Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Existentialism and Film Music

Jean-Paul Sartre, 1945
A friend recently made a film and wrote for permission for use of some popular music to score the film. This reminded me of another filmmaker friend who employed the opposite process. He made a short film and passed it along to a musician, who composed music to fit the film. It turned out to be something of a reverse music video, that is, the music expresses the film short rather than the other way around.

You can see that reverse music video, entitled "Smile Around the Face" here, and I pay tribute to Dan Wilde for his creativity.

As it happens, Dan and I both studied philosophy and theology at Cambridge, and rowed. During outings, an occasional philosophical issue might arise that would prove stimulating for our conversation (and a bit boring to other guys in the boat). As I think about the "what came first" issue in film and music, my mind goes to existentialism, and here's why:

Jean Paul Sartre gave an example of typical philosophical outlooks: a manufacturer has an idea of a product, and then creates that product. Suppose he thinks about making a new paper cutter. The essence of the paper cutter is in his mind, then he brings it into existence by making it. This is a way of describing how God conceived of creation and brought it into existence. Essence precedes existence. Sartre denied this as true to reality, and said instead that human beings begin with existence, and then subsequently determine their essence.

The standpoint of his existentialism began with a hopeful seed, of radical human freedom. Sartre believed we were determine ourselves and our essential reality through our choices. Having come of age in the midst of his nation's occupation in WW2, perhaps we can sympathize with the freedom Sartre describes, at a time when actual freedom was thin on the ground. He had a crisis of choice in whether he should leave French North Africa, which would harm his mother, or remain, which would harm his sense of duty to fight with the Free French.

A Christian knows that optimism for humanity is based strongly on pessimism about our capabilities to choose freely. We are enslaved to our desires and only become free by means of the transforming power of the grace of God, to whom we render grateful service. An optimistic view of human nature leads to a pessimistic view of life, which I think afflicted Sartre. He did not decry morality, but purpose in life was ultimately absurd since we all die. The cruel joke on humanity is awareness of our existence in the face of the certainty of death.

I must hasten to note two things: one, Sartre is said to have privately come to Christian faith just prior to his death (tragically and absurdly, dying in a car accident but found with a train ticket for the same journey in his pocket), but he made no public renunciation of his atheism so it is not possible to say. Second, not all existentialist philosophies are atheistic. Kierkegaard is called an early existentialist and there are other modern philosophers who call themselves Christians and existentialist. But for my money, no hope for an eternal future but awareness of death means sitting in a Parisian cafe in a black turtleneck and beret, while chain smoking and suffering through life is pretty much the right reaction if existence precedes essence.

Friday, April 16, 2010


It may be that I am a contrarian by nature. At Easter time, I have noticed more and more spiritualizing of the Resurrection, with preachers and writers noting that "merely" giving the reasonable historical account of the resurrection doesn't matter to people anymore. In the New York Times, an important journalist writing on Easter Sunday and building off the work of an Oxford don, danced around the notion of whether the Resurrection was historical or metaphorical.

But the fact remains, whether by preacher, journalist or professor, the resurrection is drifting to meaning over fact. The post modern punter demands this, and the consumer is king. I had a teenager say to me, "well if Jesus did rise from the dead, so what?". He meant, what does it mean for me.

In part, I want to confront the me centered universe with what is asked for, and the Bible does so: the Resurrection preaching and teaching in the New Testament is that Jesus rose according to God's plan, for the forgiveness of sins to be proclaimed to the world. Easter not only confirms the Cross of Good Friday as accepted by God, but also marks Jesus out as God's appointed judge of the world.

But still, the response in a narcissistic era comes: "Yes, that's all very nice about Jesus, but please start talking about me again."

And so my contrarian tendency is to take the emphasis of the Gospels on the Resurrection, which is to say it happened. And then to line up with Paul who said it happened, and if it didn't, then Christianity and indeed life is pretty useless.

So I was a joyful preacher beginning my sermon on Easter with this paragraph:
Jesus Christ is Risen. He is Risen and is physically alive today in his resurrected body. Having defeated death, he cannot die. If we are Christians, or as the Bible says, if we are in Christ, we share his resurrection life today, tomorrow and for eternity.

In response to that, and also to teaching 1 Corinthians 15 in our Wall Street Ministry this Eastertide, two guys sent me this poem by John Updike (thanks, Sam and Greg). I don't know if Updike has a precise insight into the nature of a resurrected body, but he sure gets the physicality and historicity of the resurrection right!

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

—John Updike, “Seven Stanzas At Easter,” 1964

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Mighty One Has Fallen

The Rev Mark Ashton died this past Saturday, firm in the resurrection hope of Easter and with assurance in the Cross of Christ from Good Friday. I did not know Mark well, but wish to pay tribute to a man who had an influence on me through his preaching, steady witness and vitality as a Christian man and minister of the Gospel. Mark ministered for many years at the Round Church in Cambridge, which grew and moved to the larger building of St Andrew the Great (then planted another congregation back to the Round Church!).

Mark was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago, and did his dying well. He was firm in faith, longing for heaven but not unaware of how his death affected others (in his family and his congregation).

He wrote in his church's magazine:

I have realised what a very great privilege it is to know that I do not have much longer to live (unless the doctors are completely wrong!). We, all of us, have an invisible sell-by date stamped on us, and I guess we would all live slightly different lives if we knew what that date was. I am convinced that I am fortunate to know that I need to get myself ready for departure.

I think there are three things that means for me particularly: (1) I need to fight sin more fiercely; (2) I need to tell others about Jesus more clearly; (3) I need to look to Jesus more and more with every new day.

Knowing that it will not be all that long before I am removed forever from the presence of sin means that I should tolerate it less and less in my life now. It has no place in the presence of God and I need to prepare myself for that.

In an update on his health in March, Mark wrote the following (which, although not published like the magazine article, has had wide viewing, and so I trust is for public encouragement):

There is a lovely song, which will I hope be sung at my thanksgiving service, a modern version of nineteenth century lyrics, which went like this:

It is not death to die, to leave this weary road
And join the saints who dwell on high
Who’ve found their home with God.
It is not death to close the eyes long dimmed by tears,
And wait in joy before your throne delivered from our fears.

But the real comfort we have in death as Christian believers is not joining the other saints in heaven above rejoicing in the presence of God but in the final vindication of His glorious purposes for us. So the glory is all His.

Here is a link to Mark speaking to members of his church about dying. He has no fear, but only consolation and even excitement as he approached his death.

Well done good and faithful servant. If you are a praying person, please do pray for Mark's widow, Fiona, and their family, as well as the people of St. Andrew the Great in Cambridge.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Fools' Day

"April Fools!" -- in our household, soap covered toothbrushes, red colored "strawberry" milk at breakfast, the news that we had a new dog, a fake mustache, shower head loosenings all were greeted with this gleeful cheer of April Fools'.

I do like the creative jokes that are taken to rather extreme measures. And while News Corp may have a point that Google is thieving content from other providers (or might not), Google does seem to have a sense of humor. They ran their Animal Translator (Beta version), which purports to help humans to understand animals by translating it into English (link here).

The sober National Public Radio also gets into the act. One year they echoed the Charlton Heston anguished line in this April Fools' promo: "Support for NPR comes from the Soylent Corporation, manufacturing protein-rich food products in a variety of colors. Soylent Green is People."

It was unfortunate, but prophetic, that the AMC Gremlin was launched on April 1, 1970.

But the greatest April Fools' prank, in my view, is still the BBC flying penguins (link here).