In the business of theology it is hard not to be controversial - Jurgen Moltmann

Saturday, 29 October 2005

The Magdalene Sisters

The Magdalene Sisters (directed and written by Peter Mullan, UK & Ireland, 2002)

[watched on More4, 28 October 2005]

I have heard of this stunning film and the true story behind for a few years but never had the chance to watch it until now. I was so desperate this time that when I learnt of its airtime on TV, I set a reminder alarm for myself.

Is it a great film? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Is it enjoyable? Not the least. It is the kind of story that you don’t want it to continue but at the same time draws you deeply into the narrative. It is simple and direct from the very beginning, and makes you truly uncomfortable all the way through. Yet, you would keep on watching, because you are already caught up in the development and destiny of the characters once you start encountering them in their first appearances.

Dublin, 1964.

Three young girls were sent into the Magdalene Asylum for the rectification of their ‘sinful lives’. Margaret was raped by her cousin in the evening of a relative’s wedding. Bernadette who lived in an orphanage was flirt by too many boys from the neighbourhood. Rose had just given birth to a baby, unwed. We never heard a single word from those who sent them away. All three of the beginning scenes of abandonment are striking. They all begin with supposedly happy moments (festive mood in wedding ceremony, young people playing and flirting across the fence, new mother holding her newborn). Yet, all end up in sudden forced separations. And each of these scenes is shorter than the previous. The filmmaker simply does not need to go into the details anymore after the first instance. These betrayal experiences, which are to end up in brutality, are reminiscent of Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror.

What is horrible is then not only that which happens in the Magdalene. The horror is pervasive in the community. The sinful structure, so to speak, is not confined to the evildoings and hypocritical gestures in the convent, but permeates the whole culture of this supposedly pious Catholic society. The young girls are sent into the Magdalene only because their parents or guardians choose to hide what they regard as scandalous. As the Chinese saying goes, whatever you eyes cannot see is clean. This is simply a textbook case of structural evil.

Life in the convent is apparently orderly but the order is maintained in an authoritarian and sadistic fashion. Sleep, eat, work, walk according to a predetermined set of rules executed by the nuns. No talking during any of these times. Violators are beaten brutally. The orientation to the three newcomers by the sister-in-charge is most intriguing: Mary of Magdalene, the guardian angel of the convent, was a great sinner, and she had to deny herself of any worldly pleasure in order to cleanse her soul and gain her place in heaven; thus the girls in Magdalene would have to follow her example in order to secure their salvation; what is washed in the laundry is not just clothes but their sins and worldly desires. Therefore the girls are to work for long hours in the laundry everyday, for the sake of their own souls. This is truly the classical form of perverted view of redemption – to gain your salvation by being exploited.

Bernadette is so desperate to get out of the convent that she tries to seduce a young customer of their laundry and offers to marry him. She rips herself of dignity only to beg him to help her escape. The young man chickens out in the last minute, leaving Bernadette to face the brutal punishment of cutting her hair by force. Bernadette is a professionally trained hairdresser; to have her own hair cut to the extent of bleeding is probably the worst imaginable humiliation.

The depiction of abuse in the convent escalates as the narrative develops. Whipping, beating, and cutting the hair are taken for granted as forms of punishment. The most stunning scene is however the ‘game’ scene of the nuns comparing the naked bodies of the girls – who has the biggest / smallest breast, who has most pubic hair, etc. While the girls are either blank or weeping, the nun laughs and cheers and stresses repeatedly that it is just a game. A game!

With a simple trick by Margaret, it eventually comes to pass that the priest is openly exposed of taking sexual advantage of another girl, Crispina. This remarkable scene of exposing his shame is set in a special religious ceremony outdoor. When the priest is running away from the scene, Crispina is shouting ‘you are not a man of God!’ All the men on the spot just try to look away, showing embarrassment but apparently not wanting to face the matter. In the next scene, we see Crispina being transferred to a mental hospital to be locked up. The victim is regarded as the shame, and it is only by hiding the victim-shame away that the sinful institution can carry on with its business as usual.

When the three protagonists had the chance to leave the convent, both Margaret and Bernadette take revenge on the nuns in their own ways. Margaret is fetched by her younger brother who is grown up enough to come to find his sister. When she comes across the nuns in the corridor on her way out, she assertively demands them to step aside to give way to her. The sister-in-charge, of course, refuses out of her arrogance of the powerful. In the confrontation, Margaret kneels down and starts reciting the Lord’s Prayer. It is finally the visiting bishop and the nuns who start giving in. At this brief moment, we see Christian non-violent resistance at work.

In contrast, Bernadette is more violent during her escape with Rose, which is consistent with her character. She snatches the main key from the sister’s hand by force, calling her ‘you bloody twisting bitch’, and beats the nuns who try to stop her in the corridor. Even in the final shot of the film, in which she comes across the nuns in the street some years later after her escape, she is shown to be staring at them with bitterness and rage.

The audience is of course happy to see them being able to leave the Magdalene. Yet it is far from a happy ending. The convent, with its institutionalised oppression, is still there. Only our three protagonists have managed to get away. And probably, they are merely getting away from one microcosmic oppressive structure to a more gigantic oppressive structure – the whole society which is abusive and repressive, which uses the divine as the pretext to take advantage of the powerless. Hence, the visual tone of the final sequences after they escape has not changed – the gloom, the grey, the hard pressed feeling persist. Nonetheless, we as the audience do take a fresh breathe, as we see that at least three people have changed their destinies.

The Magdalene Sisters is on the whole a depressing film. It is depressing to see the pervasiveness of structural evil. It is even more depressing to see the abuse of power done in the name of faith and the divine. Such abuses end up pushing people toward the evil rather than delivering them from it. Yet the film is also an affirmative piece of work. It is affirmative to see that human destinies can break away from oppressive structures. It is even more affirmative to see that there are different possibilities to achieve this independence, and that the long term outcome of this disentanglement can take various forms (as seen in the ending captions).

It takes enormous courage to leave the institution, to take the risks of having nowhere to go and having no one to turn to. But it is also to responsibly exercise the most precious divine gift of human free will. Such, I think, is the film's ultimate celebration of humanity and, indirectly, of divinity.

Is the film anti church or anti Catholic or anti religion, then? Not according to my interpretation. It has not been excessively critical or sarcastic of the Catholic Church or of religious faith in any sense. It is, however, deeply critical of the perversion of faith for the advantage of ungodly desires. In my limited understanding of the Christian faith, this critical stance is totally faithful to the Biblical tradition which is itself radically against hypocritical perversion of faith in God. Yet when it comes to its view of redemption, the film is anti institutional -- the church (or religious institutions) is no longer considered a mediator of salvation. In this sense, the film is against [the classical teaching of] the Catholic Church.

Friday, 14 October 2005

We have brought torture and misery in the name of freedom (Harold Pinter)


We have brought torture and misery in the name of freedom

By Harold Pinter who yesterday won the Nobel Prize for Literature

Published: 14 October 2005 in The Independent (used without permission)

The great poet Wilfred Owen articulated the tragedy, the horror - and indeed the pity - of war in a way no other poet has. Yet we have learnt nothing. Nearly 100 years after his death the world has become more savage, more brutal, more pitiless.

But the "free world" we are told, as embodied in the United States and Great Britain, is different to the rest of the world since our actions are dictated and sanctioned by a moral authority and a moral passion condoned by someone called God. Some people may find this difficult to comprehend but Osama Bin Laden finds it easy.

What would Wilfred Owen make of the invasion of Iraq? A bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of International Law. An arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public. An act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading - as a last resort (all other justifications having failed to justify themselves) - as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands upon thousands of innocent people.

An independent and totally objective account of the Iraqi civilian dead in the medical magazine The Lancet estimates that the figure approaches 100,000. But neither the US or the UK bother to count the Iraqi dead. As General Tommy Franks of US Central Command memorably said: "We don't do body counts".

We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery and degradation to the Iraqi people and call it " bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East". But, as we all know, we have not been welcomed with the predicted flowers. What we have unleashed is a ferocious and unremitting resistance, mayhem and chaos.

You may say at this point: what about the Iraqi elections? Well, President Bush himself answered this question when he said: "We cannot accept that there can be free democratic elections in a country under foreign military occupation". I had to read that statement twice before I realised that he was talking about Lebanon and Syria.

What do Bush and Blair actually see when they look at themselves in the mirror?

I believe Wilfred Owen would share our contempt, our revulsion, our nausea and our shame at both the language and the actions of the American and British governments.

Adapted by Harold Pinter from a speech he delivered on winning the Wilfred Owen Award earlier this year

Sunday, 9 October 2005


咱神學院招聘「應用神學及基督教倫理學教授」,接替過檔普林斯頓神學探究中心的Prof. Will Storrar。遴選進入決賽階段了,日前三位最後入圍的候選人前來試講,老師們和研究生又聚頭試聽。


愛丁堡要請一個神學與倫理教授,茲事體大,也許在不列顛神學界還算是一件不太小的小事。當天除了神學院各範的掌門人齊集之外,遴選委員會還包羅了一些其他大學的重量級倫理學者坐鎮。當日坐在我隔鄰再隔鄰的,原來正是牛津專程來的Oliver O’Donovan。(話時話,此君廿年前出版的Resurrection and the Moral Order思路密集而艱深,我當年完全不知所云,兩年前還是讀到叫救命,當時幸得專攻倫理學博士的美國同學Kevin安慰我說:不用自卑嘛很多神學家其實都搞不通他的意思啦。)





Sunday, 2 October 2005

A Sudden Touch of Biblical Studies


剛過去那個星期,一連四天聽了咱學院的Croall Lectures,仍感刺激。Croall Lectures是由1876年開始,由敝校定期舉辦的其中一項主打盛事,主講的學者往往訂下deceptively simple的題目,驟眼看還以為是大學一年級的入門課,實質上卻往往乘機投下驚人炸彈,深入邊僻,分分鐘炸開神學或聖經研究的新路向。

今回合Croall Lectures請來牛津大學舊約學者John Barton主講,以《聖經考證的本質》(The Nature of Biblical Criticism)為總題,溫文雅爾地講出火爆震撼的內容,穿梭二千多年的詮釋歷史,多處與多位當代重量級學者力拼,像要為這門學問重訂疆界似的。

第一講:『聖經考證是甚麼』。針對很多人把聖經考證等同「歷史考證法」(historical critical method),Barton卻強調,聖經考證一直所關心的,是「文學」的問題多於「歷史」的問題(literary concerns rather than historical concerns),跟找尋歷史真相其實沒甚關係。

第二講:『聖經平白的意思』(plain sense)。聖經考證本質上是一門界定語意的功夫(a semantic enterprise),目的是要進入聖經的plain sense,那不同於「作者原意」,「歷史上的意思」,或者「字面上的意思」。聖經學者經常強調的exegesiseisegesis的分野根本意義不大;釋經者應該像個導遊,帶讀者進入文本,而非單單把文本的意思「發現」出來。

第 三講:『聖經考證的來源』。聖經考證的根源,一般人以為是啟蒙運動(理性抬頭否定超自然神話),有人追索至宗教改革(人人可以讀聖經不再受教廷管轄),有 人更追索至文藝復興(以文學藝術角度讀聖經取代宗教信仰角度)。但其實最早期的基督教會已經有人做類似的考證功夫,聖經考證並非現代 / 近代才有的。

第四講:『聖經考證與宗教信念』。解釋聖經並非宗教信徒的專利,因為真理和聖經文本是來者不拒的(open to all), 堅持基於某種認信立場來讀聖經(無論那是甚麼立場),反而無法認識真相。詮釋者必須尊重文本,讓它自己解答自己的問題,然後才再解答詮釋者心目中的問題。 這份對文本的絕對尊重,讓經文自己說話,本身便是一份宗教情操。研究聖經之所以是一種宗教活動,並不因為聖經跟某些宗教的緊密關係,而是當人抱著尊重文本 的宗教情操來研讀的時候,這個行動便成為一種宗教行為了。




「他讀聖經跟LydenFilm as Religion2003看電影的態度差不多一樣但那是電影不是聖經嘛。」Dwight很困惑。

MarshCinema and Sentiment2004都是類似立場啦,他說看電影是一門神學活動呀。」我和應。




「正是嘛。我這幾天剛好在看一本Converging on Culture,編輯把神學界定為宗教研究的一門分支,宗教研究又是文化分析的分支,你話係咪大鑊?」



愛丁堡大學神學院「掌門人」Ron Servitor
【picture taken from Divinity School website, used without permission】

【按:很多華人基督徒一直把Biblical criticism翻譯為「聖經批判」,認真害人不淺,
criticism本來沒有價值判斷,中文「批判」就一定是負面的,況且Biblical criticism
1. Biblical criticism不甚
2. 英文水平或中文水平或中英文水平有限; 3. 居心叵測; 4. all of the above。愚見認