A monthly feature of interesting stuff from the world of books, podcasts, film and television
Wonder Woman, give or take the last fight scene, was magnificent. It managed to bring a distinctive voice to the seemingly endless stream of super hero films. We’ve already posted a review here by Nathan Campbell. The film’s pretext—an island inhabited exclusively by warrior women—would have been, under other direction, an irresistible excuse for some voyeuristic, suggestive material. Not here. The lack of any hint of the male gaze is this film’s most remarkable (and refreshing) feature.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a masterpiece. Like a see-it-twice-in-one-week-and-tear-up-both-times masterpiece. A stunning, immersive experience of beautiful analogue film-making. Tom Hardy’s ability to act with his face covered (Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road) is impressive. And his penchant for delivering inaudible lines with style is unrivalled.
The three story lines of the film are spliced into each other in an out-of-sync chronology that eventually converges. (During the film I thought ‘this is a bit like Memento’, only recalling afterwards that Nolan was also its director). Two of the three storylines have to do with a person’s ability to do their duty under pressure—a rather refreshing theme in our Age of Authenticity.
Unlike many war films, is neither overly earnest nor in any way cynical. Do not wait for this one to be released onto DVD, or save it for your next plane ride. If any film repays a trip to the cinema it is this one.
Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 Classic The Goonies is now streaming on Netflix. Time has been kind. I was struck how much Stranger Things owed its aesthetic and narrative vision not just to 1980s Spielberg in general but to this film in particular.
Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age
A bit like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Charles Taylor’s magisterial account of our time, A Secular Age, is a book more people like to give the impression of having read than have actually read. I have been one of them: reading and re-reading James K. A. Smith’s Taylor for Dummies, How (Not) to Be Secular and gathering as much as I could from podcasts and reviews about Taylor’s thesis. Taylor’s intimidating book itself meanwhile sat in my self, quietly judging me.
I recently took the plunge and began reading the book itself and … good news! Apart from being long, the book is terrifically readable and (dare I say) in some ways an easier read than Smith’s account. If you have wanted to understand Taylor’s thesis but have been intimidated by Smith’s smart guide, can I recommend actually reading A Secular Age? It’s not only profound, it’s profoundly readable.
I’m very much looking forward to reading Collin Hansen’s new book Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor.
I feel dirty even saying this out-loud, but in an unguarded moment I found myself agreeing with linguist John McWhorter’s argument that we should be writing updated versions of Shakespeare. Such versions would keep as much of the original as possible, but would replace those words whose meaning is now obscure to modern audiences. This, he argues, would create an experience much closer to the experience of the original audience. You can hear the case, and a whole fascinating interview on Russ Robert’s podcast, Econtalk.
Allan M. Blanch A Pioneering Pastor: Thomas Sharpe of Norfolk Island and Bathurt
For those interested in Australian church history, author of the impressive 2016 biography of Marcus Loane, Allan Blanch has written a short biography of a much less known (indeed, obscure) clergyman, Thomas Sharpe. Born in 1797 in Yorkshire, Sharpe served as an Anglican minister in NSW from 1830 until his retirement in 1870. He died in 1877. The book, which is beautifully produced and which benefits from Blanch’s disciplined prose and sharp historical eye is most striking for the impressive ordinariness of Sharpe’s service. A refreshing read.
Clive James on Education
In the early 2000s poet Peter Porter and the now very ill Clive James recorded some extraordinary and wide-ranging conversations on poetry, writing, education and the world of letters. I have listened to them many times. Something James says has always struck me as important for our own thinking about catechesis. Both authors recall with thankfulness the amount of classical poetry they learned by rote. They say:
Clive James: It seems that in the new information age, no one remembers anything or carries much in their heads…
Peter Porter: Well, I think all culture lies in the head … unless it’s in your head, it can’t get into your heart.
Our contemporary educational culture, including our Christian educational culture, is liable to make a mistake along these lines. The true-so-far-as-it-goes cliché that if you teach a man how to fish he has fish forever lets us down. For surely an education involves more than just research skills, more than just the knowledge that, should you ever want to know something, you’d know where to look. At some stage, you’ve got to actually get some fish.
In hindsight, I think it’s a shame that my education did not involve me in learning more by heart: more poems, more sections of prose, more facts and figures from history. At the time it would have been less than sexy. But what an investment it might have been to carry poetry and prose and the declensions of Latin verbs in your head for the rest of your life. Such an education, of course, relies on authority and some concept of canon—two concepts we are (ironically) heavily catechised to be wary of. In terms of Christian education, the demise of memorising Scripture is surely a casualty here. Perhaps those of us involved in Christian education have a lesson to learn from Clive James, Peter Porter, and King David:
“I have stored up your word in my heart…” (Ps 119: 13)