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Kevin Vanhoozer – justification

For those interested in the debate between Tom Wright and John Piper on justification, here is a fascinating (and comic) discussion of the topic by Vanhoozer:

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Hopestreet Sleepout

I am drafting this blog post with a certain degree of reluctance, aware of the danger of presenting myself as a ‘heroic’ Christian, brave enough even to sleep on the streets!  Nothing could, in fact, be further from the truth but I write, notwithstanding the risk of an inflated ego, because the gift we received on the streets of Sydney is worth sharing.

As part of their studies at Alphacrucis, students enrolled in a Global Poverty class were invited (required actually!) to spend a night sleeping on the streets, with the purpose of trying to learn something about homelessness in Sydney.  We were being hosted by Hopestreet Urban Compassion and the exceptional Tim Kurylowicz.  The itinerary involved a guided walk around the city, discussion of urban homelessness, an overview of various Hopestreet programs (Cafe, Arts space, women’s space, terrace housing etc.), dinner at a ‘soup kitchen’ (actually, a food van in a local park) and an evening outside in a sleeping bag on concrete.

The experience began with a discussion of statistics.  The ABS estimates that there are approximately 100,000 Australians that are homeless, with around 15000 of these sleeping ‘in the rough’.  It has been suggested that these stats are understated (the difficulty of homelessness is that it involves people who are ‘off the radar’) but whether or not that is so, it is startling to discover that so many Australians are living under such conditions.  Of course stats are one thing, but the tragedy of the numbers are brought home when, as night falls, men stake their spot on the sidewalk under any cover they can get.  It was raining this night, but the community seemed unperturbed.  Rolling out sleeping bags and wrapping themselves with scarves and beanies, prime locations were full of sleeping men by as early as 7pm.

I say men because most of the homeless we encountered were middle aged men.  In fact, however there as many homeless women as men and the largest number of homeless people are aged under 25.  Women and children were less visible in the streets of the cross – not exactly a safe place for women and children.  Exactly where they spent the night i have no idea, but we were surrounded by men.

In any event, it was so hard to fathom that this was the city of Sydney.  I have experienced poverty in Asia, noting the disparity between the rich and poor in places such as Manila and Kuala Lumpur, but I had presumed that Australia, one of the richest countries in the world, did not have the same problem.  But it turns out that, while we can spend billions of dollars on a failed insulation project, promise 40 billion for upgrading internet services, we don’t seem to be able to provide enough public housing to keep people off the streets.  What this means is that right next to Australia’s most expensive real estate, surrounded by luxury and excess and less then 2 minutes walk from the Ferari and Mazerati showrooms, people fall asleep on concrete.

At 8.30 we joined the throng at the food van.  The people doing the serving are remarkable group.  Food was distributed by volunteers from the Exodus Foundation, in this instance people from the Orthodox church although, apparently, various Christian and Muslim groups perform this service.  Also present was a mobile coffee van serving Vittoria coffee.  The owner had been in business 6 months, but was giving his time and coffee away free – a means of using his business as a way of blessing others.

And so we lined up with the crowd for food.  It was certainly a humbling and, if I am honest, embarrassing experience to eat in this way. We were discovering that it is sometimes easier to give than to receive.  To be the recipient of charity is to be in a position of powerlessness.  Even so, there was a remarkable generosity about the group.  People accepted us without question, and conversation flowed freely.  There was nothing of the awkwardness that normally accompanies new people invading a community.  It was a remarkably friendly environment, a long way from the stereotypical assumptions of ‘dog eat dog’ ‘mean street’ poverty.

This is not to say the conversation was ‘normal’ (whatever that is).  These were broken people.  No doubt we are all victims to greater or lesser degrees, but many here suffered from some degree of mental illness.  The causes of homelessness are many and varied but, whether the result or cause of living it rough, it was certainly clear that managing mental health was a challenge.  In saying this, I am wary of the stigma that comes with the description I have given.  These were nice people, whatever their challenges. In fact, they were much more open and engaging and generous with conversation then any other community I have met. Many churches could learn a lot from this.

And so we returned home to get ready for bed.  At this point I am going to tell a story that makes it clear just how shallow I am.  Along the way,  I came across a man involved in an activity that would normally be reserved for behind closed doors.  I burst into laughter but later realised how appalling my reaction was.  Most people enjoy the privacy of a home to conduct all the business that goes with being human.  To be homeless, however, is to be subject to ongoing indignity, to be exposed, on a daily basis.

Concrete beds are hard, and I am not used to sleeping under a streetlight.  We tossed and turned our way through the night, woken occasionally by the rattle of a train, by crooks in our neck, and by the cold.  When morning eventually arrived, we debriefed, prayed and made our way back to our homes in the burbs – stopping along the way for coffee and breakfast that others could not afford.  The fact is we knew nothing of what it was to be homeless.  To live it rough is not to go home after one night, but to live day after day, month after month, year after year on the concrete in the cold, with little hope for a different future.

Not that things are hopeless.  Thank God for the ministry of groups like Hopestreet, Exodus Foundation, Wayside Chapel and others.  And thank God also for the countless volunteers who work in and with this unique community. Indeed, many of the volunteers working the op-shops and the cafes are themselves homeless, people who in an through their poverty have learned what it is to be generous.

I would love to hear the comments of the students who joined me on this tour.   You are truly beautiful people, and i loved spending the night with you all.  Michael, Odette, Emma, Aaron, Elianne, Shane, Anna, Primrose, Melanie, Kaity, Peta, Georgi, Shantal – tell us your stories and your insights.

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Would you take the money?

The following video is from the national geographic documentary series.  What would you do and why?

For those who have not followed the link, the issue is whether a church charity should take money from a brothel to support their ministry to poor kids.

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Lenny Kravitz “Fly Away” two versions

Context is everything.  Listen to this impromptu version of “Fly Away” – then go take a look at the original version and accompanying video.  One might be slicker, but the other says far more!

The official version cannot be embedded, but you can click through to watch it on youtube. I for one know which i prefer!

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Inception – Film of the decade?

One of the interesting things to contemplate in the study of film is the creative contributions of the various participants.  Who exactly is the author of a film?  The screenwriter? The Director? The Actor? The Editor? Inception, however, contains the input of a true Auteur.  Perhaps the best filmmaker going around today, Christopher Nolan writes, directs and produces this stunningly brilliant film, one that caps a filmography that includes The Prestige, Dark Knight and Memento (a must see thriller whose plot runs in reverse).

For all its complexity, Inception is essentially a ‘con’ film; think Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting.  It tells the story of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team, whose job it is to ‘extract’ ideas and secrets from people while they dream.  A criminal unable to return to his home and children, Cobb is invited to perform one last ‘job’ on the promise that, if successful, his record will be expunged and he will be allowed to return home.  This time, however, his team is asked to perform an ‘inception’ – to implant an idea into the mind of the mark. Sounds simple enough, but the genius of the film is to carry forward its plot while characters move in and out of the ‘the real’ world and the dream world.  In this way, the film adds to the typical ‘con’ movie a matrix-like twisting of reality.  Audiences are glued to the screen by the thrill of plot, the beauty and interplay of the setting (the dream world is effected by what is going on in the real), the pace of the action and in the sheer joy of trying to work out what on earth (or in the mind) is happening.

Inception ticks most of the boxes that are characteristic of the really great films.  At a time when almost everything has been done before, it is a uniquely surprising movie.  I for one, am bored stiff of action films, with their car chases and gunfights that all look the same.  Inception has both, but it adds the surprise of multi-layered action that defies of the laws of physics, of car chases that have anti-gravity impacts, of gunfights in which death may be to wake from a dream or to lose grip on reality.  The action is beautifully and cleverly shot, but its special effects do not overwhelm either the story or the development of character. Inception presents the audience with interesting and ambiguous people.  DiCaprio excels as Cobb and manages to elicit sympathy, notwithstanding the fact that he is a deeply broken and immoral person. The combination of twisting plot, strange setting,  and brain bending actions means that this is a film that sticks in the mind, invites conversation and, even more unusually, invites a second (and third) viewing.  And while the cinema is normally a passive experience, Inception asks audiences to use their brains in the effort to make sense of the story and follow the plot.

If the film has a weakness it is that the intelligence of the narrative leaves the false impression that its meaning is profound.  It does raise questions about the nature of reality, inviting a postmodern exploration into the construction and pliability of truth.  But these are themes that have been explored better and in more depth elsewhere (eg. Blade Runner, Matrix).  I suspect, however, that to think the film has philosophical and theological significance is to miss the point.  It is a simple crime drama, and its capacity to make you think is tied into the twists and turns of the story.

From my perspective, this is the film of the year (even of the decade thus far).  Thank you Mr Nolan, for reminding us of what movies can be.

Posted in Film review, Random musings | 4 Comments

Knight and Day: Film Review

Seeing Knight and Day was a consequence of our preferred movie, Toy Story 3, proving to be too expensive for a family (i have decided i hate 3D).  If the trailor was any indication, we had reasonable expectation that Knight and Day would be an enjoyable alternative, featuring Tom Cruise and Cameran Diaz and providing some rollicking entertainment – in theory a Rom.Action; an attempt to satisfy the gal and her bloke.

While my preference is for films that make you think, I don’t mind the occasional Friday night of mindless entertainment.  While certainly mindless, Knight and Day wasn’t all that entertaining.

Romance?  I can see what Cruise saw in Diaz (and no, i simply cannot remember who the actors were playing – this film was self consciously drawing on the star power of its two big names, and the characters they played were largely irrelevant), but the opposite attraction was just silly?  Do girls really go for killer spies that use and abuse them?  Would a girl really give herself to a murdering villain on the off chance that she might be rescued by an aging CIA agent – even if that agent was Tom Cruise?

Action? A little, but the filmmaker kept telling the story from the perspective of the character (whether Diaz or Cruise) who, for whatever reason, was unconscious.  Just when it looked like some action might be on its way, the film skipped the good bits!!! This might have provided a way for Hollywood to save on stunt expenses, but it meant that the action was left to the audience’s imagination.  The more this occurred, the more irritating it became.

Plot? Predictable and absurd.  While I appreciate that action films require the suspension of belief (and i love science fiction, so i am cool with fantasy) it is also important that a movie has at least a certain degree of internal coherence.  Knight and Day, however, cared nothing about the logic of the story.  In one scene near the end of the film, Cruise is about to enter a car chase after a fleeing bad guy.  The villain flees, but before he follows Cruise kills 4 faceless goons and engages in some repartee with Diaz, which ends in a passionate kiss.  10 minutes must have past before Cruise jumps on his motorbike, only to find himself a mere half a block from the fleeing baddie.

Character?  Cruise and Diaz are the only thing halfway likable about this film.  Both have a certain charm and Cruise, in particular, plays the ultimate cool madman.  But otherwise, , everyone is stereotyped.  Villains are greezy and stupid and absolutely hopeless shots.  Scientists are dweeby geniuses.  CIA agents are mindless drones.

Dialogue? The occasional funny line.  Look for Cruise making a joke of himself (playing a likeable madman).

All in all, Knight and Day is not merely a meaningless movie.  This might be forgivable if the action and passion of the film stimulated the adrenalin, which it doesn’t.  Worth watching only if you want to see Cruise and Diaz half naked on the beech.  Otherwise, go watch inception or Toys story – or anything else.

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Belief and faith vs fideism

Perhaps it is the recent visit of Richard Dawkins to Australia or maybe I am imagining it, but it seems to me that the atheist attack on faith and belief is fairly intense at the moment.  Rather than be embarrassed to be a believer, however, i want to suggest that belief and faith are completely reasonable behaviours.

In fact, human progress is dependent upon belief.  As Bernard Lonergan observes, “progress in knowledge is possible because successive generations were ready to believe”.  Without belief, we would feel the need to start from scratch at every turn.  But this is to forget that ‘truth’ is a public reality and knowledge of that truth is a public and shared – beyond the capacity of any individual.  To function, to move forward, to create, we thus need to believe.

This is not to say that belief is unthinking.  Unthinking belief (fideism) leads to our ruin.  We might believe that homeopathy can cure our ills but if we have no grounds for this belief we may kill a child by neglecting evidenced based medicine (see story in SMH).  We might believe that a particular girl is in love with us, but without grounds for such belief we may well receive a slap in the face.  We thus need to put our belief to the test – to make a judgment on its veracity.  We do this in various ways.  We might, for example, be able to justify belief according to our own experience.  We believe the scaffolding will hold our weight because it has done so before.  Our experience is, however, limited, so our belief is also grounded on our willingness to trust the testimony of others.  In this case, we ascertain the veracity of our belief by judging the trustworthiness of the source.  I trust that a builder is expert enough to safely construct my new house, because she is an expert in her field (and i cannot nail a hammer in a wood).  Similarly, my own experience does not enable me to test the truthfulness of Einsteins theory of relativity.  But i can make a judgment that he is sufficiently qualified and intelligent – and that his work has been investigated by other cosmic physicists.  Thus, i can conclude my belief in the truthfulness of the theory of general relativity is reasonable.

Belief, although reasonable, is not certain knowledge, although it may become such.  If i gather sufficient evidence, i may be able to make the judgement that my belief is true – i.e. it is something i know for certain.  You might believe, for example, that Alphacrucis College had sold its property.  You might have good reason to assert this belief (you saw it in a newspaper).  But this belief would become certain knowledge only when you gathered sufficient evidence; when, for example, you witnessed the contract of exchange.  Of course, some things can only ever be believed, since certain knowledge of everything is beyond us.  I believe my house will not fall down tomorrow.  I have good evidence for this.  It did not fall down yesterday, and seems to be sturdily build.  But I don’t know the future and for all i know a plane might fall out of the sky tomorrow and come crashing through my roof.

Anyway, what has this rambling discussion got to do with Christianity?  Firstly, it reminds us that Christians who believe unthinkingly are in trouble.  Fideism (blind, irrational belief) leads to stupid actions – to patients who refuse medical treatment on the grounds that it would be ‘lack of faith’ – to people being duped into giving unreasonable sums of money to so-called health and wealth teachers; the list is endless.

Secondly, it helps us to assert that belief is not irrational.  We need to remember that we have good reason for our belief (and if we don’t we need to search such reasons out).  We have our own experience; the transforming work of God in our own lives.  We have the testimony of our friends and neighbours.  And we have the testimony of the writers of the Scriptures, and of the great thinkers of the church – Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther etc.  More than this, we can apply our own minds to the task of thinking through our beliefs – to putting our beliefs to the test.

Finally, however, we are reminded that our beliefs about God can never be certain knowledge, at least not of the sort that grounds science and that can be ‘proven’.  God always transcends our knowledge.  God is bigger and more mysterious then we can ever know, and so our belief is not certainty ( a fact that should lead us to be generous to those with different religious beliefs).  That is why belief in God is grounded in faith.  Lonergan suggests that faith is ‘knowledge born of religious love’.  It is the knowledge that God has revealed himself; that there is meaning and purpose in the world revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ.

As i noted in an earlier post faith is not the absence of doubt but, rather, a deeply intuitive trust in the goodness of God in the face of our doubts.  It is a trust that is revealed to us through Jesus, one that enables us to persevere through the hard times (even the ‘godforsaken’ times).  It is also a trust that grounds our beliefs, which may not be ‘provable’ to the atheist, but which are reasonable nevertheless.

Posted in Theology | 2 Comments

Faith and Doubt

A friend of mine has been struggling with faith.  One imagines, as a new Christian, that faith grows in time until it is transformed into certainty.  For many of us, however, the experience of growing older is not a movement into certainty but, rather, into ambiguity, as faith mixes itself with doubt.

We have, of course, been told of the heroes of faith in Hebrew’s 11, who were “sure of what they hoped for, certain of what they did not see.”  But most of us are not giants, and we lack the faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and the crew of Hebrew’s 11.  Or do we?  More than a thousand years later, the writer of Hebrews can talk about the certainty of the faith of these men and women retrospectively, but i suspect that the actual experience of faith at the time was not as black and what as we sometimes assume.  Abraham, the paragon of faith, gives his wife (the mother to be of his promised child) to a foreign king in order to protect his own life – and he does so twice!  Isaac, the seed of Abraham’s faith, did the same thing to Rebekah.  And the ups and downs of Jacob’s life of faith don’t need retelling here.

I suspect that many a life that will, retrospectively, justly be declared to have been one of faith will have been one lived in the face of doubt. Indeed, what is faith without struggle and doubt?  If faith is trust in God, it is faith because sometimes we wonder what God is doing even, sometimes, whether God is really there at all.  Perhaps, after all, real faith is the preparedness to struggle with one’s doubts.  To face them honestly, to share them with a friend, to not find easy answers and yet, however tentatively, to move forward, pursuing the truth and goodness and beauty that we somehow know, deep within ourselves, is only found in God.

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Gillard vs Abbott

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