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The next few months will see a significant change in my work. After almost eighteen years of working with Damaris, I will be finishing at the end of July. The decision to leave is the culmination of a very long process of reflecting on my gifts and passions and a growing sense that I need to focus primarily on various areas of my work which lie outside Damaris. Or at least, outside of Damaris UK.

One of these areas is developing strategy and resources for engaging with the media within the Lausanne Movement, with which I have been involved for some time. The Lausanne Senior Associate for Media Engagement is Lars Dahle, who heads up Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communications in Norway where I go to teach each year. He is keen for me to be able to give some time to developing the network which came out of our Global Consultation on Media and the Gospel last year, and producing resources to help the global church engage with media more effectively. We are exploring the possibility of me becoming a team member of Damaris Norway for 50% of my time, to provide a framework for the Lausanne work. This would include doing some more teaching in Norway – but we’re not planning to move there!

I have always been involved in a number of things outside of Damaris UK; these would continue in the other 50% of my time. This would include my speaking engagements. In the last year I’ve spoken at the Keswick Convention, the IFES Graduates Network Bible & Culture course, Word Alive, UCCF staff conference and team days, the School of Missional Disciple-making at Above Bar Church, L,’Abri, and a number of churches. New opportunities for speaking also seem to be opening up. As I write this, an invitation to speak at a university mission has just arrived. The other 50% of my time would also include time to write, which has been squeezed out in the last few years, and I would hope to continue investing a decent amount of time in church.

I am very grateful for the support, advice, and encouragement of my trustees (Peter and Fiona Hudd, Valerie Sewell, and Roger Eldridge) through this long process, as well as a few other wise friends. It is good to know that Nick and Carol Pollard are very supportive of this change, having encouraged me in my Lausanne involvement (we were involved in the Cape Town Congress together in 2010, along with Lars and his wife Margunn).

We would very much value your prayers for this new phase of life and ministry:

  • for my last ten weeks at Damaris (I’m away speaking for two of those weeks – at Bible and Culture in Berlin, 6–11 July, and at the Keswick Convention, 27–31 July)

  • for us to make right decisions about whether or not Damaris Norway provides the best framework for 50% of my time

  • for planning and prioritising of the Lausanne work, and balancing of all the different elements of my work

  • for me to protect my writing time and use it well

  • for our support levels – as with my work with Damaris UK, I will not be paid for the work with Lausanne or Damaris Norway (though I am paid for any teaching I do). We have lost some supporters over the years, of course, but Jane’s employment as Head of Children’s Work at Above Bar Church has balanced this out; we expect to have increased travel costs with the Lausanne work

  • above all, for the Lord Jesus Christ to be glorified in what I do, and that his kingdom would grow through it

If you would like to know more, please ask me. I will write something more detailed for my website in the next couple of weeks. I will also start sending out a monthly email of news and information for prayer from September. If you would like to receive it, please let me know, or sign up using the form on the right of this page.

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Richard Curtis is almost an icon of British romantic comedy, thanks to Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Love Actually (2003). About Time is very much a comedy in the Curtis style, and love is the central ingredient, but ultimately it is not so much about romantic love, as the love between a father and son. It is only about time in that the days, months and years we have are valued for how we express and experience love during them.

When Tim Lake (Domnhall Gleeson) turns 21, his father (Bill Nighy) lets him in on a strange family secret: the men are able to travel in time. By simply stepping into a dark place, clenching their fists, and concentrating, they can return to a chosen moment in their own past. He warns Tim of the dangers of using this power unwisely (time-travelling to get rich, for example, is asking for trouble: Tim’s dad has ‘never met a genuinely happy rich man’), and urges him to think about what he really wants from life. For him, it has been all about books, creating time to read ‘everything a man could wish to — twice’. Right from the start, Tim knows that there is one overriding goal: ‘For me, it was always going to be about love.’

First, Tim sets about correcting a moment of awkwardness with a girl at a New Year’s Eve party: he could only bring himself to shake her hand, rather than kiss her, at the stroke of midnight, and he had been acutely embarrassed. By stepping back in time, he could practice his social skills until he was able to kiss with confidence. Over the summer, a friend of Tim’s sister, ‘Kit Kat’ (Lydia Wilson), is staying with the Lakes in their rambling seaside home. Tim is instantly smitten with the beautiful Charlotte (Margot Robbie), and replays a number of moments with her in an attempt to make the path of love run smooth. However hard he tries, though, he never succeeds in seducing her, and he learns ‘big lesson number 1: All the time travel in the world can’t make someone love you.’

Tim moves to London where he encounters Mary (Rachel McAdams) and falls hopelessly in love with her. He quickly discovers that time travel creates its own problems: going back in time to avert a crisis for his cantankerous landlord, Harry (Tom Hollander), results in him not meeting Mary. Tim is determined not to let her slip through his fingers, but it takes considerable effort to engineer a new way of meeting her. Eventually, he succeeds in inviting her back to his flat — a remarkably ill-judged scene of Tim replaying their first time of having sex together over and over until his sexual performance is good enough.1

As Tim and Mary settle down, get married and start a family, he constantly uses his time-travelling abilities to make their little world a better place. But he discovers that he can’t account for everything, and reflects that, ‘The real troubles in life will always be the things that never cross your worried mind.’ When Kit Kat is struggling with major issues, Tim wants to fix her, but no amount of time travel will allow him to change who someone is, and every journey into the past has consequences for the life which he values dearly. He realises that he cannot return to a time before the birth of his baby without it resulting in a different child being born. All the days leading up to that point are lost for Tim, just as they are for everybody else.

The relationship between Tim and his father is the emotional centre of About Time. However much Tim loves Mary, his love for his dad forms the fulcrum for his life. So when his father is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he is devastated. He wants to know what bit of history could be rewritten in order to avoid this, so his father has to disabuse him of the belief that time travel can resolve every problem: ‘I never said we could fix things. I specifically never said that. Life’s a mixed bag, no matter who you are. Look at Jesus: he was the Son of God and look how that turned out.’

This is Tim’s defining moment, as he realises that, even for a time traveller, life is transient — sometimes heartbreakingly so. His father tell him his secret formula for happiness, based on the realisation that our most precious recollections are not often momentous, life-changing events, but rather the ordinary moments of love and joy in ordinary days. Part one of the plan is to, ‘just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day like anyone else.’ Part two is to ‘live every day again, almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time noticing.’ It becomes an immensely fulfilling strategy. The soundtrack at this point is Ron Sexsmith’s ‘Gold In Them Hills’:

I know it doesn’t seem that way
But maybe it’s the perfect day
Even though the bills are piling
Maybe Lady Luck ain’t smiling

But if we only open our eyes
We’d see the blessings in disguise
That all the rain clouds are fountains
Though our troubles seem like mountains 2

Tim’s final lesson from travelling in time came from ceasing to do so altogether:

I just try to live every day as if I’d deliberately come back to this one day — to enjoy it as if it was the full, final day of my extraordinary ordinary life. We’re all travelling through time together, every day of our lives. All we can do is our best, to relish this remarkable ride.

This is a wonderfully heart-warming attitude to life, and the delightful portrayal of the love between Tim and his father makes us want to live with this same degree of intentionality. One would need to be a very cynical viewer not to be somewhat moved by the prospect of finding beauty, joy and love in the ordinary moments of life, lifting the daily grind to an experience of near-transcendent delight. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes also suggests that we should value what we have while we have it:

Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne! Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless days of life that God has given you under the sun. The wife God gives you is your reward for all your earthly toil. Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:7–10)

Curtis is often criticised for his almost unrelentingly positive spin on life in his comedies: everybody is fundamentally nice, and despite some pain along the way, things turn out well. Peter Bradshaw concludes his review of About Time by saying that, ‘Curtis is a director who likes his spoonful of sugar, and isn’t shy of breaking out Arvo Pärt on the soundtrack to make sure we recognise the sad bits. . . . You’ll need a sweet tooth for this film, but it’s heartfelt, with a fragile sort of sincerity.3 When Laurie Taylor interviewed him, he asked about what Curtis once referred to as a critical fallacy’ — ‘the prevalent cultural idea that anything that is harsh or violent is inherently true to life, whereas anything that is warm and positive is inherently false.’4 Curtis replied:

I really do believe that there is a tremendous amount of optimism, goodness and love in the world and that it is under-represented. But if you do feel it and experience it then you should write about it. The dark side is always dominant. What is the nastiest thing that has happened to me? What is the worst thing I can imagine happening to me? What were the worst three days of my life? Ah. I shall write about that. It is a sort of sentimental conspiracy about violence.

The question which this value-every-moment approach to life raises, though, is whether or not it is adequate. Is it enough to simply see the beauty all around us, to brighten people’s day with a smile, to be consistently kind? These are, without question, things which we would all benefit from making part of our daily lives. Although Curtis is right that there is ‘a tremendous amount of optimism, goodness and love in the world’, it is also true that we encounter pessimism, self-centredness, and unkindness. There is beauty all around us, but there is ugliness too. The problem is that the ugliness and brokenness of the world is found in every human heart, just as goodness and love is. This is the Bible’s view of human beings: we are wonderful because we’re made in God’s image, yet terrible because we’ve rejected him and his rule in our lives.5 Tim may have had a unique opportunity to train himself in living positively, but the unrelentingly decent Tim is as much a fiction as the time-travelling Tim. A real Tim would not be able to sustain it constantly because he could not root out from within his heart the basic instinct to prioritise his own interests ahead of those of other people. He could suppress it much of the time, but he would be fighting a constant battle within himself.6

Richard Curtis rejects this biblical understanding of human beings because he completely rejects the idea of God. This does not make him a bad man; he is clearly a very good one, and is rightly acclaimed for his extremely hard work for charity. But he must be as aware as anyone else of how imperfect he is, and of how he falls short of even his own standards. The writer of Ecclesiastes may urge us to enjoy what we have while we may, but it also says that we will not really make sense of life until we recognise our creator:

Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honour him in your youth before you grow old and say, ‘Life is not pleasant anymore.’ Remember him before the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to your old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken your sky. (Ecclesiastes 12:1–2)

God has only given us one life, one set of ordinary days, in which to choose our path. We can live without him and attempt to overcome the darkness all by ourselves, or we can accept his offer of redemption through the death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ, and experience both forgiveness for our failures and a new inner dynamic for appreciating the world’s beauty and showing self-sacrificing love to others.


  1. For a very strong critique of this scene, see Ryan Gilbey, ‘The Sexual Misdemeanour That Casts a Long Shadow Over Richard Curtis’s About Time‘, New Statesman, 29 August 2013. 
  2. See 
  3. Peter Bradshaw, ‘About Time — Review‘, The Guardian, 5 September 2013. 
  4. Laurie Taylor, ‘Laurie Taylor’s Interviews: Charity Balls: Laurie Taylor Interviews Richard Curtis‘, Rationalist Association, 29 June 2007. 
  5. See Genesis 1:26–28; 3:1–19. 
  6. Compare with Romans 7:15–25. 

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Film & Bible Blog Article

The Past Comes Flooding Back

The SeaImage © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.

Art historian Max (Ciarán Hinds) is grieving after the recent loss of his wife, Anna (Sinéad Cusack), to cancer. Against the advice of his daughter Clare (Ruth Bradley), he goes to stay in a boarding house on the Wexford coast for a time while he tries to make progress on a book he has been struggling to write. It’s a place full of both joyful and painful memories of a childhood summer, and Max seems to think that revisiting them will help him process the bittersweet memories of his wife. Clare is sure that it’s a ridiculous idea because ‘The past is the past.’ The Cedars boarding house is run by Miss Vavasour (Charlotte Rampling) and has just one other resident, the elderly Colonel Blunden (Karl Johnson) who quickly gets on Max’s brittle nerves. Like Max, Miss Vavasour also has a connection to that fateful summer of five decades previously, and clearly knew the Grace family who owned the house.

A series of flashbacks replay moments in Max and Anna’s marriage and her final months after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Anna, a photographer, and Max had quite different personalities, but the tensions in their marriage are more hinted at than spelt out clearly. Anna had a much brighter, more open disposition than Max. While he was preoccupied with writing about artists, she was one. While he investigated the past, she was busy capturing the present. While he was brooding about the exact nature of her relationship with another man, she was just getting on with enjoying herself. Nevertheless, the love between them was real, and Max has a very hard time watching Anna’s health failing. Fine performances by Hinds and Cusack make these scenes the most emotionally powerful of the film.

Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.

As he returns to locations where he first encountered the Graces, the more distant past comes flooding back. A second series of flashbacks reveal how intoxicated he was by the family from the moment he first saw them on the beach. Carlo (Rufus Sewell) and Connie (Natascha McElhone), and their children, Chloë (Missy Keating) and her mute twin brother Myles (Padhraigh Parkinson), were different from his own family in almost every way. While his family was restrained, conventional and not well off, the Graces were exuberant, bohemian and affluent. As he fell under their spell, he became infatuated with Connie and then with Chloë before becoming aware of some disturbing currents under the surface, which have tragic consequences.

Ciarán Hinds describes Max as ‘a man discombobulated or unbalanced, living with grief and confused as to what he can do and how he should deal with it. He’s not very good at dealing with it.’1 Grief is, of course, an immensely powerful, sometimes crippling, emotion which can knock anyone off balance. It is very often a dreadfully isolating experience. As Ella Wheeler Wilcox famously wrote, ‘Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.’2 It can be particularly lonely for someone who has lost a spouse after many years of sharing life together; suddenly it seems impossible to share those experiences with anyone else. Banville says:

It’s such a strange thing (death) we’re all here and suddenly one of us is gone, it’s a strange and disruptive occurrence. He obviously still loves his wife and she loves him in that strange way that people do that have been married for decades.3

Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.

It is entirely understandable that Max should feel lost and alone, surrounded by things that bring back so many memories. Some time away from it all could seem very attractive, but Max evidently fails to allow for two very significant factors. The first is that he has a daughter who loves him, who is herself grieving and who both needs the support of her father and who needs to give her support to him. Grief may often make people isolated, but it should not: it is something that should be shared. Wilcox’s famous line is not a prescription, but a sad observation: people can struggle to know how to help a grieving person so they keep their distance. But family and close friends are experiencing grief themselves, and one of the best things they can do is share it, weeping together, laughing about the good times, being together, valuing each other. But Max abandons her because he is so self-absorbed. Judging from the flashbacks to his time with Anna, he has been for a very long time. John Banville says, ‘When we’re children, we’re locked inside ourselves. We’re totally self-centred.’ But Max still is. In a very important sense, he has not really grown up.

The second factor that Max fails to allow for is that going somewhere full of memories will make him more, not less, mindful of the past. Living in the past is clearly a tendency for Max anyway — he is an art historian (though whether that is a cause or a symptom is less obvious). Soon after he arrives at The Cedars, Miss Vavasour asks him why he has come back. He supposes that it is to escape, but she observes, ‘Fleeing one sadness by revisiting the scene of an old one. Doesn’t work.’ She is quite right, as Max soon discovers. He cannot leave his grief behind in Dublin, for he carries it within himself. And if he thinks that it will be easier to be away from a place that is full of memories of Anna, he has forgotten that memories can be prompted by the smallest of things, which superficially appear unrelated. Back in a place of happy memories of a fun-loving family, he is reminded that his marriage to a fun-loving wife had its tensions; in a place where he was first confronted with the horror of death, he cannot help but think about Anna’s premature departure from the world. Max increasingly flounders as the currents of his recollections sweep over him, and he soon sinks deeper into drunkenness and despair.

Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.

Nevertheless, returning to the scene of intense childhood joys and pains does do something for him. Producer Luc Roeg says, ‘The Sea is a film about a man who reaches a point in his life when he has to go back and discover a time in his past that reveals himself. . . . It’s the unfolding of those events that unlock his present.’ They do so because Max finds himself compelled to re-examine the events of that far-off summer, perhaps for the first time as an adult. As he looks back, he sees that he was not the only self-centred person on the beach; the Graces may have enfolded him into their midst, but they were each intent on fulfilling their own desires and agendas, without a great deal of thought to others. It is not clear whether or not Max had carried some sense of guilt for the tragedy that unfolded, but as he calls to mind the turbulent relationships within the Grace family, and with the children’s nanny, Rose (Bonnie Wright), he eventually realises that he was essentially an onlooker: there were already strong currents at work. The memories remain powerful and painful, but there was little, if anything, he could have done.

That is even more true in relation to Anna. At home in their kitchen after hearing the gloomy prognosis, Max expressed the wish that he could do something. Anna reacted scornfully: not only was there nothing to be done, but in her mind, Max was not someone who does things, but constantly operated in a passive, reactive mode. He is well aware of his failures and weaknesses, but when he reconsiders the two tragedies which have blighted his life, he finally accepts that they were not his fault. Shortly before he leaves The Cedars, he discusses the grieving process with Miss Vavasour. ‘You learn that the march of time is relentless,’ she says. ‘That helps.’ Things happen — sometimes within our control and sometimes not — and the world moves on regardless. Living in the past doesn’t help; eventually, in some way or other, one must continue on.

The most fundamental problem for Max, though, is that he is a man grieving without hope. God is notably absent from this film. That is not at all to say that God should be present in every film, but the experience of death is one of those times in life when many people reflect on spiritual matters — even those who never give God a moment’s thought in less painful times. So the fact that neither Max nor Anna even bring the subject up is revealing — perhaps all the more because the setting is Ireland where religion remains a significant aspect of the culture. Max’s silence on the matter suggests that he has a thoroughly naturalistic view of human nature: we are born, if we are lucky we love for a time, we die, and that’s the end. Like sandcastles on the beach, we will all be swept away, leaving no lasting trace and finally forgotten.

Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.

The Bible recognises the apparent futility of our brief lives:

Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. (Ecclesiastes 3:19–20, NIV)

While the book of Ecclesiastes explores in depth the apparent meaninglessness of a human life, the writer is driving home that the meaning of life is not found within the material world. He emphasises that we should enjoy it while we can, but the real meaning will only be found by factoring in our creator while we still can:

Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honour him in your youth before you grow old and say, ‘Life is not pleasant anymore.’ Remember him before the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to your old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken your sky. (Ecclesiastes 12:1–2)

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ claims that it is possible to have a hopeful attitude even to death by virtue of his own death and resurrection, because that is what opens up for us the possibility of eternal life: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die’ (John 11:25). This wonderful possibility is not part of Max’s thinking, nor was it part of Anna’s, so he is left ‘without God and without hope’ (Ephesians 2:12). All he can do, then, is to continue on with time’s relentless march, finding what comfort and pleasure where he can until his sandcastle, too, is swept away. With no real hope for the future, perhaps living in the past is the best he can do.


  1. Unattributed quotations, which are not from the film, are taken from The Sea production notes
  2. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘The Way Of The World’ (1983). 
  3. Richard Purden, ‘Interview: John Banville Talks The Sea, Writing & BBC Series Quirke‘, Irish Post, 10 August 2013. 

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Easter Cross - - 287067
Image by Les McClean, used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0) licence

John Dickson, one of the founders of the excellent Centre for Public Christianity in Australia, wrote a rather good list of tips for atheists. It has a lovely combination of provocativeness and humility. Dickson says that Christianity has had a big head start over atheism so he offers these tips ‘in the interests of a more robust debate this Easter’, pointing out fundamental flaws in common atheist arguments as well as admitting to some potential vulnerabilities in the Christian argument. Number 8 – ‘Persuasion involves three factors’ – is particularly interesting to me in the light of Peter S. Williams’s material on ‘apologetics in 3D’.

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Digital missions

17 April 2014 — Leave a comment

Phil Cooke says, ‘I believe it’s time to shift from primarily thinking about missions in terms of geographical boundaries, and start thinking in terms of digital boundaries. What do you think? From my perspective, that’s a massive country just waiting to hear our message.’

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The media (including the arts) play a
dominant role in western society. This
article argues that Christians should
engage with them positively, since they are
the product of God’s image-bearers, yet
critically, since they are also the
expression of human fallenness. Focusing
particularly on film and literature, this
article briefly considers media and the
arts in relation to the transcendental
values of beauty, truth, and goodness. It
sets out five aspects of a holistic response,
taking account of the aesthetic, emotional,
worldview, moral and spiritual aspects.

Continue Reading...

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This is the last in a series of six posts, which was first published as an article in Anvil journal, Volume 28 No 3 (November 2012), and is published here by kind permission of the editor.

Two more aspects of responding to film and literature

4. Morality

Image from iStockPhoto.comImage from

We have considered the moral dimension of the underlying worldviews, but it is also worth reflecting on the morality of the book or film as a whole, relating back to my earlier comments about beauty, truth and goodness. Is this a work of art which has integrity? Is it being honest about life? The morality within a book may be reprehensible, but does the work as a whole reveal the writer’s moral stance towards that behaviour? Is this behaviour which is shown to be reprehensible, or is it being celebrated? There is much more to say about this, which will need to wait for another post.

5. Spirituality

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Since we are God’s image-bearers, it’s no surprise that explicitly spiritual or religious themes keep surfacing in the arts and media. Malick’s The Tree of Life is a stunning, though enigmatic, reflection on the book of Job, exploring suffering and grace.1 That film is unusual in the way it has Christian theology right at its heart, but it’s far from alone. In the last few years we’ve had films like Gran Torino,2 with a powerful theme of redemption, and The Blind Side,3 an inspiring true story of Christian compassion for the disadvantaged. More often, Christian belief is relativised or straightforwardly attacked. Examples abound: The Invention of Lying_4 and, more recently, _Prometheus_5 spring to mind in the film world. In the world of literature (as well as the obvious contributions from the New Atheists), there have been books like Kevin Brooks’s _Killing God,6 and Philip Pullman’s controversial The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.7 But spiritual and religious themes go well beyond whether the film or book is pro- or anti-Christian, as in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen_8 or _Life of Pi,9 both of which are based on best-selling novels that explore questions of spirituality.

But the spiritual aspect of responding to art and media is not simply whether or not explicitly spiritual or religious ideas are present. It’s also about what the book or film is suggesting about the right way to live, or about the ultimate goal of life. This relates closely to the fifth of the worldview dimensions — what is it we really need above all else?

Another way of thinking about this aspect is to ask, what deep longings of the human heart are being expressed here? Is it the pursuit of happiness? A craving for freedom? Is it a yearning for love, or a desperate search for purpose and meaning? All these are good things — part of being made in God’s image — but all of them can be idols. The longing for these things is a pale reflection of the longing for God himself. They are expressions of Lewis’s Sehnsucht. The tragedy is that so few people ever realise it. Which is why we need to help them.


  1. See my article on it: ‘He Will Wipe Every Tear — Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life‘. 
  2. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, Warner Bros., 2009) 
  3. Blind Side, The (John Lee Hancock, Warner Bros., 2010) 
  4. The Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais and Matthew
    Robinson, Universal Pictures, 2009). 
  5. Prometheus (Ridley Scott, Twentieth Century Fox, 2012) 
  6. Kevin Brooks, Killing God (Puffin, 2009). 
  7. Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate, 2010). 
  8. Paul Torday, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007)
    Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lasse Hallström, Lionsgate,
  9. Yann Martell, Life of Pi (Canongate, 2002); Life of Pi (Ang Lee, Twentieth Century Fox, 2012). 

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This is the fifth in a series of six posts, which was first published as an article in Anvil journal, Volume 28 No 3 (November 2012), and is published here by kind permission of the editor.

Celebrate the good1

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If the ideas actually make sense, we need to acknowledge that fact, even if we profoundly disagree with them. A coherent worldview deserves to be treated with respect. We need to engage with it critically but positively. We need to take seriously an approach to life that works, because others around us will be taking it seriously. And where a film or a worldview is a true reflection of reality, we need to acknowledge the fact. To do otherwise has two serious consequences. First, if other people perceive us to be continually disparaging, attacking or ridiculing ideas which seem to them to be true, they will soon hold Christians in contempt. Second, as Nick Pollard points out:

Whether we like it or not, other worldviews contain truth. If we reject them totally, we shall find that, as well as rejecting error, we are also rejecting truth. And if we reject truth, we push ourselves into error.2

Paul tells us to ‘Fix [our] thoughts on what is true and honourable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4:8 ,NLT). William Romanowski says that Christians,

. . . often employ this passage to defend whatever appears nice, heart-warming, and comforting over what is true, right and excellent. This has contributed to a preference within the church for popular art that is sentimental and melodramatic.3

He points out that the Bible includes accounts of ‘the most heinous, violent, and immoral behaviour’.4 yet it surely meets Paul’s criteria. Romanowski continues:

The advice to the Philippians suggests an attitude and way of looking at things; in short, a perspective. . . . The virtues listed in Philippians are meant to serve as a guide for Christian discernment. This passage should be used not so much to limit artistic engagement but to open the whole world up to Christian treatment and evaluation.’5

Thinking about what is true means recognising the grim reality of our fallen nature — ‘the waste and ugliness of war and injustice, the depths of human despair, the chaos and confusion of life’6 — as much as valuing integrity, compassion, and other Christian virtues. If a book has integrity in the way it highlights aspects of human fallenness (whether or not the writer understands things in this way), we should commend it. Thinking about ‘things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ means that we should applaud a work’s emotional honesty and artistic excellence. In fact, Peter Fraser and Vernon Edwin Neal write concerning films:

Our first concern should be cinematic and dramatic excellence. Regardless of the message of the individual film, Christians ought to be the first to recognize and praise a film’s artistry. All beauty reflects God’s beauty, whether it is understood to be from the Creator or not.7

In short, we are looking for anything which reflects the likeness of God: truth, insight into the nature of things and a right sensitivity to the difficulties, dilemmas and tensions of life. We are also looking for evidence of the longing for God which is innate in every human being. We were created to know him and worship him, and if we cannot do so we express that urge in many other ways. Our longings for happiness, love, freedom, fulfilment and peace are really expressions of our deeper longing for God.

Challenge the bad

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We must not, however, become so concerned to be positive that we neglect to point out those things which fall short of truth and excellence. There is strong pressure within Western culture not to disagree with someone’s beliefs or values — not to be judging someone. But to sweep disagreement under the carpet is not intellectually honest. It fails to treat the other view with respect because it refuses to engage with it in any meaningful way. Every worldview is reduced to a supposed lowest common denominator which fails to do justice to any of them. If I disagree with someone, the respectful response is neither to deride their worldview, nor to diminish it. Rather it is to enter into dialogue so that I understand it more fully, attempting to see it from their point of view, so that we can both see exactly how and why we think differently.

It is important to remember that it is much easier to disagree with the worldview of a film than with a person. We all, consciously or otherwise, sit in judgment on every movie we see, and on the characters within it. Learning to challenge a lack of artistic excellence and integrity, or the values and ideas expressed within a film, can be something which opens up stimulating debate — especially when we are being positive about other things rather than expressing a knee-jerk response.

So we are also looking for error, for examples of human blindness and of people looking for the right things in the wrong direction. We are looking for those God-substitutes which people chase when they cannot or will not pursue a relationship with the Creator himself. We are looking for ways in which our rebellion against God is expressed consciously and unconsciously.

This process of engaging with worldviews in films (or with people) can seem daunting at first, and it does require some hard thinking. But it does get easier with practice, and after a while it can become second nature to engage with a film without this getting in the way of our enjoyment of it. I long to see Christians find this way of thinking becoming so much a part of them that they cannot help but watch films ‘worldviewishly’ — and so become far more effective at naturally sharing Christian perspectives on what they watch.

Read the final part of this series of six posts


  1. For parts three and four of the process of positive deconstruction, I have substituted ‘celebrate the good’ and ‘challenge the bad’ for Pollard’s labels of ‘affirm the truth’ and ‘discern the error’ (pp. 55–56). While these are appropriate labels when talking about worldviews in terms of their belief content, they seem to be too narrow in the context of art and media. We need to be engaging with the emotional and aesthetic dimensions, not only the intellectual ones. 
  2. Pollard, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult, p. 55. 
  3. William D. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001) p. 142. 
  4. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open, p. 143. 
  5. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open, p. 143. 
  6. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open, p. 143. 
  7. Peter Fraser and Vernon Edwin Neal, ReViewing the Movies: A Christian Response to Contemporary Film (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2000) p. 32 (their italics). 

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This is the fourth in a series of six posts, which was first published as an article in Anvil journal, Volume 28 No 3 (November 2012), and is published here by kind permission of the editor.

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Worldviews in film and literature

While not wishing to over-emphasise this aspect of responding to art and media, it is important that we briefly consider how to think about how to identify them, understand them and respond to them. There are four key aspects to this — a process called positive deconstruction.1 We need to analyse the worldview and evaluate it. As we do so, we must celebrate the good and challenge the bad.

Analyse the worldview2

First, we need to identify the worldviews we encounter in films or literature. I am not so much interested in applying a particular label to a worldview (merely labelling can fail to allow for the deeply individual nature of worldviews) as in discerning and analysing its core components. What beliefs, values and attitudes underpin what we are hearing. Where is the writer or director — or my friend — coming from? It is helpful to be familiar with the broad worldview categories, but more helpful to know what questions to ask of any worldview, any person or any film.

Various writers have suggested frameworks for considering worldviews. I use a set of five questions which I formulated some years ago (drawing on Sire’s seven basic questions,3 and Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton’s four questions4). These key questions are really headings — an easily-remembered framework which opens up many specific sub-questions. I keep this framework in mind every time I watch a film, read a book or have a significant conversation.

1. What is reality? This is perhaps the most foundational of my five questions. The others, in some sense, follow on from this question of what really is real. It is a question about ontology — about being; about what reality is and what it is like. Is the physical world all there is, or is there a spiritual dimension as well? Why is the world like it is? Where did it come from? What kind of God or gods are there, if any? Many books and films deal explicitly with this theme. For example, Alex Proyas’s film, Knowing,5 centres on a physics lecturer who has turned his back on his father’s Christianity and embraced a purely materialist view of reality. But when strange things start happening, he begins to wonder if there is more to the world than meets the eye. The Invention of Lying,6 by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, repeats the common notion that religion is just a human invention — a lie to make us feel better about death.

2. What does it mean to be human? This is another huge question and is also about ontology. What are the distinctive things — if any — about human beings? What is the point of life? Where did we come from? What happens when we die? Are some human beings more important than others? What does community mean? How should we relate to each other? This is one of the most significant areas of exploration in literature and film. Proyas’s earlier film, I, Robot,7 for example, questions whether there is anything unique about humanity. Could an artificially-intelligent robot develop emotions and the ability to dream? That is, could it become a person, worthy of being considered as equal to a human in every way, except biologically?

3. How do we know anything? This question deals with the philosophical issue of epistemology or knowledge. This is often the hardest of the five questions to think about. Why do we believe the things we do? What are good and bad reasons for believing? How do we know what is true? Where does wisdom come from? Where does meaning come from? These kinds of questions are a key element in Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi,8, an acclaimed feature film adaptation of which was made by Ang Lee.

4. How do we know what is good and bad? This question deals with issues of ethics. Is there such a thing as good and evil? How do we know what is right and wrong? Should we be concerned primarily with the consequences of our actions, with ethical principles, or being a good person? What values should we live by? What do goodness or beauty mean? There are plenty of examples of books and films exploring morality, including Suzanne Collins’s best-selling trilogy The Hunger Games,9 Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films,10 and countless others. We need to consider not only what moral choices are made by characters, but what the overall ethical framework is.

5. What is the fundamental problem confronting all human beings, and what is the solution? Within films, there is often an implicit, if not explicit, suggestion of a right way to live and think in order to be happy, fulfilled or complete, or a way to be redeemed in some sense from the problems which humans face. _Amélie_11 has a clear message that the world can be made a better place by an accumulation of acts of kindness to other people. _Gandhi_12 powerfully argues for the importance of peaceful resistance and simplicity of lifestyle.

We will not be able to answer every one of these questions for every film or book. Many films, for example, never touch on the question of how we know things or why we believe things. However, by thinking carefully about each of these five areas, you will often be able to identify what is being assumed as well as what is being shown more explicitly.

Thinker Close UpThinker Close Up by marttj, on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence

Evaluate the worldview13

Having identified the beliefs, values and attitudes that are being communicated through a particular film, or those that shape the communication, we need to evaluate them. Which can we be positive about because they are consistent with a Christian worldview, and which do we need to be more critical of? So we have some more questions to ask.

Coherence: Do the ideas cohere? That is, do they hang together and make sense? Something which does not make sense cannot be true. And something which is true should make sense.14

Correspondence: Secondly, we need to ask, do these ideas correspond with reality? Do they describe the world as it really is? Or are they a distortion, or even complete invention? Do they ignore some significant factor? For many philosophers — especially Christian ones — this is the most important of the three criteria for evaluating worldviews. The more truthful a worldview is, the better its description of reality and of human beings will fit with our experience. The biblical understanding of humans as rebellious image-bearers explains what we see in human nature better than any other perspective — it explains why we can be so noble and good, and yet so selfish and wicked. Looking for correspondence with reality is not something confined to realist films. Fantasy and science fiction films and literature are sometimes profoundly true in their view of humanity and the problems we face and their non-realistic context can help us to see the truth more clearly. _Beauty and the Beast_15 is an animated fairy tale for children, but who could doubt that it has much to say which is true on the subject of relationships and how we perceive others?

Pragmatism: Thirdly, we need to ask if the ideas work. What happens if you push them a little further? What kinds of tensions and difficulties would you run into? If a worldview is true we should expect it to work in practice — it should have some pragmatic results. Perhaps a more helpful way of thinking about this is, does this worldview enable an individual or a society to flourish?

As we work through part two of the positive deconstruction process, we need to be identifying where the ideas are correct and where they are incorrect. Like Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16–34), we should be positive about points on which we agree and express clearly our disagreement on other issues. Tragically, it seems that all too often Christians are quick to condemn something, but very slow to praise. As we evaluate the ideas within a film or book in terms of coherence, correspondence and the potential for human flourishing, we are looking for truth which we can affirm as well as untruth which we must dispute. So parts three and four of the process do not happen consecutively after part two, but instead happen concurrently with it. I separate them out to ensure that we pay close enough attention to both aspects.

Read Part FIVE in this series of six posts


  1. Nick Pollard, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult (Leicester: IVP, 1997) pp. 48–56. Note that I use different labels for the four stages of the process, but the methodology remains the same. 
  2. Pollard expresses this as ‘identifying the worldview’ (Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult, p. 48). This seems to suggest finding the correct label to apply to a worldview as a whole. However, since many people feel that they do not have the knowledge to be able to do so accurately, and since labelling has limited value, I think it is more helpful to see this stage as teasing out, or analysing, the component parts of the worldview. 
  3. James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, fourth edition (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2004), p. 20. 
  4. Brian J. Walsh and Richard J. Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1984) p. 35.) 
  5. Knowing (Alex Proyas, Icon, 2009). 
  6. The Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais and Matthew
    Robinson, Universal Pictures, 2009). 
  7. I, Robot (Alex Proyas, Twentieth Century Fox, 2004). 
  8. Yann Martell, Life of Pi (Canongate, 2002); Life of Pi (Ang Lee, Twentieth Century Fox, 2012). 
  9. The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, Lionsgate, 2012). 
  10. Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros., 2005), The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros., 2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros., 2012). 
  11. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Momentum,2001) 
  12. Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, Columbia Tristar, 1982) 
  13. Pollard expresses this as ‘analysing the worldview’ (Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult, p. 52). Analysis seems to suggest the kind of process described in the first stage — identifying the component parts. This second stage is perhaps more intuitively understood as evaluation since we are trying to determine the truth or falsity of the ideas. 
  14. We do, however, need to allow for the possibility of a paradox as opposed to a contradiction. 
  15. Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise,
    Walt Disney Pictures, 1991) 

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This is the third in a series of six posts, which was first published as an article in Anvil journal, Volume 28 No 3 (November 2012), and is published here by kind permission of the editor.

Five aspects of responding to art

If, then, art and media are the product of people made in the image of God, who are nevertheless rebels against God, and if art and media need to be seen in terms of truth, goodness and beauty, how should we respond to them and engage with them? What does it mean for a particular book or film? There are five crucial aspects.

1. Aesthetics

The first is unsurprising in view of what I have already written, but is an unfamiliar starting point for too many Christians. Our danger is that we tend to jump too quickly into the intellectual dimensions, wanting to analyse the ideas and (all too often) refute them. But film and literature are, first and foremost, art forms and we must engage with them at that aesthetic level. What works well at an artistic level? Is it good writing? Are the characters believable? Is it well structured? How good is the cinematography?

Tragedy, Comedy – photo by Phil Shirley on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licenceTragedy, Comedy – photo by Phil Shirley on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence

2. Emotions

The second aspect is intimately connected with the first, and yet quite different. All art generates emotional responses in those who engage with it. That is a primary function of art — artists wants us to feel something, though they may or may not be concerned to stimulate a specific emotion. The strong emotions engendered by great art form some of our most valuable experiences. When we are engaging with narratives, as in books and films, our emotional responses are connected not only with the aesthetic dimensions, but with the characters within the story. They are not real people, yet we feel sympathy or fear or elation because of what is happening to them.

Since our emotions are a very fundamental aspect of our being, it is important that we stop to reflect on how we feel. Art manipulates our emotions (we only complain about something being manipulative if it does so in a very crass, artificial or unearned way; we do not accuse Shakespeare of being manipulative when Juliet dies), and we need to reflect on what emotional journey the film or book has taken us on.

Image from Crestock.comImage from

3. Worldviews

This is the point at which we begin to engage with the more intellectual components of the material. Many people neglect to think deeply about the ideas within a book or film, contenting themselves instead with simply being entertained. There is nothing wrong with simple entertainment, but we do need to remember that a film or book is like a deep lake. We can happily play on the surface, but we need to dive down under the surface where we discover that the book or film has a message: the writer is saying something about identity, relationships, community, society, morality, sexuality, freedom, or happiness. Such issues are constantly being explored by arts and media. Since 9/11, for example, there has been a marked increase in films exploring social and political issues, whether fictional, such as Precious,1 Four Lions,2 or Margin Call,3 or documentary films like The Interrupters_4 or _Inside Job. 5

If we go deeper still in this lake, we discover that the most interesting things are some way down: all the ideas about these issues arise from very fundamental beliefs and values — from the writers’ worldviews. Changing the metaphor for a moment, the worldviews of a narrative are a framework of ideas which holds up, and gives shape to, the narrative which is like a cover stretched over the framework. We need to pull back the fabric to peer underneath to see what the beliefs are which hold the whole thing up.

Read Part Four in this series of six posts


  1. Precious (Lee Daniels, Icon, 2010). 
  2. Four Lions (Chris Morris, Optimum Releasing, 2010). 
  3. Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, Stealth Media, 2011). 
  4. The Interrupters (Steve James, Dogwoof Pictures, 2011). 
  5. Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, Sony Pictures, 2011). 

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tony Watkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

This is the second in a series of six posts, which was first published as an article in Anvil journal, Volume 28 No 3 (November 2012), and is published here by kind permission of the editor.

the mirror
Photo by Ian Broyles from Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

Two-faced human beings

Adam and Eve were tempted by the freedom to make their own moral choices; they wanted to pursue wisdom on their terms, not God’s. This brought humanity into rebellion against God, with the result that his image in us is damaged, twisted and broken. The consequences of this are seen in everything humans do and create. The urge for complete autonomy makes us push at — or ignore — the boundaries of morality. The urge to seek wisdom independently of God means that all kinds of ideas and worldviews are expressed within the media, and the Christian message is frequently excluded. The upshot is that all the art and culture we produce is tainted, to a greater or lesser extent, by our rebellion against God. How tragic that we use the very capacities and abilities that God has given us to resist him.

Zoë seems to overlook all this, and is too uncritical in her acceptance of media culture, while Marvin sees the dangers clearly and understands just how desperately the gospel is needed. They are both partly right and partly wrong, of course — like all of us. We all see some things more clearly and get some other things completely wrong.

It is vital that Christians understand the consequences of the fact that all of us have two faces — one reflecting God and one resisting him. It means that in everything we do and everything we create there is a double dynamic at work. All culture, including art and media, is the product of God’s image bearers, yet all of it is the product of rebels against him. So all of it reflects God’s image, and all of it reflects human fallenness. It is rare, if not impossible, that something manifests just one of these aspects. Tragically, it is all too possible for someone to use their artistic gifts, which are reflective of God’s image, in order to give powerful expression to their rebellion. Philip Pullman is just one of countless examples we could list of writers and artists who do this explicitly.

Transcendental values

It is worth reflecting on art and media in terms of the three traditional transcendental values of beauty, truth, and goodness. Beauty is the obvious one, of course, since our engagement with any art is, first and foremost, an aesthetic one. Beauty is, of course, highly subjective, but it somehow points beyond itself to something even greater, something transcendent. It ignites within us a sense of hope, or perhaps of longing, because our aesthetic sense is bound up with our spirituality. That’s part of being made in God’s image too. C.S. Lewis used the German word Sehnsucht for what he called the ‘inconsolable longing’ in the human heart for something elusive. It was, for him, intimately tied up with the experience of joy, the key quality of which is ‘that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction’.1

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1974  Dutch National ArchivesA character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot famously claims that ‘Beauty saves the world.’ When Alexander Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for literature, in his acceptance speech, he quoted Dostoevsky, and remarked that he had come to believe that he was right. He said:

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender.2

Solzhenitsyn ties truth to the concept of beauty. Tolkien makes the connection between beauty and goodness when he writes, ‘evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together.’3 Truth and goodness are as important in art as beauty, but sometimes harder to grasp (they are more obvious in literature or film than in music, for example). That is not to say that art should always make a point, or communicate some moral or religious message — that diminishes it into propaganda, not art. Nevertheless, good art and media will always express, or at least remind us of, truth, goodness and beauty.

Honest art

Good art should have integrity, and it should be honest about life. That means art should never solely deal with nice things — beautiful sunsets, pastoral idylls, and glowing hearths — which is why the work of the late Thomas Kinkade is, to my mind, lacking in integrity. Art must sometimes show us the darkness and broke nness of life, as in Slumdog Millionaire_4 or Paddy Considine’s harrowing but powerful and tentatively redemptive _Tyrannosaur.5 Occasionally a film manages to convey both the beauty and brokenness of life, as Terrence Malick does in The Tree of Life.6 Sometimes it needs to draw our attention to the alienation felt by apparently successful people, as in Up in the Air.7 It needs to remind us of both the nobility of human heart, and its corruption. It needs to bring us insights, and expose our misunderstandings. It needs to ask searching questions about life and reality, and sometimes we need to encounter works that don’t pretend to have all the answers, such as the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man.8 Sometimes art and media should be making us deeply uncomfortable.

Narrative art forms, such as films and literature, enable us to see the world through other people’s eyes, which is immensely valuable to us in helping us understand and respond to those who don’t see the world in the same way we do. Lewis writes,

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. . . . My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog. . . . But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.9

Good art — whomever it is by, and whatever the medium by which it comes to us — moves us emotionally, confronting us with the truth of the human condition, prompting us to respond to the brokenness of our world, and to open our eyes to signs of God’s grace at work. It will also stir up the deepest longing of the human heart: the longing for peace with God, which is exactly what Lewis discovered was the ultimate goal of his experience of Sehnsucht.

Read Part Three in this series of six posts


  1. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My
    Early Life
    (London: Fontana, 1966) 
  2. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, ‘Nobel Lecture in Literature‘, 1970. 
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’ in The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays
  4. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, Pathé, 2009). 
  5. Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, Optimum Releasing,
  6. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011). 
  7. _Up in the _Air (Jason Reitman, 2009). 
  8. A Serious Man (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Universal
    Pictures, 2009). 
  9. C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism Canto Edition (Cambridge University Press, 1997) p. 139–141. 

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