Monday, January 12, 2015

On free speech, satire and faith

Probably like many people I'd never heard of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and its controversial cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. We all have now since Muslim extremists gunned down twelve people at the magazine's office last Thursday. Editor Stephane Charbonnier, who was one of the victims refused to be cowed by threats of violence against him for publishing the offending cartoons saying, 'I'd prefer to die standing than live on my knees'.  


Fear of such attacks has led to self-censorship in the mainstream media. On Thursday's edition of BBC Question Time it emerged that the national broadcaster's 'policy with regards to representations of Mohammed was to not depict the Prophet in any shape or form.' Presumably no such guideline exists governing the depiction of any other religious figure, whether that depiction be respectful or mocking. Is that simply out of respect for Islamic religious sensibilities, or have fatwas and threats of violence successfully intimidated our media into submission? After all, who wants to be attacked by an axe wielding fanatic as was Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard whose image of Mohammed was published in his newspaper, Jyllands-Posten?

Now, it needs to be said that many Muslims have condemned the killings at Charlie Hebdo and the associated murder of hostages at a Jewish supermarket. Rightly so. But Muslim majority countries aren't exactly renowned for championing free speech. In Saudi Arabia blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for 'insulting Islam'. He has just received the first of fifty installments under the whip (here). According to Rod Liddle, writing in the Sunday Times, 'An NOP poll in 2006 reported that 68% of our Muslim community thought that British people who insulted the prophet should be prosecuted.' Not killed, Liddle hastens to add, just imprisoned, but still. 

So where does all this leave Christians? Admittedly the church hasn't always had a good track record when it comes to freedom of speech. What with the Inquisition, Roman Catholic persecution of Protestants during the reign of Queen Mary and all that. Protestantism doesn't have an unblemished record on this subject either. But the days of church-sponsored repression are long gone and in any case such acts were carried out because Christians failed to pay proper heed to the teaching of the New Testament. Stuff about Jesus's kingdom not being of this world, and our weaponry not being carnal, but spiritual come to mind. Not to mention the command to love our neighbour  as ourselves. (John 18:36, 2 Corinthians 10:4, Matthew 22:39). It's simply lazy to lump all faiths together and say that Christians are just as likely to launch terror attacks on those who ridicule their beliefs as radicalised Islamists. It just ain't happening that way. 

Christians are willing for their beliefs to be held up to public scrutiny. We invite investigation of the historical claims of our faith such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus. We're up for robust and searching theological discussion with no holds barred. We can cope with our beliefs being satirised and ridiculed. When Jesus faced the charge that he cast out demons by the prince of demons he practiced what he preached and turned the other cheek. His claims to be the Son of God and King of the Jews were mercilessly mocked at when he hung upon the cross. His response? Jesus prayed, 'Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.' Similarly Paul faced ridicule when be preached salvation through the cross of Jesus, a message dismissed as arrant foolishness by cultured Greeks. Some of the clever intellectuals at Mars Hill, Athens laughed openly when the apostle spoke of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. What did Paul do? He steadfastly determined to carry on preaching Christ crucified and risen for he had no other message to proclaim. A message that proved to be the power of God to those who were being saved.

Paul asked that he and the churches he founded be granted freedom from the authorities go about their work, but he did not expect the state to use its powers to clamp down on opponents of the Christian faith. He wanted the church to be granted tolerance, not dominance. That is in keeping with the New Testament's insistence on maintaining separation between church and state. We do not want people who insult our Lord Jesus in cartoons or words to be persecuted, flogged, or imprisoned, but we'd be more than happy to see them converted.  

In any case it would be a bit rich for Christians to be too precious when it comes to our beliefs being satirised, as believers have been known to pour scorn on what they regard as false forms of belief. Witness the prophets of the Old Testament ridiculing the worship of idols, Isaiah 44:9-20, 1 Kings 18:27. Respectful inter-faith dialogue? Er, no. Jesus was not above mocking the rank hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees,  Matthew 23:23-24. Can we not detect just a little hint of sarcasm when Paul rounds on his opponents in Corinth, 1 Corinthians 4:8-13? The biblical injunction to 'speaking the truth in love' means that we won't set out to gratuitously offend those with whom we disagree, but that doesn't indicate that Christian speech should amount to little more than mealy mouthed niceness.  

Christians should welcome the extension to others of the freedom to communicate and practice their beliefs that we ourselves enjoy. That applies even if as is the case with Muslims that the same freedoms are not afforded to Christians in many Muslim majority countries. Tolerance and the rule of law must apply to all citizens, irrespective of their faith or lack of it. Exercise of that freedom may occasionally mean that our dearly held beliefs are scorned and disrespected. So be it. Christians sometimes need to develop thicker skins and be willing to participate in the cut and thrust of religious debate without succumbing to a whingeing persecution complex. 

Beyond that, have we not been commanded to 'go to [Jesus] outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured'? (Hebrews 13:13). In the words of the old hymn we say in defiance of ridicule and scornful laughter, 
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy name!

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Theory of Everything


Stephen Hawking famously concluded his bestselling A Brief History of Time with these words, "If we do discover a theory of everything...it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God." When in the film Hawking's wife Jane sees those words for the first time she is exited by the prospect that her atheistic husband had suddenly come to believe in God. It turned out that he hadn't and his 'mind of God' language was meant figuratively rather than theologically. Jane's faith in God and Stephen's lack of it is one of the key themes in this portrait of an unlikely couple.  

Hawking has devoted his scientific career to discovering a simple theory that can account for both Einstein's theory of relativity that describes the universe writ large and well ordered in light, energy and gravity, and quantum mechanics that describes the universe writ small and random at the level of sub-atomic particles. Scientists believe that both descriptions of reality are true, and yet they seem irreconcilable. That's where the so-called theory of everything comes in. In the film Jane with great simplicity explains this complex scientific idea to a friend  using a potato and a pea from her dinner plate as visual aids. 

Despite the sciencey bits, the film is less a cinematic exploration of Hawking's attempt to develop a theory of everything and more a meditation the power and fragility of human love. Stephen and Jane meet at Cambridge where he is studying cosmology and she Romance languages. Hawking as we first encounter him in the film was an ungainly, but intellectually brilliant young man. However, as is well known his clumsiness was but an early symptom of his debilitating motor neuron disease. Stephen and Jane have already stared seeing each other when his illness is diagnosed. The prognosis is around two years, but Jane is determined to continue with their relationship. When it is objected that in marrying Stephen she doesn't know what she is letting herself in for, Jane objects, 'But I love him' and that's that. But the power of love will be sorely tested both by Hawking's illness and by Jane and Stephen's conflicting beliefs. 

Early in their relationship Hawking explains that as a cosmologists he cannot believe in God, as faith would make the scientific quest for the origins of the universe redundant. Jane quickly retorts, 'That seems like a good argument for not believing in cosmologists'. One incident highlights their different faith perspectives. Stephen takes Jane to the University May ball. In a quiet moment together they both stand staring up at the night sky. The sight prompts Jane to quote from the Book of Genesis, but Stephen cannot hear the heavens declaring the glory of God. 

Both the main parts are extremely well acted. Eddie Redmayne contorts himself into Hawking's twisted, wheelchair encased frame. Felicity Jones plays Jane with convincing subtlety as a prim beauty with strong beliefs and determined love who is none the less overwhelmed by the task of caring for her increasingly disabled husband. Things are further complicated as Jane develops feeling for family friend and informal carer for Stephen, Jonathan Jones. Hawking's nurse, Elaine Mason played in the film by Maxine Peake also helped to drive a wedge between the couple. 

Hawking grew increasingly famous for his scientific theories popularised in A Brief History of Time. Wheelchair-bound and with his synthesised voice he became a globally recognised iconic figure. In a scene from the film the scientist is invited to address a conference in America. A member of the audience asks him, “You state that you do not believe in God, do you have a philosophy of life that helps you?” He replies,  
It is clear that we are just an advanced breed of primates on a minor planet orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among around a hundred billion galaxies. But, ever since the dawn of civilization people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world... However bad things may seem there is always something you can do and succeed at. While there is life there is hope.
I don't know whether the script was  based on an actual Hawking quote. If they are the sentiments are considerably more positive than his thoughts on another occasion,
The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can't believe the whole universe exists for our benefit. 
Hawking is right to say that the whole universe cannot conceivably exist simply for our benefit. Christians believe that God created the world first and foremost to display his glory. But human beings are more than 'chemical scum'. We were created in the image of God that we might glorify him and delight in his creation in all its wonder, beauty  and complexity. Against the backdrop of an immense expanding universe human life may seem insignificant. But we are loved by God. The mind of God is known above all else in that the Word through whom all things were created was made flesh to bring sin-broken human beings back to himself.

The Theory of Everything presents a moving if romanticised portrait of a relationship that was tested to breaking point by terrible suffering. The contrasting faith outlooks of Stephen and Jane were an added complication and highlight the tensions that can be caused when a husband and wife don't share the same essential beliefs. The reality by all accounts was much more raw and painful, with one writer labeling Hawking a misogynist for the way in which he treated his devoted wife and carer, Jane. Another writes of his intense loathing of religion, which can't have helped matters.  (See here and here).

'But I love him' protested Jane. What a powerful, yet fragile thing is human love.    

Friday, January 02, 2015

5 Flicks: brief film reviews (and a review preview)


We've seen a few films in recent months/weeks/days. Look no further for in-depth and insightful reviews. From art house to blockbuster. 

Mr. Turner

Well acted, esp. Timothy Spall in title role. Visually stunning in parts. Fighting Temeraire scene gorgeous, but all too brief. One of my favourite paintings. A print hangs in our dining room. Featured in Bond film Skyfall, which I had for Christmas on DVD. I digress. Mr. Turner amusing. Sketchy plot. Salacious interest in painter's private life. Spall like an overexited Gruffalo. Nooo. 

Fury & The Imitation Game 

Benedict Cumberbatch convincing as brilliant, yet tragic Alan Turing. A war film for crossword puzzlers and computer nerds. Intelligent in a way that Fury wasn't. Keira Knightley does her cut glass English Rose thing. How breaking the Enigma code helped us to win WW2. Fury, a computer game for people whose thumbs have fallen off. 

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies 

Samug the dragon (voiced by Cumberbatch) not happy. Spoiler. Dragon (not red) killed by Welshman. So that's how Sauron became the eye of fire thing.  Big battle. Men, Dwarves, Elves, Orcs, Bats, Eagles, a Wizard and a man/big black bear creature fight it out. Spoilers: Orcs lose. Good uns die. Short chap with big hairy feet wins the day. Got a ring. Could be important.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Fronts seats. Craned necks. Screen too big. Games over. Revolution begins. Tyranny defied. Katniss Everdeen: face and voice of insurgency. Fragile hope. Misery and madness. 

Theory of Everything 

Boffin boy meets arty girl. Love. Boy falls ill. Marry. Black holes and stuff. More when we've seen film, not just preview. But preview shown before all films reviewed, so only seemed right to preview the review.