Thursday, April 13, 2006

Seeking Something

Giles Fraser in Comment is Free, on English Christianity - from the Puritanical to the laughable and back again

Easter marks a kind of new spiritual year for Christians - not officially (the Church calendar starts at Advent) but in terms of expectations. From the beginning of Lent onwards, everything is focused on watching, waiting, meditating and expecting.

And that's good, and I find it helpful. In an age of instant gratification, in my restricted little world of non-stop commentary from television and music and pointless chatter, what better than waiting for something much deeper?

So I try. I really do. It's just that, well - I'm not good at waiting. "You want everything yesterday," my mother has been saying since I was four. A small illustration of this: I tried to give up chocolate and alcohol for Lent this year. I got drunk after a week, while the chocolate fast lasted until the week before Palm Sunday when I gave up entirely, on the grounds that it was very nearly Easter anyway wasn't it. Is holding out for delayed gratification worth the trouble? On a larger scale, this lack of patience occasionally seems like a good thing, when I throw myself into things with huge commitment and determination (which lasts about two days before I move on to something else). Still, it gets in the way. I can't watch and wait when I'm running around being busy, constructive and highly effective. See the story of Mary and Martha for more details...

But wait, I object, like the social constructivist that I pretentiously think I am. Surely I'm just a product of my society. Let's face it: we live in a world where such concepts as waiting patiently and seeking something deeper are less than popular. And yet, too many experiences with not-quite-mainstream churches, including everything from the slightly weird to the very disturbing, made me wonder if society's constant search for instant gratification is reflected in today's Church as well. A 'God-lite' approach, what Giles Fraser calls the "entrepreneurial model", the church of a free market society, where congregants want quick answers, quick fixes, quick experiences - all of which can end up feeling just a bit shallow. If God is so easy to to find, is S/He really worth looking for?

Which is why I think that Giles Fraser both has a point and misses the point. People are still seeking, despite the decline of the 'traditional' English church. That's why ultra-modern churches are suddenly doing so well. Yet these black-and-white approaches to spirituality may not go as deep or last as long as they promise. God, however (indeed, if) you imagine or encounter Her, is not a God of quick fixes.

That's why I worked on going a bit deeper this Easter. Well, as deep as a manic depressive with a short attention span and a low boredom threshold can go. And between the brief points where I actually managed that, I even got over a few 'God-lite' moments at my own, fairly evangelical church by remembering that I do not know everything yet. (I'm a post-evangelical Christian. We really, really like to think we've reached enlightenment.)

You see, I think that people are clever enough to realise that, if they're seeking Something, then what they're looking for is not just a quick fix. Even if they don't find what it in the traditional, they'll soon know if they're not finding it in the corporate. Of course, if they are finding it there, great. But I don't share Fraser's sense of doom. After all, God is bigger than us.

Just as well, really.

Here is a related reflection that made me think.

And because I never think of anything first, I've just seen that Maggie Dawn has much more eloquent thoughts than mine on watching, waiting and fulfillment at Easter.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

See this film, then tell no one

The last week was a complete killer, but I have made it to the holidays. Woo! Is what I would be saying if I had the energy. Mostly I am just working up to having breakfast and thinking about leaving the house...

...Which brings me to Rent (it actually does). This is the musical, 'rock opera' if you like to sound ostentatious, that I have been obsessed with since I saw the original Broadway cast in 1997. By co-incidence, The Girl is also a fan of the show - but it's not a big co-incidence, because it's a musical and she does love those. Anyway. The film based on the show came out in the States a few months ago. It was delayed in coming over here, and now it's only around on very limited release. This has angered some fans of the show. But, honestly? I don't mind. I think I'd be somewhat annoyed if 'Rent' got too popular over here. Not only is it quite fun being one of only a small group of people who knows how great it is - but it's also so closely associated with my year in New York, and other times in my life, that it has come to represent important things for me. I don't much want to be sharing it with everyone else in the country.

Having done well in America, the film has had a couple of poor reviews here recently. I know exactly why that is. 'Rent' is a New York show - set in New York, about New York, capturing life and a local sub-culture at a particular moment of New York's history (the late 1990s, regardless of when the film is ostensibly set). That's why the stage show didn't do too well over here, even though it's still sold out on Broadway nearly ten years later - it doesn't transfer out of New York particularly well. By the same token, then, I wasn't sure it would work as a movie. It was also a bit of a worry that Chris Columbus, famous for ruining the first couple of Harry Potter films, was directing it. My concerns were unfounded, though.

'Rent' is an incredible story. It's about people who make the decision, every moment, to live rather than die. When I first saw the stage musical, I got that - from a different perspective from the one in the story, of course, but I got it. The film doesn't lose any of that concept's power. Some plot elements are re-ordered or taken out; some ideas are emphasised more than others; some characters and relationships are developed in slightly different directions from the way they are handled in the stage show. That's no bad thing. This isn't the show; it's an adaptation, and it succeeds as a movie. The actors, most of whom were in the original stage show cast, do an amazing job not only of transferring to different sets and a different kind of acting, but also to telling a subtly different story. Mimi's balcony dance becomes a performance about the character's entire, tragic yet triumphant life, as she dances off the strip club stage, down the city street and in through Roger's window - where he shows her a much less accepting perspective on living one day at a time. Mark looks very alone among all the happy couples at the Life Cafe, although he never seems to notice. Maureen is a shameless flirt who gives Joanne real reasons to doubt her fidelity, turing their relationship from one of comedy into something more thought-provoking that questions whether anyone really appreciates what they've got. 'Without You' becomes a sad contrast between the desperation of Collins, as he nurses Angel, and the stupidity of Mimi and Roger. Perhaps we even see a glimpse of Benny's other, more conflicted side, rather than leaving him just as the stereotypical sell-out villain of the piece. Most memorably for me, when Roger finally makes it out of the apartment, he joins the Life Support meeting in a poignant moment that is suddenly as much about accepting death as it is about living life - pointing out, even more than the show managed to, that the two are closely linked in this world where there's no day but today.

In the process of effectively developing these themes that fly by too briefly on the stage, though, some important plot elements have been lost. Angel's deep effect on all of the friends doesn't seem to resonate through the ending quite as much as it does in the show - which is a shame, because his influence should be at the centre of what happens next. April's choice of death over life isn't clearly shown - which is a problem for Roger's character development, and leaves out some important context for everything else, since it stands out against the affirming decisions made later by the other characters. Maureen's dramatic arrival has a fascinating lead-up in the stage show that is missing here. Setting it in 1989/1990 wasn't a particularly clever move. And there were a few moments where I thought what? and wondered whether the director was pushing his luck a bit.

But overall, it's fantastic. Columbus has brought out the universal relevance of a story that can too easily be dismissed as just being about people with AIDS in the '90s. The choice between living and dying is one that many of us make, maybe more often than even we realise. It could be that this story is not quite as culturally specific and bound to New York City as it first seems. Personally, I think it's about all of us. Just don't tell everyone that.

To people living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease...

No Day But Today

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

When Teachers Give Up and Collapse

I am not unaware that my usual outpouring of self-focused meditations on life, while never exactly prolific, has dwindled to a paltry trickle in recent weeks. Mostly, I blame the college inspection. It has now finished, and we appear to have just about survived it, although I am crawling through this week with the sole aid of many videos.

Good stuff and less good stuff has happened in my absence from the internet. On the more worrying side of things, the draft mental health bill has died a very overdue death, with its worst totalitarian excesses immediately resurrected. (You can't say the government never responds to campaigners. They might have responded by making things twice as bad, but at least they've done something. Um.)

In better news, last weekend I made my quarterly return to Darkest Hampshire and took The Girl with me. There was a dinner with family and everything. On the way back, we stopped at Winchester in the hope of finding a cream tea, what with being Down South. Four Costa Coffees, two Starbucks and a Whittard's later, we concluded that every town centre in Britain is now exactly the same (and with nothing at all for us poor tea-drinking people). We got back on the road and eventually found the perfect cream tea at a garden centre just outside a small village called Kings Worthy, complete with home-made scones, clotted cream, strawberry jam and a round of what has come to be affectionately known as The Suicide Game because of how I feel when I lose. Which is every single time.

Back we go, then, to videos, quizzes and vague essay plans on big green sheets of sugar paper.