The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

At the end of half-term week I went with my wife to the West End to catch The Master on the day of release (and in 70mm). Why go to such length? For the simple reason that Paul Thomas Anderson directed my favourite movie, and I really rate him as a director. So how does the new film rate?

Well, having avoided reviews and analysis before watching the film, I’ve been catching up on them in full over the last two weeks. Many are good, and pick out the most obvious elements, most importantly the phenomenal acting performances of the leads and the way in which the film is remarkably ‘static’. There is very little in the way of a conventional story arc – although there definitely IS one – and the film is best understood as being akin to a portrait of a relationship, rather than the story of a relationship.

However, there is one key element that I took away from the film which I have not yet seen in any other review, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m the only one who has seen it – and that is to do with the Rorschach test. Anderson himself designed the publicity posters – example above – and I believe that this is a significant key for understanding the nature of the film. That is, I believe that the film itself is designed as a form of Rorschach test.

Mild spoilers follow.

It struck me towards the end of the film that it is structured symmetrically – that is, there are events in the second half of the film which mimic or reproduce events in the first half. Key ones are the shot of the foam trail behind a boat; the scenes on the beach with the ‘sand woman’; but also more particularly a correspondence between the scene of Freddie running across a field and the scene of Freddie riding the motorbike. There are others, but those were the ones that most struck me. So if my hypothesis is correct – in other words that Anderson has constructed a Rorschach test which invites us to bring our own meanings to the film, through which we discover things about ourselves – where does the ‘fold’ come? I haven’t analysed the timings in detail, so this could be wrong, but as soon as I asked the question I thought “it’s the jig scene”, which itself falls naturally into two halves, and which is ripe for an interpretation which links in with Freddie’s own response to a Rorschach test (first half) and also what happens at a bar towards the end of the film (a corresponding second half). Anderson is asking us ‘what do you see?’ – and suggesting, I believe, that we bring our own meanings.

Which does, of course, link strongly with the whole theme of ‘The Master’ and the establishment of a new religious cult, and whether the Master is a charlatan or a genuine guru – but those aspects have been well discussed elsewhere, so I won’t explore them further here.

In sum: a very, very fine film, 5/5 – still not an improvement on Magnolia, but I’m not sure anything ever will be, for me.

Other powers are taking over military and police roles that once fell to Washington by default.

A minor example is worth citing: the International Maritime Bureau last month reported that pirate attacks on commercial shipping had fallen to just 70 during the first nine months of 2012, compared to 199 in the same period of 2011. The Maritime Security Review reported on September 24, “International navies have stepped up pre-emptive action against pirates, including strikes on their bases on the Somali coast.”

I am informed that Chinese naval vessels have sent lending parties of marines on shore to retaliate against the pirates’ villages. Unlike the Obama administration, China has little concern for Muslim sensibilities. A significant strategic problem (and an important source of terrorist funding) is coming under control because of China’s willingness to deal harshly with the locals.

TBLA(3): the third foundational teaching of Jesus

This one is from Matthew 16:

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ 14 They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15 ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ 16 Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17 Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter,[b] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[c] will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.’

I take verse 19 to be a delegation of authority from Jesus to Peter (and hence to the church as a whole, the consensus fidelium) on all ethical and moral matters. In other words, the church has the capacity to decide for itself what sort of “social apparatus” to adopt, in the sense that I described earlier.

I see this as underlying decisions like that of the Jerusalem council about whether circumcision was necessary, or keeping the kosher food laws. Those are questions of “social apparatus”, and are not matters of salvation. Similarly I believe that the church has the authority to declare gay marriage legitimate, if it so chooses. Underlying this is, of course, an understanding of the authority of Scripture – for a more detailed explanation of my views, see this post.

A teaching of St Paul’s is relevant here: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial.” In other words, the authority of the church to determine questions of morality is distinct from licentiousness – it still matters what we do, and some things destroy life, other give it. What needs to be attended to are the fruits of the Spirit; or, as is described in Acts, whatever ‘seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us’. In order to determine this, there is a right process to be followed, in two parts: the question of truth, and the question of non-judgement, which are the subject of my next two posts.

TBLA(2): the second foundational teaching of Jesus

This one I’m going to take from Mark 10, for reasons I shall explain:

“Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them. 2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3 ‘What did Moses command you?’ he replied. 4 They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.’ 5 ‘It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied. 6 ‘But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female”.[a] 7 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,[b] 8 and the two will become one flesh.”[c] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ 10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.’”

The reason for quoting the Markan passage rather than the Matthean parallel is because I believe the significant change in the Matthew passage – ie the exception for adultery – to be an addition to what Jesus himself taught. That is, I believe that a major thrust of Jesus’ teaching on marriage to be a prohibition on divorce in all circumstances. To put that differently, I do not believe that Jesus allowed adultery to be a reason for divorce; I think that this is a Matthean addition brought in because Jesus’ teaching was too hard for the community to accept – in other words, that the ‘hardness of heart’ Jesus refers to was still present in the early Christian community.

More significant, however, is the context for that teaching about divorce, which is the ‘one flesh’ reference back to Genesis. I want to spend a lot of time thinking through this passage – much more than I plan to incorporate in a single post – but for now I simply want to register that this passage, in the Markan form, is the second foundational text for my explorations.

TBLA(1b): a bit more on Matthew 22

The best thing about writing on a blog is the chance for instant feedback and analysis, which means that misconceptions have a chance (a chance, not a certainty) of being cleared up before going further. So this is primarily a response to John’s comment.

Matthew 22 is undoubtedly a teaching about the resurrection; Jesus is refuting the Sadducees as John articulates. Yet I don’t think that this exhausts the meaning or importance of the passage itself. Firstly, the assumption being made by the Sadducees is to do with the Mosaic law about inheritance, about keeping a name alive in the land. That is the context which generates the perceived absurdity – the absurdity being that a woman cannot belong (be given) to more than one man. Jesus rebukes this by rejecting the idea that there is any ‘belonging’ in the resurrection, in the sense assumed by the Sadducees. He is therefore, I am arguing, rejecting the “social apparatus” of marriage as it existed in his time, ie the whole panoply of property law and inheritance obligations. The point that I was stumbling towards is that there is a distinction between this “social apparatus” – which is transient – and those elements of a relationship which do partake of the eternal, especially in so far as they embody agape.

The interesting bit – interesting for me, that is – is going to be working out precisely how this difference works out for us in this life, and how far things like the raising of children, or the ‘mutual love and affection’ of a gay partnership, are affected by this distinction. My sense is that the raising of children requires exactly a “social apparatus”; whereas something like a gay relationship doesn’t so much. Which is why I expect to argue that marriage – which is very much a “social apparatus” – is different from something like a civil partnership, even when that civil partnership is equally (if not more) capable of being a vehicle for the incarnation of agape love.

TBLA (1): the first foundational teaching of Jesus

From Matthew 22:

23 That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 24 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” 29 Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’[b]? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

What does it mean to say that “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven”?

I take it to mean that marriage is part and parcel of this world, the fallen world, that it is not an essential part of the life to come. In other words, the implication of this teaching of Jesus is that marriage is not of eternal importance, and this teaching therefore acts as a bulwark against all attempts to make marriage into a totem or idol. It does not mean that marriage is of no importance at all – hardly that – it simply places a marker down against raising it up to be more than it is.

And what is it? Well, one of the key assumptions in this passage (as set out by Countryman) is that marriage is an economic arrangement. In other words, the question being asked by the Sadducees is a question of property law; it is not a question about the nature of the relationship, in a way that a modern ear might expect to hear.

So is it simply as an economic arrangement that marriage does not share in the eternal? I suspect that it is – but working out all the implications of that is what this series of posts is going to be about. After all, we are assured repeatedly that God is love, and that love is eternal – so in so far as marriage partakes of love, then surely it is also something that has implications beyond the resurrection. I suspect that, in so far as we learn to embody the divine love (agape) in our relationships, so too will we be sharing in something which lasts forever.

To be like angelsAspects of marriage, gay, straight and other

I want to start a sequence of posts – it might eventually become a book! – talking about some elements (not all) of the marriage debate. I believe that some very central things are being missed, and I want to challenge some of the assumptions that seem to underlie the argument, especially with respect to gay marriage. Part of my thinking was hinted at in this previous post but at that point my thinking had not properly coalesced. It has now – or, perhaps more accurately, it has now got to the point that some public thinking and writing on the topic would help me to firm up my views. The Hobo’s comment here has made me realise that the time is ripe (I should also add that the Courier article linked was one that had been asked for by the editor.)

I expect to argue for the following:
– that marriage is an earthly arrangement, and not a heavenly one, and what this means
– that the church has the power to decide what constitutes marriage
– that the church has an obligation to explain and justify its understanding of marriage
– that an essential element of marriage is procreative, ie the presence of children (not the potential presence of children, so not the Roman Catholic view)
– that non-procreative unions (civil partnerships, whether gay or straight) can also be bearers of the holy, but differently to the procreative
– that the key hallmark of the ‘biblical view of marriage’ is not the Adam/Eve companionship element, but the ‘one flesh’ prohibition of divorce
– that our present arrangements are radically unjust, especially to children and to men
– that our cultural understandings, especially with regard to ‘romantic love’ and self-fulfilment, are idolatrous
– that if the justice issues are addressed, there is no necessary incompatibility between Christian faith and alternative marriage arrangements (eg gay relationships, polygamy and so on).

I expect this will take some time to explore, but the above is the direction and sequence that I plan to follow.


Index of posts:
1. The first foundational teaching of Jesus – resurrection, and supplemental post
2. The second foundational teaching of Jesus
3. The third foundational teaching of Jesus
4. The question of truth
5. Radical non-judgement
6. Pecca Fortiter
7. Choices in a broken world.

Additional posts:
It’s not just about ‘choice’
Gay marriage as a spandrelThe separation of sex from the procreation of children (link to an Andrew Brown article)

One very important question hovering behind the sequence.

If I had a vote on women bishops I would vote against

I wrote about this fairly extensively here, and my views haven’t changed; instead they have hardened. I see all the political manoeuvrings as confirmation of our spiritual bankruptcy. Shame on us.

(Again, for the record, I’m in favour of a full acceptance of women to every order of ministry. God doesn’t care whether the wobbly bits are above or below the waist, he looks at the heart.)