What would a good blog post do?

I found this in my blog drafts:

Sometimes I wonder that if I wrote something good it would make people want to read it and it would change the way they felt it would make them laugh or cry maybe or make them be transfixed in one moment and not want to stop reading and keep reading and reading and reading and not stop until there were no more words.

How Should Christians Look at Nature and Art?

I read this quote a few weeks ago over at the ubiquitous Gospel Coalition and thought it reminded me of a few of the studies I’ve made on my courses regarding semiotics. Semiotics, if you’re interested is ‘the study of the sign wherever signs are to be found’ (Cobley 2004, pp.4).

C.S. Lewis says this:

We can’t — or I can’t — hear the song of a bird simply as a sound. Its meaning or message (“That’s a bird”) comes with it inevitably — just as one can’t see a familiar word in print as a merely visual pattern. The reading is as involuntary as the seeing. When the wind roars I don’t just hear the roar; I “hear the wind.” In the same way it is possible to “read” as well as to “have” a pleasure. Or not even “as well as.” The distinction ought to become, and sometimes is, impossible; to receive it and to recognise its divine source are a single experience. This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. (Lewis 2007, pp.86)

C.S. Lewis is painting himself here as an out and out Semiotician, but for Christians, there might be more to it. Phenomenologists are ‘content with describing the phenomena without asking what connection to an external reality those experiences might have’ (Hicks 2004, pp.44). So if Lewis was a phenomenologist, he would be content with hearing a bird sing, and not think to himself “that is a bird”. The way Lewis puts it, this immediate attachment of message is ‘inevitable’. This reaction is firstly because he is a human, we are ‘meaning-seeking and meaning-making creatures living in a world of meaning’ (Thomas and Segal 2006, pp.203); what’s more he is a Christian, so he believes in a Creator (Genesis 1:1).

However, the question is, whereas it is indeed ‘inevitable’ and indeed biblical (Psalm 19:1) to read the signs found in nature as those written by God, is there a place for a Christian phenomenology? I’m sure many of you could recommend me books on this subject, please do. But I would like to share some highlights from a bit of reading I enjoyed which we were set last year. It’s an article called The Phenomenological Attitude, by Bert O. States (2007).

He initially encourages us to nurture the ability to see through ‘the film of familiarity that blunts the scene of things’ (pp. 26). So straight up, phenomenology can help us become re-enchanted with God’s creation, because it is ‘the systematic attempt to unmask the obvious’ (pp.31).

But here comes my favourite bit, he talks about a guy called Adolf Reinach who ‘is said to have devoted an entire semester to studying the ways in which one experiences a mailbox’ (pp. 28). So there was a guy, who was so keen to go beyond the initial sign-reading experience that he entered into another realm of reverie — for a year.

In theory, when we try to truly look at something God’s created — which is everything – really look at it, we will realise that there is something called a frontal quality to it. In fact all of experience has a frontality, and that’s intended by God, because it ‘keeps the world from being all me.’ (ibid.)

This results in a conclusion that only God can truly look at an object — what States would call ‘the Divine Standpoint’ (ibid.) But having a phenomenological attitude towards nature — and all objects we experience — should not purely be for the purpose of making us conclude that we are not God, that shouldn’t be difficult.

Possessing this attitude would mean that we don’t immediately write off the sound of a bird singing, by just indicating its divine source, and then throwing it away just like you do a trashy novel. Yes, stage one is inescapably to acknowledge the Creator, and to praise him for his creation. But surely if Almighty God created this thing — or created the materials that made this thing – we should seek to revel in it further, experience it, contact it?

The art gallery is the ideal venue for such an exercise. Again I cite Rookmaaker via jonblog and his advice on how to approach an art gallery. I paraphrase:

Walk in, look at each piece for two or three minutes, work out which work you are most interested in, then spend one or two hours looking at that one work of art. When you leave the gallery you will look at the world with new eyes, see significance in things you never saw as significant. The sky will seem bluer and the grass will seem greener.

Christians should be the most phenomenological people around, fascinated by experiencing things that their God has created. But sadly, I find that Christians can be the least sympathetic people when it comes to art. “It’s just an object they say”, or “it’s just a line on a piece of paper, that’s not art”. But God is intricately involved, even at a micro microscopic cellular level with everything found in this world. So why not stop yourself, next time you jump the gun and write off a work of art just because you think you’ve read that sign and can read nothing more (i.e. “It’s just a urinal / unmade bed / sheep”) spend some time, looking and thinking. 

______________________________________

Cobley, P., 2009. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics. Routledge.

Hicks, S., 2004. Understanding Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Stanford University Press.

Lewis, C. S., 2007. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. Mariner Books.

States, B. O., 2007. “The Phenomenological Attitude” in Reinelt A. G. and Roach. J. R., Critical Theory and Performance. University of Michigan Press.

Thomas, J. C. and Segal, D. L., 2006. Comprehensive Handbook of Personality and Psychopathology. Wiley.

Daniel Kitson on Eric Liddell in ‘Chariots of Fire’

There’s a bit in the film Chariots of Fire where the Scottish sprinter Mr. Eric Liddell has qualified with ease for the Olympic final and is by far the favourite. But he refuses to run because the race is to be held on the Sabbath. He is a devout Christian and in utter deference to his God he refuses to run.

There are all sorts of Olympic officials trying to bully him and cajole him into making the race. It’s their big showpiece race of the games and they all want him to do it, but he’s refusing, he’s steadfast.

One such Olympic Official corners him at a function and tries to get him to speak to the future King of England — the then Prince of Wales — who has a mind to convincing him to run.

Liddell says “No, I won’t talk to him, that wouldn’t be right.”

And the Olympic official says “Does your arrogance extend that far Liddell?”

And Liddell replies, “My arrogance extends as far as my conscience demands.”

I think that if you ever say anything that wonderful in conversation, you are well within your rights to never speak again.

That really is a wonderful bit of talking. Imagine hearing that coming out of your own face!? How could you possibly resist the urge to Moonwalk away from that!?

 Daniel Kitson, The Stand (2005)

Meeting with a Rejected Jehovah’s Witness

Ten minutes into my half hour bus commute this morning, just as my Mortification of Spin show was ending, I pulled out my earphones as a woman sat on the other side to me and said “Hello!”. She wanted to talk. I wrapped my headphones round the iPod and put it away.

“Where are you going?” I ask. And then after some extraneous conversationing, I tell her I’m a Christian.

She says “So am I!” and then I listen to a fascinating life story for the next quarter hour. Difficult family; time spent abroad; drugs; finding God; doubting God; and then looking round churches in town. She really wanted help, she had gone to a church, and she “wanted homework, not just conversations, written work to be getting on with when I wasn’t in church” but they’d just sent her to a student service where she had not received the intellectual stimulation she wanted. This disappointment led her to search out the JWs because she knew they did home bible studies, and she called them up and they came, “but not straight away, I called them up and I wanted them to come today, I was desperate!” This struck me — urgency is sometimes key!

So she’s with the JWs but they ended up chucking her out for immorality, but she wants to be rejoined. The whole time the story’s going I don’t know when its going to end, so I’m having to be ready to jump in with advice at any possible conclusion.

But it ended there, with her believing much of what the JWs taught, because apparently “the Trinity doesn’t work” but being rejected from their cult due to her not meeting their tastes.

And the story’s over. My turn now. Arrow prayers, arrow prayers.

“You know what I think your problem is?”

“No.”

“You’ve spent your whole life skipping from one person or one group to the next, trying to accept them and find acceptance from them, but not once in you story did I hear you talk about what God thought, and whether he accepted you.

I believe — as I’m sure you know — in God’s law. You and I have broken it. That means that our relationship with God is broken. That’s humanity’s biggest problem, our broken relationship with God. But Jesus died to make that way to God possible…”

“Yes, Jesus is the bridge.”

“Yes.”

And that was almost all I managed. But we talked a little more after that, and I explained that the JWs didn’t want her in their cult because she was damaging their reputation, and that’s all they care about, all they care about is people, not God.

Their entire cult is based around power relations, their peculiar beliefs must remain peculiar, otherwise their peculiar organisation would lose its peculiar power. And so it is with the behaviour of their members, they’ll try to clone you into being a peculiar JW and if you step out of line, then you’re not a peculiar JW anymore, and you’re out of their peculiar cult, because it doesn’t benefit them, they’re not receiving any power through the time, influence and money that you can provide. Everything they do is to gain power for their organisation. It’s all about uniqueness.

True Christianity is different, if I hear that someone who is a Christian doesn’t want to come to my church anymore, I’m devastated, but I’m not inconsolable, because I know that God doesn’t work in my local church only, but that he’s also sovereign over his universal church, so God is in charge of that person, not me or my organisation, I need not worry too much about his/her status with us, only the status he/she has with God. But if you leave a cult’s church, they tell you that “You are leaving God” but this is a lie. You are only leaving them, and they will no longer benefit from the power, influence and money that you provide for them.

I didn’t say all this to her. But I said a bit of it.

“Their good people though”

“I’m sure they are very moral”

 “But I do get so scared having to talk to the elders, and I want to go to their meeting at the Kingdom Hall tonight, but I know when I walk in there everyone will judge me.”

I always quote John 20:28 to JWs, I like to tell them, “it’s in your Bible and in the real Bible!” Maybe that’s what God will use.

Just before we went our separate ways, I asked her, how come you tried all the churches in town but you didn’t try mine? It’s called Alfred Place Baptist Church.

“Oh, yeah, I went there ages ago, who’s the man there? Thomas is it?”

“Geoff Thomas. That’s my Grandad.”

She loved that. She said that he’d given her and her friend a book about depression. I wonder if it was DMLJ’s Spiritual Depression?

So it was interesting, also disheartening in some ways, but she heard the gospel, at least in part, she appreciated the time I’m sure, and God willing she’ll come to the true Jesus if she has not already. God’s in charge.

How Christian are the Coen Brothers’ films?

This article is an excellent analysis of the moral world of the Coen brothers movies…

Joel and Ethan Coen’s films [...] often take a brutal, Old Testament tack on morality, defining good and evil along Biblical guidelines, and offering little wiggle room for anyone who doesn’t follow the Ten Commandments, or even anyone who strays from the Golden Rule.

The Coens always touch on moral choices, from career criminality to simple codes of personal conduct. And when characters make the wrong choices—which they virtually always do, because there would be no story otherwise—the Coens either laugh at them or kick them in the teeth.

Which actor has ‘unnaturally good rhythm’?

Another gem from John Jeremiah Sullivan on Oscar Isaac:

He turned out to have unnaturally good rhythm. The problem with putting live performances in a narrative movie, the reason nobody does it, is you can’t splice the film together later; if the tempo is even a hair off, between takes, the flow is ruined. So you have the actors lip-sync to a pre-recorded track. But that invariably looks cheesy. In order to get around the problem, T Bone Burnett (who produced the music) sat off camera with a stopwatch, timing Isaac’s individual measures. If the actor were to vary by a split second, they’d have to go back and re-shoot. But there was no variation. “I know it sounds like hyperbole,” Burnett said, “but the whole time I sat there, he never varied.”

How is Inside Llewyn Davis like a folk song?

Something I hadn’t thought about before is one Inside Llewyn Davis’s unusual narrative structure:

The movie takes the form of a folk song: there’s a first verse, then a series of verses – in each of which something awful happens – and finally the first verse comes around again, seeming changed.

John Jeremiah Sullivan, in the liner notes.