Passage to Modernity: A review.

Note: This review was written some years ago and I no longer agree with all of my conclusions.

In his book Passage to Modernity, Louis Dupré seeks to investigate the effects of the break up between both “the transcendent constituent and it’s cosmic human counterpart” (p.3), and the person and cosmos, it is this break that caused the failure of the ontotheological synthesis. Dupré sees this change as having a very real and permanent effect on the realities of the (modern) world since “History…excludes any reversal of the present” (p.6). This has led philosophers to a dynamic sense of Being, where Being is slowly revealed to us through the passage of history, making truth a movement; never fully present but ever changing. “Where there is truth, there is permanent, though not necessarily static, meaning” (p.8). Dupré’s goal in searching the past is to find permanent meaning (p.9). Dupré does a good job highlighting what was lost because of the rejection of the medieval synthesis but it seems to me however, that in order to even start having this conversation Dupré has to make some huge presuppositions. Dupré picks these thing because of his own cultural, religious and pragmatic reasons. He mourns the loss of the synthesis not because it was true but since it worked (at one time) to bring about a sense of meaning. However, it would be a logical fallacy to assume because something helped bring meaning to people that it had truth to it, or even because something is true it necessarily brings meaning.

Dupré starts his search with a look at the greek philosophers’ notion of physis, as the “source or cause of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself” (p.17) which becomes part of the all encompassing kosmos made up of physis, ethos, nomos, and logos. Gradually form became the centre of Greek thought and the very essence of being. Form is spiritual in nature and separate from the physical appearance. For the Greek thinkers nature is saturated with logos (mind) making the kosmos intelligible. This Reason is not in the human mind but intrinsic to the Real itself - it is this impoverishment of the logos within the developing human subject and not in nature itself that deprived humanity of meaning.

The divine nature of the kosmos creates a problem for Christians however. In the Christian tradition, the world, rather emanating from God, is created ex nihilo and is therefore both separate from God and not divine. Christians make changes to the Greek thought in order to incorporate it into Christian thinking.

For Christians, the image of God in man had been distorted by sin, the two Christian answers to the problem of sin were the West’s idea of healing and East’s idea of deification (union with God). Eventually, love and devotion for the individual of Christ, as advanced by Francis of Assisi succeeded in overthrowing the ontological priority of the universal with the help of such thinkers such as Bonaventure and Ockham. Dupré thinks that this is a rejection of a synthesis, but what if modernity is only a rejection of Greek side of the coin? In adopting Greek thought, Christianity has also suffered from its rejection. It seems to me that at some point Dupré must feel that early Christians got it (somewhat) right, but with the acceptance of Greek thought into the Christian worldview and the subsequent division of Creator and creation there is already the start of the modification (read: rejection) of Greek thought and the movement of God away from the world. Therefore it seems plausible that the very “acceptance” of Greek thought was the beginning of its rejection.

Dupré then argues that men such as Galileo and Bacon removed God from the physical universe by insisting that the universe is self-sufficient and governed, not by God but by mathematical laws, which for some became more real than the physical universe. For Bacon the forms become the fixed laws of nature. As technological progress increases the conception of the world as a machine dominates. The physical universe therefore looses all teleological purpose. Dupré’s argument makes sense in the landscape of the history of thought, it seems evident that such conceptions of reality would create a dualism in nature and the supernatural, and would create the problems highlighted. The problem is though, as stated in his introduction, he wants to find meaning in truth and I am forced to ask “why is this Christianity true and not another one?” His conception of truth, it seems to me, is completely pragmatic: it brought about meaning. Does truth always bring about meaning? More importantly, does falsehood deprive life of meaning? To both I would argue an emphatic no!

In the second section Dupré argues that God/nature slowly became the object, while the human self became the subject. Augustine recognized the self but did not make the Christian person an atomic entity since he realized that it participated in the mystical body of Christ. However, the distancing of humans from nature gradually became more evident in art and poetry as language became the interpretive model for nature. Words lost their sacramental value because of theories advanced by people such as Ockham who argued that words externally refer to things but do not participate in them. With nature now submitted to human purposes, along with the dualist break, this meant that the subject shifted from God to self, and the self as the thinking subject must define the world and God. This second section is the best section of Dupré’s book, the movement of humans to subjective beings is well laid out and argued, and seems to be a strong reason for a lose of meaning, since meaning now had to be found in the individual.

Next the Greek idea of freedom (as rational necessity) breaks down and God’s will is placed above rational thought, “God’s sovereign power is not intrinsically bound by any necessity other than that of it’s absolute freedom” (p.123). Laws once came from God, who is the Law-giver, but once the self became the subject man became the law-giver and the will of man, not rationality, became the moral standard. When politics comes into view it is what is best for the state that is considered, not Christian virtue.

Next Dupré argues that the idea of progress was generated by the thought that the past was not infinitely repeatable but irreducibly different. This change led to an awareness that humanity is capable of shaping its own destiny. With the rapid advancement in the sciences the concept of progress began to take shape and gave way to unlimited potential, the future took the priority over the past and present and insisted on the realization of present anticipation. These shifts along with the subjective self forced the question, “How do I know what is?” This led to the ontological dismissal of history. History became unjustified and unexplained. I think Dupré is right to see history as losing it’s role as a teacher and as a giver of meaning. This lose has been exemplified in modern culture by a disdain for the old, and it is even seen in Christian circles as downgrading of the Old Testament or Church Fathers.

In the last section Dupré describes the breakdown of the Medieval synthesis and the attempts to restore the synthesis. Dupré sees this as an attack on the Aristotelian philosophy by the nominalists. He highlights Scotus and Ockham and the separation and distortion of potentia absoluta from potentia ordinata. By the 16th century pure nature was considered a concrete independent reality, giving rise to both philosophical and natural theology. Dupré then highlights attempts from two natural theologians to bridge the divide that the nominalists created: Bruno, whose religious naturalism borderlines (or encroaches) on pantheism and Cusanus who argued that a finite being’s identity comes only from union with the absolute making God’s immanence secure cosmic unity. Both attempts fail.

Attempted reunions are considered in 3 movements in chapter 8. The reformation looks at the often misunderstood Luther and Calvin; humanist religion focuses on Valla who attempted to use Epicureanism to his advantage and Erasmus, who attempted to use scripture as divine drama and saw Christianity as something to be lived. The “philosophy of Christ” for Erasmus, is the restoration of the human nature through transformation by grace; and the Jansenist attempt considers Catholics attempts at reconciliation.

In the end, Dupré has written a great roadmap to how the western world found itself where it is today. And to be sure, there are many things worth lamenting over (such as the loss of meaning and the person as a subject) and saving from those bygone eras. Additionally, it’s hugely important to know where the human race has been. However, it does not seem obvious to me that the medieval synthesis was necessarily ‘true’, or that Dupré’s search of the philosophical past will end in finding scraps of permanent meaning (meaning for him perhaps). Dupré’s final page of his conclusion is one of the best pages in the book: we should be critical of modernity, yet we should also be holding on to the good things that modernity brings, lest the baby is thrown out with the bathwater, thus, repeating the mistakes of the past.


Heavenly Participation: A Review

Hans Boersma splits Heavenly Participation into two sections: The first is an account of how the western world unravelled the sacramental tapestry, resulting in a flattened and secularised society, in the other half he outlines what he believes is the road back (ressourcement) to reweaving the sacramental tapestry in the church.

The book argues for a return to a specific Christian ontology (view of reality), one that embraces the platonic-christian synthesis of the Great Tradition, which takes mystery and sacrament seriously, which can reweave the sacramental tapestry that modernity destroyed.  Sacramental what?  Basically, the argument is that modernity shifted our understanding of the cosmos to such an extent that the tapestry which wove together heavenly and earthly realities has effectively been 'unravelled' and 'cut' .  Take Eucharist, for example: In the Sacramental view the eucharist mysteriously participates in the reality it points to, the Word/Christ (e.g. transubstantiation). But today many churches hold eucharist as a symbolic gesture where the symbol points to a greater reality but there is no real connection (e.g. memorialist view).   

He then introduces the group of French Catholic theologians that he relies on heavily throughout the book known as nouvelle theologie, comprised of men such as Henri de Lubac, Danielou, Chenu and others.  With their help Boersma sets out seven shifts which deeply affected the sacramental tapestry: Gregorian reform, Eucharist's change from physical to spiritual presence of Christ, discovery of Nature, division of Biblical and Ecclesial authority, Natural/Supernatural divide, Univocity of Being, and Voluntarism.  In the limited space he provides decent treatments of the categories (this is, after all, his popular treatment of the topic), and dispels some popular myths (Platonist corruption of the Church, Reformation responsibility for modernity ect...).

The second half of the book is his ressourcement, and completely relies on convincing Christians that the lost worldview presented in the first half is something that needs to be restored - and that is by no means a given.  In that half the author outlines the core areas where the tapestry can be reconnected through sacramental understandings of: Eucharist, Tradition, Biblical interpretation, Truth, and Theology.  Those who insist on sola scriptura over against tradition are likely find this section difficult to accept (especially if they disagree with the earlier section of biblical/church authority) since Boersma relies mostly on the Church fathers, Augustine and Aquinas (there is some Biblical support given).  Another stumbling block is the repeated reference to the Platonic-Christian synthesis (in both sections).  Anyone who feels Christianity's use of platonism was a corruption of the faith will not be convinced restoration is needed, or even good.  These are contentious issues, I have found that some positions (sola scriptura, memorialist views of the Eucharist) are so entrenched in evangelical thinking they will be very difficult to change.    

Boersma's goal with this book is ultimately ecumenical.  He feels that this is a way that Catholics and Evangelicals can resolve much of their differences (and Orthodox, too) and that the church can start healing it's divisive wounds.  Although Catholics have lost this outlook as well, it will be evangelicals who have the furthest to move, theologically.  And it won't help that many evangelicals will have serious problems with numerous sections of this book!

My 2 biggest critiques is that first, the argument is usually pragmatic rather than theological, per se.  It's the difference between whether something "works" (however one may define that) or if something is true.  It seems to me that the two (working/true) are not necessarily inclusive.  Second, the ressourcement section is basically a theological primer for the issues he discusses, it's not easy reading and is unlikely to be helpful to anyone but the individual.  In other words, the retrieval isn't something that can be spread, it's something that one has to do him or herself.

However, this is an important book that deserves careful consideration.  Much of the book may seem novel to those unfamiliar with the church fathers or the early traditions of the church, and therefore many may find it to be easily dismissible.  A word of warning: It's one thing to disregard the (truely) new and unusual theological ideas that pop up every once and a while, but it's another to disregard so easily the ideas that formed nearly 1400 years of church thinking and tradition.  Our ability to do so is actually a symptom of the underlying problem as we have no meaningful connections to those who have gone before us.  Boersma looks to reweave those connections, not only to our ancestors but to our peers and most importantly, to the Word, Jesus Christ himself.

For an easier to undedrstand treatment of a similar subject check out How (not) to be Secular by James K. A. Smith

For a more academic take on the same subject check out Passage to Modernity by Louis Dupre


Movie Review: Son of God **

This is part five of my "Films about Jesus" Christmas Review.  Where I try to watch as many movies (theatrical releases only) about Jesus as possible, plus review them, before Christmas hits.

My introduction (along with the list I'm trying to get through) is here.
Part one was Last Days in the Desert
Part two was The Nativity Story
Part three was Jesus Christ Superstar
Part four was The Gospel According to St Matthew

There is nothing worse than going to see a movie which was a theatrical release and realising, very quickly, that the movie falls squarely into the realm of TV movie.  This is the case with Son of God, a revelation which shouldn't be surprising since the original material was in fact first released on television as part of the History Channel's The Bible series.

I only watched one episode of that series coming away with the feeling that they didn't respect the source material.  I would make that accusation about all the movies I've seen about Jesus so far - including this one - except The Gospel According to St. Matthew.  But we'll get back to that presently, first this movie is bad in other ways too.

First - small beans - the editors of Son of God were lazy.  Typically, most movies don't do fade-outs unless it's for thematic reasons, and now I know why, because they look like an ad break is about to come!  And Son of God is FULL of fade outs!  It would have been an easy fix in the editing room, but they were left in and it adds to the made for tv movie feel.

On to larger problems: 

Violence: My biggest problem with the first episode of the tv show was the needless violence. The same appears in this movie.

Continuity.  For example, the movie can easily be divided in two piece: the first 1/3 and the last 2/3. There are a couple characters that disappear and appear and it make no sense as to why (unless they were individual tv episodes before).  So a particularly annoying pharisee seems to be more committed to following Jesus around than the disciples.  Every time Jesus says something controversial he's there to question Jesus or the disciples.  Then *poof* he's gone - never to be seen again.  Then there is John's narration, there for 1/3 of the movie then *poof* gone until the very last scene in the movie.

Just WHY?  Some of the decisions are confounding like - why have flashbacks in a movie to earlier scenes?  And why is there a voiceover of Jesus saying "one of you will betray me" while Judas prepares to hang himself when Jesus said it to him just 15 minutes ago!!  A lot of this might make sense as a multi-episode tv show, but it makes for terrible choices in a movie - (or the editors were too lazy to fix it)

CG of the cities, temple etc.: TV movie CG.  I play video games with in game graphics better than this movie offers.  If the rest of the movie was up to par I wouldn't mind as much.

Disproportionate:  The movie is 2h 18min long.  1/2 of that time is devoted to the last week.  And yet they add numerous needless scenes involving the disciples and completely skip the priests bringing Jesus to Herod.  While in Jesus ministry only one parable is told and a couple mighty deeds done.

Confusing:  Characters are introduced quickly and then dropped for instance, it is mentioned that John the Baptist is dead with a very quick flashback to Jesus being baptised and Jesus saying that John was amazing.  That's it.  It makes no sense in the over all story, it's just there because that's a story in the Bible.

And THAT is the biggest problem, a lot of these stories and sayings are there because they are in the Bible - and that's really the only reason.  For example a number of sayings of Jesus are ripped from their context and randomly inserted while Jesus is walking along.  The weirdest being Jesus crouching down and smiling to a little girl while talking about the temple's complete and utter destruction.  It leaves the viewer in complete disbelief about what's being seen:  First that Jesus would be smiling and talking to a little girl about that. Second, that a little jewish girl would smile back as if Jesus had just told a mildly funny joke.  

This is a constant problem throughout, so much so that it doesn't feel like any gospel, it's a mash up.  We start with John's gospel (because John's narrating) but it quickly skips ahead to no gospel at all, so instead of the themes from just one gospel what is presented in NONE of the themes from ANY of the gospels.  It just doesn't resonate. It's a bastardised gospel.

And some of it doesn't ring true of any of the gospels: for example, the disciples are way too knowledgeable.  In the gospels they're always asking embarrassing questions and saying things that are a bit off.  Jesus rebukes them constantly for this.  But here, they only get the big stuff wrong and they seem more than capable of answering the pharisees - something they run to Jesus about in the Gospels.

Movies like this one are good reminders of why The Diatessaron (an early harmonising of the gospels) was rejected by the early church.  In trying to harmonise the gospels the makers have only corrupted them.  Sure there's no blatant heresy here but the power of the gospels has been stripped because the writers fail to appreciate why we have four gospels instead of one.

Here then, is a tv show made into a theatrically released movie - and it shows - all to a gullible crowd who keep throwing their money at the alter of Hollywood hoping they'll continue making flattened, boring, needless and altogether uninspired versions of Bible(-inspired) stories that we don't really need.



Movie Review: The Gospel According to St. Matthew ****

This is part four of my "Films about Jesus" Christmas Review.  Where I try to watch as many movies (theatrical releases only) about Jesus as possible, plus review them, before Christmas hits.

My introduction (along with the list I'm trying to get through) is here.
Part one was Last Days in the Desert
Part two was The Nativity Story
Part three was Jesus Christ Superstar

The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a 1964 Italian film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini who was an atheist, a marxist and openly gay. He is also responsible for directing one of the most grotesque and disturbing films ever made, Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. So it may come as a shock to discover that Pasolini treats the source material for this movie with the utmost respect.

The movie is filmed in black and white in the tradition of Italian neo-realism.  The cast is made up of whoever Paolini could find. None of them were professional actors and it doesn't really matter.  The first scenes convey the uncertainty of Mary's position with Joseph with not a single word much better than the constant dialogue of the Nativity Story. And he uses these moments, often powerfully, to convey how characters felt. He had to since every line of dialogue in the movie can be found in the Gospel of Matthew. While other movies about Jesus try to fill in the narrative in order to explain him or the situation or fill in plot holes with extra scenes or dialogue, Pasolini has added nothing extra.

This doesn't mean that Pasolini has used the entire gospel of Matthew. He has picked and chosen the elements and teachings that suite his Marxist ideology. In my opinion, this has little effect on the integrity of the movie. Other adaptations make far more grievous ideological decisions when deciding how to portray Jesus, which are often immediately noticed. Pasolini's choices are far more subtle and since he adds no dialogue, he's limited to how far he can skew the message.  In fact, it doesn't feel skewed at all, it often feels more like we're watching documentary footage of Jesus himself wandering the countryside.

In one scene, when Jesus is on trial (with Ciaphas I think) the shot of the scene is from a distance amongst onlookers like we're apart of the crowd, trying to peek over shoulders in order to get a glimpse of what is to become of Jesus.

As is probably fairly evident by now, it's the teachings of Jesus that Pasolini is interested in focusing on.  There are only a handful of signs and wonders portrayed (healing of a leper and feeding the 5000 are the only two that come to mind) and the crucifixion itself is toned so far down that it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that the Sermon on the Mount is filmed with more intensity.  These aren't complaints, I think Christianity has for a long time been overly preoccupied with the crucifixion at the expense of understanding what Jesus actually tried to teach.  So many Christians have Keller's view:
While Pasolini takes the opposite approach.  Whichever your inclination on the topic, this is still the most faithful account of any gospel (or Jesus' in general) film that I've ever seen.

4 stars ****

One last thing: The scene where Judas hangs himself in both this movie and Jesus Christ Superstar are so similar that JCSS must lifted it straight from this movie.


Move Review: Jesus Christ Superstar * 1/2

This is part three of my "Films about Jesus" Christmas Review.

My introduction is here.
Part one was Last Days in the Desert
Part two was The Nativity Story

Jesus Christ Superstar (the movie) is unique from the rest of the films I'll see in a number of ways:  First, it's a musical (actually, 'rock opera'), which sets it apart immediately; Second, which I wasn't prepared for, was the occasionally modern props (more on that later); and last, it's told mostly from the perspective of Judas.

JC:SS (the movie) is a film of it's time.  From the first couple minutes it is immediately obvious what decade it was filmed in.  The movie oozes the 70's in every frame from the dancing to the hair, clothes, and hippy Jesus.  It wouldn't be so bad if I wasn't left wondering, after seeing a machine gun, whether I'm watching an ancient Jesus, or a modern hippy Jesus.  Then suddenly the guards are carrying spears.  It's like they couldn't decide so they blended the eras together.  The cast arrives on a bus, plus some tanks and jets make an appearance; while Pilate and the priests are not wearing modern clothes, Herod and Judas are.  It's confusing.  A modern day Jesus story is fine (and it's been done) but the inconsistency is distracting and had no apparent purpose.

The other distraction is the attempt to turn this from a play into a movie.  It seems that the director tried to meet the two mediums half way, with very mixed results (see Doubt on how to do this well).  Every scene is treated like a stage play, with a bridge to get to where the action is going to happen, but other than these little bridges there is very little attempt to adapt the play into a movie.  It gives the movie a disjointed and sometimes awkward feel.

The acting was passable and the singing was at points mediocre, with the exception (on both accounts) of Judas who at times felt like the only human figure on stage.  I didn't enjoy most of the songs, and lyrically they were (unintentionally) funny.  Other things, like Mary's very close relationship to Jesus, didn't really phase me as Jesus is mostly a stoic figure throughout.

The play isn't so much a retelling of the last week of Christ's life or about Jesus teachings (none of Jesus teachings are reflected upon) but agnostic ramblings set to music.  Two things at the end make this clear:  After an hour and a half Jesus never says who he is, and his disciples never say who he is, but Judas is certain he's just a man and so is Pilate.  Then come the questions in the titular song, "Who are you? What have you sacrificed? ... Do you think you are who they say you are?"  But rather than explore the questions through the play we only get the opinions of a sympathetic Judas.

Which leads to the end of the movie.  The actors, out of their costumes, file back onto the bus to leave, some of them glancing away at the empty cross in the distance, some of them ignoring it.  Judas is one of the last ones getting on (the only other character to die in the movie) but Jesus is inexplicably absent.  Now, a resurrection scene isn't necessary (Mark doesn't have one), but JC:SS isn't taking it's omission from Mark, the bus scene - to those who are paying attention, is making a statement about the resurrection, Jesus Christ and how the story should actually be understood.

The death knell for Jesus Christ Superstar comes, not when one realises it has aged badly, or that there were some very odd creative choices, but instead when given the last chance to leave the questions about Jesus Christ open, the movie decides to answer them for the audience in a way that is passive aggressive.

* 1/2


Movie Review: The Nativity Story **

This is part two of my "Films about Jesus" Christmas Review.  Part one was Last Days in the Desert.

For Part Two, I'm reviewing the one movie on my list that only deals with Jesus' birth, The Nativity Story.

The Nativity Story follows a year in the life of Mary and Joseph, Herod and his son, and the wisemen as their destinies intertwine as the birth of Jesus Christ arrives.

The Nativity Story is not interested in staying close to the Biblical account of Mary and Joseph's life leading up to the birth of Jesus but the Christian community didn't throw up it's arms in outrage because The Nativity Story did something that Christians often find even more important it stayed true to the myths, legends and tropes that have filled the Christian imagination for the last 1800 years.  Not only are Christmas hymns incorporated into the soundtrack but every hole (in the Biblical account) has been filled by useless Christian tradition (in the dead sense) that has not only been overdone but is also stale, boring and completely unnecessary.  In the artistic licence department, this movie is the antithesis to Noah (which was a much better movie, by all accounts).  At best the movie is watchable, at worst it exemplifies the type of kitsch that make Christianity look childish and silly.  Such as, the glowing angel in white flowing robes who arrives and leaves as a bird.

One part in particular had my face in my palm praying that it would end quickly (it didn't).  As the (3) wise men watch the stars come into alignment a shaft of light bursts forth and beams straight into the stable where Mary is currently in labour.  My very first thought (I kid you not) was that a divine tractor-beam was going to pull Jesus straight out of Mary's womb!  And the light stayed, providing the perfect light to create a 'nice' (kitsch) nativity scene that is so often displayed on the shelves of people's home every year.

On top of this, modernist presuppositions leak into the story as well.  In usual Hollywood fashion, Mary is unhappy with the reality of having an arranged marriage, and wishes she could have married for love.  Like she was secretly hoping for things to be the way they had never been before.

In playing it overly safe for the Christian market the filmmakers have opted out of making a film with depth, subtlety and character development and have instead settled with a shallow surface level reading of the story that is as kitschy as it is unoriginal.  This all makes the movie a huge disappointment, especially considering that a lot of detail went into sets and costumes.  If you're wanting to see something with a little originality, learn something new, and be entertained, you're better off checking out one of your local churches christmas plays than watching this.

** Two stars

Christmas Movie Reviews: Jesus Edition

I've decided that instead of watching the usual rounds of Christmas movies, this month I'm going to focus my movie watching efforts on movies about Jesus. And the review them. So far I've only watched Last Days in the Desert (imdb) but I've managed to tracked down:

Son of God (imdb)
The Nativity Story (imdb)
The Passion of the Christ (imdb)
The Last Temptation of Christ (imdb)
Jesus Christ Superstar (imdb)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (imdb)
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (imdb)
King of Kings (imdb)

Which seems to cover all the major films about Jesus within the last 100 years except the 1979 Jesus Film (Ben Hur, The Robe, Risen etc aren't included because Jesus is an incidental figure in those movies rather than the focus). If I do watch the Jesus film it will be the very last one.


Edit 29/12/16:  Well.  That's all the movies about Jesus I was able to get through.  I made the mistake of choosing (mostly by chance) the short ones and just didn't have the time to budget in nearly 3 hours a day to see the rest.

I will likely try to watch The Last Temptation of Christ at some point.  Mainly out of curiosity.