Matt elegantly deconstructs the atheist billboard campaign in New Zealand.
(photo via stephendrain on richarddawkins.net)
This month, the New Zealand International Film Festival began its circuit around the country, with the first set of screenings opening last week in Auckland. For film junkies, the arrival of the annual festival usually signals the same things: zero sleep, angry ignored friends, posture deformities, and emptied bank accounts. Life comes to a standstill – if only for a week or two.
I should admit from the outset; my taste in film gravitates much more towards visceral, full-contact experiences over the peripheral and contemplative. And while film festivals can often try hard to evoke a gloss of art and abstraction in a marketplace of pointless remakes, tweeny clones, and raging Hollywood commercialism – the NZ festival usually offers up enough cinematic temptations for this mostly-action addict.
Here, then, are the first three of my top picks of the festival:
Director Greg Mottola charts terrain similar to his breakthrough hit, Superbad, with this coming of age comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale) and Kirsten Stewart (Twilight). Set in a Pittsburgh amusement park during the eighties, Adventureland may have some of the inevitable gross-out gags that marked his previous entry but don’t be fooled. With a script drawn from Mottola’s own awkward early life experiences, the writer-director searches for a much different tone in this depiction of the lethargy and wistfulness of emerging adulthood. Jesse Eisenberg stands in for Mottola as James, a game attendant who pines for Em (Kirsten Stewart), herself already involved with married park handyman Mike (Ryan Reynolds). Comedic turns from the supporting cast add to the fun and balance the melodrama. At the damp tail-end of our winter, I can’t think of anything more sorely needed than a summer romance flick. And with all the up and downs of youth, can you really get a better cinematic metaphor than a Theme park?
Drag Me to Hell
This film should need no explanation. Extricating himself from the bloated cadaver of that massively successful but overdone Spiderman trilogy, Sam Raimi returns to reanimate a genre better known for corpses and one he himself famously began in (Evil Dead 1,2,3). What might need explanation is why it counts as one of my picks. I try to the avoid splatterfests, and Drag Me to Hell – co-written with brother Ivan Raimi – sounds every bit to live up to the promise of its title. The narrative hinges on the plight of Christine (played by Alison Lohman), a loan officer who denies an extension on a mortgage to an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver). When the gypsy eventually dies, Lohman inherits both a curse and a demon intent on taking her on a hell-bound road-trip. With Raimi’s reliable direction, I don’t think I could ask for a more riveting or revolting entry into the genre. Frankly, my only goal in this one will be to leave the theater with a pulse.
When John Woo was asked to assist the Chinese film industry, he did what he does best: make an action epic. But not just any epic. Woo’s latest film, Red Cliff, boasts unprecedented production resources (the largest budget of any Chinese-language film ever made) and a story excavated from one of China’s best known historical conflicts. Starring Tony Leug (In the Mood for Love and Lust, Caution) Kaneshiro Takeshi (House of Flying Daggers), the film follows the third-century alliance of two kingdoms against the million-man army of an oppressive Han dynasty Emperor. For testosterone-groggy fans, John Woo’s Hollywood ride never really delivered on the potential of his early Hong Kong blockbusters (Face-Off perhaps came the closest). Red Cliff might be a return to his kinetic best, with balletic action and sprawling battlefields that have had critics eagerly comparing to Jackson’s Two Towers.
Next up, my final three picks: an anti-thriller, a strangely dark children’s film, and – my favourite of the festival – a mind-bending sci-fi tale.
Amid the unravelling social trajectories of our skeptical, post-Christian nation, the New Zealand church must reclaim the importance of its intellectual life to safeguard not only its witness but its very health and identity. With this conclusion as our frame and impetus, a group of us have launched an apologetics journal Thinking Matters to try and respond to the increasing marginalization and irrelevance of the Christian community in this country. The release of the first issue this weekend represents a small but notable step towards bringing that commitment to fruition.
Almost exactly one year ago, I began corresponding with Dominic Bnonn Tennant, a blogger and (at that time) moderator of a Christian apologetics discussion forum. We both shared a passion for the supremacy of God’s revelation and a deep concern to see Christianity stand tall in the marketplace of ideas. We were aware that we weren’t the only individuals in the New Zealand Christian community with these convictions, but were dismayed at the fragmentation of the apologetic enterprise here. There seemed to be no coordination at a national level or even at least a self-identified apologetics group in its most populous part, the upper North Island. We weren’t particularly people of renown or with rigorous training in the enterprise: he, a fairly young Christian but with erudition spilling out of his socks and a sabre rattle of a book on presuppositional apologetics; myself, a university student with a wayward past who had inherited a passion for the discipline from my father. But despite our fairly modest footing, we wanted to act, and Dominic suggested the idea of a journal as a way to raise awareness amongst churches and to significantly gather similarly-minded individuals.
As our plans developed and ideas for the journal percolated, our project brought us into contact with others who shared our commitment for cultural and apologetic engagement. Among them were Stuart McEwing; a graphic designer and former church youth leader, Rodney Lake; the owner of a Tauranga based software development company, himself keen to set up an apologetic-focused discussion group in his region; and Rob Ward, the president of the Manawatu Christian Apologetics society and known to Dominic already, who assisted us with web hosting and introduced us to others who were willing to write for the journal.
In June, we were enormously encouraged to have one of the most prominent apologists in the Anglophone world, Dr William Lane Craig, visit New Zealand. Every Christian has his own heroes – an author or speaker that has ignited deeper reflection and greater appreciation of our ultimate luminary, Christ himself. I’ll admit that Dr Craig was not a particular hero of either of us. Dominic and I do not identify with his classical apologetic method but, regardless, we could not deny Craig’s seismic contribution to Christian philosophy and so it was greatly exciting to have him here. Every event we attended of his was overcrowded (except perhaps at the Bible College, but this was to be expected) and well-received, with long and thoughtful question and answer sessions. There seemed little doubt – a deep desire for apologetics existed amongst many Christians. The two debates on university campuses especially pulled huge audiences. The postmodern apathy to questions of truth and religion is simply overrated. Craig’s final impressions of our country were jarring but incisive; although he was positive about his time here, he saw the evangelical church as “pietistic, insular, and culturally disengaged,” and “generally passive in the face of this secularism” with “few Christians intellectually contending for the faith”. His thoughts accorded with our own and only galvanised our efforts more.
Throughout the next few months we were able to further establish the Thinking Matters site, visit Palmerston North and meet up with Rob Ward and Chris Good. Together, we agreed to work closer alongside each other and endeavoured to unite our visions. I was able to meet with some of the national coordinators of TSCF, a student Christian ministry, with Rodney Lake and was encouraged by their enthusiasm to integrate apologetics in their ministry and establish a relationship with us.
The final January release of the journal represents a genealogy of toil and heavy-lifting – particularly by Dominic and Stuart – and, for myself, it has been a humbling experience to have had a minute role in its development. I’ve been able to meet many new people during the projects evolution and it has especially been heartening to connect with others in the country who are both zealous for the intellectual heritage of the church and confident in the the credibility of Christianity in the world of ideas. God ultimately deserves every praise and if we are to have any impact for His kingdom or are to bring about any good for the church, it is only because of His generous condescension and grace. We recognize, too, that however satisfying it is to see the journal out there now, our work has just began. The retreat from biblical Christianity at the centers of New Zealand culture continues to remind us not only of the importance of knees bent before Him in intercession, but also of minds that are illumined, sharpened and submitted to God’s word.
A small wish for seasonal joy to all my readers. May we take the opportunity to truly savour and cherish the wonderful news of our Saviour’s birth, the great mystery of godliness (1 Timothy 3:16). Here’s a great poem by G. K. Chesterton, perennially worthy of digestion, but poignantly so at this time of the year:
A Little Litany
When God turned back eternity and was young,
Ancient of Days, grown little for your mirth
(As under the low arch the land is bright)
Peered through you, gate of heaven–and saw the earth.
Or shutting out his shining skies awhile
Built you about him for a house of gold
To see in pictured walls his storied world
Return upon him as a tale is told.
Or found his mirror there; the only glass
That would not break with that unbearable light
Till in a corner of the high dark house
God looked on God, as ghosts meet in the night.
Star of his morning; that unfallen star
In that strange starry overturn of space
When earth and sky changed places for an hour
And heaven looked upwards in a human face.
Or young on your strong knees and lifted up
Wisdom cried out, whose voice is in the street,
And more than twilight of twiformed cherubim
Made of his throne indeed a mercy-seat.
Or risen from play at your pale raiment’s hem
God, grown adventurous from all time’s repose,
Or your tall body climbed the ivory tower
And kissed upon your mouth the mystic rose.
His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
he seals off the light of the stars.
Photo taken in Hubei province in central China during the recent solar eclipse observed in central Asia. The shadow reached the earth first in northern Canada, traveled across Russia and Mongolia, and finally ended in western China (Google Maps traces its path here).
Now here’s a segue that’s difficult to pass up. From a fictional standstill to one much more immediate. Yesterday morning, the city centers of the nation were hobbled by a massive demonstration of trucking companies against the Government-announced road-user charges.
I have to say, living in the inner-city, you slowly become sensitive to the undulating patterns of sound that attend the accumulation and recession of urban activity in a weekday. So, yesterday, before I had climbed out of bed I knew something was different.
The NZ Herald described it as “one of the largest protests in the country for years” with 2500 to 3000 trucks in Auckland. And somehow most of them seemed to be outside my bedroom window. Despite the incredible disruption, the wider public seems to have been largely behind them. Some commentators see this protest as the fountainhead of the bitter waters that have been at rising in response to the current economic situation (One editorial: they are “the poster boys for widespread discontent”). While it’s unfair to finger our government for the financial deterioration that is occurring on the global stage, there are legitimate concerns to be had with Labours legislative behaviour. So usually I’m sympathic for any group that is critical of the government, but I think Russell Brown says it well: “the trucking companies have done a magnificent job of getting most of us to cheer for their right to shift road maintenance costs off their bill and onto ours.”
Pictures are courtesy of the NZ Herald (snapped by Rhianan Walker, Karishma, Steward Duff, Jon Asplet, and Aldo Coetzee).