Saturday, January 28, 2012

One example of a Christian charity doing something just slightly iffy

Back in the 90s –

WOW – can I really say that now, like the 90s was a long time ago??? Blimey.

Um, sorry. Let's continue.

As I was saying, back in the 90s I worked for a Christian charity that worked with children on a poor estate in South Wales. This charity was run by a couple who had a real passion for Christian community lived out for real in and amongst the people God wanted to reach. For a time, it was a terrific ministry that made an impact on 100s if not 1000s of lives.

Unfortunately, over time things turned sour. The work of the charity was endless (because there was so much need), while the money, people and resources were severely limited. This put enormous pressure on the leaders and as the outfit grew they found it difficult to let go and trust newcomers to their 'baby'.

While working for the charity, I met my future wife and for several years we stood by it even though things got harder and harder (and weirder and weirder).

Eventually, we recognised that things weren't right and decided to get out a fast as possible (almost ten years ago, in fact). It was only several years afterward that it dawned on us that the whole outfit had become something of a cult. A mild form of cult, admittedly, but a cult all the same. The two leaders wielded too much control, there was scant opportunity to challenge decisions and tasks had to be completed exactly according to the wishes of the leadership without deviation. When one of the two leaders left due to the overwhelming pressure, things really should have ended there and then.

Unfortunately, the charity limped on for some time longer – finally giving up the ghost when financial matters forced the hands of the trustees.

Well, that's the way I understood it. I may have got some of the details wrong, but I think I got the essence of things right.

Anyway, I have many vivid memories of my involvement with this particular charity. Some good, some not so good. There were numerous times when things happened which should have alerted me to the dangers of where the charity was going. Unfortunately, being a bit naive back then, I was oblivious to it all and didn't say or do anything (maybe because I'd been conditioned not to question authority).

One occasion really sticks out.

The female matriarchal leader – let's call her Sharon for confidentiality's sake – led a bible study one evening that involved watching a film. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, except she decided to show us Devil's Advocate, starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. Now, it's a decent film I admit, but as an 18-rated film it does have a hefty amount of bad language, sexual content, satanic goings-on and general unpleasant stuff. This was over ten years ago now, so that film would probably have gotten a mere '15' certificate nowadays, but even so, it was a difficult film to watch in places. The movie makes a good point about the choices we make and how it's not the devil forcing us do bad things. Rather, he makes suggestions to us and ultimately it's our decision to decide whether or not we respond to them and sin.

An important subject for a bible study, but I feel that Sharon was irresponsible in showing it to us in the first place. Firstly, we were a mixed group (ok, I was the only guy but that's not the point) – I don't think showing something with explicit sexual content is appropriate for guys and girls to watch together. Secondly, there was one girl in the group who was a very young and immature Christian. She was a sweet girl who was quite innocent, and had found working on the Cardiff estate a real eye opener. Still in her teens, I think she may even have been under 18 making it even more of a no-no.

By her own admission, she'd never seen an 18 before and certainly never watched anything that was remotely scary or gory. To be fair, Sharon did warn us about the film before she hit play, but from what I recall didn't give much of a chance for us to raise objections. In any case, she had such an influence over all of us that none of us would have dared to scupper her plans for the evening.

So the lights went off and we watched Keanu battle it out with beelzebub.

And then the lights went back on again.

I can still remember that girl's face after the film. She looked like she'd seen the devil himself.

I don't care that the message of the 'bible study' that evening was an important one about who we give our soul to and how we wield our free will. I don't care that we were grown ups and had a choice not to watch it. That girl was pretty much forced to watch unpleasant stuff she didn't have to. I would go as far as saying a large part of her innocence had been taken away that night. Even now, it angers me that she had to go through that (and that I didn't speak up on her behalf).

She didn't stay working for the charity for much longer after that. I don't know what became of her. I don't know if she continued as a Christian or lost her faith.

I'm pretty certain that she remembers that experience vividly and that it has affected her walk with God to some degree, which is a tragedy because this didn't need to happen. With a little bit of common sense and pastoral understanding it never would have happened.

Oh well, God is bigger than all these things, which is good to know. I'm just relieved that the charity eventually died off the way it did rather than become a monster, which it easily could have been (although I suspect that once the leaders chose to ignore God and do things their way, he simply chose to withdraw from it which is why it ultimately failed). The sad thing is, if God has just been allowed to do his thing maybe it would have grown in the right way and made a huge difference to countless lives.

I guess that's the risk that God takes when he asks fallen people like you and me to do His work.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Movie Review - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2012)

So here's my second movie review of the year. Something a little bit more up to date with a film I saw in the cinema recently.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - US Version (2012)

First of all, I'll start by saying I haven't read the book. Having seen the film, I probably never will.

I'm not saying the book's no good – I'm sure it is. Personally, I'd only read the book if the film totally blew me away, and unfortunately it failed to do that.

So let's start with the good points. Rooney Mara is stunning as the mysterious, tortured emo heroine Lisbeth. Her character is a force to be reckoned with and her anti-authoritarian streak is demonstrated numerous times during the film. It's not hard to empathise with this computer-hacking, messed up 20-something and you can't help cheering her on as she inflicts revenge upon her abusive social worker.

David Fincher does a good job of telling a story that is quite complex at times and successfully builds the tension as the lead characters delve deeper into the history of a hugely dysfunctional business family. The backdrop of Sweden is as you'd expect: cold and clinical yet stylish, demonstrated wonderfully when we see one character's uber-Ikea-esque hilltop lair.

It has all the ingredients of a tense, edgy whodunnit. Being set in a European country (where very few Hollywood blockbusters are ever located) adds a renewed freshness to a well-worn genre.

This film, however, just doesn't quite live up to the hype for me.

I've not seen Daniel Craig in a huge amount of films, but whenever I do he seems to be playing the same person – a bit of a George Clooney. His portrayal of Blomkvist was adequate, nothing more, and I just know that he could have given it that little bit extra (like he did in Layer Cake).

And then there's the rape sequence.

Why are producers and directors intent on pushing the boundaries like this? In my opinion, this scene was totally unnecessary and highly exploitative. It is possible to convey events without actually portraying them onscreen, and that can sometimes be more powerful. Sadly, it seems that some viewers revel in the fact that such scenes make it into the final cut. Describing the film as 'gritty' or 'visceral' simply doesn't excuse or justify the filming of such scenes (but then maybe I'm just getting old). Saying all this, I shouldn't have been surprised by the content – it is an '18' after all.  

So, in conclusion, I was disappointed with what could have been a far more interesting and challenging film. Fincher delivers something far too mainstream – which is odd given his history – and seemingly fails to play to his strengths.

I give this movie 5 out of 10.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Movie Review - The Golden Compass

I've decided to break my 'Movies I've seen of late' blog posts down into the individual films as it will feel like I'm being a bit more regular with my blog (!). Also, I can be a bit more in depth than previously. The one thing I will be doing is ensuring I review any and every movie I see meaning, it will be a varied mix of old, new and nearly-new.

So, on with the first review of 2012!

The Golden Compass (2007)
This is a good film to watch in the run up to Christmas, mainly because it's an 'epic' film with a lot of, um, snow in it. Unfortunately, Compass fails to compare to the source material and is merely a paint-by-numbers adventure that could have been so much more.

I enjoyed the Dark Materials books, which were refreshingly innovative and exceptionally well-written. They received a huge amount of criticism, mainly from the Christian community for being anti-religion, but I personally think that's a good thing. Religion can easily get in the way of a genuine faith and can be the source of much negative aspects of humanity including guilt, abuse and corruption. I think that's what Phillip Pullman was really attacking in his books (even if his target was meant to be 'God').

As for the film, The Golden Compass (which should have been entitled 'Northern Lights', but that's the US market for you) is an enjoyable story in itself which follows the original plot relatively closely,
with good performances from Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman (not forgetting Dakota Blue Richards as the heroine Lyra). The costumes and sets are remarkable, successfully imagining Lyra's steampunk alternate universe.

What is obvious is that the studio was hoping for another Lord of the Ring trilogy (just look at the cast list – the producers clearly believed that hiring a bunch of well-respected British actors would lead to box office success). What they failed to do, however, was respect the book and the director who was trying to realise it on the big screen. This is odd given that New Line also made LOTR. Chris Weitz didn't have a particularly easy time making the film, and was quite open about the studio's interference in post-production.

And that's probably why Compass is lacking any heart.

Apparently the studio opted to keep the running time down in order to maximise profits. This is unbelievably short-sighted and cowardly. Even though the movie managed to make its money back internationally, had it been a better-made film it could well have spawned two sequels (which takes the story to even more bizarre and interesting levels), earning New Line even more cash.

So we never will get to see Lyra fulfil her destiny on the big screen (unless someone tries an ambitious reboot in twenty years time or something). This is a shame because Compass really only gets going at the end. Most of the film is devoted to setting everything up, so when you reach the final act it all seems to finish rather abruptly because there's still a lot more for Lyra and her gang to do.

Hats off to Chris Weitz for getting through a difficult shoot and making a film that, while flawed, still makes some kind of sense. It's just disappointing to know that it could have been a far greater piece of work.

Verdict: 5 out of 10.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I'm an El Gordo Spanish Lottery Winner!

Wow – I just received a letter in the mail. It's addressed to me and is from Portugal. Weird, I don't know anyone who lives there.

Let's open it and see...

Letterhead says El Gordo Spanish Sweepstake. Hmm.

"Final Award Notification.

We are pleased to inform you the released Results of the EL GORDO SPANISH SWEEPSTAKE LOTTERY/INTERNATIONAL PROMOTION PROGRAM held on the 22nd December, 2011. Your name attached to the Ticket number 510-2101-039 with serial number 6155-08 drew the lucky numbers 53-404 which consequently won the lottery in the 2nd Category.

You have therefore been approved for lump Sum pay out of 1.250.000€ (ONE MILLION TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND EUROS ONLY) in cash ..."

Woah – I've won a lottery I didn't even enter! That's a-mazing. Fantastic! I'll never have to work again. Woohoo!!!!

Wait a minute, I'd better just check this isn't a scam.

Y'know. Just in case.

Opening up Google....

I'm sure this is real. The way they've designed the logo and watermark is really convincing. There are a few spelling and grammatic errors, but for goodness sake it's from Spain. I mean, I couldn't write a letter like this in Spanish.

C'mon Google. Show me I'm rich.

Right – just typing in El Gordo Sweepstake. Let's see what comes up....



So, I'm not rich. This is all a scam. Thousands of people have received the exact same letter.

All my hopes and dreams have been dashed forever. I suppose I'll have to go back to my soul-destroying job with no pension and lack of prospects. Perhaps I'll end up sad and alone in a damp bedsit in Slough, still wondering what might have happened if that whole stupid El Gordo Spanish Sweepstakes had been real.

And then I'll die of pneumonia and the police will find my decomposing body three months letter, my dry bony hands grasping that preposterous, badly-written and poorly-designed letter from El Gordo Spanish Sweepstakes.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Why I'll never be a church leader

As I've pondered what to do with my life, I've occasionally wondered about being a vicar/pastor/minister or some kind.

In fact, a friend of the family who passed away several years ago (she was an octogenarian who attended the church across the road from my parent's house) always used to tell me every time we met that I should become a vicar.

I'm actually quite attracted to preaching. I see people giving their sermon on Sunday and think 'I could do that'. Whenever I do one of those 'ideal job' questionnaires, because of my temperament and skillset I always come out as a person best suited to teach (preaching with a different name). Unfortunately, I just don't feel up to the job. Now, I know most vicars/pastors/ministers probably feel like that a lot of the time but I really don't feel up to the job, mainly because preaching tends to involve more than just standing behind the pulpit – often you have to do a bit of pastoral care as well.

You have to, er, spend time with people.

If I was given a church to look after with a reasonably-sized congregation I'd probably drive them all away within three months, unless every member of the church was normal. And that's the problem. Most churches are made up of a bizarre mix of people, many of whom aren't normal (albeit perfectly harmless). I don't mean to disparage church in any way, but it is a natural place for loonies to gravitate towards because Christians are, on the whole, tolerant and loving people.

And the thing is, I just couldn't cope with these people on a regular basis. Unfortunately, I have a sociopathic side to me which means I have a low weirdo-tolerance-threshold. I like people, I really do – it's just that I don't like spending extended lengths of time with them (especially the loons). I like my space and need time to myself. Being in church leadership requires a lot of contact with, y'know, people. A lot of the time.

And that's not conducive to my sanity.

So, maybe my current vocation (being behind the camera or locked away in an edit suite) is most appropriate for me. I don't actually get to 'preach' as such but maybe one day down the line I will, using my filming skills and experience.

Then I will get to communicate God's Word – without the need for dreaded human interaction, of course.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My review of 2011

For me, dear reader, 2011 has been a year of change – or at least anticipation of change (isn't every year, though?).

The big change for us is the fact that wifey is pregnant with JC no. 2. After several failed attempts at fertility treatment, we were surprised to learn that it had worked after the third and final go. Of course, the main change will come in March when the little one is born, but it has given us the impetus to get on and do things (such as clear out a big pile of junk from the soon-to-be babyroom!). Second time round doesn't feel as emotional as before. I guess having done the pregnancy thing before makes it seem less of a big deal. Even so, I'm looking forward to the challenge of another addition to the family (in a weird, masochistic kind of way!).

In terms of work, I have witnessed the business swing from barely existing to making a profit (and sustaining both me and my business partner). This can be largely attributed to the good fortune of meeting Eileen Younghusband and publishing her book. Without her, I'm not sure if I'd be doing the same thing right now and I'd probably be working in McDonald's. We are by no means out of the woods, but I have a positive feeling about things to come in 2012, in spite of the doom and gloom of the current economic woes.

I have been pondering about long-term things and can't stop thinking about the big 40 looming ever closer. While I am happily married with a terrific son, living in a nice house with supportive friends and family, I still feel the itch of not feeling totally fulfilled. I'm pleased about the business, and I'd like it to grow in order to be sustainable, but whatever happens I'm probably best off staying put – keeping my head down and trying to earn a living while the world sorts it self out (if it ever does). Time and time again I have come across the big question that has plagued my life – what do I want to do? My fear is that, by the time I've figured it out, I'll be ready for retirement!

Wifey bought The West Wing boxed set before last Christmas and we have been slowly working our way through, making 2011 our year of West Wing. There was one point when we were watching four episodes a weekend (that's 3 hours worth). It has to be one of the best TV shows for a long time, with witty dialogue, interesting characters and engaging storylines. Everyone says that after Aaron Sorkin left the show it went downhill, but I disagree. I think the stories have been pretty strong all the way through. The question is – what TV show do we watch next?

Back in the summer, we took in a lodger. He was the son of a friend who was homeless – out of work and sleeping on friend's sofas. As Christians, we felt it was the right thing to do, offering someone a chance to get their life back on track by providing accommodation free of charge. It has meant a big change for us as a family, and we're not naturally hospitable people but we feel it was a sacrifice worth making. In anticipation of a new sprog arriving on the scene, however, we simply can't support another grown up in the house so he won't be staying with us for much longer. Our hope and prayer is that he can find somewhere stable to move onto without too much difficulty.

I wasn't surprised to hear in October that Steve Jobs had died. Ever since he'd had his transplant he never looked particularly healthy and when he stepped down as Apple's CEO in August I knew he didn't have long. As an Apple fan, I did find his death something of a shock, but it was curious to see the public's display of grief and also how people clamoured to revere him as a god-like businessman. I don't doubt his intellect and applaud his success as an entrepreneur, but the truth is he was a tyrannical boss who didn't believe in giving to charity (two big negatives in my book). I love Apple products, but I am not one of those weirdos that believe Apple is perfect. Apple has made mistakes and will continue to do so, and now Steve is no more there's a very good chance that they will make even more. I look forward to Apple's next move with interest.

Faithwise, it has been great to continue to worship at Woody's ( I really believe that, as a fellowship, we are maturing year on year and I hope I don't come across as smug or proud about it, it's just the way I see it. After all, a spiritually mature church is a good thing. Yes, we still have our faults and a long way to go but at least we're not going backwards or stagnating. There is a lot of growth from within, which is interesting. A lot of couples have settled at church after university and are now starting to breed(!), which means our children's work is going to get busier over the next few years (again, a good thing). Personally, I've been challenged on a number of issues – most notably social justice – and desire to do more for God on a day-to-day level. I still regard my ministry to be work and family. Both have proven a struggle for me in different ways, but then a calling is never meant to be easy. Also, I have taken more of an interest in theological matters (especially concerning the prophetic) and hope to go deeper in this area in 2012 (if the imminent family changes make it possible).

So that's the year just gone.

2012 will no doubt be dominated by work and the birth of our second son. The rest of the 12 months is up for grabs.

Whether I will have any energy or sanity to maintain this blog after that remains to be seen...

Happy New Year!