A Zealot has a conversation with Jesus

The following imaginary conversation between Jesus and Barabbas takes place in Franco Zeffirelli’s movie ‘Jesus of Nazareth‘. Earlier in the movie Amos, a Zealot freedom fighter, has been executed by the Romans. Now Barabbas comes to meet Jesus at the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem. Here is the conversation, taken straight from the movie; although it does not appear anywhere in the gospels, I think it is a very plausible imagining of how such an encounter might have played out – and it has obvious implications for the way in which much of the Church has made its peace with violence.

Barabbas: ‘Master, I am Barabbas, a Zealot. Before he was murdered Amos sent word to us, he said to trust you. My brothers are ready, and some of them are temple guards. Our day of revenge against the Romans has come. Every day their grip becomes tighter. Our people have grown used to oppression, but with you to lead them, and with our swords behind you, they will rise up – we can teach them to fight. Some of the priests and Sadducees have said “Obey the laws of Caesar”, but they do not speak for the Jewish people. Tell us what to do. Whatever you say, we’ll follow you’.

Jesus: ‘Then love your enemies, and forgive those who use and persecute you. The day of forgiveness is at hand’.

Barabbas: ‘Forgive Herod? Forgive the Romans?’

Jesus: ‘Forgive them all’.

Barabbas: ‘But – the Romans have butchered hundreds of innocent people – old people, young people – lives ended without mercy, without trial! Surely you can’t mean to forgive that, Master? We must meet the sword with the sword!’

Jesus: ‘All who take up the sword will perish by the sword!’

Barabbas: ‘But we must end the voice of weeping in Israel!’

Jesus: ‘Barabbas! Your zeal blinds you to the truth! The new Jerusalem will not be built by murder and uprising. The wisdom of God will fill the land as water fills the sea. The lion will lie down with the lamb; there’ll be no more killing or destroying. And the voice of weeping shall be heard no more’.

Barabbas: ‘But – while we wait for that day to come, our people live in mourning and lamentation’. (he gets up to go).

Jesus: ‘Barabbas – do you wish to follow me? I have come to take on my shoulders the sins of the world. He who would follow me must do the same’.

Barabbas: ‘Oh no!’

‘None of it is real, you know’.

One of my all-time favourite movies is the romantic comedy ‘Notting Hill‘, with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. In this movie Grant plays Will Thacker, a rather diffident London travel bookshop owner, and Julia Roberts basically plays herself, only with the name of Anna Scott. The movie deals with their rather unlikely (and rather on-again, off-again) romance, and the difficulties of bridging their two worlds. Those of you who have seen it won’t need me to recount the plot, and those of you who haven’t – well, I won’t spoil it for you, go and rent it immediately!

I want to focus in on two incidents in this movie. About midway through, Anna takes refuge in Will’s house after some old nude photos of herself have been published in the London tabloids. The two of them spend the night together, but the papers get wind of the fact that she’s there, in that house with the blue door in Notting Hill. The next day there is a knock on the door, and before you know it, photos of Anna and Will (rather scantily dressed) are being shown in all the papers and all over the world. Anna is furious and suspects Will of having set it all up to get a moment in the limelight. He remonstrates with her and suggests that she’s making a mountain out of a molehill: ‘This isn’t real; today’s papers will be discarded on the floor tomorrow’. She responds furiously, telling him that these photos will last forever and she will always regret them.

But later on in the movie Anna has a change of heart, comes to Will to apologise and asks if they might renew their relationship. This time he is the one who demurs; he fears he couldn’t survive the experience of being cast off yet again, as he inevitably would be. They live in different worlds, he says: ‘you live in Beverly Hills, I live in Notting Hill. The whole world knows your name; my mother has difficulty remembering my name’. She nods in understanding, and then says, “It’s not real, you know – the fame. None of it is real. Underneath I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her”.

This is a moment of naked truth, a moment that cuts through all the constructions we humans place on our daily activities and the things we love and long for. What is real? Is fame real? Is popularity real? Is success real? Are William and Kate really the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge? Is he really the heir to the throne of the United Kingdom? Or is the reality that they are just William and Kate, trying to love each other and have a good marriage in the midst of a web of what the King James Version translation of Luke 1:51 referred to as ‘the imaginations of (people’s) hearts’?

I’m reminded of a few more moments of movie reality, this time in ‘Forrest Gump‘. You may remember that there are a number of momentous events in that movie, but Forrest has a very down to earth way of describing them. For instance, the media reports the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a national event with worldwide repercussions, but Forrest simply says, “A few weeks later somebody shot that nice young man”. What is real? Is it the event that history remembers, or is it the event as Forrest describes it?

Are nations real? I’ve flown over North America many times and I can assure you there are no political boundaries carved into the surface of the earth – in fact, as Archbishop Michael Peers used to say, when you look at North America from the air and see which direction the rivers flow, it’s very clear that God intended it to be organised on a north/south orientation, not the east/west orientation we have created! Is Canada real? Is Alberta? Is capitalism real? Is socialism?

Of course, Forrest Gump is not real either – he’s an artistic creation, as are Will Thacker and Anna Scott. But they challenge me to look below the surface and ask myself the question, “What’s really important?” This question was fundamental to Jesus’ ministry. Someone once asked Jesus ‘What are the most important things in life?’ (well, the actual question was ‘Which commandment in the Law of Moses is most important?’, but in essence it’s the same meaning). Here’s his reply:

“The most important one”, answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31 NIV 2011).

This is the heart of the matter. God is real, and God is love, and humans were created to live in love – love for God and love for one another – and not just love for people we like, but love for our ‘neighbour’, the one who happens to be next to us, especially if he or she happens to be in need. This is what’s real. Get this right, Jesus says in Luke’s version of this story, and you will discover what life is all about; “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28).

My friend Harold Percy has often said, “There are many people for whom God will have to write this epitaph: ‘Brilliant performance, but he missed the whole point'”. I don’t want that to be my epitaph. May God open our eyes to what’s real, and may God protect us from being distracted by what is not.

Emma (BBC Miniseries 2009)

I’ve just finished watching the 2009 BBC Miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’. I’m not going to write a proper review of this until I’ve watched it again. But I have to say that on first viewing I was mightily impressed – and I’m a big Jane Austen fan so I don’t like it when they mess with the stories. The dialogue was somewhat modernised, but the characters were brilliantly portrayed. Romola Garai was perhaps a little old for the part at 27, but she played Emma Woodhouse to a tee – passionate, impetuous, full of fun – and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley was every bit as sensible and severe as he needed to be, and yet also believable as a family friend. Michael Gambon of course was excellent (he always is) as Mr. Woodhouse, and I also really liked Tamsin Greig as Miss Bates.

I’d give this miniseries four and a half out of five.

Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’

Over the last few days Marci and I have been watching the extended editions of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic book The Lord of the Rings. We saw the originals in the theatre when they were first released, of course, and we have seen DVD extended editions for the first two, but this is the first time we’ve seen the extended edition of the third movie, The Return of the King.
I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was sixteen. In June, just after taking my O-levels, I had my tonsils out, and The Lord of the Rings kept my mouth shut for a couple of weeks. I was completely overwhelmed by the book (often wrongly referred to as a trilogy; it was Tolkien’s publishers who made it a trilogy, not Tolkien himself), and for a couple of months I mentally walked around in Tolkien’s universe, luxuriating in the stories of elves and ents, hobbits and haradrim, rings and ringwraiths, orcs and trolls and balrogs and the rest. I remember going for a long walk with my girlfriend one day in which I basically recounted for her the entire plot outline of the story; it must have taken several hours, and I have no idea how she had the patience to listen to me for that long, but it just goes to show how taken I was with Tolkien’s tale.I have read the book several times since; a couple of times to myself, and at least twice out loud to my kids. I also read The Hobbit, the Silmarillion, and several of the other books which Christopher Tolkien has created out of the literary remnants his father left behind. I awaited with excitement Ralph Bakshi’s animated adaptation of the first half of The Lord of the Rings in 1976 and was very disappointed that the second half was never completed; I still think that a very fine piece of work, essentially very true to Tolkien’s original story. I have also heard parts of the BBC radio version which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I’m old enough now to see some of the flaws in Tolkien’s work: the long and rambling nature of the story, with several components that turn out to have no real contribution to the main plot (especially the Tom Bombadil episode, which has never made it into any movie adaptation); the very minor and entirely secondary place of women; and above all, the myth of redemptive violence, made all the more attractive by the fact that in fantasy literature you can make the enemy armies entirely evil and so never have to confront the fact that you are killing human beings much like yourself. Still, despite all this, I remain a committed Tolkien fan, and although I think it rather pretentious to say that a book is ‘the greatest book of the 20th century’ (I’ve only read a tiny fraction of the books written in the 20th century, so how do I know?), yet I have no hesitation in saying that it is the greatest work of 20th century fiction that I’ve read.

And so I awaited with a mixture of excitement and foreboding the Peter Jackson movie project. An epic of enormous proportions, reputedly costing $285 million and starring such luminaries as Ian McKellern, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, Viggo Mortensen and Ian Holm, it was released one volume at a time over the three Christmases at the beginning of the new decade. My children were nervous about going to see it in my company; they knew how committed I was to the book and how scathing I can be about cinematic adaptations of stories I enjoy. And to a certain extent I think their fears were justified. I enjoyed the three movies, but I think them deeply flawed.

But first, to be fair, let me say what I liked about Jackson’s work.

For me, the best parts of the movies were the visuals. Jackson has given us a stunning depiction of Middle Earth, from the rural beauty of the rustic Shire, to the Elvish dwellings in Rivendell and Lothlorien, to the sweeping plains of Rohan, to the spectacular city of Minas Tirith, to the horrors of Minas Morgul and Barad-Dur. Yes – this is what Middle Earth was meant to look like, and I will always have these pictures in my mind now when I read about it.

Most of the casting decisions were excellent. Chief among these, I would place Ian McKellern as Gandalf the Grey; his portrayal of the wizard is entirely faithful to Tolkien’s original, as is Christopher Lee’s Saruman. Sean Astin as Sam is also very good, as is Orlando Bloom as Legolas. Andy Sirkis’ CGI-assisted portrayal of Gollum is nothing short of brilliant. I also enjoyed Miranda Otto as Eowyn (by far the best female part in the movie, I thought), Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, and Billy Budd and Dominic Monaghan as Pippin and Merry.

Some of the casting decisions were less happy. Tolkien’s Frodo was far, far older than Elijah Wood; he was meant to be my age, 51, when he left Hobbiton on his long journey to Mordor. Likewise, Liv Tyler was far too young to play Arwen Evenstar, who is meant to be an immortal elf; yes, she needs to be ageless, but ageless does not necessarily mean young. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel is somehow not majestic enough for the part. And Hugo Weaving as Elrond also failed to portray the agelessness of the character, although some of the worst features of his part are probably to do with the script rather than the actor.

Which leads me to my main complaint about these movies: the way in which Peter Jackson has changed Tolkien’s story. Let me explain.

First, the proportionate amount of time taken up by battle scenes in the movies far exceeds that found in the book itself. For example, in the original book The Return of the King the actual battle for Minas Tirith takes up approximately 10% of the story; I wasn’t timing it in the movie, but I’m sure it was at least 25% (and this despite the fact that the movie version of The Return of the King includes some scenes that in the original are part of the previous volume, The Two Towers). Tolkien’s original includes some dark battle scenes, yes, but it also includes lengthy times of rest in places of light and gladness such as Rivendell and Lorien. These are always abbreviated in the movies, and the battle scenes are extended. The result is a much darker and more violent story than Tolkien wrote.

Second, almost all of Tolkien’s humour has been lost. And this is bad, because Tolkien did humour very well, and his hobbits were especially humorous. The movie has humour of its own, to be sure, but almost none of it is taken from the original.

Third, Jackson has imported large sections of story that deviate from Tolkien’s plot. For instance, he has added an element of conflict between Elrond and Arwen about whether or not she should marry Aragorn, and in fact his Elrond is a character who seems to have very little interest in Middle Earth; his main desire seems to be to get his daughter and the rest of his people safely to the Grey Havens and out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. There are significant changes to Aragorn’s character, too. In the original he keeps his identity as the heir of Isildur secret, yes, but is never hesitant about embracing it, and he carries the shards of Narsil, the sword of Elendil, with him at all times. In Jackson’s version Aragorn is full of self-doubt, fearing that he will prove as weak as his ancestor, and he does not take up Narsil until three-quarters of the way through the story, when it is brought to him, reforged as Anduril, by Elrond.

Tolkien’s story includes a little coda at the end, ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, in which the hobbits find when they return home that evil has preceded them; Saruman, who Treebeard freed from his prison at Orthanc, has taken over the place with the help of Wormtongue. The hobbits have to fight one more battle to set their homeland free, and it is concluded when Wormtongue stabs Saruman in the back. But Jackson removes the scouring of the Shire entirely, and the murder of Saruman takes place much earlier in the story.

Worst of all, to my mind, is the way the character of Frodo has been changed. Tolkien’s Frodo had his times of self-doubt yes, but he had many other times, including great bravery and good cheer. But Frodo as written in this movie and protrayed by Elijah Wood seems to have only one mood: angst. The expression on Wood’s face throughout the movie is one of fear and foreboding. His Frodo is far more fragile than Tolkien’s original – and, as I said before, far younger as well.

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. The parts of his work that succeed, to my mind, are the parts that are truest to Tolkien’s original plot line (chiefly found in the first of his three movies, The Fellowship of the Ring). The parts that fail most badly are the parts where he has intruded his own replacement plot lines (mainly found in the second movie, The Two Towers).

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.

If I were in the business of giving stars, I’d give these movies a three out of five. There’s no doubt that they are works of cinematic brilliance, but as interpretations of Tolkien’s story they are seriously flawed. I can’t see it happening for at least couple of decades, but I hope that some day another movie maker will come along and do a better job of retelling Tolkien’s tale in a way that is faithful to his original vision.


War and Peace (1973)

We’re about a third of the way through the 1973 BBC miniseries of War and Peace. I’ve never seen it before (can’t think how I’ve missed it), and it’s a while since I’ve read the book, but the miniseries is reminding me of how much I love this story. Tolstoy’s characters are so real and so believable, and he paints them in all their human frailty and perversity as well as their goodness and nobility. I’m particularly enjoying Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Pierre, one of Tolstoy’s best and most complicated characters.

Up until now I’ve said that Anna Karenina is my favourite (not just of Tolstoy, but of all the great Russian novelists), but I think I may be coming around to the orthodox view that War and Peace is the best. Except for the fifty page philosophical reflection at the end; don’t even try to read that part!


When a member of my youth group suggested that we watch the movie ‘Doubt‘, I found myself somewhat skeptical. I was expecting the sort of movie that gets its jollies from bashing the Catholic church; ‘It probably has a strict conservative priest who turns out to be a paedophile’, I thought to myself.

Well, paedophilia is indeed a theme in the movie, but the strict conservative turns out to be the nun who is hunting the (alleged) paedophile, and her character is probably the least sympathetic (although perhaps also the most interesting) in the movie. Superbly played by Meryl Streep, Sister Aloysius is the principal of a parochial school in the Bronx in 1964 (the date is identified precisely by one of the characters, who refers to the assassination of President Kennedy ‘last year’). Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is one of the parish clergy, a man who wants to move the Church toward a more open and sympathetic stance and who tries to build warm relationships with the children at the school. It is he who is accused of an ‘improper relationship’ with a young black altar boy, and the question of his guilt or innocence dominates the movie. Despite his profferred explanation of the circumstances, Sister Aloysius refuses to believe in his innocence, and eventually succeeds in driving him from the school. But the question of his actual guilt or innocence remains open at the end of the movie where, in a final scene, Sister Aloysius reveals to young Sister James (Amy Adams) that, despite her apparent absolute certainty (about faith in general and about Father Flynn’s guilt in particular), she is in fact plagued by doubts herself.

This movie raises all sorts of issues. The protection of children from potential abusers is such an urgent imperative, but does this mean that mere suspicion, with no hard evidence, should be enough to remove the suspect from his position? And might the preferred explanations that sound so convenient (and so well thought through) actually be true? Is Sister Aloysius’ obsessive and inquisitorial determination to ‘bring Father Flynn down’ an appropriate response to the supposed risk she believes that he represents to her students? Or is it a witch hunt which eventually punishes an innocent man? Are Father Flynn and his (male) superiors employing the all-too-familiar strategy, so often used by the Church in these situations in the not-too-distant past, of covering up the truth and moving the offender on to a new position without addressing the issue of his (alleged) behaviour? Or is he in fact telling the truth about the nature of his relationship with the young altar boy?

Father Flynn comes across initially as a warm and genial man who spends time with the young people in the school, invites groups of boys over to his rectory for conversations, tells engaging stories in his homilies at mass, advocates a more relaxed attitude to the children, and is not afraid to hug a young black boy whose books have been trashed in the school hallway even though he has already been accused of an improper relationship with the boy. Is Father Flynn right? Is this an appropriate way to minister in the modern age? Or does Father Flynn not understand the importance of proper boundaries – his own, and other people’s?

As I watched the movie I found myself thinking about my own ministerial practice. When I first started out as a parish minister in 1979, I thought nothing of going to visit women alone in their homes during the day; it was a normal part of pastoral ministry and a good way of creating space for honest conversation and the addressing of important issues. Nor did anyone in my parish see anything wrong with such visits. Nowadays, in the wake of widespread suspicion in society as a whole, and frequent lawsuits and accusations against clergy, I find myself much more reluctant to do this sort of visiting; I’m far more likely to suggest to a woman that we meet for coffee or lunch in a public place, or that she meet me in my office while the secretary is in the building. And there’s a price to be paid for this approach; conversations in public places are far less open and honest, and self-consciousness so easily becomes a barrier to a true expression of thoughts and feelings. Yes, something has been gained, but something important has been lost too.

I remember my father leading family services in the 1970s in a church full of children; when one of them ran to the front, Dad would scoop them up and give them hugs. Nowadays schools have policies forbidding teachers from hugging or even touching their students, and I know many clergy follow the same rules. Personally, I love hugging the kids in my parish, and I find that most of them respond well to this approach. Is this wrong? Should parents be suspicious of my motives?

Suffice it to say that I found this a compelling and somewhat disturbing movie, and I’m glad I watched it. I’d give this one eight out of ten.

Sense and Sensibility (2008)

Last weekend Marci and I watched the latest BBC production of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a three-hour miniseries starring Hattie Morahan as Elinor and Charity Wakefield as Marianne. Long time readers of this blog will know that I am a rather committed Jane Austen fan, so I have high standards for these productions. I have to say that I was very impressed with this one.

For one thing, the two sisters appeared much more convincing as young girls in their late teens or early twenties than did Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in the 1995 movie version. At 36, it was very difficult for Emma Thompson to be convincing as Elinor, and even at 21 Kate Winslet seemed far too old for Marianne. Also, it would be hard to improve on Hattie Moranan’s brilliant performance as Elinor. Totally convincing, totally in character – to me, she just was Elinor. The contrast between the two sisters – Marianne who steers by her emotions and wears them on her sleeve, and Elinor who steers by common sense, although her feelings are also deep – was brilliantly portrayed.

The supporting cast was very good as well. I really enjoyed David Morrisey’s portrayal of Colonel Brandon – reserved, yes, but not dark and brooding as in the Alan Rickman version of 1995. Dominic Cooper as Willoughby was also very good. Claire Skinner as Fanny was a little overdone, I thought; even Jane Austen at her most black and white is rarely that black and white!

All in all, very good indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing Persuasion in the same series.

Amazing Grace

In the past two weeks, Marci and I have been to see the movieAmazing Grace twice. That doesn’t happen very often. In case you don’t know, this is a cinematic retelling of the story of the fight to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, and its hero is William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce was a member of the so-called ‘Clapham Sect’, a small group of upper-class evangelical Christians who attended Holy Trinity Church, Clapham. For twenty years he was the most visible leader of the group of abolitionists in the House of Commons, and his moment of triumph came on March 25th 1807, when the bill to abolish the slave trade received royal assent. Slavery itself continued in the British Empire for another quarter of a century, not being finally outlawed until three days before Wilberforce’s death in 1833.

This movie is a triumph. Yes, like all movies it takes liberties with the story; it makes Thomas Clarkson into a rather lovable drinking libertarian, and it puts language in John Newton’s mouth that seems very unlike what we know of him from his surviving correspondence (which is enormous). There are a few other historical inaccuracies which were obviously conceived as part of the quest for a ‘good flick’.

But despite these minor flaws, the true humanity of Wilberforce, his devotion to the cause, and the price he paid for it, shine through clearly. Ioan Gruffudd does a fine job of portraying the great reformer in all his vulnerability, and Romola Garai puts in a wonderful performance as Barbara Spooner, who he eventually marries; Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, and Ciaran Hinds also add their considerable talents to the top-drawer cast. The relationship between Wilberforce and his friend William Pitt the younger, who became Prime Minister of England at the age of 24 and died of liver disease in his early forties, is wonderfully depicted. T

he cinematic depiction of eighteenth century London is glorious to behold. And I dare you to keep a dry eye at the moment near the end, when the House of Commons finally passes the bill to end the slave trade!

After I saw this movie, I was moved to write a little ballad about Wilberforce and the fight against the slave trade. The words are a bit rough yet, but I’ll put them up in a day or two. Meanwhile, go and see this movie! Treat yourself!