There’s a place for guilt

John Newton. A man with much to be guilty about.

Christianity is often accused of making people feel guilty. That may not be a bad thing.

It is sometimes said that ‘Christianity is like a swimming pool, all the noise comes from the shallow end.’ I recognise that assertion is snide and relies on caricatures but it is tough to disagree with. That’s partly the fault of those swimming in the deeper waters. They are often afraid to make a splash.

Liberal Christianity is too often written about solely by authors with a scholarly disposition who are so attuned to nuances that they speak of little else. So I found it refreshing to read Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. Spufford is direct and colourful in his enunciation of why his faith still holds. Here he is talking about the unfashionable topic of guilt:

‘Guilt’… gets a terrible press now: much worse than frothy, frivolous ‘sin.’ Our culture does take it seriously but as a cause of unhappiness in itself, a wanton anxiety-generator. It’s as if if the word ‘groundless’ always slid invisibly into place in our sentences next to it. As if it were always, a false signal, a fuss being made about nothing by somebody who shouldn’t be beating themselves up over playing tiddly-winks on the Sabbath. Once again, our usage assumes a world where we never do anything it would be appropriate to feel bad about. So the old expressions of guilt stop sounding like functional responses to real situations and become evidence of crazy self-hatred. Strike up the New Orleans big band, please:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me….

There! Did you hear that? He just called himself a wretch. He’s beating himself up in public. Sorry, mate: lovely tune, lousy sentiment. Except that ‘wretch’ is actually a very polite word for what John Newton, the eighteenth-century author of ‘Amazing Grace’, was. John Newton was a slave trader. He made his living transporting cargoes of kidnapped human beings, in conditions of great squalor and suffering, to places where they and their children’s children would be treated all their lives as objects to be bought and sold and brutalised. Some of John Newton’s own contemporaries (the ones who weren’t chained below decks in their own shit” may have thought the profession that his profession was only a bit unrespectable ; we, on the other hand, recognise that he was participating in one of the world’s greatest crimes, comparable to the Holocaust. Wretch? John Newton was horrible.

But at least he came to know it. At least he made the journey from comfortable acquiescence in horror to an accurate, and therefore horrified, sense of himself. At least he learned that something was wrong. And ‘Amazing Grace’ is a description of the process by which he began to awaken. The wrinkle is that he wrote it before he gave up slaving. He wrote it under the impression that he had already seen the stuff he should be worrying about – booze and licentiousness, presumably, and playing tiddly-winks on the Sabbath, and not running his slave ship with a swear-box screwed to the mast. In the Holocaust analogy, it’s rather as if a death-camp guard had had a moral crisis, but over cheating his colleagues at poker, and then continued to come to work stoking the ovens, while vowing shakily to be a better person. Yet Newton’s guilt, once found, wouldn’t leave him alone. It went on gradually showing him dark, accurate visions of himself, it went on changing him, until eventually he could not bear the darkness of what he did daily, and gave up the trade, and ended his life as a penitent campaigner against it. At every stage, it had been the same patient guilt that led him on, and so ‘Amazing Grace’, which records his earliest gnawing at him, is unwittingly faithful to the rest of what was coming to him. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear”, he says in the second verse, and what he’s reporting there is his feeling, his amazed feeling, which we probably wouldn’t want to disagree with under the circumstances, that he’d been done a massive undeserved favour by being allowed to become frightened of himself. The night sweats, the uncontrollable memories, the waking to misery, were all in his case a gift, a bounty he couldn’t have earned….There are some human states to which guilty fear is the absolutely appropriate response; on which guilty fear; from which guilty fear is the first step of only available rescue, ‘Amazing Grace’ has been popular for two and a half centuries – has been claimed by millions of hearers and singers as true to their own perspective – because it has been so to speak, tested (unwittingly) at the extremes of what human beings ought to feel guilty about. If there’s room for John Newton to make peace with his terrifying variety of the [human propensity to fuck things up], there’s room for everyone.

This, of course, needs caveating:

However, the fact that some Christians have encouraged people to feel guilty about the wrong things should not discredit guilt itself. As Spufford writes it’s like “whenever  we say guilt the word ‘inappropriate’ is silently inserted before it.”

However, this isn’t really something Christians can blame the secular world for. We have so often talked about guilt as if it’s synonymous with breaking sexual taboos that it’s hardly surprising that the rest of the world assumed that’s what we meant.

Why you should take an interest in Person of Interest

It’s one of the ten most watched shows in the US yet in the UK it languishes in the backwaters of freeview. Here’s why you should seek it out!

So what are we talking about today?

A TV show: Person of Interest.

What kind of show is it?

It blends elements of thrillers, sci-fi and detective shows.

So what’s the story?

After 9/11, the US government looks for a way to prevent it happening again and turn to a reclusive billionaire named Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) to provide a solution. He builds them a massively advanced computer system known as “the Machine.” It harvests virtually all data produced online and feeds them into a massively sophisticated AI to predict terror attacks with near infallible accuracy. The government, aware that such a system would create an outcry if its existence ever became known, decrees that it must remain secret. This creates a dilemma for Finch when he realises that the Machine is also identifying plots to kill individuals. The government won’t help them because doing so would involve revealing where the information was coming from. Finch’s solution is to turn to a former black-ops officer named John Reese (Jim Cavaziel). The show follows their unofficial efforts to thwart these attempted murders.

So this was inspired by stories about NSA snooping then?

You would have thought so but rather remarkably this is a case of life imitating art. The first two series had already aired by the time Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the Prism program. And while the show is on the surface a pretty schlocky procedural, it does do some pretty serious stuff about the surveillance state and big data.

What is more, its topicality doesn’t end with those themes. As the series progresses it becomes clear that the Machine is evolving to be capable of quite a bit more than just predicting crimes. So the show begins exploring the potential consequences of artificial intelligence.

As this is Christopher Nolan week I take it this has some connection to him?

Yep. It was created by his brother, Jonathan, who also wrote the screenplay for the Dark Knight, the Dark Knight Rises and now Interstellar. Arguably as importantly he was the author of a short story which his elder brother adapted into Memento.

So is Person of Interest like a Christopher Nolan film?

Not really. Despite its often grand themes, it’s an awful lot less earnest than the elder Nolan’s films. In fact, at times it verges on being cheesy.  And Person of Interest doesn’t attempt anything like the visual grandiosity of say Inception.

That said you can see Jonathan Nolan taking some of the ideas he introduced in the Dark Knight and developing them in Person of Interest. Most obviously both feature technology for total surveillance and ask if it can be justified. It reuses also the idea of a billionaire deciding to combat crime though in the case of Person of Interest he relies on someone else to do the fighting, shooting and running. And it takes a similar view of the dynamics of vigilantism. Like Batman, Reese becomes an urban legend: “the man in the suit.” And like Bruce Wayne, Reese and Finch are simultaneously hunted and assisted by the police. There’s also comic book like about the way the show builds up a roster of recurring villains.

Why do you like it so much?

This is network TV*at its best. It has serious themes but doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s mostly popcorn telly with occasional deeper moments thrown in. It manages a pleasing blend of tension and humour, and handles both of those elements with alacrity. So the dialogue is as sharp as the fight scenes are crunchy. It also makes use of the ‘case of the week’ format used for mainstream fare like CSI but still builds in the kind of stories which develop over a whole series that one associates with more ambitious fare like Game of Thrones. Which, come to think of it, is a good metaphor for what this show is like!

It’s particularly successful at creating a cast of characters you want to be in the company of.  The interplay between Finch and Reese often resembles something out of a buddy cop movie. There are also plenty of strong supporting players. The most notable are Taraji P. Henson’s driven NYPD detective and Amy Acker’s affably psychotic hacker.

So where can I watch it?

The fourth series is currently airing on CBS in the States. British viewers can see the third one will be 5 USA next year (you can read my griping about that disparity here).

The first two seasons are now also on Netflixs.



*I.e. shows made for mainstream free to air US TV networks. So not Mad Men or the Wire!

Joss Whedon almost directed Batman Begins

So I’ve largely given this week over to posts reflecting my devotion to Christopher Nolan and his films. However, the film which made him a household name was nearly directed by one of my other nerd heroes. The Buffy, Firefly and Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon was also approached to direct Batman Begins.

In a 2008 interview, he reminisced thus:

“Well, I actually did pitch a ‘Batman’ film when [Warner Bros. began developing “Batman Begins”], and it wasn’t what they did but the vibe was very similar,” said Whedon. “Mine was a bit less epic. It was more about the progression of him and it was more in Gotham City. He didn’t go to Tibet and meet cool people, but it was very similar in vibe [to Nolan’s “Batman Begins”].”

After a little prodding, Whedon opened up a bit about his “Batman” idea, even going into detail about what villain he planned on using…or not using.

“In my version, there was actually a new [villain], it wasn’t one of the classics — which is probably why they didn’t use it,” he laughed. “It was more of a ‘Hannibal Lector’ type — he was somebody already in Arkham Asylum that Bruce went and sort of studied with. It was a whole thing — I get very emotional about it, I still love the story. Maybe I’ll get to do it as a comic one day.”

Here’s hoping!

By way of a coda, this was not to be the last brush between this project and the Whedonverse. David Boreanaz (aka Angel) was considered for the part of Bruce Wayne before it eventually went to Christian Bale. I strongly suspect that was for the best.

My personal ranking of all Christopher Nolan’s films

It’s a tricky job because every film from #7 onwards is excellent. But here’s my utterly subjective attempt to rank the master’s work.

*Light spoilers ahead*


#9 The Following (1998)

What’s the story?

An out of work writer seeks inspiration by following strangers. When one of them turns out to be a burglar, things become very complicated.

Why it’s #9?

They say to start as you mean to go on and Nolan did that. He began his first film by making shot of someone putting on a rubber glove into something very eery. But, the rest of the film doesn’t really live up to it.

The elements which makes Nolan’s work distinctive were all there: the visual panache, the twisty non-linear narratives, strong performances, themes of perspective and deception, and bucket loads of originality. However, for me at least they don’t quite gel into a satisfying whole. This feels like a prototype for what would come later rather than a successful project in its own right.

#8 Man of Steel (2013)

What’s the story?

A scientist on the doomed planet of krypton sends his son to earth where he is raised by Kansas farmers. As he grows up it becomes apparent he has superpowers. When as an adult he tries to uncover his origins, he brings earth to the attention of malicious forces from his homeworld.

Why it’s #8

This is a unique entry on this list because Nolan was its producer not its director. The result is that its director Zach Snyder has more of an impact on it. This is to its detriment. I doubt that Nolan would have made such overlong action sequences or written such a contrived plot.

That said, despite what you might hear, it’s still a good film. It has a strong cast (apart from Russell Crowe), some well done visuals and the sense that the action scenes do indeed reflect how nearly indestructible, superstrong aliens would fight. It’s a shame so many people were unprepared to forgive it for not being the Christopher Reeve films.

7# Inception (2010)

What’s the story?

Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team have an unusual approach to corporate espionage: they steal people’s secrets by breaking into their dreams.

Why it’s #7

Having Inception in a relatively low position probably puts me at odds with most Nolan fans. And it’s easy to see why. If you like his work then you’re probably going to be drawn to the film in which his style is the most heightened. The way dreams are realised on screen certainly makes it his most visually impressive work. It also has the best of Hans Zimmer’s many scores for Nolan’s films. However, because non of the characters really engaged me, it is something I wound up admiring more than liking.

6# The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

What’s the story?

A physically and emotionally broken Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has to become Batman again for a final showdown with the League of Shadows.

Why it’s #6

It’s massively entertaining and franchise newcomers Bane (Tom Hardy) and Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) steal the show. However, it lacks its predecessors’ taught storytelling and black humour.

#5 Insomnia (2002)

What’s the story?

An LAPD cop (Al Pacino) is sent to Alaska to help a small town police department solve the murder of teenage girl. But rather than catching the killer (Robin Williams) he finds himself ensnared by him. Oh and it all happens during perpetual daylight.

Why it’s #5

When Williams died I saw a newspaper headline the story with “the man who made us laugh.” Insomnia shows that ‘the man who creeped us out’ would have been equally apt. His manipulative villain is the film’s greatest strength.

It’s also interesting to watch Nolan work with a much more conventional narrative than he normally does and yet still prosper.

#4 The Prestige (2006)

What’s the story?

Two magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) engage in a deadly feud.

Why it’s #4

Illusion is a recurring fascination for Nolan, so magic is natural territory for him. And it shows in the assurance and inventiveness of the Prestige. It also has David Bowie playing Nikola Tesla, which is a treat.

#3 Batman Begins (2005)

What’s the story?

How Bruce Wayne becomes Batman

Why it’s #3

Batman Begins was made in an era before it was a truth universally acknowledged that any financially successful franchise must be in want of a reboot. It must have seemed likely that Tim Burton’s Batman films were going to remain the definitive ones and that they would overshadow the work of a little known British director of cerebral indie films. In reality it was Nolan who eclipsed Burton.

This dark yet entertaining revival of the mythology was a huge success and made Nolan into a Holywood powerhouse.

#2 Memento (2000)

What’s the story?

A private investigator (Guy Ritchie) is the victim of a home invasion which leaves him brain damaged and his wife dead. His injuries leave him with no short term memory. Despite this he sets out to track down his wife’s killers.

Why it’s #2?

Because it’s so clever. The intricacy of the plotting must rival that of a Swiss watch. Yet – in contrast to Inception – it never feels self-consciously labyrinthine. It also has an effective human element running through it: as the mystery unravels that also reveals to us the extent of the tragedy we are watching.

#1 The Dark Knight (2008)

What’s the story?

Batman and the Joker (Heath Ledger) battle for the soul of Gotham.

Why it’s #1

I kept changing my mind about whether this or Memento should be top. It’s tough as they are both near flawless.

In the end I plumped for the Dark Knight because it is a more grandiose endeavour and had found a broader appeal. As a corollary of these reasons, it also had a greater cultural appeal. It’s also way more fun. It might be…well…dark but it still has some of the best action sequences ever put to celluloid. And one can’t ignore Heath Ledger’s Oscar Winning evocation of the Joker: a man with a reptilian demeanour who combines mania with almost superhumanly fiendesh plotting. Its success owes as much to the Nolan brothers writing as it does Ledger’s acting.

If I could only take a single film onto a desert island then it would very likely be the Dark Knight.

Out of office message: I’m off to Vietnam

Just a quick post to let you my dear readers know that I’m currently on my way to Vietnam. I suspect that there’ll be plenty I’ll want to blog about once I get to Hanoi. However, the move and my teacher training course (which is reportedly rather intense) are likely to keep me rather busy. So apologises, if my posting is not as regular as it has been.

I’ve already written the remainder of Christopher Nolan week and by the magic of WordPress’ schedule function those posts should appear over the next few days.

Wish me luck!


Coming up on Matter of Facts: Christopher Nolan week

Dark Knight Rises

As Christopher Nolan‘s latest film Interstellar is being released so this week on Matter of Facts will be largely given over to posts of me being a fanboy. And I’m sure a fair part of my real life will be devoted to finding a cinema where I can watch it in Hanoi.

As he’s my favourite director I’ve already written some Nolan related posts:


A tribute to Stuart McCready



When a young person dies it is common to say that “they were taken too early.” Stuart McCready may no longer have been young but the wretched news of his passing nonetheless still comes far too early.

Stuart’s time as a Liberal Democrat Councillor roughly coincided with my own. We both joined Oxford City Council in 2008 and stood down from it earlier this year. I had the pleasure of working closely with him when he was group secretary and I was first deputy leader and then chair of our group.

And it was a pleasure. Stuart had an unusually congenial temperament for a local politician. Collectively we are characterised by big egos chaffing against the modest horizons of our roles. But Stuart was an exception. He delivered what he promised with a minimum of fuss and consistent good humour. I tend to think of him as being rather taciturn but he wasn’t shy. Rather it was that – in another departure from the norm for councillors – he wasn’t going to insist on having his say, instead deciding when to speak by the admirable metric of whether he had something constructive to add. He also exhibited that sure fire sign of intelligence and personal security: being willing to volunteer that he did not understand something and asking if it could be explained more clearly.

Unsurprisingly, Stuart was well liked well beyond the Liberal Democrats. In his autobiography, Colin Powell opined that to (paraphrase) a politician who is not pissing off at least some people is not doing their job properly. General Powell clearly never met Stuart. As a councillor, Stuart had clear goals he was pursuing, both around helping his constituents in Summertown and improving the Council’s housing policy. But he pursued them with such consistent amiability and honesty that I strongly doubt he made a single enemy doing so.

Farewell Stuart, you were one of the good guys.