Risen - He is Risen Indeed!
Risen (M, 2016) is a helpful film to view and well worth viewing at the cinema (and hope it may have a longer and wider release), or buying the DVD when out or viewing via (legal) download. It is one of those films that causes you to think long after and if you watched it with friends, hopefully, consider together some of the themes it raises.
Joseph Fiennes stars as Clavius, a Roman Centurion and perhaps ‘ancient day fixer’. He is continually given problems to solve and soon after dealing with another zealot and followers, he is tasked by Pontius Pilate (played by Peter Firth, the lead from the BBC spy drama Spooks) to find the body that had vanished from the tomb or find out what happened to Jesus after his burial. Pilate is concerned about any implications for further rebellion or trouble.
Frank Morison (pseudonym of Albert Henry Ross) is well known for his book - Who Moved the Stone? (1930 and reprinted every few years) and this film has a similar investigative base, in that certain possibilities are examined. Written by Paul Aiello, this is a solid and intriguing 'Hollywood style' film. The script is respectful of the context, allowing the ideas developed to flow into telling the story of two men: Jesus and Clavius.
The director Kevin Reynolds has made several well-known Hollywood films, including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and The Count of Monte Christo (2002) which highlighted Jim Caviezel’s physical acting in a major role. Caviezel would go on to play Jesus Christ in The Passion of the Christ (2004). There is a certain orientation in Reynolds’ movies toward the outsider or rebel character, and this continues with the somewhat worldly-weary Clavius, as the film explores his past and the challenges to his worldview that this new task provides.
The film was also known as The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, but perhaps to give a simpler and less religious title, Risen was chosen for release. One interesting factor in the development is that is the film is seen as an "unofficial sequel" to The Passion of the Christ. It has certainly not had the same amount of publicity and controversy, but then The Passion of the Christ was a Mel Gibson directed film.
Peter Bentley is the National Director of the ACC
Church in the Spotlight
The Church in the Spotlight
“There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.” (Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News, 1920, p.13).
Spotlight (2015, M) is not a film about heroes. In an age of bizarre and distorted reality television programmes and tweeting that can provide 15 seconds of fame or infamy, this is simply a film about people doing their jobs.
The Spotlight team are a specialist team at The Boston Globe. They combine extensive journalism experience with contemporary research skills and writing ability. Their collaborative work is like a Supreme Court decision - where one person often writes the majority report or article for the 'team', though in the Globe case they are more united.
As many readers will now know, the film is about the work by the Spotlight team in 2001 and 2002 to expose the nature and extent of child sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Their work provided an impetus to further work by other reporters and also the development of official investigations not only in the USA, but in other countries including Australia. The Spotlight team won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. You can read their original reports on the Globe website. They make illuminating reading, not only for their investigative style but also detailed and lengthy analysis. The different technological era also stands out. This is pre-broadband and there is still a reliance on primary research, analytical skills and interviewing, all elements that are illustrated well in their very ordinariness and yet integral foundation to the eventual publishing.
When the idea of Spotlight is explained near the start of the film to the new Globe editor, it seems almost quaint to our way of thinking today. A small team of experienced and focused journalists consider a subject or area, often spending months if not a year researching and writing before publishing. At a time when people want instant results and opinion where is the opportunity for sustained investigation such as this? Given the large staffing cutbacks in many newspapers, this form of investigative writing is a prime example of professional journalism that is under threat. The film highlights the continued need today for independent journalism that is able to build on the tradition of asking for and receiving no favours from any quarter, including their own publisher.
At one point in the film when the scale of the abuse is uncovered the question is raised by one of the journalists investigating: Why did we not know? Someone must have known? It was evident that even in the Globe, certain stories were known, but they were not connected or followed up on in a sustained way.
At the 2015 Australasian Religious Press Association Conference, Dr John Harrison (Senior Lecturer, Communications and Arts UQ and former UCA Queensland Synod Communications Manager) commented on this matter and used the term ‘Incurious’ to describe media people in the era in Australia when this was happening. It is a helpful word; the idea that the church and many journalists of the time were seemingly not interested in knowing what was happening and the extent that was happening – perhaps it was too challenging for the continued and ‘normal’ operation of the church and culture. This context was the opposite of the idea of inquiry, and revealed an indifference that was part of a wider culture of ignoring or even suppressing information. As noted, the Globe did not follow through on reported cases, and this was not because the Globe was substantially staffed by people of Catholic faith, or at least nominal Catholic faith, but rather the overall culture did not encourage a sustained critique of dominant institutions and authorities.
Other aspects considered in the film include priestly celibacy and relationships, and there will be no doubt be considerable debate and discussion, especially in Catholic circles.
This is a fine film in the newspaper film genre, and continues the gritty depiction of real events in the pressured and changing journalistic environment as seen in earlier films like All the President's Men (1976), and the more recent Nothing but the Truth (2008). The director Tom McCarthy is also an actor, having played a significant role as an ethically compromised reporter in the concluding season of the television drama The Wire that focussed on The Baltimore Sun. McCarthy picked up many helpful pointers in that ground-breaking drama, and it is good to see a film considering ethics and values without unnecessary preaching. I will not list all the actors as this is an amazing ensemble cast and wonderful to see how they work together.
Spotlight is a sobering film for church members and ultimately contemporary even though it is set 15 years ago. We are all led to consider our response and allegiance – is it to the 'institution', or to the one holy Catholic and apostolic church? It is also illuminating as to why there has been a wider societal change in terms of the trust of and general perception of priests and ministers. As one of the survivors says:
“They say it's just physical abuse but it's more than that, this was spiritual abuse. You know why I went along with everything? Because priests, are supposed to be the good guys.”
Spotlight is an example of how good writing and telling a story well can lead to real change. It avoids the self-righteousness that can sometimes come out in films from Hollywood that are too didactic, and in this way helps all viewers to examine their own lives, faith and incurious ties.
Peter Bentley is the National Director for the ACC
Believe Me? A good question!
Believe Me (M, 2014)
This is a very interesting ‘Christian’ film from the people who brought us the USA based documentaries: One Nation Under God and the intriguingly titled Beware of Christians. It is their first venture into feature film territory, but the themes of what does it mean to be a ‘real Christian’ and how should we live in God’s world today are still at the centre.
Like secular films Leap of Faith (reviewed in ACCatalyst December 2013) and Pray TV, this film examines the question of sincerity and belief in Christian organisations, especially those that raise money for causes. I well remember a scene in one film about televangelists in the USA. The preacher looked straight into the camera and exclaimed – “I don’t need your money – God needs your money”, and then the number for the donation line comes up.
There are a number of lesser-known but professional actors playing the major parts, with Australian actor Alex Russell playing Sam, who needs to raise money urgently to pay his student fees so he can graduate. He enlists the help of three friends and together they learn the ways of the ‘Christian preacher’ and found a charity and then basically con their audiences as they travel around the USA and also meet ‘real Christians and groups’. This film actually draws you in as you watch them debate and internally struggle with what they are doing. As a viewer I wanted to see how it would all end.
Along the way, there is ongoing satire, as Christian behaviour and perhaps idiosyncrasies are considered, perhaps in a way like a visual version of Christian satirical magazine and website The Wittenberg Door. It is helpful to have the spotlight on our perceived behaviour in this day and age of visual connection and instant judgement to help us reflect.
I found this a sobering comment in a simple and yet dramatic way. It left me wondering if for many people, there is really that fine a line between a charlatan and a charismatic leader?
NOTE: Courtesy of Heritage HM, ACC has copies of Believe Me to give to members who are among the first to provide a published comment on this review and or related issues on our website. http://www.movieschangepeople.com/
War Room Indeed
War Room (2015, PG)
I have heard Rod James outline in several presentations about family research “that the best way for a father to love his children is to love their mother, and the best way for a mother to love her children is to love their father. What is happening in the family is reactive to what is happening in the marriage relationship.” (See Rod James Papers in the ACC website)
The new Kendrick Brothers film War Room builds on previous films that consider family relationships, faith and love, especially the previous films Fireproof and Courageous. The focus in War Room is on prayer, centring on coming closer to God through prayer. This is a film that will connect with many busy and actually disconnected ‘successful’ families. The scenes with the young daughter are often touching as you know she loves her parents who have drifted apart, but is confused as she does not really know if they love her as they seemingly no longer love each other or spend time as a family and simply being with her and helping her with her own life. They do not even know the name of her jump rope team (I had no idea that jump rope or skipping was such a professional and amazingly athletic sport in the USA).
This movie shows a foundation for prayer – it is not our will, but God’s will be done. We need to know what is the good and proper will and much is recorded in the Bible especially in terms of the general will of God in relationships, especially marriage. Miss Clara asks God to help her help someone – someone like she had been, and Elizabeth is brought into her life to help her save her marriage and family.
As I mentioned, prayer is a real practical focus here, but it is integrated prayer as a part of life. The central character Miss Clara is indeed a real 'character'. She embodies that perhaps stereotype of the Southern USA person of faith who will shout out ‘Praise the Lord’ and leap to her feet and dance when she gets excited to learn of an answer to prayer. She loves to spend time in her closet – her War Room, to pray and seek God. She is a prayer warrior, and the movie is also about a call to raise up prayer warriors today and Lord knows we need them.
There are good messages about possessions, money and needs, though this is in the context of middle-class America, as this audience is the prime target for the film. It could be a film that may connect with a wider range of people as certainly today many are considering how to be a family in the 21st century. As Elizabeth and Tony learn to really forgive and love each other, they are united as a family again. This is an answer to prayer.
Last Cab to Darwin
Last Cab To Darwin (2015, M)
Any film with Michael Caton as the star has an instant connection. His role in The Castle (1997) probably means that an unusually large number of people will see this film, especially on DVD or TV eventually. The film is based on the popular 2003 stage play written by Reg Cribb and he co-writes the screen play with director Jeremy Sims. Its foundations are from a true story arising from the 1995 Northern Territory euthanasia laws (they operated for a brief time before being effectively rendered void by the Federal Government). The film takes up the story of a taxi driver with terminal stomach cancer who decides to drive from his home town of Broken Hill to Darwin to seek out the doctor who is at the centre of the new push for euthanasia and has a machine to help people end their life. It is not difficult to work out who the doctor was based upon.
Michael Caton is very good in the role as Rex the cabbie, and also most of the people he meets along the way are portrayed very well and link in with the whole story. The odd figure is Jacki Weaver as the doctor, who does not play the role convincingly. The film is interestingly not essentially an apologetic message for euthanasia, although various standard ideas come out. It is a however a little bit of the stereotype of the quintessential rough Australian town full of loud and swearing outback characters who of course all have a heart of gold and worship together in the local pub. The other part of the story, the place and connections with the two main Aboriginal characters and with society is also fascinating, especially Rex’s relationship with his Aboriginal neighbour Polly.
There is little overt Christian or religious consideration, and interestingly I found the film in a way more of a consideration of the nature of community and how essential it is to have people who support you at times like this, and who will look after you and say ‘you don’t have to do this.’
The Cult of Dexter
A consideration of the cult TV Show Dexter
I have become intrigued by a relatively new cultural phenomenon - the fascination with serial-killers. While serial-killer groupies often fall into two main categories:
Those who collect memorabilia, and those who „fall into a type of love or obsession with the killer, a new dimension has arisen - the anti-hero serial-killer who has rased the playing field to a philosophical level with questions about morality in a world of immoral practices.
Dexter is Dexter Morgan, a Gen- Xer living in Florida. He is also a forensic expert in blood, specifically the analysis of blood spatter patterns which come about from violent acts. He works with the Miami Police Department, but has another „job?. He kills serial-killers.
Given the focus on murder mysteries today, Dexter provides an opportunity to examine some wider themes and issues that the series presents to us today.
Dexter started in 2006 as a cable television show, and typically was picked up for free to air, once it gained a significant following in Australia. There were usually 12 episodes in each series.
The series gained notoriety in Australia with an advertisement promoting the series featuring Dexter flying to Adelaide because it apparently has the highest serial-killer count per capita. The advertisement was removed because the South Australian government filed a complaint.
Some of the themes in Dexter:
The sins of the parents are visited on the children.
Dexter?s killing orientation arose from his background: As a young child he witnessed the murder of his mother in a particularly brutal way, and was left in sea of blood. He is found after two days by his eventual adoptive father, Harry Morgan (a police officer), who recognises his violent urges and trains him from an early age to adapt and to channel his desires through a code for life and death. Now Dexter follows the code that Harry developed - to kill only those who murder without remorse, with these being primarily those who beat the justice system and walk free.
Dexter has a supportive relationship with his adoptive sister, and an initial mutually beneficial relationship with his girlfriend, single mother, Rita, but he is usually depicted as emotionally neutral. For Rita, Dexter provides a reliable and helpful man about the house, and for Dexter, she and the kids are good cover, following advice from his father - „try to blend into normal life.? Over time the series reveals more about Dexter and how he was created?.
Justice is best delivered from outside the justice system.
The vigilante theme has a long history, and many famous actors have been involved with movies of this nature. The recent Jodie Foster movie, The Brave One, is an excellent example, as she hunts down and kills the street thugs who murdered her fiancé and left her for dead in a New York park.
There have also been many infamous real life examples of people taking the law into their own hands, and probably most people have contemplated doing this at some stage when some crime has befallen their own family.
Killing can be morally justified
As the show often posits, "Is Dexter a good person doing evil things, or a bad person doing good things?"
Is killing always wrong? Is killing a murderer actually right?
Is the death penalty really a personal decision or it purely a clinical state decision?
Does the removal of evil people mean that innocent people are saved?
There are times in the show when the consideration of issues reveals elements similar to contemporary discussions about the concept of the just war. All these are quite significant questions to ponder in a world where amorality rules.
There is most likely no God
Dexter is a confronting series, but it is connecting with a new generation of probable mostly non-church attendees. Will it cause good moral reflection and possible ground for pre-evangelism? Interestingly, the religious elements are often overt, as there are church scenes and discussions and faith or lack of faith and belief in God and also the nature of evil. I wonder if people without some Christian knowledge would make sense of some scenes.
The most amazing example of religious reference occurs in "Return to Sender? (Series 1/6). At one of the crime scenes, a huge junkyard which housed illegal immigrants who were often murdered if they did not have money to pay for their release, a young Cuban boy is found hiding in the trunk of a car. He is clearly traumatised, and takes time to be persuaded to help the police. There was a small hole in the trunk, and he was able to see the man that captured and took away the couple who had killed his family. A sketch artist works meticulously with him, and the viewer is caught up wondering, will this expose Dexter? Certainly Dexter wonders as well. Finally the detectives in the unit have a look at the classically drawn portrait and Jesus Christ is revealed as the man the boy saw that night.
Clearly the connection is Jesus as his 'saviour', but for those of us who have read the Sermon on the Mount, this is a type of saviour Jesus could never be.
(Originally posted 11 May 2009 and revised 6th July 2015)
‘Same Sex’ Marriage Debate - Anglican Report
A Review of Human Sexuality and the ‘Same Sex Marriage’ Debate, compiled for the Sydney Diocesan Commission, edited by Mark D. Thompson, published by Anglican Press Australia, March 2015 (Rrp $16.95)
This short book offers a readable approach to a difficult topic in a language and style that is accessible to the not so theologically trained. The five chapters are divided into bite-sized sub-sections, beginning with ‘Where are we?’ and ‘How did we get here?’ These leading questions set the scene for the first chapter: ‘Human Sexuality in Contemporary Context’. The four remaining chapters cover the topics of ‘How can we begin to apply the Bible’s teaching to today’s context and questions?’, ‘What does the Bible actually say about marriage and human sexuality and so about homosexual practice?’, ‘How do we speak about the Bible’s teaching in such a highly charged public debate?’ and ‘How do we care for those who experience same-sex attraction’. Chapter Three includes a postscript for those who are not married.
As might be expected from the Sydney Anglican Diocese, the book argues from the framework of orthodox Christianity rather than present-day attitudes in our church communities as seems to be the tenor of the current Uniting Church enquiry. To my mind, this Anglican publication is closer to the spirit of the Basis of Union § 11 in terms of ‘literary, historical and scientific enquiry’, ecumenical engagement and the kind of ‘fresh words and deeds’ which may now be expected of those who act ‘trustingly, in obedience to, God’s living Word’. The last chapter exhorts Christians to offer compassion to those who experience same-sex attraction and to demonstrate courage in the face of likely incremental persecution.
I found the first chapter the most useful in telling me what I didn’t know already. It offers dates and details in a history, commencing in 1966, of long-term activism by the ‘gay rights movement’. This process includes persuading the American Psychological Association that homosexuality should be removed from the list of psychological disorders, causing some debate about whether paedophilia should also be removed from the list. The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (2013) is reported to list ‘paraphilias’ as disorders in cases ‘whose satisfaction has entailed personal harm, or risk of harm, to others’.
The book is a compilation by eight authors. The preface disclaims the attempt to remove slight differences of emphasis between the chapters and admits that much more could be said and done in the area. For me key topics for further exploration would be:
- the possibility of homosexual disorder in relation to the current search for identity
- use of language by the ‘gay rights movement’, e.g. ‘homophobia’ and ‘equality’ 
- the gendered and non-gendered imago Dei
- the rationale for ‘gay rights’ and emphases of the feminist movement
I would class this publication as recommended reading for those inside and outside ACC, and the first chapter in particular for decision-makers e.g. Federal Parliamentarians.
Katherine Abetz (BA, DTheol, Dip. Nursing, and ACC Member in Tasmania and member of the Northern Cluster)
 See pp. 22-25 and especially footnote 25.
 Human Sexuality and the ‘Same Sex Marriage Debate states that ‘Wainwright Churchill of Homosexual Behaviour Among Males (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967) … introduced the term ‘homoerotophobia’, a likely precursor to the term ‘homophobia’. Last time I checked Wikipedia, it stated: ‘Homophobia has never been listed as part of a clinical taxonomy of phobias’. Unlike ‘marriage equality’ which means the definition of marriage has to change, an equal right to vote doesn’t mean the definition of voting has to change.
 Compare ‘it is only with the woman that the man can be God’s image and it is only with the man that the woman can be God’s image’ in Chapter Three with Chapter Five: ‘God has created every human being – those struggling with same-sex attraction and those in the LGBTI community no less than any other – in his image’.
 Broadly speaking, I would say that feminism has moved from an emphasis on equality and, for this purpose, unisex to an emphasis on identity and embodiment as a woman. The ‘gay rights’ agenda seems to try to combine equality and identity.
‘Hollywood’ and Marriage
I have long been intrigued by Hollywood movies about marriage. There are many amazing, encouraging and intriguing films. You may have a favourite yourself. I would be interested to explore some themes here and if you are interested in suggesting a film please let me know at the ACC office. It is perhaps an irony that while there are many marriage failures on screen and in real life, Hollywood loves films about marriage. It is also worth noting that there has been little focus on homosexual marriage, probably because Hollywood knows that the films would not be financially rewarding. Hollywood films in the main still focus on key themes about marriage, including:
Marriage being for life (eg., Up (2009) and Shadowlands (1993)
Marriage is monogamous and the negative impact of adultery and deceit, eg., Shoot the Moon (1982) and The Wedding Singer (1998)
Marriage being between a man and a woman and marriages bearing children, eg., Parenthood (1989).
There is of course the Christian ‘Hollywood’ film Fireproof (2008), (reviewed in ACCatalyst June 2010). This received wide commercial distribution in the USA, and was used extensively in discussion based church film screenings. It lead the way to more ‘successful’ Christian films, such as Courageous (2011), where marriage also features front and centre.
Following on from my review comments (above) which were published in the March 2015 ACCatalyst, the following short comments are offered.
Parenthood (M, 1989)
As a director, Ron Howard has made many fine and enjoyable films. One of those significant films focused on relationships and especially families. While many films look mainly at the marriage, this one has an integral consideration of the family and has many amusing, and sometimes very reflective scenes that will help people think more deeply about the deep love that should be found within the married couple as they care for and nurture their children.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (M, 1994).
The film that launched Hugh Grant’s somewhat intriguing career has had more re-runs on TV than most films, touches on many aspects of marriage. The search for love that is lasting is the central theme, and this is encapsulated in the film’s hit song Love is All Around. This film also includes an early consideration of the relationship of a homosexual couple and the issues that develop in terms of the marriage culture around them, which in hindsight now could be seen as a prominent shot across the bow in terms of the move toward marriage revisionism.
The M rating was mainly for its wider use of the popular vernacular that upper-educated young English people seem to consider makes them Brighton Rock rebels.
Religion features prominently, with clergy officiating and also many comments peppered throughout, but few have a personal connection with faith. The film is almost infamous for Rowan Atkinson’s role as Father Gerald and his bumbling and mostly excruciating attempt at officiating at his first wedding.
The overall orientation of most of the characters is toward their own enjoyment, but every now and then love hits home, but the spectre of commitment is the challenge, and for the central character Charles, an almost impossible undertaking.
I see this film as really the ultimate story for a contemporary de facto world as the central ‘couple’ want to have the commitment of marriage without the public recognition, and indeed without the blessing of God. As Charles puts his ‘proposal’ to Carrie when they are standing in the rain:
Let me ask you one thing. Do you think – after we’ve dried off, after we’ve spent lots more time together – you might agree *not* to marry me? And do you think not being married to me might maybe be something you could consider doing for the rest of your life?
And her response is: I do.
The Wedding Singer (M, 1998)
One of the fascinating aspects of this film is the overall promotion of monogamy and marriage being for life as the base for marriage. This is especially highlighted as faithfulness of ‘older’ couples is highlighted in cameo parts that often reveal the common understanding of grace and love that is extended to all couples. This is a somewhat chaotic and comedy with a real bite as ‘the wedding singer’ pines for his true love, while she is about to be wed by a man who will never be faithful to her.
License to Wed (M, 2007)
I reviewed this in the second year of our magazine and wanted to extract a comment again, especially as it highlighted the work of the late Robin Williams as Episcopalian minister Father Frank, a somewhat blatantly offensive and confrontational man, but with the necessary heart of gold. While this is certainly not a great film, I wish to acknowledge the helpful focus on pre-marital counselling. This is a solid consideration of the need to examine relationship issues and some of the sessions and role plays they have to undertake certainly raise critical relationship issues. He even has a contract which stipulates that the couple must refrain from having sexual intercourse until their wedding. Given that the majority of couples marrying cohabit today, I wonder how this would be received by an intended couple?
Lastly two intriguing Comments?
I was doing a search on marriage and movies, and on one site that had a list for the top ten movies about marriage and romance was an advertisement for a private investigation form that specialised in finding cheating husbands. What does this tell us about our conflicted society?
Secondly, I came across a very interesting study from the University of Rochester which was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. The researchers worked with couples on movie-based counselling and found that couples who watched relationship-centred movies (colloquially term ‘chick flicks’), and discussed them afterwards were more likely to still be together after three years.
The Theory of Everything
The time is Winter 1963 at Cambridge University, the Winter of Honest To God, but there was no mention of it in the film.
Stephen Hawking is one of a clutch of new doctoral students who are taking up their futures. But he has a tremendous accident in which his head can be heard to crack like an egg. He has all the care he could wish for, physical, spiritual and scientific. He was told by the doctor that he had two years to live. His mathematics continues and he does well. With all the help, who could not do well? He passes his Ph.D. with a quote from Einstein ‘God does not play dice with the world’ and publishes a book A Brief History of Time.
He is showered with many honours, including a lectureship at Bordaux. While there he collapses and when in hospital a professor advises he should be allowed to die. He wife, Jane, is appalled and tells the professor to do all he can to prolong his life.
He has all the support and comfort he requires, loving wife and a whole bevy of assistance, but there were many strains and Hawking and his wife divorced. He is now a grandfather.
Eddie Redmayne plays Hawking and Felicity Jones is his wife. James Marsh has crafted a fine and exquisite film.
There are many honours heaped upon Hawking and he is now about to seek his ‘Theory of Everything’.
A day after viewing the movie I was in the middle of an afternoon nap when I heard my wife playing the piano, old evangelical tunes ‘Blessed Assurance’ and ‘Oh Happy Day’.
What answer have you for that, Professor Hawking?
Je suis Charlie - A sermon reflection
Lessons: Exodus 3: 13-15; Psalm 24: Romans 12:14-21; John 10:11-18
"God said to Moses, 'I am who I am ... the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob'" (Ex 3:14-15)
The atrocities being perpetrated by Islamic extremists across the world have shaken our confidence that disputes can be resolved by rational discussion. Conditioned to believe that Australian values of decency and tolerance are universal, we try to explain their actions by blaming religion, social isolation, economic hardship, Western imperialism or mental instability.
But the causes of this murderous evil lie deeper than we think. In our secular society, where belief in God is now treated as a private matter that mustn't intrude into the public arena, we can't understand the dismay of Muslims at the failure of Christians (also heirs of Abraham) to honour God's name (and speak up for Jesus) in every area of life. If we miss the fact that Islam believes that God is the reality of the world, whose will is to be obeyed, then we will be impotent to fully respond to this reign of terror.
We may huff and puff about destroying this 'extremist ideology' (as world leaders promise) and trumpet the right to freedom of expression (as the Je suis Charlie rallies call for). But, if, as a society, we continue to believe that 'God' is not the One with whom we have to reckon in all things, but is merely the projection of our private fears and needs, then we will be blind to the challenges being posed to secular values and Christian faith in Australia (and elsewhere).
Nothing that is said excuses the barbarity of the terrorists! They must be vigorously opposed by the international community! But their fanatical desire to restore the ancient Caliphate (which blossomed from the C6th to C16th) and honour Allah and his prophet Mohammed, can be understood historically. If you believe that Islam is the completion and purification of Judaism and Christianity, then it makes 'sense' to wage war on them.
We need to examine what it means for Muslims, Jews, Christians and secularists to believe in God. The three Abrahamic religions all believe in 'One God' who reveals himself as being unlike any other being. For Jews, the name of God, 'I am who I am,' is so holy that it can scarcely be said. For Christians the holiness of God is embodied in JC, who said 'I am the way, the truth and the life.' For Muslims Allah is the holiest name of all.
For all of them, blasphemy is the greatest of sins! 'You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain' and 'You shall have no other gods but me.'
In the secular West this doesn't make 'sense.' Religions that originate with Abraham are treated with scorn. It is easy to ridicule God/Allah when God is widely thought of, not as the awesome Creator and merciful Redeemer who calls us to newness of life, but as an 'imaginary friend' or a crutch for limping minds and timid wills. When Descartes (C17th French philosopher) said 'I think, therefore I am' he opened the way to think that 'who I am' is not determined by God ('I am who I am') but by what 'I think about God.'
Thus, in a multi-faith society that is proud of being tolerant of diverse beliefs about God, we are mystified and horrified by laws in some Islamic nations that set the death penalty for blasphemy against Allah and Mohammed.
The usual Western reaction against blasphemy laws and Jihadi violence is to argue for laws to uphold the right to 'freedom of expression' no matter how offensive. The catchcry 'Je suis Charlie' ('I am Charlie'), that followed the brutal slaying of journalists at Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, is typical.
This is a necessary but inadequate response to such barbaric actions. The freedom to express opinions that are unpopular or thought to be wrong without fear of retribution is a vital part of a vibrant, open community.
But we shouldn't be too smug! Western societies, too, pass laws and create conditions that intimidate free speech. No-one is free to 'blaspheme' against 'sacred values' that pander to our self-indulgent life-styles or self-righteous causes. If you do, you will be called an 'extremist.' The hypocrisy of shouting 'I am Charlie' to defend the right to mock Islam (and other monotheistic faiths) shouldn't be missed. Those who offend believers in One God don't usually extend the same right to them!
It's not that the monotheistic faiths are united on God and faith. Far from it! But it would be a huge mistake if we were to treat the evil perpetrated by ISIS, Boko Haram et al as irrational, mentally unstable, the result of social isolation or totally foreign to Islam. There may be elements of delusion. Not all terrorists are committed Muslims. Many Muslims are appalled.
But the whole-hearted commitment to honour Allah and Mohammed and shape the whole of life by the teachings of the Qur'an is shared by all devout Muslims. All are aghast at the flippant attitude to blasphemy by citizens and the Church in Western nations. On TV last night a Muslim leader said that, unlike Christians and Jews, Muslims would not give-in to godless secularism.
Until Western societies and churches understand the absolute priority of God's will for Islamic faith and practice, we won't get to the heart of the problem that has surfaced in these barbaric attacks. Condemning them unequivocally, they should also act as a wake-up call.
A secular society that thinks it can mock the Christian faith (which has profoundly shaped public life and institutions), and treats religions as diverse forms of 'individual faith,' must ask whether, like Charlie Hebdo, freedom to mock God is a sufficient basis for a flourishing society that will last?
A Christian Church that has let its faith and life be marginalised, privatized and trivialised, must ask whether it still believes that 'the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof' (Ps 24:1). Do we have a vision of the KG that has transformed the world through Christ's crucified-and-risen love and brought hope by judging-in-mercy our self-indulgent and self-righteous behaviour ? Are we so convinced that Js is 'the way, the truth and the life' (Jn 14:6) that we are prepared to promote a 'culture of life' (JPII) and oppose shallow values that now shape public life and mock God's good purposes for all? ...
Perhaps these atrocities are being used by God to shake the Western Church out of our lethargy? In the Bible, terrible events, in which God's goodness and love are violated, are sometimes the means by which the faithful have their eyes opened to reality, their wills strengthened to face conflict, and their hearts warmed to those whose lives have been shattered.
We are being prodded to ask different questions about the Church's future! It's not about how we can survive in a society that treats Christianity as a private religion to be kept out of public life, but how we can express the Christian vision of a world where God is honoured and human dignity upheld.
Although Islam and Christianity have fought terrible battles, we share a deep sense of dismay at how secular societies 'devalue' God's holy will and the hope that God will be honoured by all in the whole of life.
At the same time, the differences between us are great! Briefly:
- Blasphemy is condemned in the OT and 'taking the name of God in vain' is very serious in the NT. But the One accused of blasphemy against God's Holy Law actually embodies God's mercy. 'Father forgive them' (Lk 23:34); 'Love your enemies' (Mt 5:43-48); 'Do not repay evil for evil but overcome evil with good; Don't avenge yourselves but leave judgment to God (Rom 12:14ff).
- In Christianity, the Kingdom of God isn't identical with any earthly kingdom. It is present in, and challenges false values of, the world, but its fulfilment lies in a future that God will bring. The relation between Church and State, which involves separate functions and mutual criticism, is different from the theocratic State in Islam where religion and politics are completely one and obedience to Allah is to be enforced.
- By contrast, Js embodies the KG and calls the Church to bear witness to God's love before the political power-brokers of the day. They are speak the truth, resist evil, pray for their enemies, and look forward to the new heaven and new earth. They are not called to bring-in the KG by their actions.
- Ultimately, the crucifixion of Js separates the two visions! In Islam it is blasphemous to believe that a holy prophet, or God himself, should be humiliated. Christ's power is displayed in triumphant suffering love. In him there is no ground for Holy Jihad to kill the infidel; simply a call to costly love. The political zealot Judas betrayed Js; Peter was told to put away his sword!
- It follows that Christian teaching about sin and redemption recognises that the pursuit of holiness, like unholiness, can stand in the way of honouring God. Js accused the Pharisees of hypocrisy because they refused to welcome sinners as God does. And he poked fun at religious pretension. It helps to remember that we are flawed creatures called to believe in God and not to take ourselves too seriously.
Thank God for the humour of Dave Allen, Monty Python, Father Ted, The Vicar of Dibley etc who send-up our pious short-comings? As we laugh at ourselves, we should remember that there is a chasm between the kind of humour which is soul-searching and affectionate and satire that is vicious, demeaning and hedonistic!
Thankfully, there is a vision of reality not found in the pursuit of Holy Jihad (as in extreme forms of Islam) or in the right to freedom of expression (as in the extreme secularism of Charlie Hebdo). This vision might be glimpsed if we were to draw a cartoon which removed the self-righteous 'I' from 'Je Suis Charlie' so that it read 'Jesus, Charlie.' The vision of a truly human life willed by God is to be found in the One who laid down his life for all!
Rev Dr Max Champion is a member of the ACC National Council