‘The Hunger Games’ and the Human Predicament

For the last couple of days I’ve had some late nights because I’ve been rewatching the32b48154b2be18daf89f26dee4993c60 ‘Hunger Games’ movies on Netflix (I’ve also read the books). I know, it seems a dark and depressing way to end the day, but I find them riveting. In fact, if I wanted to lead a young adult study group on the Christian doctrine of original sin, I think I’d start with ‘The Hunger Games’.

I can hear the objections. ‘Can you really imagine a whole society being so twisted that it enjoys the spectacle of teenagers—and some barely into their teens—killing each other in a virtual arena?’ Well, as it happens, I can. I recall a time in human history when gladiatorial contests were entertainment—the more blood, the better. I also recall a time when young children were sent up chimneys as sweeps, and many died when they got stuck up there. As a human race we’ve dropped bombs on children, sold them as sex slaves, kidnapped them and turned them into child soldiers. We’re not quite the enlightened race we like to think we are.

‘But a nation set up in such a way that a wealthy capital sucks in all the resources and enjoys the lifestyle they make possible, while keeping the regions that produce the resources in poverty and subjugation? Surely we wouldn’t do that?’ But that was the whole point of colonies, wasn’t it? Places that the developed nations could exploit for their resources, while keeping the natives under their thumb. People living in the two-thirds world tell us it’s still going on today.

‘But can you imagine people standing up in front of a microphone and telling out and out blatant lies like that?’ Um – funnily enough, in 2020, I can! Enough said about that!

‘But those ridiculous costumes and hairstyles! All that flashy extravagance and love of spectacle! Isn’t it all a bit over the top?’ Maybe, but is it really so very much different from a modern political convention—or the Grammy Awards?

‘But children standing up on stage talking about how they can’t wait to get out into the arena and fight for the honour of their district?’ Well, that sounds rather like what a lot of soldiers said when they marched off to fight in World War One. And some of them weren’t much older than the kids in the Hunger Games.

So yes—I think ‘The Hunger Games’ tells us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Christians believe human beings are made in God’s image, but are also infected with the disease of sin. And what is sin? It’s what Francis Spufford calls our ‘Human Propensity to F___ Things Up.’ We’re really good at it. We break things. We break people. We break relationships. We know it. We try to change it, but it’s desperately hard to break old habits and find a new path.

And ‘The Hunger Games’ reminds us that it’s not just about individual choices. Whole societies are organized in such a way as to institutionalize evil, to reinforce it, so that if you want to step away from it, you have to be intentional about it and be ready to suffer the consequences. As Cinna did. As Katniss and Peeta did.

A gloomy way to start a Friday morning? Maybe. I also believe God has come among us as one of us and started a movement to root out the poison of evil from our souls and our societal structures. But I don’t expect that to be the work of a few minutes, and I don’t expect it to be completed in a single lifetime.

As so often, Bruce Cockburn sums it up well:

From the lying mirror to the movement of stars
Everybody’s looking for who they are
Those who know don’t have the words to tell
And the ones with the words don’t know too well

Chorus:
Could be the famine
Could be the feast
Could be the pusher
Could be the priest
Always ourselves we love the least
That’s the burden of the angel/beast

Birds of paradise — birds of prey
Here tomorrow, gone today
Cross my forehead, cross my palm
Don’t cross me or I’ll do you harm

[Chorus]

We go crying, we come laughing
Never understand the time we’re passing
Kill for money, die for love
Whatever was God thinking of?

 – ‘The Burden on the Angel/Beast’ (from the Album ‘Dart to the Heart’ [1994])

There aren’t enough songs about just ‘being’ in love

A few years ago at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, I heard David Francey say that there are lots of songs about falling in love, and there are lots of songs about falling out of love, but there aren’t many songs about just being in love – the joys and the heartaches, the ups and the downs of it. I think he’s right; I can’t think of many love songs that celebrate long-term marriages (Stan Rogers’ ‘Lies‘ is one that comes to mind, and it’s one of my favourites). And I think this is a shame.

Musicians aren’t the only ones who neglect this theme. TV writers also seem to believe that stable long-term relationships make for boring TV. At the end of Downton Abbey season three, when Matthew Crawley was killed off due to actor Dan Stevens wanting to leave the show, I read that creator Julian Fellowes had expressed an opinion that a happy marriage didn’t make for particularly exciting television. It seemed that, having brought Matthew and Mary through a long and tortuous route to finally getting married, he was happy to kill Matthew off so that once again Mary could be ‘on the market’, making for enjoyable tension and uncertainty on the show.

Sunday was the season seven finale of ‘Heartland‘, and we have the same scenario, with long-time couple Ty and Amy (whose relationship has been the central story line of Heartland from the end of the first season, and who have been engaged for a season and a half) once again running into speed bumps, and not getting married as perhaps the majority of fans would have liked to have seen. I’ve even heard the view expressed that Ty and Amy’s marriage would have meant the end of Heartland, because ‘where would the show go after that’? What? Would Ty and Amy really stop growing and learning after their wedding day?

I honestly can’t understand why TV writers take this view. Do they really think there are no enjoyable story lines to be found in the joys and vicissitudes of a lasting marriage? Well, if that’s really how they feel, I have five words for them: For Better and for Worse. This much loved comic strip by Lynn Johnston ran for 29 years and took its readers through the story of the lives of John and Ellie Patterson and their kids. In the earliest story lines, John and Ellie were a young married couple; later they had their children, and we followed the ups and downs of their lives together, told with humour and honesty in a way that kept people coming back for more. And I haven’t heard that the strip’s popularity suffered at all for it being about a stable long-term marriage!

Seriously, do writers and musicians and TV producers really believe that there are no interesting story lines in long-term relationships? Do they really believe that there’s no drama in showing couples and families facing the challenges that make long-term relationships so difficult, and coming through them successfully (or, sometimes, less successfully)? Where does this come from? Is it, perhaps, the notorious instability of show-business relationships?

Years ago, author Larry Christensen said that marriage is like pioneering, in that true pioneers experience two things: hope and difficulty. Marriage as pioneering? Now there’s an interesting thought! Perhaps it’s time for writers and musicians and TV producers to take on a new challenge; how about exploring the possibilities of portraying long-term love – what David Francey referred to as ‘just being in love’ – with all its hope and difficulty? How about it, creative artists? Are you up for it?

‘The Enigma Of Nic Jones: Return Of Britain’s Lost Folk Hero’

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I’m really looking forward to seeing this:

Nic Jones is a legend of British folk music. His 1980 album Penguin Eggs was widely acknowledged as a classic and he was poised for international stardom – but a near-fatal car crash in 1982 changed his life forever.

The Enigma Of Nic Jones: Return Of Britain’s Lost Folk Hero tells the story of Nic’s determination to sing again and his return to the stage 30 years later…

…The Enigma Of Nic Jones: Return Of Britain’s Lost Folk Hero will be premiered at the How The Light Gets In Festival on Saturday 1 June as part of BBC Four’s partnership with the festival, with filmmaker Michael Proudfoot introducing the film.

Read the rest here.

Apprehension

I’ve been challenged a number of times by members of my family to go and see the newHobbit1 Hobbit movie before dissing it. Fair enough; I will.

However, Ben Witherington has seen it. Here’s his review; it confirms what I expected: no longer the children’s story Tolkien wrote, too much Lord of the Rings read back into it, too much violence, too much development of characters not in Tolkien’s story and too little development of those who were, etc. etc. In a response to one of the comments he mentions ‘…the interminably battling which never really results in anything… either the defeat of some particular evil group or any serious loss to our heroes. It is indeed like a video game’.

Todd Hertz has also seen it, and in his review for Christianity Today he writes:

‘The divisive issue is not omissions, as is often the case with adaptations; in fact, all major events of the book’s first six chapters are fairly depicted. The issue here is that Jackson has made wholesale additions that make it all feel less like the book and more like the darker cinematic journey Jackson took us on not long ago with his Lord of the Rings trilogy. And that seems to be exactly Jackson’s goal.’

I also note my review of Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ movies (written several years after I first saw them, after I’d had time to consider), in which I explained why I thought they were ‘deeply flawed’, and my initial reaction when word of the Hobbit movie came out (at that time, we were only expecting a two-part production!).

I like Martin Freeman and I like Ian McKellen, so I expect I’ll enjoy their characters. If I’m wrong about the rest of the movie, I’ll be glad to retract my predictions (I was happily surprised about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, though not about the movies that followed it). However, I don’t expect to have to do so.

I love The Hobbit dearly, and when people talk about it in the future, I want people to talk about the characters and the story that Tolkien created. That’s why I’m apprehensive about going to see the movie. But I will go, and I’ll let you know what I think.

Twenty-One Today

On October 24th 1990 I was ordained a deacon in the Church of the Resurrection, Holman, Northwest Territories (the church I had been serving as a lay minister in charge for two years), by Bishop Jack Sperry, Third Bishop of the Arctic. The service was a bilingual one, in English and Inuinaktun, and the Inuinaktun parts were especially translated from the Book of Alternative Services by Bishop Sperry. The only other clergy person present was my father, who had made the long trip from England for the occasion. It was a little different from the formal ritual of the ordination services I now attend at our cathedral in Edmonton; there was no choir, the organ was a chord organ, and after the service was over the pews were pushed into a circle around the walls to make room for a great feast in the little church. The feast was not just for my ordination, I haste to add; it was also in honour of Bishop Sperry’s intending retirement. I was the last person he ordained before he stepped down from his position as Bishop of the Arctic after seventeen years, and a total of forty years of ministry in the Diocese of the Arctic.

I consider Jack Sperry to be one of the unsung heroes of the Canadian Church. He was born in the same city as me, Leicester in England; he served in the Royal Navy during World War Two and then came to Canada, where he took his theological education before moving to the Diocese of the Arctic. He was the missionary in charge at Coppermine (now Kugluktuk) from 1950 to 1969; during that time he made extensive travels by dog team all over the central Arctic, doing mission work in what are now the parishes of Holman, Cambridge Bay, Bathurst Inlet, Bay Chimo and beyond. He learned to speak Inuinaktun, the central or Copper dialect of Inuktitut, with great fluency; he translated parts of the Book of Common Prayer, the Gospels and the Book of Acts, some selections from the epistles, and many hymns and psalms, for the use of the people of the central Arctic. After nineteen years in Coppermine he served briefly in Fort Smith before being appointed as the Third Bishop of the Arctic in 1973, a position he held until his retirement at the end of 1990.

I remember Jack as a down to earth, ordinary Christian; he loved the Gospel and he loved the people of the Arctic, and he loved most of all bringing the two together. He was a man of prayer and a man who knew how to build things with his hands (you had to do that a lot as a missionary in the Arctic). He knew that his first job was to care for his clergy and their families, and when he came to visit us he always made time to play games with our children, draw pictures for them, and talk with them. Episcopal visits in the Arctic always involved staying overnight in the mission house, of course, as there were no roads in and out of most of the communities, and very few had more than one flight in per day. But with Jack, it wasn’t a case of necessity but of vocation; he knew how isolated his clergy were and he did his best to care for us as individuals and as families.

One of the best times I ever spent with him was in the early winter of 1988 after we moved to Holman. I was learning to negotiate a new language and Jack was one of the acknowledged authorities on that language, so he came to stay at our mission house for a week which we spent in intensive language study. For eight hours a day we poured over the few written resources available (most of which he had written himself), and it was then that I discovered that I not only enjoyed language, but I had a pretty good ear for it. But we also visited and told stories, and each night the local people would arrive at our door and come in without knocking, as was the custom, to sit and drink tea with the man who had once been their minister (Holman had been part of Jack’s patch in those nineteen years when he used to travel up the western side of Victoria Island by dog team each winter). The respect and affection they felt for him was quite obvious.

At the time of my ordination I had been serving as a lay-evangelist with the Church Army in Canada for twelve years. I had worked in parishes in Ontario and Saskatchewan, and had served in the Diocese of the Arctic for six years as a lay-minister in charge of two missions, first in Aklavik and later in Holman. I had done some theological study by correspondence but had not completed a full theological degree. But Bishop Sperry’s view was, “Well, if you’re not qualified to do the job I shouldn’t be leaving you on your own in charge of an isolated mission station, should I?”

I will always be grateful for Bishop Sperry’s trust in me. There were other bishops in the Canadian church who did not consider me educated enough to be a candidate for ordination. Bishop Sperry took a different view, and that is why I am where I am today.

As for Jack, he is still alive in a retirement home in Hay River, with his children nearby; I think he must be over ninety by now, and I know for a fact that macular degeneration has made him almost blind. I know this must be very hard for him, as he always loved to read. I will think of him especially today, with a prayer of gratitude for all the good he did in my life. God bless you richly, Jack, and thank you so much for everything.

Jane Eyre 2011

Charlotte Bronte is I think generally the best writer among the three Bronte sisters (Anne and Emily are the other two): I think Jane Eyre, Shirley, and Villette are my personal favourites among the dark and brooding novels of the Bronte family. But I must confess it’s a long time since I read Jane Eyre and that the last time I read it I skipped over much of the earlier part of the book. I find long descriptions of oppressive school days to be particularly uninviting, and generally skip over them wherever I find them.

So I feel somewhat unqualified to think about the relationship between the 2011 Jane Eyre movie and the novel on which it is based. I suspect, however, that it does a lot of streamlining; there’s no way you could fit a novel like that into the time constraints of a feature film without leaving out large sections of the narrative. That being the case, simply as a movie (without considering the editing of Bronte’s original story) I think it’s quite interesting. Mia Wasikowska gives us a fine, spunky performance as Jane, and we quickly get a sense that here is a rare individual who is not going to allow the sufferings that life has thrown her way to overcome her spirit. Michael Fassbender also gives a good performance as Edward Rochester, and of course Judi Dench is always a pleasure to watch in every role she plays.

But I must confess to still having a lot of unanswered questions about the movie and the story it tells.

Yes, the Yorkshire moors are depicted for us in all their bleak and cloudy glory, and yes, we get stately homes and period costumes and everything as authentic as possible (the rooms look dark in the evenings when lit by candlelight: most modern movies ignore that fact!). That is all very satisfying.

But I’m still not sure why Jane is as strong as she is. Nothing in the story of her life explains to me how it is that she is able to rise above her circumstances and become the rare individual that she obviously is, when so many others could only sink and drown. What is the source of her inner strength? And what exactly does she see in Edward Rochester? What is it that makes her fall in love with this dark and brooding landowner many years her senior? And when his terrible secret is revealed – literally at the altar as their wedding is about to take place – why does she later forgive him and go back to him, when he has been shown to be so fundamentally dishonest?

It’s obviously time for me to go back and give the novel Jane Eyre another read. But given the size of my current book pile, I’m not sure when that will happen!

Is this the same ‘Hobbit’ that Tolkien wrote?

From Reuters:

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Peter Jackson’s two upcoming movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit have been given official names and release dates.

The first of the two films, which are currently being filmed back-to-back in New Zealand, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, arrives in theaters on Dec. 14, 2012.

The sequel, opening Dec. 13, 2013, will be known as The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Both will be released through Warner Bros.

The two prequels to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy follow the adventures of Bilbo Baggins — to be played by Martin Freeman, with Ian Holm reprising his role as the elder Bilbo — in his quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug.

The sprawling cast includes a number of other Rings veterans: Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey; Cate Blanchett as Galadriel; Orlando Bloom as Legolas; Christopher Lee as Saruman; Hugo Weaving as Elrond; Elijah Wood as Frodo; and Andy Serkis as Gollum.

Er – I already have a bad feeling about this.

First, in The Hobbit, Bilbo did not have a personal quest to ‘reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor from Smaug’. Rather, his services were engaged as a burglar (the word is used many, many times in Tolkien’s story) to assist the thirteen dwarfs led by Thorin Oakenshield in stealing their lost dwarf treasure back from Smaug. The motive is entirely and unabashedly materialistic.

But secondly, and even more alarmingly – what’s with this list of characters? Galadriel, Legolas, Saruman and Frodo do not appear in Tolkien’s story in The Hobbit! True, in the retrospective on the ‘Hobbit’ story that we get in places in The Lord of the Rings it turns out that Gandalf, Saruman, and Galadriel have been involved in a meeting of the White Council to discuss the identity of the Necromancer – but Saruman and Galadriel are not mentioned in the much simpler account we get in The Hobbit – and in the LotR Frodo is far too young to have even been born at the time of the earlier book.

Thirdly, it is somewhat misleading to describe The Hobbit as a ‘prequel to The Lord of the Rings’. This is to interpret it backwards from the perspective of the later and much more complex work. The Hobbit as Tolkien originally wrote it was a simple fairy story for children involving dwarfs and their treasure, a wizard, a dragon, and a rather unadventurous hobbit. When Gollum’s magic ring first makes its appearance in the pages of The Hobbit it is not the ‘one ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them’ that it becomes later in the reinterpretation found in The Lord of the Rings; it is simply a magic ring to make the wearer invisible. Tolkien actually began The Lord of the Rings as a sequel to The Hobbit, not the other way around, and the early chapters of the LotR are decidely Hobbit-like (indeed, in Tolkien’s first drafts of these chapters ‘Strider’ was called ‘Trotter’ and Bilbo’s nephew was not ‘Frodo Baggins’ but ‘Bingo Baggins’).

I am very much afraid that Jackson is going to give us, not The Hobbit on its own terms, but rather The Hobbit as it is re-interpreted in The Lord of the Rings. And since Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is already significantly different from the story Tolkien wrote, we are going to be even further away from the original in this so-called ‘prequel’. In my review of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings I wrote the following:

Tolkien started out to write a children’s book, a sequel to The Hobbit, but his older mythology got pulled into it and he ended up writing an epic saga. Some of the saga remains in Jackson’s movie, but he has seriously perverted it, importing into it elements of both the modern psychological novel and the shoot ‘em and kill ‘em action movie.

I then concluded:

I hope that people who see these movies will go on to read the books. My fear is that Jackson’s story line and characterisations will be established in the minds of most people as definitive; that when they think of Frodo and Elrond and Arwen and Galadriel, it will be Jackson’s characters they will think of, not Tolkien’s. To me, this would be a shame.

I already have similar fears for Jackson’s The Hobbit, and the movies haven’t even been filmed yet.