The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Slumdog Millionaire – “It’s all a muddle”

with 2 comments

1.  I saw the film Slumdog Millionaire this week.  I came away with two enduring impressions.

2.  First, unease at how much explicit violence and brutality is thought necessary to maintain the interest of a cinema audience today.  Going to the cinema only rarely, it is easier to track the changes.  Psychologists argue whether on-screen violence has any effect on real behaviour.  The rest of us simply know as a matter of common-sense that of course it does.  Desensitise people by exposure to graphic violence on screen, and you numb the sensitivities that preserve the Divine image in which each of us was created.

3.  Secondly, the film portrays misery and exploitation on every side.  The happy ending is a sugar coating added to the pill as an after-thought, and it is the only implausible part of the film.  The rest, the inescapable wretchedness of millions of people’s lives, is entirely plausible.

4.  None of this is new, of course.  Dickens was portraying the lives of youngsters trapped into crime, prostitution, poverty and beggary many decades ago – and even he was merely continuing an ancient tradition of reporting though fiction what has been a timeless theme of reality.  One of Dickens’ characters sums the whole thing up for us remarkably well, in a manner that has rarely been surpassed for accuracy and simplicity – Stephen Blackpool’s oft-repeated exclamation of ultimate hopelessness “It’s all a muddle”.  A world in which the only people who seem to have the power to control their own and others’ destinies inevitably misuse and abuse that power, while for everyone else the world is a board-game on which they are the pieces, moved about at the apparently pointless whim of human and God alike.

5.  In this week’s Torah reading B’shalach, the Torah explains that God could have taken the Jews out of Egypt by a short route, but He chose the longer one because He was concerned that if the Jews saw battle with the Plishtim they would return to Egypt.  Baffling on many counts.  (1) If God wants the Plishtim not to attack, He could arrange for that.  (2) And if the Plishtim do attack and God wants the Jews to win, He could see to that just as he sees to victory over the Egyptians for them.  (3)  If God wants to stop the Jews returning to Egypt He again has a number of options – but given the manner of their leaving and their probable reception, return was probably not high on their list of survival strategies.

6.  There is the usual range of ways of understanding all this.  But to some extent, God has already explained what is going in when He told Moses in last week’s parashah that the exodus was being stage-managed for the purpose of creating the greatest possible impression of God’s powers on the world as a whole, for all time.  The Jews are pawns in the game, and the game requires them to be set against the Egyptians and not against the Plishtim.  The danger of returning to Egypt is not a danger of actual return, but a danger of returning to the spiritual mentality of the Egyptian culture: the aim of setting the Jews against the Egyptians is to enable the former to rise to the challenge of representing the cultural antithesis of the latter, a people of trust in God and of kindness to each other set against a people of trust only in human strength as epitomised by the successful exploitation of others’ weakness.

7. We are all pawns in God’s game, and sooner or later we all come to realise it.  Even the exploiters reach a stage in their lives when they realise that their battle to control events is finally over, and that only God knows what comes next.

8.  But there are two ways to be a pawn.  One can recognise it from the beginning and submit, realising that it is only the choices that are left to me that matter, and that instead of struggling to expand the boundaries of my own power to control events around me I should concentrate on making the right decisions in relation to matters that appear to be “delegated” to me.  Or one can resent the external control and struggle constantly against it, the futility of the exercise being masked by apparent successes from time to time when what God and I want happen to coincide.

9.  Much of this week’s parashah is about the Jews’ struggle to understand the right way to be a pawn.  And it is difficult: because sometimes the Torah tells me to submit – “God will fight for you, and you should just stay quiet” (Shemos 14:14); and at other times the Torah appears to encourage us to set ourselves targets of a physical kind and not just to rely on God to do the work for us.  Getting the balance right is an eternal Jewish preoccupation.  But although we will never be satisfied that we have got the balance quite right, at least we understand the aim of the exercise.

10.  I will never understand why some people are born in an Indian slum to a life of poverty, easy prey for all kinds of miserable exploitation; any more than I will ever understand why I was not.  We are all pawns in God’s game, and nobody asks me to understand it, or even to like it.  All I can do is to submit to what I cannot change, and to concentrate on making good choices where I appear to be given the ability to change anything.  Sometimes my path in the game will come so close to someone else’s that I have the ability to make theirs easier for them: when that happens I get pleasure from my apparent ability to help them, although in reality the help comes from God who put Pawn A into the path of Pawn B at the right time.  So long as I don’t take my own part in it too seriously, no harm is done.


Written by Daniel Greenberg

February 3, 2009 at 1:51 pm

2 Responses

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  1. First blog I read after wakeup from sleep today!

    Mind Blowing!


    March 3, 2009 at 7:50 am

  2. i hugely enjoyed reading this blog (as always) – many thanks.

    it strongly reminded me of the christian prayer generally known as the “serenity prayer”:

    Give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.


    March 12, 2009 at 12:49 pm

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