Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Spirituality of the Long Distance Runner

I have recently been enjoying the "What is Spiritual Practice" blog series by Christine Sine and associates over in Seattle these last few months. Exploring how every day experiences can be part of our devotion to God has always interested me, and this series of thoughts has been quite refreshing and eye opening about unexpected ways of encountering God.

Thanks to my recent health problems I have had to make some major changes to my diet and start a proper exercise regime. For me, proper exercise means running – it was a passion for much of my twenties and early thirties, but somehow marriage and fatherhood squeezed the time for such practices – until I realised it was one of the only ways I could lose weight and help bring my diabetes under control.

So, I dusted off my old running shoes, bought some running shorts, and fished my worn out running socks from the back of my drawers, and started to pound the pavements whenever I could. I started taking my running gear to work and running the streets of Borough in my lunch hour (I briefly tried to run the route between the Millennium Footbridge and Tower Bridge on both sides of the Thames, but the volume of tourists made this hazardous, and a gashed arm caused by a distracted individual idly forcing me into some railings made me give up on that idea!!).

I started working out longer routes around my neighbourhood – streets that I knew by car, and then back routes and down through woodland and waste ground that I had never even been aware of before. At work I discovered side streets with hidden parks and those wonderful London squares with shared gardens in the centre tucked away behind the utilitarian facades of Borough High Street and London Bridge. I have found that you learn much more about a place pacing it out on foot than you do in a car or on a bus.

But it is the discovery of things inside myself that caught me by surprise. That my body actually craves exercise, and that years of being sedentary had not only harmed my health but had affected my spirit – my body wants to run, and denying it that had left me feeling something was missing. Suddenly it was more than the endorphin high of a good run, it was a sense that my body was doing something it was designed for and designed to do well. I am a runner by nature, and on the road I have found that "sweet spot" – the place where my body works at its best. The challenge of a new hill, a harder circuit, a longer route, a better time, all making me stretch my body to do more of this, and my body responds with joy. I have lost over two and a half stone (around thirty pounds if you are American, around fifteen kilos if you are European), and around eight inches off my waist. But it is more the sense of having energy and stamina and feeling young again that has struck me. It's like the years have fallen off, and I have my old self back again.

And as I find this new/old sense of self, I am also finding God with me on my runs. Granted I usually run listening to a podcast of films reviews, news or other matters of interest to me, but even with that I find myself aware that I am not running alone. I am not sure why God made me good at this – I am never going to be good enough to compete (nor do I want to), and it is an intensely solitary pursuit for me, (although I enjoy running with a partner from time to time). Yet I sense that in finding this one area where I am fitted, I am opening myself up to God to use me in other ways that He has suited me to.

We all have a place where we fit, a role or a skill that is uniquely ours. Finding that "sweet spot" is the road to joy, peace and fulfilment. Not necessarily the road to comfort, prosperity and material security, as some of the American prosperity heresies would have it, mind. In fact quite the opposite. Running takes hard work, discipline and commitment, self-sacrifice. Serving God in whatever way takes no less focus and commitment. So I have found that while running is a good in itself for me, I have found it more as a reminder that God has good works prepared for me in whatever role or walk of life that I am in. That is the challenge we all face – and sometimes we find it by the most unexpected route.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Era of the Reboot

I think it can hardly have passed notice that the world of cinematic and TV science fiction is going through a strange phase at the moment. I say strange, because it at once both highly creative and innovative while at the same time being tied somewhat pathetically to its antecedents.

Look at some the major science fiction films of the last eighteen months - Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and The Day the Earth Stood Still etc. All either remakes or reboots or sequels. Or on recent TV - Stargate Atlantis (a spin off to a TV show that was spin off to a film), Enterprise (the fifth spin off series from the original Star Trek), Battlestar Galactica (a reboot of a short lived seventies/eighties series), Doctor Who (a continuation and re-boot of a the longest running TV science fiction series on Earth) and Torchwood (not only a spin off of Doctor Who, but an anagram of that show's title!), and finally Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles (another spin off from the expanding Terminator franchise). And while Joss Whedon's Dollhouse stands alone as the most original show to have arrived on the scene in a few years, that is only thematically (and even then it has borrowed heavily on ideas from Joe 90 and Dark City to name but two obvious sources). However, structurally (at least to begin with) it was all too tied to the formula of a weekly sci-fi/spy show.

But this trend is not all bad - the new Star Trek film not only brought life and energy to a tired old franchise, but re-booted it in a way that gives infinite room for story progression. Battlestar Galactica remains one of the stand out shows of the noughties, standing up there with The Wire, West Wing and The Sopranos as one of the most innovative, engrossing and compelling television series of any genre. Some old ideas are worth re-visiting and improving upon.

Meanwhile Doctor Who continues to go from strength to strength on both sides of the Atlantic (and indeed, globally). Even it's initially weedy daughter show has at last found its stride with the five part Children of Earth mini series, but at the cost of killing off most of the characters and destroying its base of operations (a fourth season is still rumoured, but no yet confirmed).

Dollhouse may be finding its own original voice after an uneven first season, but at least has the virtue of coming from a (mostly) original idea that is not an attempt at a remake. But it is no Firefly (at least, not yet - the expectation on Season 2 is huge). And while Fox did grant it a second season, it did so at the cost of a third season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which had suffered from a very slow and uneven second season after a lean and engrossing first.

The less said about Terminator Salvation the better - maybe that franchise is finally ready to be laid to rest. Please! Ditto The Day the Earth Stood Still.

What does this all tell me? Maybe that there is a need to play it safe in US and British TV producers minds. Go with what we know will sell, rather than risk something different or new? That may be true, but there are genuinely innovative shows out there that give a lie to such an easy conclusion.

It may be that there are few writers willing or able to come up with something original? Or of a generation so raised on TV and cinema science fiction that they will not raid the treasure trove of ideas in literary science fiction.

However, there are some breaths of fresh air - Cameron's forthcoming Avatar looks set to revitalise the genre, not just through state of the art effects, but also through a premise that draws heavily on classic literary science fiction ideas. And there is District 9, with it unique setting in South Africa (at last, the aliens are not landing in New York or London, but Jo'Berg), and the recent Moon with its original and intelligent premise couched in references back to classic '70s science fiction films. But overall, I fear that TV and cinematic science fiction is in a state of decline in new ideas and innovation. Maybe we need a new generation of writers willing to branch off in new and unexpected directions. The creativity is out there, I am sure, I just hope it gets to see the light of day.