The Best Films of 2007

You won’t find 300 or Beowulf here — they’d be on my “worst list” if I made one — so let’s get that out of the way. Nor will you see No Country for Old Men or American Gangster; I liked those but found them terribly overrated. The following scored big with me.

1. Juno. 5 stars. I never thought I’d take to a light comedy like this, let alone award it the top slot. But it’s so arresting and honest in its simplicity, about a teen who contemplates abortion but wants to have the baby and give it to a wealthy couple. Ellen Page is easily the best young actor on the scene these days, and I agree, literally, with every sentence written by Roger Ebert in his review. You can watch the film so many times; there’s none of the cheesy sentimentality that mars most stories like this. And no, it doesn’t glorify teen pregnancy or serve an anti-abortionist agenda. It’s about a particular girl’s choice, clearly established in the film, and how that choice affects others, for better and worse in equal measures.

2. Sunshine. 5 stars. I can’t say enough about this film. It postulates a near future in which the sun is dying, and a crew embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun’s fire. Captain Kaneda’s death is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in any film, and from that early point the mission becomes one calamity after the next. Crew members have to sacrifice themselves, and they even contemplate murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. It soon becomes clear that it’s a suicide mission. On top of all this, there is the terrifying subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. The visuals are stunning.

3. There Will Be Blood. 5 stars. Here’s a well-deserved Oscar for best actor: Daniel Day-Lewis as a ruthless oil man at the turn of the 20th century, who gets tangled up in the town-politics of a fundamentalist church. The narrative and moral scope of this film is amazing — but hardly surprising coming from the director of Magnolia — dealing with the power of charisma, hypocrisy, exploitation (of land and children), and inevitable alienation from society.

4. Bug. 5 stars. This is Friedkin’s raging comeback. After The Exorcist and remake of Twelve Angry Men, he had a lot of passable efforts, but Bug is as psychologically searing as the former and claustrophobic as the latter. It’s about deranged paranoia, and contains some of the most convincing performances I’ve seen in a while. (Yes, Ashley Judd proves she can act for a change.) The narrative crescendo builds and builds until your nerves are screaming, and the sudden horrific ending leaves you wondering what the hell you just watched for the last two hours.

5. Inside. 4 ½ stars. An instant horror classic that gives new meaning to gore. A story about relentless obsession, as a woman traumatized by miscarriage stalks the woman who caused her car accident — and who was also pregnant during the crash but didn’t lose her baby. The stalker has decided the woman owes her that baby, and so invades her house, viciously terrorizing her (and massacring all who come calling) until finally performing a hideous “caesarean section” with a pair of scissors on the stairs.

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6. 3:10 to Yuma. 4 ½ stars. Of all the oldie Westerns to remake, 3:10 to Yuma is an excellent choice. In the 1880s an Arizona rancher (played by Christian Bale) volunteers to escort Ben Wade (played by Russell Crowe) to the town of Contention, where a train will transport Wade to the prison in Yuma. Along the way, Wade is able to kill two of his escorts; another is lost to Indians; yet another falls to people who want to kill Wade out of revenge for past grievances. By the end of the road, Wade and the rancher have formed a strange respect for each other. As the train is about to arrive, Wade’s outlaw group descend on the town to rescue their boss, and even after many viewings I’m always shocked by Wade’s last-minute turn and slaughter of his own gang.

7. Eastern Promises. 4 ½ stars. Like A History of Violence it’s a crime drama starring Viggo Mortenson, but this time less as a superhero and more like a real-life figure out of a Scorsese film. Cronenberg was apparently inspired by watching some old Miami Vice, which like his film, examined the criminal world on its own terms. Come to think of it, the undercover Mortenson does remind of Crockett and Tubbs, living and breathing the mob underworld that he forgets who he is.

8. 30 Days of Night. 4 ½ stars. With lame crowd-pleasers like Blade and Underworld in recent years, I wondered if the vampire would ever be scary again. Leave it to David Slade to dish up this nightmare: a violently barbaric invasion of an Alaskan town during the month when the sun don’t shine. These vamps go for the jugular without any aristocratic fanfare, much like those in Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn. It was perfect timing when this hit the theaters around Halloween.

9. Pontypool. 4 stars. This is about one of the most bizarre and terrifying ideas I’ve come across: a pandemic that spreads literally by word of mouth; a quantum virus (born of “perception”) that has infected the English language (only English), and hearing certain words dissolves your mind and turns you into a cannibal. Seriously, this is one messed up idea: that you obsess language and become so scrambled by it that the only relief you can obtain is by chewing your way through the mouth of someone.

10. Planet Terror/Deathproof. 4 stars. Rodriguez and Tarantino team up in an over-the-top double-feature of gore and raucous mayhem, and it’s the latter’s I especially liked. The first group of women are killed in the death-drive so that we can experience the true horror of this homicidal maniac. The second group are the heroes for whom we constantly fear based on what happened to their predecessors. They turn the tables on this son-of-a-bitch with awesome ingenuity. The image of Zoe Bell clinging for dear life to the top of the car racing at 70 mph is one of those scenes that stays in mind forever.

(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016.)

Jesus and the Romans

I agree with Jim Davila that equating the ancient Romans with the Nazis is over the top, but you don’t need to rely on silly rhetoric to find support for the idea that Jesus was critical of the Roman Empire. I certainly don’t read the Caesar text of Mk 12:13-17/Mt 22:15-22/Lk 20:20-26 like Shmuley Boteach, who thinks it’s an “incredible statement”. Jesus was telling people to throw money back in Caesar’s face (or alternatively, avoid money altogether) as part of the tribulation drama which anticipated God’s imminent triumph. He wasn’t exactly a rebel (he had no reason to be, with God on the way), but neither did he endorse tyranny. As I said here, the “Render to Caesar” saying

“…isn’t a call to pay taxes but to expel the coins from the Jewish land; to give the Romans their money as an act of resistance; or, if you like, to pay taxes ‘with contempt’. By implying that Caesar’s taxes are immoral and illegitimate, but in such a way that his adversaries are ‘unable to trap him’, Jesus has bested his foes while at the same time shaming the Herodians as idolaters who do not give God his due. On top of this, he has manipulated the Pharisees by making them unwitting allies who now look like fools for their contradictory position.”

That’s not such an incredible statement, after all, Mr. Boteach.

Theological Mirage: A New "Answer" to the Book of Job

On the one hand, David Burrell’s new book, Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Human Suffering, is hardly news. We know that God never answered Job’s question. But that’s not the end of it, according to Burrell. While Job’s “theodicy” — if it can even be called that — doesn’t explain why God allows unjust suffering, it directs people to activate their dependence on the creator-God in new ways, thus making possible new sorts of understanding.

As we know, the book of Job was intended as a slamming critique of Deuteronomic theology: the idea that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Job’s “friends” (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) are the straight-men who parrot this covenantal doctrine, in the end rewriting Job’s life-story (God said that Job was completely righteous and blameless (Job 2:3)) by insisting that Job must be wicked after all to be suffering the way he is. Job rightly maintains his innocence and calls on God directly, demanding that the deity appear and tell him his offense.

God does finally appear out of the infamous whirlwind, stonewalling Job with rhetorical questions, essentially saying, “Who the hell do you think you are, Job, for daring to try to make sense of why I do things? I’m the Creator and above reproach!” To which Job concedes and is made right again, his sufferings alleviated. Meanwhile — and this has always amused me to no end — Job’s friends incur God’s wrath (Job 42:7a) for having taken God’s side! It’s obvious that Deuteronomic theology is being critiqued here, but less obvious what is being advocated in its place. What exactly is Job commended for (Job 42:7b) in the end? I always thought it was for admitting that he lacked the perspective to understand God’s grand scheme of things. But Burrell thinks it goes beyond this:

“God cannot be commending Job for ‘getting it right,’ as we might say. For his cumulative outbursts are a far cry from attempts to explain his plight, never pretending to be more than bewildered complaints — despite the ways his ‘friends’ often construed them. What the voice from the whirlwind commends is rather the inherent rightness of Job’s mode of discourse: speaking to rather than about his creator.” (p 109)

That’s a curious idea, and obviously sidesteps the issue, but that’s Burrell’s thesis: that speaking about God gets one nowhere, while speaking to him opens up new possibilities. It may help to cite Burrell’s summary-statement at the end:

“[The book of Job] has little to offer for one who defines theodicy as ‘explaining how there could be evil in God’s world’. For the only ones who attempt to explain Job’s plight are his friends-turned-tormenters. Yet far from concluding that the poem is useless for the issues of undeserved suffering at the hands of a creator-God, we find that it rather directs us to eschew explanation for yet other ways of rendering enigmas intelligible… Job is commended in the end because he dared to address the creator-God; his interlocutors are castigated for purporting to speak knowingly about that One. Speaking about something veers toward explaining, while speaking to someone can engage both in a relationship of exchange open to yet other forms of understanding. Indeed, what is most telling, structurally, in the book of Job is that the creator-God does answer Job’s extended complaints. Yet those looking for an explanation will find themselves scrutinizing what the voice from the whirlwind says, while the dynamic of the unfolding relationship should lead us to what is most startling of all: that God responded to him… Here, theodicy — if we can continue to call it that — does not pretend to offer an explanation. Yet it can direct us to ways of activating that non-reciprocal relation of dependence that defines our very creaturehood, thereby transforming the fact of our existing into an undeserved gift.” (pp 123-125)

This sounds fresh and innovative in the abstract, but let’s consider its application. Are we seriously proposing to Jewish/Christian victims of horrendous suffering that even though God’s actions can’t be explained, such victims can find refuge in speaking to God directly? That things will work out for them if they communicate with (pray to?) God instead of trying to understand him? Is that even what the author of Job originally intended?

I still say there’s really no answer to the book of Job. Yes, it deconstructs theodicy as Burrell claims, but it doesn’t offer anything in its place. Job wasn’t made whole again for having dared to speak to God, but for acknowledging his limited perspective when God finally deigned to speak to him.

Chris Heard Reviews Expelled

Chris Heard saw Expelled and wrote a terrific review. In his view, the film tries supporting four claims and — what a surprise — fails each time:

(1) Expelled claims that a Darwinian academic-media-judicial establishment ruthlessly and systematically suppresses discussion of intelligent design.

(2) Expelled claims that the intelligent design movement offers a legitimate scientific challenge to modern evolutionary theory.

(3) Expelled claims that “Darwinism” leads (almost) inevitably to atheism.

(4) Expelled claims that “Darwinism” devalues human life and, as a result, was a necessary condition for the emergence of Nazi atrocities.

I was particularly amused to learn that the film uses Jonathan Wells while trying to argue (point 2) that ID is actually motivated by science. That’s amusing. But read Chris’ entire review. As so often (but especially in recent weeks), he’s remarkably patient in dealing with nonsense from all quarters.

Expelled

The movie Expelled doesn’t deserve the attention it’s received, but for those who want a sampling of the critical bashing, see Chris Heard’s post. Doug Chaplin also has helpful remarks about the dangers of becoming an unwitting ally of the ID crowd. And check out the whopping 12% approval rating at RottenTomatoes. What a riot — though I’m surprised it’s even that high.

The trailer for this cinematic embarrassment is more than enough for me, thank you.

A Collapsing Christianity: Antonio Jerez vs. Chris Tilling

There’s been some interesting discussion over on Chris Tilling’s blog under the entry, Was Jesus Wrong? (Thanks to Antonio Jerez for the heads-up.) Chris defends his orthodoxy (a Chalcedonian Jesus who was “fully God and fully man”) while acknowledging that Jesus was factually wrong about some things (like his belief in a literal Adam and Eve) but insisting that it’s unfair to judge his savior too harshly from the perspective of evolutionary hindsight.

In comments Antonio Jerez says that Chris is trying “to make a circle into a triangle”, and that because people like Jesus and Paul were wrong about important things — like the way they took the creation myths of Genesis 1-3 literally — “the whole edifice of Christianity collapses”. Christianity, in Antonio’s view, “depends on the historicity of Genesis”.

Antonio’s position is similar to Gerd Ludemann’s in The Resurrection of Christ. Ludemann says that because Jesus was never resurrected, “people can no longer justify calling themselves Christians unless we totally redefine the word” (p 190). He dismisses “vain” attempts to remain Christian while rejecting the idea that Jesus was literally resurrected: (1) the “vain” kerygma approach of Bultmann (the proper object of Christian faith is the proclamation of Christ, regardless of the historicity of said proclamation) (pp 193-195); (2) the “vain” objective vision approach of Grass (pp 195-197); (3) the “vain” metaphorical approach of Kessler (the resurrection was real but non-literal and metaphorical) (pp 197-198); (4) the “vain” replacement of the risen Christ with the historical Jesus (many liberal scholars today) (pp 198-199); (5) the “vain” theological approach of Wright (pp 199-202). All of these, according to Ludemann, are as bad as (6) the “vain” literal approach of fundamentalists and academics like Hartlich and Broer (pp 202-203) which is self-evidently wrong.

I don’t agree with Antonio and Ludemann that Christianity is invalidated by our recognition that early Christians were literally wrong about important things. But let me first emphasize my agreement with Antonio. At one point under Chris’ post he writes:

“Modern christian apologets like NT Wright have tried to trip around the problem… by arguing that no Jew at the time of Jesus would possibly have taken the stories in Genesis and Exodus literally. They were a quite sophisticated bunch, according to Wright. As so often Wright is talking pure hogwash. Why should we expect first-century Jewish peasants to be more sophisticated than modern litteralists like the Pentecostals or the Witnesses of Jehovah. As Dale Allison already showed in his book about Jesus years ago there is absolutely no reason to believe that a majority of Jews 2000 years ago read Genesis with more sophistication than Pentecostals. On the contrary a careful sifting of the evidence shows that Wright is talking nonsense. To see how and why I recommend anybody really interested in the subject reading Edward Adams recent book with the title The Stars Will Fall from Heaven – Cosmic Catastrophe and the World’s End in the New Testament and its World. Adams shows with impeccable clarity and evidence that many second Temple Jews certainly took the language in Genesis quite literally. They also took the apocalyptic imagery about the End time with the heavens and stars falling, the angels coming and the new heaven and earth created by the jewish god in a very straight manner. The worldview of Jesus, Mark, Matthew, Luke and Paul neatly fit with what doesn’t appear to have been an uncommon view among first-century Jews. They were in all imaginable ways children of their time. Of course modern Christians expect the message of Jesus and Paul to be relevant to us moderns in some mysterious way, but I believe that this can only be done by twisting and turning their original apocalyptic message into something totally different (Crossan, Funk et. al ) or by explaining away a thoughtworld that doesn’t fit that easily 2008 (Wright et. al).”

I agree with Antonio here 100%. Conservative apologists (like Wright) who metaphorize away literal meanings are as bad as liberal apologists (like Crossan) who erase those meanings altogether. That’s confessionalism and revisionism — bad history either way. We can metaphorize or ignore whatever we want from a theological point of view, of course, but we can’t project our wishes onto the past. Antonio is right: Jesus and Paul believed in a literal Adam and Eve. They believed the world was literally coming to an end by apocalypse. They were wrong on these accounts, and we need to acknowledge this head-on.

But I don’t think Christianity is thereby made null and void. Why should it depend on the literal truth of this stuff — creation, apocalypse, and/or resurrection? There are many Christians who don’t think so. Dale Allison, for instance:

“From one point of view, Jesus was wrong, because he took apocalyptic language literally and expected a near end. But he wasn’t, from my Christian point of view, wrong in hoping for God to defeat evil, redeem the world, and hold us responsible. I continue to be amazed that we can’t do with the end what we do with the beginning. We have become very sophisticated in our understanding of Genesis as mythology. It still serves us homiletically and theologically even after we’ve given up the literal sense. Why can’t we do the same with eschatology? We can say that the writer of Genesis was mistaken about the beginning of the world — it didn’t take place a few thousand years ago, there was no Garden of Eden, etc — but he wasn’t wrong — God made the world, the world is good, but responsible human beings wreck things. I just want to do this with eschatology. I emphasize Jesus was wrong so that I can get to what he was right about.”

Religions evolve constantly, and people find new (and hopefully better, like the above) ways of coming to terms with their myths. To say that a religion collapses when a primitive understanding of it is given up, or that later followers are unable to improve upon their religious ancestors without betraying them, seems misguided to me. That’s why we need to pay attention to someone like Philip Esler, who asks Christians to honor the biblical authors and their original intent, even when in disagreement, even when we know they were clearly wrong about something. And Esler is a robust Christian — rather traditional in many ways.

So while my sympathies lie with Antonio (and like him, I’m not Christian), I would never push modern Christians to the unreasonable conclusion that because evolution is factual, and an apocalypse will never come, Christianity is without foundation.

Peter Jeffery Replies to Scott Brown

Everyone should take the time to read Peter Jeffery’s Reply to Scott Brown who last fall wrote a 47-page RBL review of Jeffery’s book, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled. I have no idea why RBL refuses to publish this reply — especially given the exceptional space it gave Scott in September — but it’s necessary for those who actually think Scott’s defense of Secret Mark is convincing.

I want to call special attention to the way Jeffery explains a double entendre. After showing that double entendres aren’t exhausted by words and phrases(*), but encompass entire narratives and expositions — thus Secret Mark seems to be against sexual immorality, but is actually an advocate of it — Jeffery explains another key feature:

“One of the key characteristics of extended double entendres is deniability. Much of the humor lies not so much in the double meaning itself, as in the fact that the joker is able to feign propriety by accusing his listeners or readers of having ‘a dirty mind’ — of reading things into the text that are not there. Smith clearly enjoyed doing just that. In every published mention of his most infamous joke, ‘Holy man arrested…naked youth escapes,’ he speculates that unsophisticated ancient and modern readers would perceive this interpretation in Mk 14:46-52, though he himself knows better — as if to distract us from noticing who keeps bringing this up. Nor was this the only passage for which Smith ascribed improbable homosexual interpretations to people less insightful than he. The Corinthians misconstrued a Marcan statement that Smith presumably knew is about kosher food: ‘The teaching that sexual acts are morally indifferent could easily have been derived from Jesus’ reported saying, “There is nothing outside a human being which, by entering, can make the recipient impure.”‘ The Secret Gospel is constructed from such people-will-get-the-wrong-idea passages. (p 12)

That’s right: feigning propriety by projecting onto others one’s dirty mind, thereby diverting attention from who brings up the dirt in the first place. Though as Jeffery notes, of course, “eventually Smith stopped going to the trouble of attributing his bizarre readings to more benighted people, and began stating them as plain fact.” But the point is that the eisegetical readings supposedly engaged by Smith’s detractors are precisely the point. Smith’s project was an open invitation to eisegete, to read it with all the scandalous anachronism he intended.

Jeffery concludes:

“When Morton Smith’s life story is accurately and fairly told, it may well be evident that his feelings of rage were understandable, even amply justified. But the way he chose to express them in his publications was not — as every professor knows who has to teach the principles of academic honesty year after year. I have sat with some extremely psychotic people who wanted me to validate things that were both false and intentionally hurtful; I know how hard it is to acknowledge someone’s pain while refusing to condone his desire to pass it on to others. But that is what we must do. It is tragic that Smith’s long-ago impostures, like antique landmines from a half-forgotten war, are still injuring innocent and well-intentioned scholars. The time has come to break the cycle of hurt, by shelving the Secret Gospel under ‘twentieth century fantasy fiction’ where it belongs.” (p 19)

And again, I would like to know why RBL refuses to publish this response, given the exceptional leeway it gave for Scott’s own 47-page critique of Jeffery (most RBL reviews are 3-5 pages). Is RBL implicitly taking a stand on Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel? I’m not accusing, just seriously wondering.

When the Scott Browns and Ben Witheringtons persist in the face of defeat, it raises embarrassing questions about our academic establishment. It’s one thing to be initially taken in a hoax or forgery, but for professionals to continue walling themselves in denial for sake of individual reputation (no scholar who publicly defends a forgery ever wants to admit he was wrong) ultimately casts a shadow on the reputation of the entire guild. Over the years I’ve talked to coworkers and friends about Secret Mark and the James Ossuary, and in the end the question always presses: “How can we trust our scholars about anything if they can’t even see through this stuff?”

Endnotes

(*) Though Smith certainly used straightforward double entendres too. See here.