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Les Misérables and the folly of grace

Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia

Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess we each have a picture of grace: what it looks like, how it operates and, of course, its limitations. Yes, I know, grace isn’t supposed to have limits, but we have to be practical, surely?

In God’s economy grace doesn’t wait for guarantees or require a deposit. But we’re not so sure about that, either. After all, we can’t just offer someone free pardon and hope they make amends. What if they ignore the responsibilities that go with our gift? What if we’re left with nothing because we’ve ‘invested’ in the wrong person?

Although he rejected the Christian faith, French writer Victor Hugo seems to have understood grace better than most. He may not have practiced it any better than we, but he captured it beautifully in his epic novel, Les Misérables. We were reminded of Hugo’s profound view of grace when we went to see the filmed version of the musical recently.

Victor Hugo had apparently seen grace in action in the Bishop of Digne, Bienvenu de Miollis, on whom he based his character Bishop Myriel. In Les Misérables, Bishop Myriel’s unconditional grace turned Jean Valjean’s life around, with extraordinary results.

Of Bishop Myriel Victor Hugo writes, ‘The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.’ The Catholic writer Theresa Malcolm says, ‘Monseigneur Myriel. . . is the soul of the novel, he who sowed love where there was hatred, light where there was darkness.’

Bishop Myriel takes the vagrant Valjean into his home, feeds him and gives him a bed. Valjean repays him by stealing his silver and fleeing into the night. When the police catch Valjean and bring him back to the Bishop with the unlikely tale that the Bishop had given him the silver, the Bishop agrees. ‘That’s right,’ he sings.

But, my friend, you left so early,
something surely slipped your mind.
You forgot I gave these (candlesticks) also.
Would you leave the best behind?

After the police have gone, he says to Valjean:

The silver candlesticks‘Never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!’

The context of Hugo’s grace is a society fraying at the edges and stretching to breaking point. The film version portrays more starkly than the stage production can the vast number of people existing at the edges of society. We see the depth of their poverty, misery and, above all, despair. And despair is echoed in the songs.

In the opening song Jean Valjean sings,

‘I’ve done no wrong, Sweet Jesus hear my prayer,’
To which the other prisoners reply,
‘Sweet Jesus doesn’t care.’
And they end with the cry of despair:
‘You’ll always be a slave
Look down, look down,
You’re standing in your grave.’

Later the poor sing:

At the end of the day you’re another day older
And the shirt on your back doesn’t keep out the chill;
And the righteous hurry past,
They don’t hear the little ones crying
And the winter is coming on fast
Ready to kill,
One day nearer to dying.

Which brings us back to the limits of grace. Our expression of grace is usually limited by two things.

We are afraid of the size of the problem: it’s far too big for our meagre supply of grace, our few candlesticks.

And we are afraid of what people will do with grace if it’s given too freely. They may take our candlesticks and run, never looking back. We would have wasted the candlesticks, instead of using them for others more deserving.

We stall because we first measure out the cost of grace against its benefit. What will the return on our grace be? Perhaps chastised for his unseemly hoard of silver, the kindly Bishop was willing to put it to good use. But to chance it all on a single throw of the dice? To give it all to this one undeserving thief?

Perhaps the Bishop knew more about grace than we do. Perhaps he had experienced for himself what undeserved, extravagant grace can do. Perhaps he knew also that grace is not mass-produced for mass distribution to mass markets. Grace works best when delivered with care in personalised packages, under great risk.

The Bishop knew he could do very little for the masses of poor and desperate who live outside of hope, and who sing:

Nothing changes, nothing ever will .
Every year another brat, another mouth to fill.
Same old story. What’s the use of tears?
What’s the use of praying
If there’s nobody who hears?

But perhaps he also knew that God has always preferred to ‘invest’ in individuals rather than in the crowds. He delights in what an individual can do when she or he responds to grace with love and mercy.

‘Love one another,’ Jesus told his disciples.
‘Yes, Lord, we can do that.’
‘As I loved you.’
‘You mean, without limits?’
‘Without limits.’


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Truth and Lies


Truth (Photo credit: d4vidbruce)

“…the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.  Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears.  We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations.  We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought”
J F Kennedy, Yale Commencement 1962

I came across this popular Kennedy quote recently in Arthur M Schlesinger, Jr’s A Thousand Days: John F Kennedy in the White House.  Kennedy wasn’t talking about the myths of religion, but of business and politics.  However, one of the great challenges to Christian faith is the multitude of myths and half-truths to which we hold on so firmly. We are not always sure what is myth and what is truth, but we defend all with passion.  Often it is the myth, call it our interpretation of a truth, to which we hold on most firmly, and we too easily let the solid truths slip by.  (Myth, of course, means far more than simply something that is untrue, but, like Kennedy I am using “myth” in its simplistic and negative sense.)

“Love one another.” Unequivocally the clearest most certain command of Jesus to his followers, you and me included, yet one that is most often ignored in favour of less important, or less certain truths.

It was not their evangelism that Jesus told his disciples would convince the world, or their theological understanding, or even their worship.  Jesus said, “By your love for one another, the world will know….”  Yet we defend our understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, our forms of worship, our methods of evangelism, even when such defence destroys friendship, and denies the love demanded of us all.

We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to counter those who are different from us, whether within the Christian faith, or outside of it, and spend precious little energy or effort on exploring ways to show love.  I’m not much good at love, I admit.  Love carries great risk.  Love doesn’t ask whether I will be loved in return.  Love is not concerned about being rejected, only with the opportunity to give, and to give extravagantly.  I find myself too quickly asking about the consequences: What if?  And love is stifled.  But, knowing that, recognising my weakness in the most important of commands, I would rather be less noisy about the faults of others.


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Honesty, and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

We watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel last weekend, and began thinking about honesty in relationships.

The film is certain to delight the heart and tickle the funny bone.  Seven English retirees, from a charlady to a High Court judge, are lured to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Jaipur, India, through what can only be described as the most optimistic brochure imaginable.  The brochure was produced, and the hotel managed, by an enthusiastically positive young part-owner. He doesn’t see his “optimistic” take on reality as dishonest. He prefers to speak of things as he hopes they will be in the future, rather than dwell on the unpleasant details of the present. His motto is, “Everything will be alright in the end; if everything is not alright, it is not yet the end.” A wonderful philosophy, but a touch of reality may occasionally be required.

Others also wrestled with honesty.  Graham, the retired judge, had lived in India as a youngster, where he had a gay relationship with a young Indian childhood friend. The relationship ended in disgrace for the Indian boy while Graham was able to retreat to university in England, and a distinguished legal career. Now, 40 years later, he seeks out his friend to find healing for the pain and guilt of a lifetime. The friend’s openness towards his wife, from whom he had no secrets, meant that there was no awkwardness, only joy, at the reunion.

Evelyn (Judi Dench) discovers at the beginning of the movie that her husband of 40 years should not have been trusted, at least not with the family finances.  When asked about trust in a marriage, she spoke of the time she met her husband on a rickety carousel. He put his arms around her and said, “Trust me.”  And so she did, for 40 years, while he made all the decisions.  His favourite saying was, “End of discussion,” when there had been no discussion at all.  At his death she discovered that he had failed her miserably. She would have to sell her flat and would still have precious little to live on.  To the horror of her family she decides to take charge for the first time in her life, and retire to India.

Norman and Madge, both looking for love, and pretending to be more than they are, have little success in meeting interested singles. When Norman admits to being nothing more or less than lonely, he connects with a similarly lonely Englishwoman who has been in India all her life.

Jean and Douglas’s marriage has lasted nearly forty years.  His loyalty has survived her complete negativity towards everyone and everything, but enough is enough.  When Jean determines to go back to England, she leaves him behind in a traffic jam recognising something of her own failure reflected in his righteousness.

Probably the most honest of them all is Muriel (Maggie Smith).  Deeply racist, her brutal honesty gets her into all sorts of trouble until she begins to discover the humanity of others.  She stops running from her past as a charlady, and embraces those same strengths to carve a place for herself in this exotic land.

Honesty is clearly not a straightforward thing; the challenge is at the very least to be honest about honesty.

We also watched “The Dilemma” on TV the same weekend.  Yes, I know, but that was all there was.  In this movie a man tries to intervene in his friend’s marriage when he discovers his friend’s wife is having an affair.  He becomes obsessed with honesty, but somehow misses honesty in his own relationships.  During the 40th wedding anniversary celebration of his girlfriend’s parents, he insists that the main ingredient for a successful marriage is honesty.  The father interjects, “…and love.”

“Yes,” our hero replies. “But honesty is key.” His simplistic view of honesty is pretty scary.

Another take on honesty is provided by Sue Townsend in The Woman who went to Bed for a  Year.   One of the characters in the book, Brian Jnr, asks seven-year-old Venus to define goodness.

Venus replies, “Goodness means telling good lies, so that people won’t get hurt by true words.”

I would suggest that only love is strong enough to differentiate between “good lies” and bad, between truth that builds and truth that destroys.

What do you think?  Is honesty more complicated than we make it out to be?  Do share your comments below.

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The Iron Lady: Thinking and Feeling

We saw The Iron Lady yesterday: Meryl Streep in a tour de force performance as Margaret Thatcher, well deserving of the Oscar and other accolades she received. 

The film has an elderly Margaret Thatcher struggling with dementia; she remembers events from her past while hallucinations of her late husband, Denis, both intrude on and comfort her in her loneliness. It was an unexpected view, astonishing even.  While Meryl Streep has received praise all round, the film itself has been panned and praised with equal passion.

One writer commented on the Daily Telegraph on-line review:

“The film does nothing and says nothing. It doesn’t laud Maggie. It doesn’t criticise Maggie. It doesn’t lionise her legacy, or vilify it. It doesn’t even give a clear factual account of her life, or any single part of it.  It is just an ill-conceived melange of scenes, and lacks the courage to take a view on Thatcher one way or the other, or to even invite the audience to form a view of their own.  It is not a film. Not a play. Not a documentary. Not witty. Not intelligent. Not engaging. Not eye-opening. Not challenging. Not demanding. Not entertaining. It is nothing at all, other than 105 minutes of waffling guff and voyeuristic rubber-necking.”

If you are looking for a documentary or a biography, this is clearly not the film for you.  But the critic missed the point.  Another comment on the same review summed it up for me:

“I just got home from viewing this film. I am a hard nosed pragmatist/realist who has an 82 year old mum who lives on her own miles from my sisters and me. The film is delightful: it put tears in my eyes and made me resolve to telephone and see my mother more often before she is gone.  In the end it is primarily a film about growing old and looking back at life and its meaning rather than a political commentary but is in no way diminished by that.”

I was challenged by the elderly Margaret Thatcher’s retort to her doctor, who asked how she was feeling. 

She said, “One of the great problems of our age is that we’re governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas. Now, thoughts and ideas – that’s what interests me.”  If I remember correctly she went on to say, “Thoughts lead to actions, and actions become habits, and habits develop character, and character defines who I am.”  (A twist on Descartes perhaps, “I think, therefore I am.”)

There is a great deal of truth there but, like much of what is confidently declared by self-assured people in a loud, authoritarian tone, it needs to be unpacked and taken with caution. As it stands it rejects feelings altogether, as if emotions have no significant role to play in our lives. Yet Margaret Thatcher herself became who she was because of her huge self-belief, which is as much about emotion as it is about intellect.

In the employment field, managers who reject feelings as “soft” and of no consequence are usually the ones whose (unstable) emotions drive most of what they do: they feel angry and react accordingly (usually very loudly); they like an employee and so afford him or her special attention and benefits.

Feelings play a greater role in so-called hardnosed business decisions far more often than most of the players will admit.  Business men and women, who cold-heartedly declare that the bottom line is all that matters, will still find money to throw at a pet project.  Why?  Because they feel good about it; it feels right.  The personalities involved, and the relationships developed, all play a significant role in decisions made at every level, whether we admit it (and sometimes even whether we are aware of it) or not.

Feelings are critically important.  What we have too often done is to allow feelings to dominate and determine our actions.  For some it is an unconscious thing, as for the manager above, because we have denied our emotions; for others it has become a lethargic, soul-destroying way of life: “I don’t feel like it, so I won’t do it.”  It is perhaps the latter that has given feelings a bad name.

We become aware of our feelings not to determine our actions but to make our actions more meaningful.  The manager or parent who ignores his or her feelings but acts on them anyway is a menace.  Awareness and acceptance of our feelings allows us to make more informed decisions about how we live, and how we respond to others, and to take responsibility for our actions, as did the person quoted above: “The film is delightful: it put tears in my eyes and made me resolve to telephone and see my mother more often”.  The writer’s emotional response led to an informed decision to take responsible action.

An edited version of this post was published in The Witness on Tuesday 3 April 2012. (You’re allowed to visit the article and leave a comment there, too!)

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Why the West Rules, and why love is more important

I have now finished reading Ian Morris’ book, Why the West Rules — For Now.  At 645 pages it’s a big book, and in more than just length.  I touched on his gloss on Christianity in an earlier post.

Overall his idea is that nothing really makes much difference to the fairly inexorable strides of history.  Morris declares that biology tells us why humans push social development upward; sociology tells us how they do this (or fail to).  In Morris’s view however it is geography that tells us why one region will come out “on top” of another at a particular time.  Therefore (one of his catchphrases) “maps, not chaps,” make all the difference.  One’s physical environment (geography) shapes how social development changes in a given region.  On the other hand, changes in social development will also shape what the physical environment means at any one point.  Morris gives an example: “Living on top of a coalfield meant very little two thousand years ago, but two hundred years ago it began meaning a lot.” 

Because it is “maps not chaps”, Morris is convinced that “great men/women and bungling idiots have never played as big a part in shaping history as they have believed they did.  Rather than changing the course of history…the most chaps could do was to speed up or slow down the deeper process driven by maps.”

I am impressed by the breadth of his scholarship and his invitation to others to use his ideas as a starting point for discussion; although, if the timelines suggested at the end of his book are anything to go by, there isn’t much time for discussion.

What I particularly appreciated about the book was the great overview of history that it gives of both East and West.  I enjoy history, but my reading is limited and fairly focused.  Morris expands one’s view and presents an interesting link among the pieces.

I am not in a position to debate Morris’s theories or his methods but once again it is my faith that is challenged.  It appears that in Morris’s world God is either the invention of human beings, largely for political reasons, or God is indeed the detached clockmaker that seventeenth-century thinkers imagined him to be, “switching on the interlocking gears that made nature run and then stepping back.”

I don’t have the theory to counter such arguments.  What I do have is faith; an experience of God that may defy logic sometimes, and even history; an experience of a God who does indeed interfere in creation and human history.  God’s interventions are not often on the macro scale that would change the nature or overall course of his design.  But God creates, connects and invites.  God loves, covenants and sacrifices.  While the Church may have been (and in many ways may still be) a political institution, it has survived and grows today, not because of politics (or geography) but because of God’s intervention in the lives of individuals and communities. I can’t prove that on the scale of a Morris, but I have experienced it to be true, and countless others have discovered its truth for themselves as well. 

In the end I’m not sure that the debate would be all that important.  If God were to intervene at a macro level and point history (and geography) in completely different and unpredictable directions, our calling would remain unchanged.  We are called to live out our faith in the world as we experience it.  For some, like Luther, and Wesley and Desmond Tutu, that means living large, and challenging the status quo, but for all of us it means God’s love, mercy and healing lived and practiced in a broken and divided world.  Whether God raises nations out of obscurity to overwhelm the status quo at various times or the changes occur simply as a result of how he made the world in the beginning, makes little or no difference to that calling.   Ultimately God demonstrated in Jesus that his love for us and our love for others are more precious than life itself.  If that is true then God’s love for us and our love for others are certainly more important than the political, sociological or geographical changes our world endures from time to time. 

Our bible reading this morning was Psalm 8, and perhaps there lies the truth for us to ponder:

1 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

5 You have made them a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

9 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

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Why the West Rules—For Now

I am reading Ian Morris’s book, Why the West Rules—for Now.  It’s a fascinating look at the patterns of history and what they reveal about the future.  One reviewer called it, “The nearest thing to a unified field theory of history we are ever likely to get.”

I enjoyed Jared Diamond’s Gun’s, Germs and Steel which also looks at why the West has its nose in front or, as he puts it, why we have more “stuff”.  Morris runs through innumerable other such studies that fall very roughly into what he calls “long-term lock-in” or “short-term accident” theories, including the succinctly put summary of British poet and politician, Hilaire Belloc in 1898:

Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

Morris is an archaeologist and ancient historian (I presume the “ancient” part refers to his work rather than himself) and his broad sweep (he calls it “chainsaw art”) takes one on an archaeological, geographical, sociological and biological journey from 2.5 million years ago to 2010.  His ability to keep a vast range of material together and keep the reader interested is impressive as is his wide reading.  Morris writes (as one critic put it) “with wit and clarity that will delight the lay reader.” I agree.

His arguments, conclusions and theories do not concern us here.  I was simply challenged by his comments on Christianity.  If he is a man of faith, it doesn’t show; he writes impartially, but sympathetically, about all the major religions, from emperor worship to the “modern” great faiths.

I am also not particularly interested here in how accurate his understanding of the growth of Christianity may be, but in how others view Christians (and our squabbles) from the outside.  Let me quote a rather lengthy passage (slightly edited) from a section dealing with the dramatic growth of Christianity in the West and Buddhism in the East, each from a handful of followers to 100 million or so in about three or four centuries.

Jesus wrote no sacred texts, and as early as the 50s (AD) the apostle Paul was struggling to get Christians to agree on a few core points about what Christianity actually was.  Most followers accepted that they should be baptised, pray to God, renounce other gods, eat together on Sundays, and perform good works, but beyond these basic premises, almost anything was possible.  Some held that the God of the Hebrew Bible was merely the last (and lowest) in a series of prior gods.  Others thought the world was evil and so God the Creator must be wicked too.  Or maybe there were two gods, a malevolent Jewish one and Jesus’ wholly good (but unknowable) father.  Or two Jesuses, a spiritual one who escaped crucifixion and a bodily one who died on the cross.  Maybe Jesus was a woman, some suggested, and maybe women were equal to men.  Maybe new revelations could overrule the old ones.  Maybe Jesus’ Second Coming was imminent, in which case no Christian should have sex; maybe its imminence meant Christians should practice free love; or maybe only people who were martyred in horrible ways would go to heaven.

For Buddhists, multiple paths to nirvana were not a problem.  For Christians, however, getting into heaven depended on knowing who God and Jesus were and doing what they wanted, and so the chaos of interpretations forced believers into a frenzy of self-definition.  In the late second century most came to agree that there should be bishops who would be treated as descendants of the original apostles with the authority to judge what Jesus meant.  Preachers with wilder ideas were damned into oblivion, the New Testament crystalized, and the window on revelations closed.  No one could tinker with the Good Book and no one could hear from the Holy Spirit unless the bishops said so; and no one had to renounce marital sex or be martyred, unless they wanted to.

Morris is writing about Christianity’s first couple of centuries.  Once again, one can argue about the detail, but for “chainsaw art” he is not far off.  What about today?  What would an alien from outer space, or more to the point, what would someone outside of Christianity have to say about our internal squabbles, denominationalist standoffs, conservative-liberal warmongering, and a whole host of divisions fervently defended on all sides.

So much of our faith becomes a hearty defence, even open warfare, against what we do not and will not believe.  What we do believe, what we have to offer the world, is lost in the melee.  The great gift we have, what Jesus called his disciples to on the night before his crucifixion, was not just God’s love, mercy and healing, but God’s love, mercy and healing lived and practiced in a broken and divided world.  Jesus didn’t simply talk about these things; he modelled them for his followers in his daily decisions and interactions.  He cared enough to stop and listen and touch; he depended on God enough to get up early and pray; he balanced his prayer and reflection with moving forward into new opportunities for ministry.  Ultimately he demonstrated that God’s love for us and our love for others are more precious than life itself.

You and I are not likely to reduce or even contain the bitter theological turf wars that deny our faith (although I should only speak for myself; you perhaps have more influence than I).  The real question for every Christian is whether we will allow ourselves to be conduits for peace or for war?  Am I willing to let go of my “turf”, turn from arguments and the building of theological and liturgical castles, and put the practicing of God’s love, mercy and healing first; building others up rather than putting them down? 

I am convinced that relationship is more important than rightness; intimacy more fruitful than rules.

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