What is the Church Made of?

What is the Church made of?  There are lots of interesting debates we could have in answer to this question—do we define the Church by baptism or by faith?  By formal membership?  By those truly regenerate and known to God, or by outward profession only?  Here, however, I have a much more basic question in mind.  If asked to define itself, in an identity or mission statement, on a website, etc., many churches might begin with words like “Our church is a collection of individuals from all walks of life, united by faith in Jesus Christ…”  Hold on, stop right there.  Is it accurate to say that the Church is a collection, or a gathering, of “individuals”?  Well, at first glance, yes; this seems a theologically impeccable statement.  But for many evangelical churches today, as the identity or mission statement goes on in the same vein, something begins to ring false—”the church consists of individuals each endowed with unique gifts”; “we aim to support one another as individuals who are each loved and valued”; “we want to bring together individuals in a shared life of discipleship and worship together,” etc.  Sociologically, at the very least, something seems to be missing here.  After all, in most churches, unless made up of the very old or the very young, it is not primarily individuals who drive up to church, get out of the car, and come sit in the pew on a Sunday morning—it is families.  

Of course, in our society as a whole, this empirical fact is being steadily eroded, as families do fewer and fewer things together.  They don’t spend time together, they don’t eat meals together, they don’t participate in the same hobbies; as soon as kids reach driving age, they go to their own places on their own schedules.  This erosion has increasingly made itself felt in the church as well, as different family members do not even necessarily attend the same church, and if they do, they are quickly segregated off, not to see one another again until after the service.  The teenager goes to the youth-group, the ten-year-old to the ten-year-olds group, the six-year-old to the six-year-olds group, and the two-year-old to the nursery.  And of course, this is for those church attendees who are in fact families.  Reflecting broader cultural trends, churches are increasingly populated with folks well into their thirties who are still single.  Perhaps indeed it is now both theologically and sociologically accurate to describe the Church as a collection of individuals.

Time was, quite recently, when conservative Christianity in the US witnessed a militant reaction against this trend, a determination to reclaim the family as the heart of the church and the society.  Groups like Vision Forum proclaimed an anathema against age-segregated activities at churches, and preached a gospel of salvation by family cohesion.  Homeschooling was of course part of the prescription, but for many it went further, as families were discouraged from allowing their children to be exposed to any unmonitored outside influences, or even leaving the parents’ sight for any extended length of time, until well into teenage years.  This pattern was even to be manifested liturgically, as fathers were invited forward to take servings of bread and wine to distribute to their families.  Such were the more extreme manifestations of the movement, but the broader ethos, one which can only be called a kind of “familyolatry,” proved very influential in many fundamentalist and Reformed circles.

This reaction has provoked, in turn, a counter-reaction, in which many Reformed folk, re-asserting the primacy of the Church over the family, have reminded us that Jesus described his kingdom as one that would dissolve all family ties, one in which we were all brothers and sisters within the one family of faith.  The Church, we were reminded, was the new community in which old social bonds are replaced, in which the water of baptism is stronger than the blood of kinship, in which the communion of the eucharist is the new family meal.  

This reaction, while rather more theologically reflective than what drives most evangelical churches, reminds us that the prevailing concept of the Church as “a collection of individuals” may be more than a mere capitulation to cultural trends; it may reflect in part a conviction that the New Testament calls us to a model of the Church in which we all stand as individuals in relation to the center that is Christ, rather than bound by the natural relationships that may pertain outside the Church.  From this standpoint, some see the Church as called in fact to accelerate the dissolution of traditional social hierarchies, of which the family and the distinctive roles it imposes is the most central. 

The prevalence of such thinking might help account for the widespread incredulity toward infant baptism, even among churches with a long tradition of this practice.

What are we to make of all this?  For those of us troglodytes still convinced that the family, with its intergenerational ties, its rhythms of life together, its relationships of subordination and authority, is still an essential building block of society, how are we to articulate its relationship to the church?  Can we avoid a familyolatry that privileges the nuclear family over all other bonds, including the bonds of brotherhood in Christ that we are called to?  Can we avoid making the family so normative that the vocation of singleness, so prominent in the New Testament, is driven to the disreputable margins of the Church?  Can we do justice to the passages in Scripture which speak of the relativization of all family bonds, without immanentizing the eschaton and acting as if marriage and child-bearing are passé?

The balance, admittedly, is a difficult one, but I think this might be another area where a two-kingdoms perspective could help us out.  The following is merely the barest sketch of how; I leave it to others to figure out further what this might actually look like in pastoral practice.

First, we can make a pretty sharp distinction, whether in visible/invisible terms—the church in its empirical expression of visible congregations is not identical to the church as known before God—or in eschatological terms—the church within history, within the limits of mortal life, is not identical to the church as it will be at the consummation.  Before God, the Church is quite clearly made up of individuals, in the sense that each believer is united to Christ directly and identically, not through the medium of her father or her mother or her brother. In the eschaton, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage; we shall not bear children, and parents will not need to teach or exercise authority over their children.  And yet now, in the empirical, historical church, we do marry and are given in marriage.  Children are born to Christians, and they are raised, by and large, by their parents, not by the church leaders.  Most of their teaching and training comes at home, through their parents, and it is these parents who are likely, from an empirical perspective, to be most responsible for the children’s coming to faith and participation in the church.  

Such clear distinction can help us avoid blurring together biblical passages that speak to the Church in these two different senses, or stages.  Paul can address the Church as a new family of saints in which there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, and yet can issue directives addressed to husbands, to wives, to fathers, mothers, and children, to master and slaves, each in their distinct earthly roles.  It can help us avoid an immanentization of the eschaton in which we try to treat the Church as if it ought somehow to be a community that has transcended natural limitations, that need not acknowledge the existence of families in its midst—a posture that will undermine the primary means by which the Church’s ranks are replenished with new members, and by which these members are trained in the faith.  

However, this distinction cannot be the whole answer, if it is to avoid treating these two perspectives as wholly separate, the church in history as unrelated to the church in glory.  Clearly, the former is to be a sign of the latter, a hint of what is to come appearing already in the present.  The vocation of celibacy, it seems, is to be one way in which this sign is attested in the community of the Church, as some members live lives directed wholly to God and toward their brothers and sisters in Christ, rather than directed toward the natural propagation of the species.  Any church that does not make room for, and value, this vocation, is a church that is not fulfilling its mission to be a sign of the new creation in the midst of the old.  Likewise, although most of us show up at the church doors as families, we become one family in worship, as we sing together, respond together, and partake of the Eucharist together, displaying our shared relationship to Christ and to one another.  Churches ought to find ways, while acknowledging their general dependence on the foundation-stone of the family, to witness to the eschatological reality in which our identity is found in Christ alone, and not in biological descent and natural social structures. 

On the other hand, we should be wary of embracing anything that seems “communal” as if it were somehow a manifestation of this eschatological life, an abolition of natural bonds in favor of spiritual ones.  We are apt to think, for instance, as if the sharing of earthly possessions that should characterize the church’s life together were a mark of a new eschatological community, a transcendence of natural loyalties.  Or we imagine that the fact that, in the church, we aid and support one another in the raising of children means that somehow the natural parental role has been transcended in a brotherhood in which we are all fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters to one another.  The latter presumption is simply a mark of how far we in the modern West have substituted the nuclear family for the full array of human social bonds which characterized most pre-modern communities, so that we now imagine anything that relativizes the nuclear family is a mark of eschatological inbreaking.  On the contrary, in many non-Western societies even today, it is common for the community as a whole, or extended family or clan networks, to display a shared responsibility for the care of one another, and the raising of children.  To this extent, the tightly-knit communities that churches seek to foster are merely the return to a more fully natural form of human sociality, rather than the oddly truncated form we have become familiar with.  

Likewise, even the willingness to share possessions that should characterize the church is in fact a picture of restored nature, not transcendence of it.  A strictly private view of property that has lost sight of the need to ensure common use of this world’s goods is not the natural state of things, which the visible church is called to replace with eschatological communism, but a deviant state of affairs, that does not understand the just administration of property.  Acts 2, then, is not evidence that the church is supposed to live the life of the age to come in the present, but evidence that the church is supposed to model the just patterns of natural life in the present.  But I risk veering off-topic.

The baptismal rite, it seems to me (or the infant baptismal rite, to be precise), seems to offer a rich, well-balanced picture of how these various dimensions are to intersect in the life of the visible church.  It is the parents who bring the child to be baptized, attesting the visible church’s reliance on the natural structures of propagating the species.  Not only the parents, however, but also the congregation as a whole, and (in many traditions) the sponsors or godparents, make vows to help raise and nurture the child in Christian faith.  This is a communal responsibility which perhaps pictures, in certain respects, the erasure of family distinctions in the eschatological body of Christ, but also simply reflects the natural order of human sociality, in which we are meant to care for and support one another beyond the boundaries of the nuclear family.  In the course of the liturgy, the parents hand the child over to the minister, who stands in the place of Christ, and the minister baptizes the child.  In this, the parents symbolically renounce the child to Christ, and put him in the same position that they themselves were in when they were first baptized.  In this moment, the child is revealed as a child of Christ, a brother to his parents, rather than their son, and equally a brother of all others who are in Christ.  But the liturgy does not end here; the minister returns the child to his parents with a charge, showing that for now, while we live within the bounds of mortality, he remains uniquely their responsibility to provide for and teach; he is the ward of his parents, not the ward of the church generically, or of the minister particularly.  For the minister is not Christ and does not wield his authority, even if he symbolically represents him for purposes of the liturgy.

This post was not meant to be an apologia for infant baptism (although I would have no qualms about writing such an apologia), but perhaps it has ended there.  In a normal, healthy church, most baptisms should be infant baptisms, and the liturgy should teach us the right relationship between the church and the family; and yet in a healthy church, there should also be a good number of adult baptisms, which by displaying for us the entry of an individual believer directly into relationship with his Savior, ensures that we do not lose sight of the eschatological dimension of the church, its calling to be the sign of a new community, a new family, in the midst of time.  Churches that lack infant baptisms are likely to fall into an individualism or a kind of communalism that displays an over-realized eschatology; churches that lack any adult baptisms, or that practice infant baptism without godparents or otherwise picturing the active role of the whole congregation, are likely to fall into a rut of familyolatry, turning the church into nothing more than a gathering of families, and excluding singles from their fellowship.  

Welcome to Sword and Ploughshare 2.0!

Well, here at last is the new and improved Sword and Ploughshare that I’ve been muttering about for the past couple weeks.  I hope you weren’t expecting too much, as, whatever talents I may have in the word-writing department, they are not matched by similar talents in either creativity and aesthetics, or web technology.  Quite the contrary.  Accordingly, there is much work yet to be done in terms of cleaning up the design, and no doubt I shall discover over the coming days several significant technical glitches.   However, this new platform does provide a great deal more flexibility and ease of use, so hopefully the growing pains will be worth it.

But, before saying more about what may yet be improved, I’ll say a few words about what *has* been improved.  

  • You’ll notice that the separate “About Me” and “What is the S&P?” pages have been combined—after all, who really needed to read whole separate explanations of both?  
  • The Writings page has been considerably overhauled, and although copies of old papers are no longer downloadable, I’m afraid, feel free to email me if you’d like to look at something.  
  • “Projects” has been replaced with a page specifically devoted to my main project, my Ph.D thesis work, since most all of the work I’m doing now ties in with that in some degree.  As that nears its end, and I branch out again, I may see about re-revamping that page.  
  • The Blogroll has been moved from a sidebar to a separate page of its own, has had its membership considerably modified, and now is annotated—that is, I try to give you some idea of why each of the links I’ve put there is there.
  • The Old Blog, I’m sorry to say, is gone.  As it contains material that’s up to 5 1/2 years old, much of which I would now want to say rather differently (or in a few cases, not at all), it seemed a bit needless to continue appending it.  For those really interested in digging up old dirt, you can still access it here.
  • The sidebars, as a whole, have been trimmed down considerably.  There was simply too much before.  In particular, the tag cloud is gone.  Tags still exist, and you can access them by clicking at the bottom of posts, or by using the search, but there were getting to be way too many of them for a sidebar.  I may still be adding a “Recent Posts” widget back into the sidebar, if I can figure out how, which I haven’t been able to yet.  
  • An exception to the general sidebar-trimming is the addition of my Twitter feed, since I have just joined Twitter this week.  We’ll see how that goes.  (Goodreads is gone, as i’ve been inactive there for six months, alas.  Hopefully not forever)
  • The categories have been rationalized somewhat.  Excess categories have been merged, and some have been renamed.  

Things that need work

  • The banner.  Yes, I know it’s big, and that depending on what size your browser window is, a lot of the image doesn’t show up.  I’ll be working on that, and maybe replacing it altogether.
  • The categories.  I’ve rationalized them, as I said, but there’s a good deal of work to be done in going back through old posts and reclassifying.  Once that’s done (a week or two), the Categories listing should at last be a genuinely useful tool for browsing this blog.
  • The subscribe button.  There’s no button to subscribe to the Comments feed at the moment; I shall try to rectify that.  I’m crossing my fingers that all those who subscribed at the old platform shall have their subscriptions carry over here without difficulty.  If not . . . well, that could be a problem.
  • Yes the books are too big on the Writings page.  That’s not because I’m super-vain, or trying to yell in your face to buy my books.  It’s just cuz I’m not tech-savvy.  I’ll be working on it.
  • Let me know if you’re running into other problems, as you try to use the site.  I’m sure there will be some.  Just comment on this post, or, if commenting is one of the things giving you trouble (it was glitchy at the old platform), then use the Contact Me form.

Thanks for following me. I hope you enjoy the new layout, and enjoy the exciting (read: controversial) upcoming posts I’ve had waiting on the back burner, which I can now bring to a boil

Et Tu, Brute?

After a blogless week due to illness and continued work on blog renovations (the reason you haven’t seen any yet is that I’m reconstructing the blog on a whole new platform, although all the important content will carry over; stay tuned for a launch hopefully later this week), I’m popping in just to announce/confess that I am finally on Twitter, under the unimaginative moniker WBLittlejohn.  Yes, me, author of those anti-Twitter screeds this past year—although, to be clear, I never argued against Twitter as such, merely that it was a platform ill-suited for certain functions, and ripe for abuse.  Whether I shall be among the abusers, remains to be seen.  No doubt it will have deleterious effects on my already overtaxed productivity, as I’m already finding my Twitter feed full of diverting links and utterances.  Whether I shall be among those offering such engaging contributions, or whether I will find myself continually stymied by that shocking 160-character limit (a couple times today, I tried posting what I took to be very short quotes, only to find they were around twice the character limit), remains to be seen as well.  This is a highly experimental enterprise for a chronically sesquipedalian Luddite.  Stay tuned for the results.

At the very least, it means much fewer spammy posts here—the sort, like this one, where I announce some modest landmark in my online existence, or point your attention to something interesting someone has written elsewhere.  Hopefully in future, most such housekeeping and marketing can be done via Twitter (which, in any case, will appear in a little box on the upcoming renovated blog).  I look forward to “seeing” you there.

Love is Stronger than Death: A Review of “The Impossible”

Although its release has been strangely muted in the US to date (perhaps due to the already-overcrowded holiday movie schedule), Juan Antonio Bayona’s film The Impossible has awed audiences in Europe (becoming the second-highest-grossing film of all time in its native Spain) and established itself as one of the finest films of 2012, if not the last decade.  The true story of the Alvarez-Belón family’s harrowing tale of survival in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, The Impossible is one of those movies that leaves you dazed and emotionally eviscerated as you walk out of the cinema in silence, and then keeps on haunting you in the days that follow.  I’d heard going in that the film was a tear-jerker, but I was not prepared for the extraordinary emotional intensity, which had you choked up by 15 minutes in (if not sooner) and didn’t let that feeling subside until the end credits rolled.  Nor did it evoke tears in just one emotional key, whether of grief or sentimentality; rather, it pulled its viewers, along with the characters in it, through the full range of human feeling: horror, hope, fear, anger, grief, gratitude, love, loneliness, and joy. 

This is perhaps the greater feat because the audience, of course, already knows what is going to happen—you know when the tsunami is going to hit, you know it’s going to be bad; you know (if you’ve read any reviews whatsoever; so I wouldn’t consider this a spoiler) that this family of five will be separated from one another and in the end be reunited.  But once the wave hits, you suddenly realize that you don’t know what’s going to happen.  That, at least, was the case for me.  I must confess to taking a very naive and detached view of the tsunami in the past; yes, people died, but it was quick, right?  Never mind that drowning is a terrible way to die.  One does not really grasp, until one watches this film, how a tsunami is not a mere wall of water, but one that is quickly filled with a thousand objects that can cut, slice, bruise, and puncture; that it hits at a force that will dash human bodies like rag dolls into whatever object is nearby.  And the physical agony that is portrayed (though truth be told, with considerable restraint), is nothing to the emotional pain of fear and separation that follows, for families that have been ripped apart.  


The film’s power, of course, comes in large part from its compelling source narrative, and indeed the fact that it is based on a true story, so that there is no hiding from the awful reality it portrays.  For that reason, there are no doubt better films that have been made; films that required much more creative screenplay writing, more daring directing, more extraordinary displays of acting.  But this film certainly does not rest content with a good storyline, or else it would hardly succeed in drawing in the viewer so completely.  And indeed, the story is perhaps, when you boil it down to its constituent elements, a fairly thin and simple one: tsunami hits, mother (Maria) and oldest son (Lucas), are separated from father (Henry) and younger sons (Thomas and Simon); Maria struggles for survival in hospital, tended by Lucas, while father searches for them; in the end they are reunited.  What transforms this simple storyline into one of the most moving depictions of human fragility, love, and courage to appear on film is its unwavering, unrelenting realism, in which every detail—every image, every gesture, every facial expression, is pregnant with meaning.  This realism is underpinned by stellar acting and masterful cinematography.

The actors for all five members of the family put in fantastic performances (all the way down to the four-year-old son), but Naomi Watts’s performance as the Maria is particularly strong, and has earned her some Oscar buzz.  Of course, since she spends the majority of the movie lying on a bed near death’s door, her role probably does not have enough variety to win the award, but it remains a memorable performance.  Still more impressive perhaps was the young Tom Holland’s profoundly genuine portrayal of 12-year-old Lucas, who is forced all at once to grow from a boy into a man when he is suddenly responsible for his gravely wounded mother’s survival.  Although the screenwriting has been criticized as one of the movie’s weaker points, I was struck by how effectively the film succeeds in connecting us emotionally with its five main characters in the brief space of 15 minutes of film time before the wave hits.  We have to care about these people—just another handful of privileged white tourists taking a Christmas vacation in paradise—and to identify with them as people.  And by the end of 15 minutes, we certainly do.

 Some reviewers have commented that the strength of the movie is its myopia—its conscious, ascetic refusal to wallow in the sheer scale of the disaster, and instead to communicate it to us on a human scale, through the eyes of a single family.  (It is for this reason, among others, that it is hardly apt, and more than a little insulting, to refer to the film as part of the genre “disaster movie.”)  Nowhere is this more true than in the cinematography, in which Oscar Faura has recreated for us the family’s bewildering experience by only letting us see what they see.  We are trapped within their very limited perspective, disoriented by the chaos around us, unable to comprehend the big picture, unsure where we are or what’s happening next.  Only at a few key moments does the camera pan out to let us see the enormity of the catastrophe, to put into perspective this one small tale of suffering among tens of thousands of others, and because this wide-angle is used so sparingly, it is devastatingly effective when it is used.


Although I have frequently used words like “horror” and “awful” above, the dominant theme of the movie, believe it or not, is beauty.  The score, composed by Fernando Velasquez, is sublimely beautiful and moving, yet appropriately restrained in most of the film; Bayona and Velasquez, thankfully, are not among those who think the only way to elicit the requisite emotions from their audience is to subject them to a crescendo of melodious strings in nearly every scene.  In the first fifteen minutes, the cinematography pierces our hearts both with the physical beauty of the landscape, and the beauty of a family’s love for one another, made almost unbearably bittersweet in its ominous tranquillity—a particularly powerful and recurrent image is the placid sea, both before and after the tsunami, so beguilingly peaceful and apparently innocuous.  After the wave hits, our eyes are treated to little that is physically attractive (although we are still reminded on occasion of how little even the most horrible disaster can do to efface the beauty of creation).  Instead, it is the beauty of courage and of love that overwhelms us again and again.  This love is of course, above all, the love of a family for one another, and there have been few more eloquent odes to the love of a father for his son, or a mother for her son, of a husband for his wife, of a son for his mother, than this film.  Hard is the heart that comes away from this without being inspired to deeper gratitude and more fervent love for family, one of God’s most precious gifts. 

Yet it would be wrong to imagine that this film self-indulgently steeps itself in the sentimentality of one family to the exclusion of the hundreds of thousands of others affected.  Just as in the cinematography, the myopia of the storyline serves ultimately not as a set of blinkers to insulate us from the enormity of the tragedy, but as a lens through which to come to terms with it.  Fundraisers have learned that the surest way to a human heart is through one compelling story of loss and need; if treated to a barrage of images and statistics about the thousands who suffer, our emotive capacities shut down, overwhelmed. But the one story can and should serve as a symbol, a proxy, for the thousands of others, by which we are moved with compassion for all.  So it is here. 

One insufferably snide and snobbish reviewer complained that what we are treated to is little more than the story of “a spoiled holiday,” which trivializes the deaths of 220,000.  One is tempted to wish upon this reviewer a similarly spoiled holiday, complete with impaled thigh and seaweed-vomiting.  We are given, indeed, a glimpse of what a mere “spoiled holiday” might look like, when we encounter an American couple, a few hours after the tsunami, griping that “no one seems to know what’s going on” and about how they “just wanna get out of here.”  When Henry staggers up to them, bloodied and desperate, and implores them to borrow their cell phone for just a minute, he is rebuffed, “Hey man, look around.  Everyone around here needs something.  I need this phone too.  So bug off.”  The suffering experienced by the family in this film is a far cry from a mere “spoiled holiday,” and yet we are never at any point allowed to forget that they are comparatively lucky.  In key moments of their own joy, we are treated to brief reminders of those around them for whom the search for loved ones will have no happy ending.  Most crucial is the final scene of the film, where, fortunate enough to be headed on a private plane to a Singapore hospital, courtesy of a well-dressed Zurich insurance agent, we and they are sobered by a glance out the airplane windows as it passes over the devastated coast. 

Nor do they themselves forget the plights of others in the midst of their own.  A key sub-plot of the film is Lucas’s transformation from the self-centered adolescent to a young man eager to help others in need.  The relative selflessness that comes with caring for his injured mother is just the first step in this: right after the wave hits, he is concerned only with getting her to safety, and refuses to stop to rescue a small boy calling for help; his mother insists, asking him to imagine what he would want another survivor to do if that boy calling for help was one of his younger brothers.  By the rescue of this boy, and by Lucas’s later acts of service, some of the other tragedies unfolding around them are transformed into happy endings.   


Refuting the PC Police

The sheer pettiness of today’s political correctness police was on full display in some of the reviews of The Impossible over the last month. We have already encountered the snide remarks of A.O. Scott for the New York Times, calling the film the tale of a spoiled holiday, but his review was glowing compared to the sniping of some critics.  Stephen Whittey, of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, opens by complaining, “Official estimates put the death toll at roughly 228,000 people, most of them children. Of the total number, roughly 9000 were European tourists, many of them on holiday in Thailand. ‘The Impossible’ is the first major movie to center on that disaster. And it ignores the Asian causalities to focuses strictly on the troubles of an upper-class British family of five,” before grumbling about how bourgeois and un-interesting the main characters are, how trivial their tragedy.  The Guardian, generally a fine publication except when it comes to predictably politicized film reviews, goes much further (to The Guardian‘s credit, they published a counterpoint here).  Critic Alex von Tunzelmann arranges the review under six headings: Nationality, Society, Disaster, Race, Fate, Verdict.  Under the first, she complains about the English nationality of the main characters, then under the second, about their financial means—”their elegant beach resort is so jam-packed with rich white people that it could be mistaken for the Republican national convention.”  Under the fourth, she rants,

“When the tsunami subsides, the film’s dubious racial politics make an unwelcome reappearance. Maria is tended to by a villageful of kindly Thais, whose job seems to be rescuing white holidaymakers while not saying anything. They take her to a hospital. En route, there are lots more wounded white tourists lying around in the road, some being tended to by yet more kindly Thais not saying anything. Both at the beach and in the hospital, almost all the victims of this disaster appear to be white.”  

What is to be said in response to these charges?  Well, the first thing to be said is that no defense is really necessary.  The choice of rich Westerners was not some arbitrary politicized decision to make up a story about characters we could identify with.  Rather, a Spanish filmmaker encountered an extraordinary real-life story of a family of Spaniards, and decided that it deserved to be told.  The decision to use well-known English actors rather than Spanish actors speaking Spanish was an understandable decision to make sure the film had as wide a distribution as possible, so as many people as possible would be exposed to this extraordinary story.  Purists might complain, but the Alvarez-Belón family fully supported the decision, and judging by the film’s extraordinary reception in Spain, so did their countrymen.  As an English speaker, I’m certainly not going to complain, as the power of the film is easier to appreciate without subtitles.  In any case, a wealthy Spanish couple is every bit as much part of the global elite as a wealthy English couple, so this decision was not an elitizing move.  Bayona cannot pretend the family, and the other tourists, are not wealthy—why else would they be vacationing at a Thai resort?  And the fact that the preponderance of the victims in the Khao Lak area portrayed in the film are European is a simple submission to historical fact—this was the tourist area, and the majority of the dead and injured here were foreign tourists.  (That said, von Tunzelmann and others exaggerate in claiming that we almost never see any Thai victims—the hospital where much of the film takes place is a cultural melting pot if there ever was one.)  

Bayona found a good story, and told it just like it was, and there is no shame in that.  Both Scott and von Tunzelmann, unlike Whittey, acknowledge that this is a good story as far as it goes, but grumble that Bayona should’ve worked in the stories of some Asian victims as well.  But as mentioned above, precisely the effectiveness of the film is its resolution that “less is more.”  Trying to help us better grasp the scope of the tragedy by working in a few other tragic stories, and spreading our reserves of empathy over a dozen more characters, would have almost certainly made for a poorer film.  Again, as mentioned above, the narrow focus serves not to exclude other victims, but as a lens by which we may come to feel the pain of all.  Viewed this way, we may ask whether the film falls prey to Whittey’s objection: “Western movies always insist on seeing global disasters through Western eyes. It’s as if filmmakers doubt we can identify with anyone who doesn’t look or act exactly like us. Which insults us, actually, and hobbles cinema. One of the great powers of this emotional medium is that it easily encourages us to identify with people who look or act nothing like us.”  Whittey’s general point is true.  Films of third world tragedies usually make use of a first world lens.  Even in films like Hotel Rwanda, where the heroes are Rwandan, they are very Westernized Rwandans—which is why they survive, for that matter.  Blood Diamond needs Leonardo DiCaprio alongside Djimon Hounsou.  But this is not, I think, anything to be terribly ashamed of, or insulted by.  Rather, as powerful a medium as film is, it still has difficulty dissolving the immensely powerful barriers of culture and language.  I’m not saying it can’t be done; but it is difficult, and films that attempt it will rarely reach as wide an audience.  We accept the need for film to mediate between reality and ourselves, manipulating reality in the process in order that we might really be brought to experience it.  Real-life events do not have soundtracks playing in the background, yet few of us complain when films use music to help evoke in us the same emotions that the characters portrayed are feeling.  Similar mediation, reducing the otherness of a radically different culture, is often necessary if we are to come to terms with the Third World at all, rather than it continuing to feel wholly alien to us.  

This is, I’m afraid, especially true when it comes to portraying disasters.  We in the West have great difficulty relating to the suffering of the Third World poor; it is simply too much for us to comprehend.  The images and statistics send us into overload and cause our empathetic faculties to shut down.  When the Haitian earthquake killed 200,000, it felt like just another tragic chapter in the sad saga of that nation, a tragedy almost too deep to engage with emotionally.  The Japanese earthquake, although less tragic on the whole, was for this reason more moving for many of us.  Bayona’s film, then, might be seen as an attempt to help us come to terms with the suffering of all the victims of the Asian tsunami by giving us that suffering in a manageable dose, in a form we could begin to relate to; by this means, our emotional faculties would be trained in the empathy necessary to begin to comprehend the suffering of all the others—those who were not rich, white, and Western.


On a related note, I would suggest that part of Bayona’s point is to emphasize the way in which such disasters radically level social and economic hierarchies.  When struggling for survival, we are all reduced to the same common denominator: human.  For many critics (interestingly, themselves all rich white Westerners, who perhaps enjoy tropical vacations from time to time), it was unconscionable that we should pause to lament the suffering of a rich white Westerner, who probably deserved what they had coming to them.  And yet such a reverse discrimination, a cultivation of cultural self-loathing, is no way to overcome the barrier between the privileged and the poor.  On the contrary, the recognition that we too can suffer, that we too can bleed, can be forced to struggle barefoot and barely-clothed through swamps in search of medical help, that we too can be subject to great forces of nature beyond our control, that we too can find our families torn apart by disaster, that vulnerability and suffering are not the sole prerogative of poor Asians and Africans—this is a powerful message of the film.  Indeed, not only does the tsunami result in a leveling, but in an inversion, as rich Europeans are thrown into a position of absolute dependence on the kindness of poor Thai villagers.  

This was the most bizarre of von Tunzelmann’s complaints, as she carped about the racism of depicting “kindly Thais rescuing white holidaymakers without saying anything” (for the record, they were saying plenty, but in Thai—presumably von Tunzelmann would’ve considered it less racist if they miraculously spoke English).  Exactly how is it racist to depict another culture as “kindly”?  Are we to demand rather that other cultures all grow up and learn to display the kind of callous self-absorption that we in the West have perfected?  Scott’s review perhaps clarifies the source of the complaint, charging that “these acts of selfless generosity are treated like services to which wealthy Western travelers are entitled.”  But it is difficult to see where on earth Scott and von Tunzelmann have concocted this impression from.  On the contrary, one of the most powerfully moving scenes in the film is one in which a Thai family, having dragged Maria to safety, bandages her wounds, puts her on a makeshift stretcher, and, in a wonderfully human gesture, puts a fresh clean blouse over her bleeding and partially exposed breasts.  Far from treating this like a “service” to which she is “entitled,” Maria is overwhelmed, and struggles to find a way to articulate her gratitude, weeping and croaking “Thank you” over and over again.  One could hardly ask for a more touching depiction of the kindred humanity we all share, regardless of wealth or nationality.



This review has grown overlong, so I will confine myself to a few brief remarks on the theological dimension.  The 2004 tsunami, of course, called forth a flood of reflections on theodicy in the weeks and months afterward, asking how a good God could cause or allow such suffering.  One of the most eloquent, but ultimately frustrating, responses was David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, which rightly called out callous hyper-Calvinists for their presumption and lack of compassion, but failed to provide any convincing alternative to the bogeyman of Calvinism into which he lumped together so many of his opponents.  Bayona’s film avoids all such questions; indeed, is so staunchly secular and empty of God that it must be a self-conscious omission.  The film’s tagline is “Nothing is stronger than the human spirit,” and sure enough, the film’s characters find all the physical and emotional resources they need in themselves, never calling upon God either in anger or for aid.  It would be easy to pick on this humanism, and it is probable that Bayona is a doctrinaire secularist.  From a Christian standpoint, however, I think it is preferable to think of this silence about God as another dimension of the film’s self-imposed myopia, its “less is more” aesthetic.  (And after all, the Book of Esther reminds us that God does not have to be mentioned for us to recognize him as the chief Actor.)  By focusing its spotlight so resolutely and single-mindedly on the truly extraordinary power that is the human spirit, on the marvels of human courage and human love, I found that the film indirectly did homage to the One in Whose image humankind, and human love, were created.  As Richard Hooker argued, we give God the greatest honor not by denigrating His handiwork to focus on Him alone, but by honoring Him in His handiwork, of which we—and our capacity to love—are the greatest expression.  

This then indirectly suggests a theodicy of sorts.  It can sound tired, clichéd, and even callous to say that God allows tragedies and natural disasters to happen in order to make a more beautiful story.  Yet it was no exaggeration when I said above the the most prominent theme of this film is not grief, but beauty.  The beauty of human souls and human love, which is purified and given occasion by physical suffering, outweighs the worst ugliness that a fallen nature can inflict upon us.  Death provides the occasion for love, love which overcomes all death.  This cannot, of course, be the whole answer, or a fully satisfying answer, to the problem of evil and suffering (no answer can be), but it remains one we must not forget, and one that anyone who has seen The Impossible is not likely to soon forget. 

Sword and Ploughshare 2012 Year-in-Review (and 2013 Look-Ahead)

A number of other blogs have marked the beginning of the new year by taking a look back at what they’ve been blogging about over the past year.  Although I am temperamentally allergic to any hint of faddiness, this seems like a genuinely good idea, so I’ll give it a stab.  I should also mention, however, before commencing this review, that big changes (ok, medium changes) will be coming to the S & P soon.  I was hoping to use Christmas break for a long-needed overhaul of the layout, links, and organization of this site (you may have noticed that the tags and categories in particular are woefully disorganized), and launch the new and improved S & P in time for the new year.  That hasn’t happened, but the overhaul, to some extent or other, should be coming soon. Stay tuned.

So what’s been happening here over the past year?  Well, although it saw considerably fewer posts than 2011 (113 compared to 160), 2012 saw a considerable increase in readership, and in the quality of discussions carried out in comments.  The less frequent post count (particularly toward the end of the year, which saw the birth and baptism of my second child) was due largely to a diversion of some of my blogging energies into new venues, as 2012 proved an exciting year for blog-networking.  First, in the Spring came the launch of the Calvinist International, run by Peter Escalante and Steven Wedgeworth, who’ve long been conversation partners here.  Over the course of the year I contributed a number of posts there, primarily related to ongoing controversy about the two-kingdoms, a topic on which this year saw two rounds of somewhat testy, but ultimately quite profitable engagement with Matthew Tuininga, whose blog I commend to you.  (Here at S & P, I posted roundups of the first phase of the controversy here and here, and of part of the second phase here, plus Pt. 1 of my huge final response (Pt. 2 on TCI here).  Another venue was the blog of the journal Political Theology, which hosted a series reviewing John Perry’s fascinating The Pretenses of Loyalty and a series attempting to boil down the 2K debate for general audiences, “The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed,” as well as posts reflecting on the ethical and political implications of The Dark Knight Rises and of Superstorm Sandy.  As a contributing editor there now, I have the opportunity to bring in other Reformed political theologians, such as Jordan Ballor and Davey Henreckson, who will be joining the lineup there in the future—look for a post from one of the three of us on most Wednesdays throughout the coming year.  Finally, I have recently begun contributing on occasion to Matthew Lee Anderson’s excellent Mere Orthodoxy.  My first post there, on the recent kerfluffle over women bishops in the Church of England, caused a bit of a kerfluffle of its own at Doug Wilson’s blog, to which my second post, “Speaking the Truth in Love,” was in part a response.  As a result of these networks and others, I’ve encountered a number of excellent new blogs and bloggers over the past year; in addition to the venues already mentioned, I would commend to you Andrew Fulford’s The City of God, Alastair Roberts’s Adversaria, and a promising new entry, Joseph Minich’s Minicheism.  All of these friends and interlocutors can take credit for stimulating many of the reflections that I’ve posted here over the past year, on a wide range of topics. 

But what about here at the Sword and Ploughshare?  Well, this year’s 113 posts saw their fair share of links, book snippets and reading notes, and several prayers composed for worship at my church, St. Paul’s and St. George’s.  Among the longer posts, this year saw my blogging perhaps more tightly focused than in previous years, as I got into the heart of my Ph.D writing, and thought through some issues related to that research here, as well as occasionally sharing some draft material from the thesis.  Among the latter were posts on Hooker’s theology of worship, what I called the “key” to his theology; his understanding of law and corporate moral agency; his account of the relation of nature and grace; the application of this relationship to his understanding of religion in the commonwealth; his Christological politics, or political Christology; an introduction to Puritanism, or “precisianism”; and an account of Puritan biblicism.  (Good gracious—I didn’t realize I’d posted quite that much!  Might not stand me in good stead when I go and try to publish the thesis…)  Prominent among the former were discussions of the relationship of love and law, of disciplinarianism and early Reformed ecclesiology (see particularly here and here), of the doctrine of Christian liberty, and of the regulative principle.  

Unsurprisingly, few of these, so near and dear to my heart, were exactly the sort of thing to draw in the masses and provoke frenzied discussion in the comments thread.  Far more effective at this were my occasional and reticent interactions with contemporary politics and the Christian Right’s approach to it, particularly my July post on Obamacare, and my trio surrounding the election: “Why I Won’t Ve Voting,” “Post-Apocalyptic Musings,” and “The Abortion Question.”  

There were just three book reviews, though all three books have been crucial in the development of my own thinking.  Although I’d grudgingly accepted the reality of anthropogenic climate change a couple years ago, Merchants of Doubt was perhaps the first thing to get me really passionate about the issue, which has cropped up in several posts since, and about the broader problem of the Christian Right’s relationship to science.  John Perry’s The Pretenses of Loyalty provided me with a very useful conceptual lens—the “harmonization of loyalties”—in which to cast the problems I will be exploring in my thesis, as well as offering profound insights on Locke and modern liberalism.  Susan Schreiner’s Are You Alone Wise? I read quite recently, and it too promises to provide a very useful lens—the quest for certitude—through which to view Hooker’s contribution to sixteenth-century debates.  Aside from a fairly short and casual reflection on The Hobbit, there was only one film review, but boy was it a whopper.  I spent a solid chunk of July distilling a few years worth of thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s films, brought into conversation with Oliver O’Donovan’s The Ways of Judgment (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV).

But obviously, there is no reason to try to be exhaustive and catalog everything—the links in the sidebars do that well enough.  Thematically speaking, though, one topic that jumps out at me from the past year as something that has increasingly preoccupied me is a matter not so much of content as of form: how does the medium of the internet shape our communication and debate, particularly about theological and political matters?  How ought we to communicate better?  In April, I asked the question, “How ought pastors to use social media?” and followed up, in response to Toby Sumpter, with “What Would Jesus Tweet?”  In a related vein the next month, I explored in “Narcissism Goes Social” how Facebook shapes and distorts our perception of ourselves and how we interact with others.  In the latter half of this year, I explored the question of the appropriate forms of online debate and polemical discourse in part one of my response to Matt Tuininga, and with the help of posts by Alastair Roberts, and Matthew Lee Anderson’s concept of “intellectual empathy,” which I elaborated on recently; see also Steven Wedgeworth’s interaction with my recent post.


Well then, if you’ve survived the journey through that forest of links without being hopelessly distracted or else, perhaps, so bored that you retreated to whatever more important thing you were doing before you stumbled on this bit of thinly-veiled self-promotion, here’s a few thoughts about what to expect in 2013.

As I come into the final stages of my thesis, and work more on its contemporary application, you can expect to find me blogging more about issues of contemporary political theology—about liberalism, pluralism, and the place of faith in public.  Also, hopefully in quite the near future, you can expect to find some more systematic wrestlings with the concept of natural law, which has put in quite a number of cameo appearances here over the past year or two.  (In the meantime, I refer your attention to this excellent recent reflection at the Calvinist International.)  While finishing up the thesis, I hope to also work up at least two publishable articles, one on Hooker’s contribution to the early modern problem of certainty (as outlined by Susan Schreiner), and one on the current state of Hooker studies—the Battle for the Protestant Hooker.  Reflections relevant to both of those matters are likely to show up here in the next few months.  On a less academic note, I hope to perhaps do more in the way of film reviews/theological analyses, such as I did with the Dark Knight Rises over the summer.  As it is not an election year, I will probably venture into the arena of American politics even less than I did last year, though I will perhaps be correspondingly less reticent to speak up on current matters of ecclesiastical politics.  In particular, following off of my foray into women’s ordination debate a month ago, a number of people have asked me for a more systematic consideration of that issue, and you can expect that in the very near future.  (Of course, in the past, making a promissory note about blogging something has often been a surefire way of making sure I never got around to it, so take all these with a grain of salt).  

Finally, let me end by thanking all of my regular readers and those who take the time to engage in the comments thread (or on Facebook, or in private); I have profited immensely from so many of these interactions, and look forward to many more in the future.