About Elizaphanian

Rector of West Mersea

Finding Jesus in Sin City

You have to come here to get the unedited version of my Courier articles, and with the proper final word…

The other day, a friend commented that I had poor taste in films. Well, in many ways I am guilty as charged, but I thought I’d say a few things on the subject. Firstly, let’s hear from my favourite philosopher, who went to the cinema every week to relax (he especially liked Westerns):

“A typical American film, naive and silly, can – for all its silliness and even by means of it – be instructive. A fatuous, self-conscious English film can teach one nothing. I have often learnt a lesson from a silly American film.”

So the first thing I’d want to say is that, like Wittgenstein, the majority of films I watch are primarily viewed for relaxation. I spend such a lot of my average day thinking and reflecting in one way or another that I precisely don’t want to engage in intellectual analysis when I’m relaxing! So I very much enjoy what I call ‘popcorn movies’, which do not require me to exercise much in the way of brainpower, but have plenty of excitement and drama and loud explosions – James Bond movies are the classic example, The Avengers my most recent joy. But that isn’t the end of the story, as Wittgenstein hints. The thing is, the analytical muscles only go quiescent, they never get fully turned off, and the films that I most enjoy are the ones which engage the muscles without ever taxing them too much, and that primarily means allowing the story itself to do the work.

Now I am fully aware of, and reasonably conversant with, the way in which film is an artistic form of its own; I am also well aware of the way in which film is ‘sculpting in time’, and has an essential aesthetic element (primarily through the cinematography). Those things I can understand and appreciate, and get me on a good day and I will happily discuss those more refined areas. Yet most of the time what I am interested in is a) story, and b) character development, ie the exploration of what it means to be human.

But the point I really want to make is about whether a film is edifying, in a Christian sense. For in that conversation with my friend, we also touched on the film Sin City, which is one of my all-time favourite films. Sin City is an extreme and highly stylised portrait of present society which doesn’t flinch from the cruelties of contemporary life. Now ‘Sin City’ began as a sequence of graphic novels written and drawn by Frank Miller (‘graphic novel’ is the the ‘correct’ term for comics-read-by-adults) drawing on some of the staple noir elements – hard-bitten ex-cons, troubled cops, prostitutes with hearts of gold etc – but putting them through a particular stylisation which makes the contrasts incredibly stark, and which Miller sought to have reflected through a very spare visual vocabulary – lots of heavy black blocking, outline drawing of characters, almost no colour. And Robert Rodriguez has faithfully reproduced that style in his film; it was very effective.

At this point, there may be the question: is this something that a priest should be reading? (or watching?) Isn’t it anti-Christian in some way? (Heavens, if Harry Potter is considered anti-Christian, then Sin City is enough to make such maiden aunts have heart attacks…. But then, these are the people who want to restore the Levitical purity codes.) Obviously, it isn’t something that might naturally be seen as Christian. Yet I would argue that it is thoroughly informed by a Biblical outlook, and it is, in the most important sense, orthodox.

To my mind, the issue about any work of art, from a Christian point of view, is whether it is orthodox or not. Now I use orthodox here in a particular way. I don’t mean ‘has it signed up to saying “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Saviour”?’ I mean ‘is it informed by the resurrection’? Which I take to mean: are there signs of grace, forgiveness, redemption and hope? Or is it a work characterised by the opposite of the resurrection, which is nihilism, which is characterised by the absence of meaning, the denial of hope, the embrace of corruption and the elevation of inhumanity into a model to be emulated? Is death seen as the final evil, or are there ways in which death is overcome?

For it seems to me that the structures of the world, the principalities and powers (as St Paul describes them in Ephesians 6) to which we must forever be opposed are built upon the contention that death is the final evil which must be resisted. The resurrection is what demolishes those principalities and powers precisely because it says that we do not need to be quite so afraid of death; that there are things which death cannot touch; and that our life and our hope lie in the resistance, not necessarily the overcoming. To use the technical Christian term, this is what it means to live eschatologically, in the light of the end time.

Sin City seems to be a world where – to put it no more strongly – orthodoxy is possible. It is a portrait of a corrupt world, where the principalities and powers are overwhemingly present, and where the suffering that follows is rendered starkly. Yet in the face of these powers, there is redemption and love and self-sacrifice, rendered most obviously in the film through the character-arc of the Bruce Willis character, where any Christian will recognise a copy of the original Story: “An old man dies, a young girl lives. Fair trade.” Perhaps it’s the imaginative portrayal of reality in fantasy that makes the reality itself tolerable. The fantasy equips the mind with the tools that enable the reality to be digested, rendered meaningful. Is this not the shield of faith with which we can overcome the world? The link between imagination and faith is intimate, and the nurturing of our imaginations is a Christian task.

Two final points about Sin City. One: if Christians are not to spend time in Sin City, for fear of being corrupted by the violence and debauchery, then they must also close the pages of the Old Testament. Nothing in Sin City is as shocking as, for example, Ezekiel 16. Two: Sin City is the abode of those whom society has rejected. The sinners, the outcast, the prostitutes. I have no doubt that Jesus would choose to spend his time in Sin City. There live the ones who recognise Him for who He is.

That’s what I most look for, when I am after an evening’s entertainment. Something that will absorb me, take me somewhere away from my preoccupations for a little while, but, ultimately, something orthodox. After all, for me, at the end of the day, there is no rest or peace without Christ.

This article was based on two previous blogposts here and here.

Our most gracious Sovereign Lady

(Latest Courier article – in UNedited form!)

One of the quirks of working in an established church is that, before being ordained as a deacon or a priest, the person to be ordained has to swear an oath of loyalty to the Monarch of this country. So, in one of the small buildings next door to St Paul’s Cathedral, in 1999, I said the following before the Registrar: “I, Sam Charles Norton, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law: So help me God.”

This was not an oath that I particularly wanted to give. When we were being prepared for our ordination, our Principal said that if anyone had any concerns about being able to say this oath, that he would be very willing to have a chat with them. I took him up on that offer. At the time my inclinations were not particularly monarchist – although I’ve never been an out and out republican, in anything except the US political sense. I just felt – in line with many recent comments offered up in these pages – that our monarchy was an anachronism, and that it bolstered a corrupt hierarchy. Talking things through with the Principal, however, I came to a point where I was content to say the oath – I placed great weight on the phrase ‘according to law’ – for if there was going to be a change in the arrangements I certainly wouldn’t want the change to be carried out in a lawless fashion! Yet, as with many other things, my views on this have changed much. I’d like to pick out the one main error that I believe that I made when considering the issue all those years ago.

In discussing the constitutional arrangements, in an academic culture, the debate was about what was most rational – what was the best way to order our arrangements, what system made the most sense? Of course, the criteria used to assess the answer were all rational criteria, and this is not an accident. The purge of monarchies in Europe at the time of the French Revolution and after was intimately tied up with the project of the Enlightenment, the project to bring all of our understandings into a rational system. This is why the Republican regime in France abolished the existing calendar and replaced it with one that was much more systematic. Each month was split into three weeks of ten days each, and each day was split into ten ‘hours’, each of a hundred ‘minutes’. I do not doubt that such a change – or many others of like character – can be defended as rational. In the same way, criticisms of our present constitutional arrangements can be admirably rational and logical. The trouble is, as I have come to realise, that such rationality takes no account of the quirks and gnarls of human nature. That is, we are not rational creatures; we are human beings, and our rationality is simply one part of a broader human nature.

If we were purely rational creatures, then developments such as those imposed by the French Revolutionaries would not have led to slaughter and horror – people would simply have said ‘oh yes, that makes sense’, the system would have shifted overnight, and nobody would have looked back. As it was, human beings fell into horror and long warfare, simply because their wider values were not taken into account. The Enlightenment project had a profoundly deficient understanding of what it meant to be human and placed far too much weight on our capacity to think, disregarding the importance of how we feel – and how our thinking and feeling interact. As part of this Enlightenment project all of the building blocks of human culture are dismantled and we become, not so much creatures planted in a garden, but programs operating within a computer. Fortunately, the problems with the Enlightenment project are now widely recognised, the ideal of a purely rational re-building project is rejected, and the monarchy tends mostly to be rejected by the crustiest of procrustean republicans who believe that it is somehow radical and revolutionary to be supporting a centuries-old project that has been a proven failure! At least, that is how I now view my former self.

As it is, my respect and admiration for our Queen has continued to grow year by year, and the meaning of that oath I swore has deepened similarly. We have so much to learn from her, so much to be grateful to her for, and we will surely miss her when she has gone. She has upheld the dignity of her office, not least through her reticence – and that is something which your Reckoning Rector particularly needs to ponder. In the meantime, I look forward to the festivities of the Jubilee, when we can celebrate her life and work and when I shall say with a glad heart these inimitable words from the Book of Common Prayer:

O LORD our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth: Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favour to behold our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen ELIZABETH; and so replenish her with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that she may alway incline to thy will, and walk in thy way: Endue her plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant her in health and wealth long to live; strengthen her that she may vanquish and overcome all her enemies; and finally, after this life, she may attain everlasting joy and felicity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Dulce et decorum est, pro ecclesia mori

So: another priest is being subjected to harassment from the noble and honourable legions of the printed media as a result of the discretions of a friend on Facebook. The allegation is that, as a result of these written disclosures, the priest is “unfit to serve the church at all in the opinion of many Doncaster residents”. Well, good opinion, is, of course, the determining criterion for suitability for ministry. There is a deep issue here, which I want to try and tease out – not least because I too, have been blessed in the past by the tender ministrations of our legacy media.

There is something about being an ordained minister which can be captured in the phrase ‘the dignity of the office’. Obviously this can be abused – I’m sure we’re all familiar enough with the genus of pompous ass for the point not to need belabouring – but where that dignity is recklessly disregarded then the institution of the church is led into disrepute. This is, truly, a bad thing. What I want to explore for now, though, is what actually counts as godly dignity in an environment such as ours. After all, alongside the verse from 1 Timothy we must also assess the tradition of the prophets, culminating in our Lord Himself, in which the most direct and offensive language was deployed to tear down the dignity of offices, for the simple reason that those offices had ceased to serve the living God.

Take the present debate about women bishops legislation. How I wish we had people with philosophical training in positions of leadership in the church! Not for arcane expertise but simply for the ability to follow through the implications of a train of thought or a decision. What we see now is the necessary consequence of the short-term expediency deployed to get the original women-priests measure through. The more compromises that we reach for political purposes – without regard for the underlying principles – the more awful a mess we lead the church into. In this situation, Bishop Alan, for example, might be rightly accused of lacking collegiality with his fellow bishops through his forthright comments – and yet, he is also channeling some righteous rage at the follies that have led us into this situation. Which is more fitting for the dignity of his office – colluding with an inability to have real conversations, or speaking honestly? It is this inability to get real that is the root problem here – as with my brother priest in Doncaster. The idea that a clergyman might swear, might be exhausted or occasionally feel hatred for his work – this is to glimpse an unsettling truth, and preserving contrary illusions does not advance the Kingdom. I am reminded of a wonderful scene in the outstandingly good film Moneyball, which I watched the other night, and which led me to ponder all sorts of things about the church: “You guys are talking the same old nonsense… We’ve got to think differently.”

If we are to truly preserve the divine dignity of the ordained office, does not a respect for truth have to figure somewhere along the line? Sadly, where the church has fallen so far from its divinely ordained purposes, all that is left is an ecclesiastical Game of Thrones, with ++Rowan having played the role of Ned Stark. What is needed is an understanding that ‘you win or you die’, and to succeed in that process we need integrity and honour and an understanding of the dignity of the office – coupled with an acceptance that blood must sometimes be shed. In other words, we need leadership that has an Old Testament Heart, not a Smallbone. Our leadership has been prepared to wound but not to kill, and as a result we have spent twenty years in further interminable argument, and the divisions have simply become more and more entrenched. We are bleeding to death, pummelled by the secularist and materialist cultural imperatives, denuded of our faith and our joy. This is the consequence of not recognising the fallen nature of our world and its implications for the church. Does the church actually want to live?

And just in case the full reference of my title is missed, let me state explicitly that I am channeling Wilfred Owen, not Horace; and, to be true, just a little bit of Mark Antony in my opening paragraph.

If I were Roman Abramovich…

I’d keep RDM and let Drogba leave as a legend – along with half a dozen other squad members.
And then if I was RDM…
I’d make Terry a player-coach (simply because, politically, you couldn’t sell him).
I’d make Lampard captain, Cahill vice-captain.
And I’d build the side around Torres – solid base, fast counter-attacks, Mata, Marin, Ramires – maybe Modric and Hazard as well – providing the ammunition.

I’d also make my kids ball-boys for the next home match…

If I were Roman Abramovich…

I’d keep RDM and let Drogba leave as a legend – along with half a dozen other squad members.
And then if I was RDM…
I’d make Terry a player-coach (simply because, politically, you couldn’t sell him).
I’d make Lampard captain, Cahill vice-captain.
And I’d build the side around Torres – solid base, fast counter-attacks, Mata, Marin, Ramires – maybe Modric and Hazard as well – providing the ammunition.

I’d also make my kids ball-boys for the next home match…