Tag Archives: Religion

How Real Are You? Bill Viola’s ‘Martyrs’

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The installation at St Paul’s

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, I went to see Bill Viola’s video art installations at St Paul’s Cathedral.  The two moving-image works, Martyrs and Mary, are gifted to Tate and are on permanent loan to St Paul’s.  I will in this piece focus on Martyrs because talking too much about Mary would be a great spoiler – its meaning is only in seeing it, and reading anything descriptive about it will destroy its impact.  You will understand if you go and view it.

Born in 1951, when Viola was 6 years of age he fell into some water and nearly drowned. Looking back many years later, he says that while he was under water, he was able to register the beauty of this new world that he witnessed. The notion of the ‘real’ being under the surface is a key theme throughout his work, and this draws from his early experience with water.

He says ‘Art is, for me, the process of trying to wake up the soul. Because we live in an industrialized, fast-paced world that prefers that the soul remain asleep.’  There is no more of an appropriate time for this than Easter.  The installations, parts of which can be seen here, begin with, in Martyrs, humans in the process of beginning to be martyred, and in Mary, new life – a baby, but ending with death.  It got me thinking: the Christian faith is about Crucifixion followed by Resurrection, and recalling these events in Holy Week is a prime opportunity for us to start over and ‘wake up’. But actually, in our daily lives we are presented with such opportunities constantly but so often allow them to pass us by, and so the moment has gone – and we fall asleep again.

Viola sees cameras as keepers of the soul because of what they capture – an example being the filming of his mother as she died (she was in a coma).  He read St John of the Cross aged 16 which, like the experience with water, was highly influential and is evident here where his work seems to have an integral feeling of bringing back the numinous and focussing on the interior landscape of the human person.

The use of film to communicate to the audience is significant – we are used to being spectators but in this instance, we are not to be controlled by this usually controlling medium.  Going back to the theme of being asleep, in our daily lives we have allowed screens to dictate far too much to the point of being so addicted that an alien visiting earth would think our souls were stored in our phones rather than in our very being.  Well, these installations remind us that it is the latter: yes – I hate to break the news but your soul is not in your phone.  The essence of the humans in these installation is so intense – we are not controlled by them, or the screen in which they reside, but rather we are at one with them, as the tangibility of the flesh behind the screen is raw.

In Martyrs four actors are shown left to right, in isolation.  One is a man buried under earth, who gradually stands up and pushes through the soil; the second is a woman bound at her feet and wrists, and hanging from them as she is blown in the wind; the third is a man sitting on a chair surrounded by a circle of flames encroaching on him, and the fourth is a man hanging upside down with water pouring down on him, his arms outstretched.

Viola does not say what anyone is supposed to see in these or in what time period they are set. The man in the earth has overtones of Adam (man made from the earth) – or it could be a civilian caught in an earthquake; and the man hanging could be St Peter who was crucified upside down – or it could be someone undergoing waterboarding. These are just some of the reactions St Paul’s has received from the many visitors to the installation. There is a phrase which is something like ‘comfort the distressed and distress the comfortable’ – this work is an example of this process. The point is we should be affected in some way – not indifferent. It is the encounter that matters.

Whatever we think, as viewers we look and then walk away. Which is exactly what we do in life, at our peril. We condemn those who torture or kill others, and apparently empathise with the victims, but these actors within the screen seek to reflect us back to ourselves (as all good art does) and show our failings, which in this case is inaction – and force us to re-examine the term ‘martyr’. It can be ill used in today’s world.

The main issue I had with the martyrs is that there is no evidence of pain in their faces – even when a martyr accepts death willingly (alone, in order to stand for the truth – they do not impose this on others or wish to destroy others in their death), they would physiologically feel the agony of flames, or the horrendous pressure on their body hung upside down battling to breath with water blocking their air passages. Perhaps suffering is aestheticized, and too gentle in these installations? Are these martyrs too archetypal – to the point of being unreal?

But maybe that is the point – we don’t need to be ‘controlled’ by being shown four actors screaming and writhing in agony. We know this to be the case – and having to think for ourselves about these four human beings who appear peaceful and serene only makes manifest the real life current situation – it is the peaceful who have become martyrs at the mercy of many a brutal regime. Viola’s film medium has indeed subverted the idea of control – we have got it wrong if we are controlled by it and become its puppets. This is about what we do in response, as are the daily news pictures on our screens…

The study of Theology, in general, throws up more questions than it provides answers.  Likewise with these installations, and likewise with Easter. We simply cannot know answers to everything and it is increasingly difficult to find meaning in everything. If we are constantly looking for rational explanations for our experiences, including our sufferings, then we are missing the point. It is far more important to engage with the situation and in that moment, take a note of how we feel, and react. How we react makes us real, and if we don’t react we are perhaps the ones who are unreal.

As Disraeli said, ‘never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologize for the truth.’

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Inside Out Theatre

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Richard Armitage, currently playing John Proctor in The Crucible at London’s Olc Vic theatre, says he approaches John from the inside.  He says he is not a character who can be ‘put on’ from the outside.  The fact that he draws from within himself is displayed for all to see on stage.  It is a raw and honest portrayal of a man exposed for all the wrong reasons; John Proctor is a beacon of truth in a society ravaged by its own paranoia and eaten up by its abuse of religion.

JP

It is fitting that Armitage is so willing and able to act this part from the inside, as the play’s subject matter is that of a society being attacked from its inner core; the values it thinks it lives by are the very values which are responsible for its destruction.

As with all Arthur Miller’s plays, we should learn from this.

The Script Within Us

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We write a script for ourselves that sits within us – we probably don’t know we do, and we often use the wrong words or write the wrong story.  There’s an internal monologue in our heads that narrates our lives.  Are we always our most honest narrators?

It’s why art forms which use no words are necessary and valuable.  Matthew Bourne, known for his radical reworking of classic ballet, says dance is telling a story without words.  His new project, Sleeping Beauty, has been turned into a gothic romance where Tchaikovsky meets Twilight.

Sleeping Beauty

In many ways, non-spoken arts forms offer us a more neutral commentary on our lives.  Our lives are so full of words (which are not always truthful) – our own and other people’s, they crowd our heads.  Images, dance, puppetry, leave things open.  Bourne says ‘if you’re telling stories, it’s important not everyone looks the same.  I’m drawn to people who can act, who are “searchers”.’

We can look at a piece of dance, and it will communicate something different to each person, whilst letting us escape ourselves for a bit for ‘time out’ but at the same time, ‘time in’ to focus on other truths which we might not have considered.  The novelist Barbara Kingsolver says ‘It’s about how people can look at the same set of facts and come away believing different things.’

If you think about it, this comment applies to other areas in life as well as the arts – apply it to religion, love, people, the world…remember the ‘duck rabbit’ – which is it, and how do you know?

 

A Drama group that radiates more than just Theatricality

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Radius welcomes people seeking to explore spiritual, social and ethical issues through drama.  As a forum for discussion it encourages a relationship between theatre and faith within contemporary culture and promotes plays that throw light on the human condition.  Radius offers scripts for performance, an assessment service for new plays, a series of study guides, a magazine and a programme of workshops.  Radius is interested in all art forms, whether or not the form articulates a religious theme; and even if it does that theme may not be explicit.

Radius was founded in 1929 and is a registered charity (charity number 214943).  If you are at all interested, do visit the website http://www.radiusdrama.org.uk for The Religious Drama Society of Great Britain, Radius.

Most meaning in life is implicit…Radius helps search for it.

The Arts and Theology: Creativity, Communication and how the Arts can save the world

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‘The arts are part of being human’, says Jude Kelly (BBC Radio 4 Loose Ends, 26.7.08), former director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, now at London’s Southbank.  And I think a great many people would agree with Kelly if they thought about the arts in their broadest sense.

Looking back on my study of theology I realise I did it because of an unstoppable urge to look into the human condition and communicate my curiosities.  University was a safe, thriving and raw environment to do this.    Likewise, I went to drama school three years later in 2006 to do the same thing (I also happen to enjoy acting).  Both subjects contain one central paradox: by studying both, I felt more anchored in the world and therefore more able to face it but at the same time, less able to comprehend it.  With drama especially, I escaped from the world by immersing myself in an imitated reality (which paradoxically often represents reality in a more honest way than reality itself) but at the same time sought to understand it (the world).

Isn’t this one of the reasons why people go to the theatre? – as an audience member you watch a play to briefly dismiss reality but by watching ‘real’ people on stage, some thing in some way will resonate with you.  David Hare in his terrific book ‘Obedience, Struggle and Revolt’ has the same thought:  “It is hard to understand why anyone would choose to go into the theatre in the first place unless they were interested in relating what they make happen on a stage to what is happening off it” (p.108).  As a violinist, I also agree with Daniel Barenboim when he says of another arts discipline: “music provides the possibility, on the one hand, to escape from life but, on the other, to understand life much better.  It is one of the best ways to learn about human nature.

Investigation into anything can be troubling, even if ultimately fulfilling.  But it is unavoidable; we do it just by being.  But why was I so interested in thinking about life via two potentially emotionally draining disciplines?  I didn’t need to choose them and moreover, I didn’t need to ask questions at all about humanity and the meaning of life.  Or did I?

During one of my Alexander Technique classes at drama school, I got talking to my tutor about this.  She reassured me I was not alone and explained that her teacher, Walter Carrington, a pupil of Alexander, had a choice to either become a Jesuit or a teacher of Alexander Technique (used by many people, not just actors and musicians).  He chose the latter because he felt he could still reach people through creative work on posture and balance; a less explicit way of bringing people to their centre, and yes, allowing them to be present – a desire I would say all people want for themselves whether people of faith, actors, a combination of these or nothing to do with art or belief at all.  We all search, some less obviously than others.

Alexander Technique in action

Joseph Rowntree (we’ve all had his sweets), another pupil of Alexander, said we all desire the Unknown and that the Unknown is approached via creativity.  The Known on the other hand is simply ‘habit’.  The latter is unfortunately the category we fall into because of the pressures of daily life.  If we wish to have mortgages and bread on the table, we succumb to patterns to earn our wage and ‘stay safe’.  We have routines that are often un-enjoyable – we knock ourselves out in order to live (funny irony that) and we call this being alive.

'The Commuters' sculpture at Nasher Sculpture Centre in Dallas, Texas USA

Alexander Technique is employed for this reason with actors, to release them from habit and find neutrality and honesty with which they can approach their craft.  Another paradox: the stage is the home of pretence, yet there exists no more of a genuine, unrehearsed place to be, and where any element of routine in fact results in the worst acting.  Every moment is new as if for the first time, and cherished.  Life is not a rehearsal and the stage and film set is the forum for ‘stuff’ that goes on in life.

Most people assume my main interest has to be religious drama but this would be too much of an easy link.  I am interested in anything artistic that challenges us to think how we treat the world and its contents, and if in the process we ask “Is there a God?” or “Is there something rather than nothing?” then fine.   There is an argument as to whether or not Beckett’s plays are symbolic or not.  Sir Peter Hall says Waiting for Godot is, and when he directed a production of it during the Cold War, it carried with it overtones of this period (much like Miller’s The Crucible during 1950s America).  Other commentators say that Beckett is not symbolic but is about actualities and possibilities. In Godot, he literally writes about the human ‘state’: what is it to wait?  What are we really waiting for?  What is it to wait – when there is the possibility of nothing happening?  And in Godot, nothing does.  Is it a play about nothingness where we see characters in a state of anxiety and despair?  It is absurd, tragic and at times funny.  So is this not something?  This is not nothing.  There is stuff happening here and if we were not living as hectic lives as we possibly could (yes sorry folks, routine), are Estragon, Lucky and Vladimir not us?  Take away our routine and we would be searching and waiting for something to happen (and I’m talking about ‘social life’ routine as well as work – take away the pub and the office, and anarchy would reign).

Take Lucky’s speech which goes from a “crazed jumble into one of unmissable significance.  Despite our hopes, moral pretensions, scientific advances – everything – humanity continues to ‘stink and dwindle’, ‘waste and pine’.  Even the smug, bullish Pozzo is left cramming his hat…over his ears in an effort to avoid the truth.”  (Benedict Nightingale, The Times, April 2006).  Symbolic or not, because of its absurdity and unreality, Godot and other plays less ‘real’ paradoxically become terrifyingly lifelike.  Hare calls this “artistic paradox”: “that by telling lies we reach truth” (p.73).

It is not for nothing that Plato thought music should be banned because it could bring audiences to a state of frenzy.  Barenboim again: “music teaches me that you cannot separate the heart from the head.  If they don’t go hand in hand something is wrong” (Radio Times, September 2001).  I recall the amazing Stephen Fry at one BAFTA Award Ceremony earnestly saying how films and the arts were so necessary in a world like ours; keep creating, he said, as this is humanity at its best.  Hare says: “The world is not tired.  Our reactions to the world are not tired.  What becomes tired is the deadly habitude of our descriptions of that world.  The artist exists only to externalise what we all do internally anyway.  By making the descriptions new, we do not create alternative worlds.  We remind people of the breathtaking beauty of the original” (p.86).

The artist David Hockney at his “Life, Love, Art” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006/7 remarked: “What an artist is trying to do for people, is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing: you wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought.”

Sharing.  Yes.  But what do humans do most?  Answer:  Conceal.  Emotionally and culturally.  And these stunt us socially.  We live in our own bubbles as individuals and as groups, but we don’t break out of those.  We don’t even think about the impact of the “way we live now” on others.  All art forms can burst bubbles.  We should let them.  Continuing the theme of sharing – what about the “bringing people together” aspect of the arts?  It does do this, as much as any church, in fact these days, more so.  Big names in all artistic fields have used their talent to do this in order to send a message.  I don’t say Bono is the Pope – but neither do I say the Pope is more important.  They are different.  But because of the urgency in their art and the way it is related to the common man, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Sting, Bono, Annie Lennox, Bob Geldof, David Hare, Harold Pinter, Al Gore, George Clooney, Bruce Springsteen…have made our ears prick up at some point or another in relation to Vietnam, Africa, Iraq and so on, because of their artistic clout.

In a National Theatre Platform (9.11.2005), director Declan Donnellan talks about all of us living out our humanity positively: actors are people who automatically do this since acting is really about “being”, not pretending.  Good religion is about this too and the phrase “living out humanity positively” is certainly heard amongst theologians.

Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George is a musical about this very experience: George has lived in his art and put life on hold; I am suggesting we put neither life nor art on hold and use one to enrich the other: “an acceptance by the younger George that attachment to people in the form of love is as crucial to life as art” (Nicholas De Jongh, Evening Standard, 24.5.2006).

Life in art and Art in life in 'Sunday in the Park with George'

My conclusion is nothing surprising: neither religion or the arts can be studied or lived in a vacuum.  People are less scared of theatre.  You can go for a good night out and in the process be presented with a range of issues that you can think about, or not.  There will always be an entertainment aspect I suppose; I’m not sure you would call a sermon entertaining (although whether you would call films like Boys Don’t Cry or Saving Private Ryan more entertaining than a sermon on eternal life I doubt).  The director of the second of the two films, Stephen Spielberg, says that you can pay psychiatrists a lot of money to work things out for you, or you can pay a film director to do it instead. He has a point. But I am not slamming Ministers of Religion or Psychiatrists and Psychotherapists: the theatre is not therapy and nor is religion.  I think they are both more if appreciated properly.

These two disciplines remind us who we are and what we are not.  Going to see the film Crash may not halt your racism if you’re racist, by seeing Matt Dillon exhibiting this characteristic in front of you.  But as soon as we form an opinion about a character, we need to remember that “realistic fiction” is no oxymoron, but facts, told as story  – so the arts can make a difference.  Take this next example: without the West’s ruthless hold on those countries it knows to be at the mercy of its trade and so-called development, films such as The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond would not exist; in an ideal world the hellish subject matter in the films would indeed only be fiction.  Sadly it is not – these films are nothing less than brutally real.

The Constant Gardener

I’ll leave it to two other much more eloquent and experienced people to illustrate this with Sir Richard Eyre’s quote from his Foreword to Arthur Miller’s autobiography ‘Timebends’: “he [Miller] wasn’t a political play writer, nor was he a moralist; and he was only a realist in the sense that he was concerned with the realities of the forces that affect people’s lives rather than the superficial appearance of reality…If there was a touch of the evangelist in his writing, his message was this: there is such a thing as society and art ought to be used to change it.  Though it’s hard to argue that art saves lives, feeds the hungry or sways votes, Death of a Salesman comes as close as any writer can get to art as a balm for social concern.”

Everyday Drama in Art in Oregon, USA

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In 2009 I spent some time in Portland, Oregon, volunteering as a Gallery Assistant in the Art Museum there.

‘M.C. Escher and Paradox’ was an exhibition which within the pictures contained the everyday drama of life.  Each picture was a stage.  On this stage were people in a scene – most of the time not communicating with each other.  It reminded me of the world we now live in.  The stage of the theatre is a place where people communicate.  The stage of life – as in these pictures – is a place where people do not.  In this article I wanted to explore the theme of ‘encounter’.  Opposites, incongruities and tensions all have to be dealt with and faced and this is something the Church of England is having to do a great deal of at present.  I would venture to take this further and say that the characters in Escher’s pictures represent the divisions in the Church at the moment both internally and with other members of the faith.  I want to show that whilst Visual Art is not Theatre per se, it is a presentation of the drama in daily life – whether it is dramatic or un-dramatic is probably down to the viewer to decide.

Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) was a Dutch printmaker who crafted hundreds of prints from woodblocks of impossible worlds, hard to explain without looking at his prints.  Yet to look at his worlds they seem logical and neat.  The fact is, his worlds are beautiful and perfect to look at but display an uncomfortable tension because of this: the viewer knows they are not.  He intermingles different worlds – of sky and earth merging purely by the transformation of shapes where one thing becomes another.  To look at the surface of these prints is to see one thing and to look within is to see another as the volume of the print takes hold of you.  There are multiple vanishing points as he experiments with depictions of infinity.  He suggests possibilities yet never can they be possible…the suggestion of a reality is the itch that keeps you looking at his work since his worlds should be real and yet are dysfunctional.

Annette Dixon, Curator of the exhibition, says: ‘Escher’s work is rational and logical, yet strange and incomprehensible.  Though bizarre, his morphing forms evolve systematically.  Though uncanny, his interpenetrating worlds seem orderly.  Whether suggesting the perfection of the harmonious, or the shock of the incongruous, paradox is central to his work.’

The characters in the impossible worlds are disconnected and unaware of each other.  Escher is really saying something here: our world now is impossible because people are these things.  The characters in the prints bump into each other because they don’t notice each other – they move in different directions to the same destination but never get there because the structure they are in (and have built) contradicts their chosen path.  I cannot help feel how appropriate Escher’s pictures are to our post modern, cranky society – we can’t see how tangled we are because we fail to talk to one another or see the hostile structures we have created (including the boundaries in religion which only we have made) go against our nature.

I’d like to quote from the Declaration of Creative Rights by Oregon Poet Kim Stafford, Oregon Arts Summit, May 2009.  The quote draws the theme of encounter with the other – whether fellow human or God, together with the need to be done through Drama and the Arts.  The last line is particularly inspirational.

We hold early Creative Experience to be indelible, and that all children need be offered, equally and abundantly, certain Rights that secure access to the formative Encounters of Art—and that among these are making original Work, savoring creative Practice, and the Pursuit of one’s own generous Vision and articulate Voice. At every Stage of our state’s history we have recognized the power of creative citizens to encounter, to consider, and in Good Company one with another to resolve by Insight, Wisdom, and Work together any difficulty that may confront us. And just as a River, in order to thrive in passage through the Tangle of Civilization, must begin pure at its source of Oregon Origin—Applegate, Rogue, Umpqua, McKenzie, Santiam, Chetco, Siuslaw, Trask, Deschutes, Malheur, Grande Ronde, Wallowa—so must a Child begin with pure encounter in the Ways of the Maker, the Inventor, the Architect of personal Image, Craft, Hue, Print, Dance, Drama, Song, and Story.

However poetic (hyperbolic, you may say) this is, it does ask us to return to our roots: clearly the artistic ones but I read something grander in the last lines as well.  If we become unable to nurture our creative energy, we destroy the Creator in us and shut ourselves off from civilized communication.  With the Arts and charities being hit hard in the economic downturn, we should remember that the giving of bank bonuses or the endless amounts of time we spend in our office jobs passing papers around and staring into computer screens, was never and will never be the thing that unites people in life, and that such a self orientated culture was certainly not one we were cut out for.

Film Review: The Way

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Some films have those ‘one-liners’ in the script that aren’t lived up to by the rest of the film’s contents;  ‘The Way’ is certainly not one of those films.  “You don’t choose a life.  You live one” is the quote on the film’s poster and said in the film early on by the character Daniel – played by the film’s Director Emilio Estevez – son of Martin Sheen in the film and in real life.  (Martin Sheen’s real name is Ramon Estevez – he is half Spanish, half Irish, with an American accent).  Sheen plays Tom, an eye doctor in California, but is called to walk The Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James) after some tragic news.

The film starts out as Tom’s painful journey but quickly becomes the journey of all who join him – including those in the cinema audience – their pain, their search for themselves, their frustration with each other.  Tom’s 800 kilometre walk to reach the cathedral is also the walk of many other pilgrims – some who join and stay with him – much to his annoyance at first.  There is the overweight, excitable and ever supportive Dutchman Joost, the depressed, sensitive and empathetic Canadian Sarah (who herself has a tragic story which she realises is not so far away from Tom’s) and the very talkative, seemingly scatty (he is far from scatty) Irishman Jack who has writer’s block (James Nesbitt).  And I think ‘seemingly’ is an important word here – all the characters are quite private (apart from maybe Joost the Dutchman who appears uncomplicated) about why they are on the pilgrimage – they discover bit by bit about each other and in turn learn why they themselves might be there.  What binds them is their kindness to each other and the fellowship they share – often unknowingly.

The journey they end up doing together is none other than inspirational and very moving.  Accompanied by an amazing soundtrack featuring Coldplay, David Gray, James Taylor and Alanis Morissette  it quickly makes you feel lucky to be alive because of the unusual sense of ‘realness’ the film creates.  These four travellers (I call them seekers) are not on the surface religious and don’t talk about God very much but visibly display enough sense of inward emotional struggle with themselves and their purpose in life to make the viewer feel that they are everyman.  Most of all the unbreakable chain of friendship that grows between them is hugely moving.  Tom pushes them away as he struggles with his pain and self-blame but they never desert him.  They stand by him, often coming to his rescue.  By the end, the introvert Tom tells Jack (Nesbitt) to write his book truthfully – tell it as it is – something Tom would never have said at the beginning.

Tom contemplates his journey

The film is a fable of journeys lost and found, of fractured lives being rebuilt and of understanding that although we are all unique people, we share the same tears, fears and need for a listening, non-judgemental ear.  At one point, Jack the Irishman says to Tom that he (Jack) needs to get back to the real world – Tom’s reply indicates that he himself is now questioning why this journey is not the real world or at least why it cannot be part of the real world?  Just because it has been labelled a ‘religious’ journey – it has been no less a journey, and we each make those every day of our lives.  You get the feeling that after they have reached the goal – the awesome Cathedral at Santiago – they go their own separate ways.  It seems a shame, but reinforces another of the film’s messages that it is the fleeting experiences in life that often mean the most – the challenge is to take the feelings created by them and the people that helped you and lived with you during those fleeting moments, into the rest of life.

You feel that whatever the pilgrims were searching for, they found it – just look at the expressions on their faces once at the Cathedral (particularly Nesbitt’s).  If they thought they were searching for nothing, they were given something unexpected.  An Oscar winning actress recently said that the arts are where people go to when they need their broken hearts mended – this film is an example both in its art form that does this and in its subject matter.  Whether or not you believe in God, I’d urge you to see the film – it is a tapestry of honest human experience and preaches nothing other than making the most of what you have, who you have around you and to laugh with them (the film made me laugh and cry in equal measure).    Another of the people Tom meets along his journey says that what he is participating in is nothing to do with religion, but something beyond.  By the end of the film, you understand what this is.