it was to husband his time, and his physical well-being. Few people knew that he suffered from a bad heart. And his life was exemplified by a rare form of courage no father should ever have to call upon: a courage summoned by the tragic death of his son. Spare lines of suffering and loss were written after this searing loss—

 In his suffering he was asking me to make him well. I could not.

When he went the power and the glory of the presidency went with him.

The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. It seemed to me that the world had need of the work that it was probable he could do.

I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.

To write a biography as Ms. Shlaes has done is to join a long conversation with history. Sometimes only the passage of years allows us to rightly appreciate a particular kind of leader. Eighty years after Coolidge’s passing, we are perhaps only beginning to see that leaders can lead as much through forbearance—the things they choose not to do—as through the things they choose to do. Both may be numbered among their accomplishments. Both kinds of leadership have something to teach us.

Shlaes’s book recalls David McCullough’s recovery of Harry Truman twenty years ago in his masterful biography. Coolidge is meticulously researched, and artfully written. It stands as a definitive work.

Would that we had more presidents whose formative years unfolded in the life school of America’s farms. There, character can strike deep roots and grow. Shlaes and McCullough both remind us that character is the most telling and important trait a president can have. We are better for knowing presidents Truman and Coolidge better. Both biographies belong on the same shelf.

***

 An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).

The Compelling Narrative of Les Miserables: Movie Review

Drawing from both the musical and novel that bears its name, the cinematic version of Les Misérables is a story wonderfully told, with all of the tragedy and beauty that often marks the human experience. Themes of love, law, justice, grace, redemption and revolution (to name a few) run concurrently through this film from beginning to end. The story is set during a volatile time in France’s proud history dating from 1815 through the June rebellion in the 1830’s. The seeds of revolution served as the background for understanding the life of Jean Valjean, the story’s protagonist .The film begins with him working as a prisoner under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert, the film’s antagonist. The film follows Valjean’s release from prison, subsequent break from parole, and attempt at constructing a new life while continually being pursued by the resilient Javert. The story is full of subplots that continually connect these two men.

The experience of watching the film served as an invitation to explore the film’s themes in more detail. I was reminded that the pathos of well-told story has the ability to touch anyone who is willing to let it. As someone who is not a film critic, I’m happy to let those who are judge the film on those merits. In addition, those who have studied Hugo’s novel as students of literature are no doubt more qualified to speak authoritatively on the books content. However, as someone interested in providing metaphors, examples and language to speak more meaningfully about the Christian narrative, this film is worth reviewing.

Les Mis poster

It would be quite an undertaking to flesh out many of the themes found in this movie in great detail. That work should be done by anyone interested in connecting the dots of how mediums like film lend itself to the larger conversation. What I’d like to do here is briefly touch on a few of the characters and themes in hopes that your own curiosity would be roused, and the conversation furthered. Any reflection on Les Misérables has to begin with comments about Jean Valjean and Javert.

One man, through the course of extraordinary events, becomes a prisoner, fugitive, respected mayor and lastly, a sojourner. One man, born into a family of criminals, commits himself to upholding the law. Both have identities that they’d like to either forget or change. Both men’s destinies are mysteriously intertwined with each other’s.  Jean Valjean, after his release from prison finds refuge within the presence of the church and encounters the compassion of a local bishop. He experiences the undeserved grace of God through the Bishop of Digne, who reminds Valjean of his innate dignity as a man made in God’s image.  There was more to the man than just being prisoner 24601, the lens through which Javert sees Valjean for much of the movie.

Jean Valjean’s response to the grace extended by the bishop is to change is his name and start life anew. As Mayor Madeleine, Valjean’s life becomes one where his social ethic mirrors his new found faith. When the hired hand responsible for the oversight of Valjean’s factory refuses to act fairly with Fantine, Valjean commits to correct the wrong caused by his manager as if he himself had caused it. Valjean’s past was ever before him, as his life continues to not only be intertwined with Javert’s, but also with Fantine and Cosette, Fantine’s daughter. Valjean’s love of mercy and justice is challenged when, given the opportunity to forever leave his past and Jean Valjean behind, he refuses to let a stranger suffer in his place.

Inspector Javert’s life-long pursuit of Jean Valjean is equally compelling. As a man born to convicts, he gives his whole life to the pursuit of upholding the law of the land. Javert sees the beauty and order of the created world, and sees, at least at some level, that his work is an extension of God’s in the universe. Yet, for whatever reason, he fails to see Valjean as anything more than prisoner 24601. What was it that made Javert think that as a child born in prison, he could change his destiny by becoming a man of the law while simultaneously believing that sort of change was impossible for Valjean? A person’s nature is incapable of changing, so thought Javert, and perhaps that perspective became the point of his own undoing. The tragedy of Javert’s character is not that he is ugly, but that he is sincere, upright, noble and even capable of empathy.

These tensions are part of what marks the beauty of this film. Each person we are introduced to (and there are quite a bit more than what’s mentioned here) will often remind us of people we know. Some will even inspire us. How would our cultural revolutions be different if every minister of the Gospel had the compassion of the Bishop of Digne?  Our displeasure with some of characters (the Thénardiers for example) will remind us that morality and the ethical are inseparable. A moral compass does exist. We are even faced with the reality that sometimes, the most straight forward explanation for any given scenario may not always be where the truth is discovered. Even the socio/political context of the film, the French Revolution, forces us to ask the question of how should society be remade when those on the margins are left to their last resort? The movie ends powerfully enough, when Jean Valjean, again finding refuge within the walls of the church, is given the gracious invitation to the pass from this life to the next. What happens next? Let’s just say that I think the closing scene would make for some great conversation.

George McDonald once said, “The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is–not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.” Movies like Les Misérables have the power to rouse the conscience and awaken the things already in us. We are touched by the subjective nature of the story because we can often relate with the characters in the film.  When themes like love, justice, mercy and revolution undergird a film’s narrative, we are invited to inquire about the transcendent as well.  As long as there are films like Les Misérables, there will always be the kind of examples we need to help us understand (and converse about) the kind of grace that the Christian narrative promises.

 

 

Red Booth Notes: Conversations by Bryan Duncan (Music Review)

Christmas came early this past year for fans of blue-eyed soul. Just one month ago, Bryan Duncan released a new solo album, Conversations.

He’s never sounded better.

Bryan Duncan Conversations

From start to finish, Duncan’s signature sound is front and center. His remarkable voice is instantly recognizable, and his triple-threat gifts are on full display—he’s a superb keyboardist and lyricist into the bargain. As for stylings, there’s a lot on the table. Jazz, blues, R&B, two Christmas songs as well, it’s all there on Conversations. Take the album as a whole, and comparisons to Duncan’s peer, Al Jarreau, readily come to mind. Artistry all the way.

Since the early 1980s, I’ve known and had a deep appreciation for Duncan’s gifts. From his years with the Sweet Comfort Band, to his storied solo career, few can turn a better, more moving lyric, or sing a phrase with more conviction.

Writing this review offers a chance to say thank you for so many years of fine performances, and welcome the new music we’ve been given. It’s hard to choose from the standout tracks on Conversations, but three favorites include “Sweet Friend of Mine,” “Nothing to Prove,” and the bluesy “Little Bit At A Time,” co-written with Phil Keaggy. Add a fourth in “I Can’t Imagine,” a burnished pop gem as welcome and winsome as summer. Faith shimmers here, like the colors of an evening sky.

Nor is this fine album the only cause célèbre. It’s fantastic news to note that in February, after a long hiatus, Sweet Comfort Band will be releasing a fantastic new album, The Waiting Is Over.

Stay tuned, it looks like Mr. Duncan is just getting started. 2013 promises to be a banner year.

The album is available on iTunes here.

 

Red Booth Notes: Phil Keaggy’s Inseparable: Music Review

Summoned by bells, as though it were evensong, the listener is drawn subtly, reverently, into the soundscape Phil Keaggy has crafted in one of his finest albums, Inseparable.

A dozen years have passed since its release. Yet time seems only to confirm the artistry that imbues this cycle of lyric and song.

The song “Chalice” follows the opening Prelude, with lines inspired by the imagery of C.S. Lewis and Oswald Chambers. Here too, we seem to hear echoes of the writings of Dante. We encounter the paradox that suffering can somehow nourish the soul, and it is this somber, redemptive theme that Keaggy sets before us. As I listened, I was reminded of these words from Madeline L’Engle: ““It takes great faith to open oneself to this purifying fire—to believe that it is the power of love.”[1]

From “Chalice” we’re taken to healing shores—through a song that washes over the troubled soul like a benediction: “Blessed Are.” Have you ever watched water shimmer on a lake surface at sunset? To see such a sight is to see, and understand, how the words of this song, taken from The Beatitudes, bring rest and beauty in their wake. Shimmering phrases of guitar are met by ambient sounds and keening vocals. The solace of eternal promise draws near.

The title track, “Inseparable,” immediately follows. In little less than five minutes, a lyric pilgrimage unfolds that John Bunyan would recognize. Like a traveler who has glimpsed the far-distant castle where all trials end, each line seems to convey an ineffable, yet profound sense of longing. The blessed realm beckons, yet it is not to be won easily. As with Bunyan’s pilgrim, we seem to hear: “as I walked through the wilderness of this world, I laid me down…and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.”

It is only fitting, then, that the next track is “Litany to the Spirit,” with its refrain of “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord, have mercy). Bunyan’s pilgrim knew valleys of darkness. Yet he could call upon the Shining One in the hour of need. Keaggy also takes us to a somber place, yet we can cry to the Lord of Hope. All this flows from lines inspired by the poetry of Bunyan’s contemporary—the 17th century poet, Robert Herrick.

Following the five tracks that open the album, other songs impart golden solace and peace. “Carry Me Back,” with its roots in reggae, might at first seem a song out of place. But nothing’s farther from the truth. Many reggae songs were born of oppression, and though political turmoil is not the subtext here, there is such a thing as oppression of spirit. Here the refrain says everything: “Carry me, carry me back to the One I love.” Repetition makes this song too, a litany in its way.

Throughout the album, we hear hints of the ethereal in the music. Those familiar with the music of Björk, say from the era of her groundbreaking album, Homogenic, will recognize the kind of sonic landscape Keaggy conjures so artfully at times. Through a deft use of atmospheric effects—electronica, and kindred sounds, Keaggy weaves his magic. There are echoes too of compositions like Paul McCartney’s “Watercolour Guitars,” and “Watercolour Rush,” from the music he created in the guise of his alter ego, The Fireman.

The song craft displayed on other tracks, “Real Life,” “The Seeing Eye,” “Headlines,” “Contemplate the Moon,” “Whose Heavy Heart,” and “Little Star,” compares very favorably indeed with the aforementioned albums and artists. One of the final tracks, the instrumental, “Shape of the Journey” can usher in tears with its sense of beauty and longing—it must surely rank as one of Keaggy’s most beautiful compositions.

It is a blessing that Inseparable can purchased via iTunes or downloaded as MP3 files from amazon.com. It’s also available in a non-digital format, and worthy of purchase in this way just to read through the liner notes of the CD to learn more about how this album was crafted. It’s a classic, by any measure.



[1] From page 164 of Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, by Madeleine L’Engle, (New York: The North Point Press, 1995).

Timeless: A Review of WaterSky – the album by Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy

WaterSky, the second collaboration of keyboardist Jeff Johnson and guitarist Phil Keaggy, proves the truth of what the poet George MacDonald once wrote: “there is great power in quiet.”

WaterSky is an album that deals much in subtlety. And it’s richly contemplative. Each brushstroke of this soundscape is well considered. To again invoke MacDonald’s imagery, each of the eight pieces are “as fluent as the waters” of the Frio River Canyon—the setting that inspired this song cycle.

WaterSky, by Johnson & Keaggy

Time and again, Johnson and Keaggy demonstrate mastery of their instruments. By turns, as in the opening track, “When We Were Young,” there are spare shadings of solo piano, complimented by gentle guitar textures—acoustic and electric. Rarely has a base guitar been played as movingly as it is for this piece.

Keaggy also plays the cümbüs on this recording. A fretless instrument that originated in Turkey, it features six sets of doubled-strings, and has a wonderfully atmospheric sound.

The title track for WaterSky resonates with ambient sounds—a wash of vocals here and there, over tranquil, yet deeply expressive phrasings of keyboard and guitar that evoke images of reflective, flowing water. All are wedded to a gorgeous melody with many variations on its theme. The combined effect seems to foster a deep sense of longing.

One especially noteworthy thing about WaterSky is the length of each track. They average about 7 minutes in length, a generous trait that allows for the full expression of musical thought.

“The Cody Incident” strikes a plaintive air at the outset, making one think of a homecoming. Pausing momentarily, it then pushes away from shore, and follows unexpected turns in a river of sound. It’s a piece that shows Johnson and Keaggy at their inventive best.

And that’s something that applies to the whole of this panoramic aural canvas. From start to finish, WaterSky is a fully realized soundscape. Few recordings can say as much. In a word, this album is a classic.

 You can visit the album page here, and view a fantastic high-def video for WaterSky shot at Laity Lodge as well. Enjoy!

Think Christianly: Looking at the Intersection of Faith and Culture by Jonathan Morrow – Book Review

In this review for Apologetics315, I look at Jonathan Morrow’s timely and valuable book, Think Christianly: Looking at the Intersection of Faith and Culture. Morrow writes in the introduction:

“I deeply believe that to become who God calls us to be, we must move in our thinking from isolation to integration. Christianity, if true, requires this. Our great danger is to so compartmentalize our Christian lives that one area does not impact, influence, or inform another, resulting in the equally tragic outcomes of fragmented lives and diminished impact for the kingdom of God.”

 

Think Christianly is a handbook for integration. In it, Morrow takes a broad view, touching on questions of what cultural engagement looks like, why it matters, and how we can do it. Visit Apologetics315 to read the full review.

 

The Hunger Games: A Film Review and Reflection

It’s not often that I find a film to be better than the book, but The Hunger Games is such a one.  It’s an effective and engaging film in its own right, well worth seeing – and it confronts the viewer with important issues about our complex relationship with violence, voyeurism, and entertainment.

The Hunger Games, based on the book by Suzanne Collins, is set in a dystopian future in which North America is divided into twelve Districts under the control of the Capitol. Each year, every District must send two Tributes, a randomly chosen boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18, to fight to the death in the Hunger Games as a reminder of the Capitol’s power and a warning against rebellion. The story follows a girl named Katniss, who volunteers to be one of District 12’s Tributes in place of her younger sister.

I’ve written elsewhere about the value of The Hunger Games for the Christian apologist (in the Christian Research Journal) so here I will focus on the way that the film (and by extension the book) challenges our ideas about contemporary culture and our media consumption.

“Bread and Circuses”

Panem, the name of the nation in which the story is set, is significant: it is the Latin word for bread, but in the context of the books and film, this is most definitely not a reference to Christ. Rather, it points to the Latin phrase panem et circenses, “bread and circuses,” from the writing of the 1st century Roman author Juvenal. The phrase refers to the free grain and lavish public entertainment, most notably in the form of bloody gladiatorial games, supplied by the Roman government to pacify and distract the people.

The Hunger Games gives us “bread and circuses” for a technological age: the yearly slaughter of children is made into a media spectacle, shown live on television and hyped in every media outlet. The historical allusion is significant: in ancient Rome, ordinary people enjoyed seeing gladiators hack each other to death and Christians being torn apart by wild animals. It has happened; it could happen again.

How did Panem get to this point? That issue is not directly addressed in The Hunger Games, but the story offers a glimpse into how it might come to pass for us. In the world of The Hunger Games the characters live their lives, care for each other, and attempt to do what is right without any reference to or acknowledgement of a transcendent God. It is therefore a fairly accurate depiction of media pressure in the 21st century to secularize the public square: increasingly, the public good must be defined and discussed in non-religious terms, and Christian art and music is ghettoized rather than forming part of common culture.

The film is clear in showing the consequences of that denial of transcendence. For instance, we see a propaganda clip shown at the District 12 Reaping, in which the Tributes are praised for their “self-sacrifice” and the victor is praised for the “honor” of triumphing in the Games. This manipulation of language is plausible enough: if virtue-language lacks grounding in the transcendent moral being of the living God, why not call the brutality of the Games ‘honor’ and random selection of victims “self-sacrifice”? The film does not allow us to accept this relativism: we see the expressions on the faces of the District 12 people watching the propaganda, and in their resolute lack of “patriotic” response we have all the answer we need. In reality, we know that there is neither honor nor self-sacrifice here: it is children killing children for the amusement of adults.  The difference is that the characters in The Hunger Games have no way to articulate the reason that the Games are evil.

Voyeurism and Violence

One of the most significant elements of the Hunger Games series as a whole is its critique of violence as entertainment. I was surprised and pleased to see that this critique is made more effectively in the film than in the book.

In the first book, one of my concerns was that although it ultimately shows the futility and harm of the violence of the Games, the violence is presented in a graphic and disturbing manner, so that the reader is in a sense participating in the very voyeurism that the book is critiquing.

The film manages the difficult feat of both presenting the violence without glossing over it, and limiting the extent to which the viewer enjoys the violence. The fighting scenes are filmed with a shaky camera and very quick cuts, creating a feeling of tension, anxiety, and even nausea in the viewer. There is no doubt that the characters die, and die horribly: we are given short, effective glimpses that do not allow us to imagine otherwise: the grotesquely swollen face of a girl killed by tracker jacker wasps; an image of a bloody brick raised high about to strike a killing blow; drops of blood on Katniss’s hands (which, in a nicely Shakespearean moment, she frantically tries to scrub off); a bloody, raw burn patch on her leg. But in sharp contrast to the book, which describes many events in stomach-churning detail, the film refuses to let us linger on these images — and therefore we never become acclimated to them.

Complicity?

Not only is violence handled more effectively in the film than in the book, but the critique of voyeurism in media is far more effective in the film as well.

For one thing, the film makes it clearer that the people of the Districts are complicit, even if reluctantly so, in the horrors of the Hunger Games. In the film, Gale has a significant line that is not in the book: before the Reaping, when he and Katniss are discussing their fears and the horror of the Games, he asks a simple question: what if no one watched?

Certainly, the people of the Districts are rounded up and forced to stand in the public square to watch the Reaping and the accompanying propaganda film; to that extent, their participation in the Games system is forced. However, as the film continues, we see intercut segments of the people of District 12 watching the Hunger Games on television in their own homes, presumably uncompelled. We are also shown a glimpse of Gale at that same moment: but rather than watching his friends fight for their lives on television, he is out in the woods by himself, looking at a landscape full of natural beauty.

Furthermore, the film, unlike the book, does not stay exclusively with Katniss’s point of view. The book is told in the first person, so once we get into the Hunger Games arena, we experience everything as Katniss does, becoming immersed in the kill-or-be-killed world of the Games.

However, the film frequently cuts back to show us the Gamemaker and his staff manipulating the events in the arena: starting a fire here, dropping in a monstrous dog there. We know these things are happening in the book; we see them happening in the film, and so we are constantly reminded that there is no good reason whatsoever that these children should be killing each other. It is not a regrettable struggle for survival; it is an entirely artificial situation created for the gratification of a well-fed and jaded audience in the Capitol.

That inter-cutting blurs the line between the Capitol audience and ourselves in the theater: we are rendered uncomfortably complicit as well.

Final Thoughts

Will viewers reflect on these issues? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But it is encouraging to see that a story that so directly and clearly challenges the sick state of our entertainment culture has been so eagerly received by such a wide audience. The Hunger Games does not present any real answers to our culture’s problems, but it confronts those problems and calls them to our attention: and that is something we desperately need. No one cares about answers to questions they have not asked; The Hunger Games may provoke some good questions.

 

 

 

The Artist: A Film Review and Reflection

Self-reflective storytelling can be clever and effective, or it can become self-conscious and overly serious. The Artist (2012), a silent film set in 1927 and focusing on the career of a silent-film star confronted with the new wave of ‘talkies’, is a marvelous example of self-reflection done right. As I write this, it’s an Academy Award contender for Best Film, and deservedly so (Michel Hazanavicius has also been nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay).

The ‘silent film’ choice is more than a conceit; The Artist does some very clever and interesting things with the form. For one thing, the absence of spoken dialogue brings the role of the musical score to the forefront: one of the things that struck me about the film was that, although the score served in the place of dialogue much of the time, it felt much less manipulative than many of the musical scores for films with spoken dialogue.

The need to use title cards for key lines of dialogue heightens the impact of those chosen words and draws the audience’s attention to the acting, movement, and visuals as consciously chosen elements of the story. Thematically, there’s also an interesting use of silence within the story: the characters too often find themselves unable to find the right words to say what needs to be said. And throughout the film, there are some surprising tweaks with the use of sound and the conventions of the genre… I won’t spoil any of them, but suffice it to say that The Artist is self-aware enough to be funny and clever at times, without over-doing it.

What I want to talk about now, though, is how The Artist has another layer to it. Over and above being a well done film, it shows forth the truth about God’s grace in a powerful way.

I don’t know if the filmmakers are Christian or not, but that doesn’t matter anyway. What matters is that, without showing a single explicitly religious image, and without making any reference to faith whatsoever, The Artist gives a clear and compelling vision of sin and grace.

In fact, I would argue that the very absence of conventionally Christian imagery is precisely what allows the film to speak so powerfully. (“Speak” being even more of a metaphor than usual here!)

The Artist traces the career of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent-film star who is on top of the world for a while, only to find that with the rise of ‘talkies,’ his style of film is no longer in demand. As a new starlet, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), rises to fame, Valentin sinks into obscurity, all the while clinging to his own vision of what a film should be. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that he gets all the way to the bottom, losing his marriage and his home… and is confronted with the choice of how to respond to the generosity of Miller, who is determined to do her best to help him.

One of the things that makes The Artist notable is that it shows Valentin’s failings at a deeper level than we might expect. Valentin may be tempted to have an affair with Miller at the very beginning, and certainly there is a tension between them born out of attraction, but — this is important — he never acts on it, nor even allows himself to be put more in the way of temptation by seeking her out or calling her. Valentin ends up powerfully in the grip of sin, but not the sin we are conditioned to expect from Hollywood celebrities.

Indeed his marriage ends, but it is worth noting that he and his wife are both responsible for its decay. She is jealous, resentful, and cold; as things get worse, he is depressed, withdrawn, and bitter. He broods over his fall from fame, and she tells him “I am unhappy.” What we see is a depiction of two selfish people unable and unwilling to reach out: neither of them can see a ‘we’ past their individual, miserable ‘I.’ That’s not the sensational breakup that we might expect in a film about Hollywood – but it’s far more likely to strike home for viewers. Certainly it did for me.

We might reasonably ask whether we should care whether Valentin succeeds or not. Isn’t he just chasing the fleeting favor of the crowd? Certainly his acting might not have the same merit as finding a cure for cancer, but it has its place: after all, even cancer researchers need relaxation and stress relief, and a film might be just the thing after a long day in the lab. George Valentin’s problem is not in the value of his work, but in his attitude: his fall begins when he starts thinking it’s all about him.

Rather than thinking how he can best serve his audience as an entertainer, Valentin demands that the audience adore him on his own terms. It’s pride, not artistic integrity, that drives him to keep making silent films — but he dresses it up as integrity, and so hides his own sin from himself.

So Valentin continues to decline. He is, at a certain point in the film, a pathetic figure. He’s not particularly likable. He has blown his chances, failed repeatedly by his own fault.

And yet the film has a happy ending.

It’s possible to see this ending as undeserved; to say that Valentin did not merit the persistent efforts of Peppy Miller to save him, that by rights he should have died miserable and alone, since after all it was his own fault that he ended up where he was, and even after his rescue he’s never going to do anything particularly worthwhile in absolute terms.

That’s the point.

Is there any better illustration of God’s grace?

Valentin could be me. He could be any one of us – all the more so because he doesn’t do anything wrong by the standards of the world. He doesn’t have an affair, or steal from the company, or kill anyone. He just clings to his miserable pride and tries to save himself by his own efforts – in this case, by financing his own silent film. At a certain point, he even sees quite clearly that pride is destroying him – and he still cannot let it go.

That’s a clear picture of trying to live without grace. It’s a picture of our need for salvation, shown in a way that hits home and gets past the mental filters that mark certain concepts as ‘religious’ and thus separate in some way from actually living one’s life.

George Valentin is not quite Everyman, but he’s close. And Peppy Miller is not quite Grace, but she’s close. Close enough for me to think that The Artist might be the best Christian film I’ve seen in a long time.

Even if it’s not trying to be Christian.