Locke (review)

An unconventional film delivers a compelling portrait of a man’s life disintegrating

There is an XKCD comic of charts showing which characters are on screen together over the course of a film. It starts with elaborate designs showing the interactions in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. It ends, however, with 12 Angry Men which unsurprisingly consists of 12 parallel lines. The graph for Locke would potentially be even simpler. The only character who appears on screen is Ivan Locke, a construction manager played by Tom Hardy. The story unfolds through a succession of phone calls he makes while driving down a motorway at night.

I’ve seen it described as a thriller in a number of places. That’s not really the correct label. While it’s certainly suspenseful, the events are more mundane than one associates with a thriller. What it is in effect is the descent of man has built is identity on self-control seeing his life move out of his control.

If you have hesitations on account of the unconventional format, I’d urge you to put them aside. It has a first rate cast including not only Hardy but also Olivia Colman, Ben Daniels, Ruth Wilson and (a very un-Moriarty like) Andrew Scott. That’s combined with a carefully crafted script and complemented by cinematography which amplifies the claustrophobia of the situation and makes you feel Locke’s isolation.

That’s not bad for a film made in little more than a week for less than £2 million.

Verdict: 8/10 – an understated triumph

In a “Christian Country”, Christianity rots

 Calling a country “Christian” will just make its Christians complacent

Steve Bell's If … 21.04.2014

Steve Bell in the Guardian. I was rather taken with the notion of the Treasury as a faith based organisation!

David Cameron has – in the process of promoting the Big Society – argued that Britain is “a Christian Country.” A claim which has earned him a rebuke from a group of notable non-believers. I at least partially share their concerns but my main issue with what the PM said is rather different.

I suspect there is an incongruity he has not appreciated between calling Britain “a Christian Country” and in the same article arguing Christians should be “more evangelical” about their faith and “get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.” I’d suggest that believing oneself to be living in a “Christian Country” would be liable to make a Christian complacent, conformist and consequently less likely to “get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”

In the 19th century, the Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard warned that identifying a political unit with Christianity endangered authentic Christian faith:

Kierkegaard described himself as “a Socrates of Christendom”. The idea of Christendom is rather out-of-date in today’s multicultural western societies, but in the 19th century it was commonly used to signify the “kingdom” of Christian states. However, Kierkegaard uses the term negatively to criticise the idea that being a Christian is simply a matter of being born and brought up in a certain kind of society, and fitting in with its customs, such as being baptised and attending church on Sundays. Just as Socrates challenged the Sophists’ claim to possess knowledge, so Kierkegaard suggests that people who considered themselves to be Christians “as a matter of course” are deceiving themselves. In fact, he argued that it is more truthful to talk of “becoming a Christian” than of “being a Christian”. In other words, Christianity is a task that is never completed – at least not within this lifetime. According to Kierkegaard, the Christian life involves continual striving. From a personal point of view, this means renewing one’s relationship to God repeatedly, at every moment.

There’s not much in the Gospels I can see to suggest that Kierkegaard was wrong. Jesus and the Disciples made no effort to create a Christian nation. Their ministry was amongst an unconverted population living under a hostile state. And the emphasis of their teachings on human imperfections makes me doubt I will see a nation that meets the moral standards Jesus laid down in this life.

Looking to the US does seem to vindicate these concerns. The relationship between American nationalism and religiosity with the Republican Party as its offspring has to alarm anyone who takes Christianity seriously as a humane force. Something has gone very wrong when a religion that teaches charity, peace  and mercy winds up associated with the political movement for gutting safety nets, mass gun ownership and continuing the death penalty.

Calling a country ‘Christian’ is impossibly high praise for something composed of individuals scarred by original sin. The reality is that Christians need to “get out there and make a difference to people’s lives” not because this is a “Christian country” but because it clearly isn’t. As a result there will always be people who need our help.

The man who changed everything

Jesus seems to defy the impotence of individuals in the face of historical forces

As you likely know already, today is Easter Sunday. This is the day when Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. For believers this is the central moment of human history: the moment of humanity’s redemption. However, I would argue that even seen in secular terms Jesus stands out in history.[1]

Generally speaking it is beyond the power of a single individual to profoundly shape history. This is a point made by Michael Gove’s bête noir the historian Richard Evans in the process of explaining why historical what-ifs are a largely futile exercise:

…every historian tries to balance out the elements of chance on the one hand, and larger historical forces (economic, cultural, social, international) on the other, and come to some kind of explanation that makes sense. The problem with counterfactuals is that they almost always treat individual human actors – generals or politicians, in the main – as completely unfettered by these larger forces, able to make decisions without regard to them in any way. And yet this simply isn’t the case, as many a tyrant in history, from Napoleon to Hitler, has found to his cost. To suppose otherwise is to regress into a “great man” view of history that the historical profession abandoned decades ago.

Yet it is hard to see Christianity’s emergence as the pre-ordained outcome of larger historical forces. Yes they had an impact: the unity of the Roman Empire sped up the transmission of new ideas. But from my limited knowledge of Ancient History[2] it does not seem Christianity was filling a vacuum or bringing a situation back to equilibrium. There little reason to think that without Jesus and his teachings that Christianity or something like it would have emerged.

There were religious movements with similarities to Christianity but none of these seem likely to have spread in its absence. Surprisingly given their harsh treatment in the Gospels, the Pharisees bore many theological similarities to Christians. However, even when the destruction of the Temple left them the dominant strain within Judaism it never emulated Christianity’s success amongst gentiles.

As an alternative we could speculate that without the Jesus the rise of a monotheistic religion based on adherence to a holy book would simply have been delayed a few hundred years until Islam’s arrival. But there are reasons to doubt this. For starters, Jesus is a profound influence on Islam – the Qur’an mentions him constantly. So who is to say what Islam would have looked like without Jesus or whether it would have existed at all. And even if it had, by the time of Muhammad the unity of the Roman Empire which had facilitated Christianity’s spread across Europe was gone. It thus seems likely that without Jesus and Christianity, Europe would have stayed pagan for the foreseeable future.

This would have had extraordinary historical implications and not just for the religious history of the lands that eventually became Christian. Our current view about ideas as fundamental to the modern world as capitalism, human rights and science emerged out of an intellectual culture defined by Christianity.

In the light of Evans’ criticisms of counterfactuals, I shall refrain from trying to predict what a world without Jesus would have looked like beyond suggesting that it would have been very different from what exists now. In short, one does not have to be a Christian to see the man we celebrate today as pivotal for human history.


[1] For this article I am assuming that Jesus was indeed a historical figure.

[2] Seriously I don’t know much about this. Correct me if I’m wrong!

What have bunnies got to do with Easter?


Having an opportunity to post a photo of this adorable pair is justification for this post right?

For this Easter day post, I’d been trying to think of something profound to say about the resurrection. Unfortunately, profound insights don’t arrive on cue. So here is instead is what Vox has to say about the origins of the Easter Bunny:

In case you’re unsure — no, there are no Easter Bunny cameos in the Gospels. The first historical references we have to an Easter Bunny dates to the 16th-century German tale of Oschter Haws. According to this legend, a mysterious creature named Oschter Haws, or Easter Hare, visited children while they slept and rewarded them for their good behavior (similar to Santa). The children made nests for these hares, who would then lay colored eggs in them.

The tale was then brought to America when Germans emigrated here in the 1700s. The legend of the Easter Hare continued to grow in America, especially as books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Easter Bunny That Overslept (1957) were published. In 1971, ABC aired a television special called Here Comes Peter Cottontail, which was based on the 1957 book.

But where did Germans get the idea to associate a hare with Easter? The history here is murky. Some people suggest that in antiquity, hares were associated with new life, due to their high fertility rate. Some have theorized that there is a connection between hares and the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre — the goddess from whose name “Easter” may be derived, according to one source.

In a democracy, civil disobedience is not ok

Where there are constitutional means to bring about changes in the law, there is no justification for breaking it to achieve political ends


A few days ago, Green MP Caroline Lucas and a group of co-defendants have been cleared of breaching the Public Order Act during a protest outside an oil exploration plant in Boscombe.

Now I do not want to get into the question of whether or not Ms Lucas and her fellow protestors broke the law.* The judge seems to think that it has not been proved that they did and that’s enough for me.

However, there is a broader issue. There seems to be a view that whether or not Ms Lucas broke the law did not matter because she was doing it to further a political cause. This is a view she herself seems to sympathise with.

I think this is misguided. I would argue that having a political motivation does not excuse law breaking or mitigate it but rather is an aggravating factor. I’ve already quoted this week from a speech by B.R Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, on preserving democracy. In it he was very critical of civil disobedience:

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

Essentially Ambedkar was arguing that while civil disobedience had been justified in resisting the British Raj, now that India had its own democratic constitution efforts to bring about political changes.

We have developed a political and legal system conferring rights and responsibilities on groups and individuals. There are agreed channels through which these can be modified. Just because one holds the strong conviction that a particular activity that say fracking, same sex marriage or whatever is wrong does not entitle one to go outside these. It is the whole purpose of having a constitution to balance different convictions. Restrictions on ones freedom should only imposed in an accountable manner after proper public debate (as happens in the legislative process) not arise from the self-appointed champions of a particular cause. Regardless of whether or not, Caroline Lucas did try and block the entrance to a business going about a lawful activity, she would not have been within her rights to do so. The proper way to stop fracking or any other right is through the exercise of our right to free speech (including the right to peacefully and legally protest) and the deliberations of democratically accountable members of parliament. Anything else is an illiberal and undemocratic attempt to impose one’s views on one’s fellow citizens, their rights or the views of wider society be damned.


*There would also be the question of whether any breach was more than a technical infraction.

Why Jesus had to die


A photo of a nineteenth century Japanese crucifixion illustrates its horror. Note that the victim in this case has been tied rather than nailed to the cross, therefore, the suffering Jesus endured would have been even worse.

A few years ago I was watching a documentary about Milton’s Paradise Lost. It was presented by Armando Iannucci who had been writing a PhD on Milton before he became a comedian. During the program he explained that he had once considered becoming a Catholic Priest but had lost his faith because he couldn’t see why Jesus had to die.

The conventional answer to this question is that ‘he died for our sins.’ The Crucifixion is seen as way for God to forgive humanity for its sins. But that doesn’t really explain the problem. Why doesn’t God just forgive us? Why is the horror of God himself dying on the cross necessary?

And let us not minimise that horror. Crucifixion is a means not only of execution but also torture:

Someone nailed to a crucifix with their arms stretched out on either side could expect to live for no more than 24 hours. Seven-inch nails would be driven through the wrists so that the bones there could support the body’s weight. The nail would sever the median nerve, which not only caused immense pain but would have paralysed the victim’s hands.

The feet were nailed to the upright part of the crucifix, so that the knees were bent at around 45 degrees. To speed death, executioners would often break the legs of their victims to give no chance of using their thigh muscles as support. It was probably unnecessary, as their strength would not have lasted more than a few minutes even if they were unharmed.

Once the legs gave out, the weight would be transferred to the arms, gradually dragging the shoulders from their sockets. The elbows and wrists would follow a few minutes later; by now, the arms would be six or seven inches longer. The victim would have no choice but to bear his weight on his chest. He would immediately have trouble breathing as the weight caused the rib cage to lift up and force him into an almost perpetual state of inhalation.

Suffocation would usually follow…..

Perhaps the most frequently voiced explanation for this suffering is that without it the demands of justice would have gone unmet: there would have been a crime but no punishment. However, for all its prevalence this view makes little sense. How does punishing an innocent person/deity for the sins of others represent any semblance of justice?

My view on this – largely inspired by the fragments of Calvin’s theology which I understand – is that the Crucifixion and Resurrection were not necessary for humanity’s salvation. Rather they were essential if that salvation was to change us during our earthly existence. It dramatised it for us: showing us human that even when we tried to kill God, he not only survived but continued to love us. It is a dramatic example of unconditional love that even if we cannot follow, we must be humbled by.

Nowhere near 93% of communication is non-verbal


On a webpage for HR people entitled “Listen With Your Eyes: Tips for Understanding Nonverbal Communication” there is the following claim:

“One study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by the nonverbal communication.”

This is pretty familiar. If you’ve done training in teaching or public speaking then there’s a good chance you will have heard it. It’s also wrong.

As this post from PsyBlog points out these numbers originate in two studies done in the 1970s by the UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian. However, these studies weren’t of communication in general but of the expression of emotions. And even within these limited parameters, there are good reasons to doubt if the experiments actually predict what would happen outside the lab.

This stands to reason. As Professor Max Atkinson points out in his book Lend Me Your Ears, the 93% rule would have some weird implications:

“If true, for example, it would mean that anyone who is unable to see a speaker’s facial expression, whether they are blind, in the dark, listening to a radio or talking to someone on the telephone, would only be able to understand 45 per cent of what was said to them. It would have made more sense for Shakespeare to have had Mark Anthony say, ‘Lend me your eyes’, and for the same correction to be made to the title of this book. Most absurd of all is the fact that, if only 7 per cent is verbally communicated, there would be no need for anyone ever to learn foreign languages, as we would already be able to understand 93 per cent of any particular one of them without any formal instruction at all.”