Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is more of a work of art than a movie. It is beautiful. It’s over a week since I’ve seen it and I’m still trying to get my head round it. It seems to me to be an attempt by an unusual director (Terrence Malick) to portray the breadth and depth of the experience of being human. There is little traditional plot. *Spoiler* This movie is probably not like anything you’ve seen before! Artistic sequences of nature, colour and shape are as much a part of the plot as the O’Brien family. Some people hate it and it’s easy to see why. It is ambitious. Almost pretentious. Probably genius.

The film starts with God in Job 38:4,7

"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

At one point one of the boys asks his mother “Tell us a story from before we can remember”. And that is what Malick does. He briefly dips his toe into a real life story before quickly jumping out again, as if to give human suffering some perspective, to a view of the universe before mankind. Set to this music, we are treated to a breathtakingly beautiful collage of images portraying the birth of the universe. Without any apology for leaving the plot behind he draws the viewer into something akin to an extended car or perfume ad but with our planet and life advertised as the product and ends up with something which could be described as worship.

So what’s the movie about? I don’t want to spoil the story but in a way the story doesn’t seem to matter. There is a plot but it is not really the focus. Language and dialogue is almost under-emphasised perhaps in case it gets in the way of telling the story.

We learn about events from Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) - the only character in the movie with a first name. And gradually we unravel a story about him (and his parents) struggling to come to terms with the death of his brother. It is largely filled with glimpses into his childhood memories. Jack’s perspective on his brother’s death is filtered through the prism of his upbringing. I guess we are all products of our childhood. We see scenes of his father’s anger (Brad Pitt), Jacks jealousy towards his brother, his rebellion against his father (echoes of Cain and Abel), and his mother’s grace and unconditional love. Apparently Malick grew up in a similar small American town and his younger brother committed suicide when studying the guitar in Spain which at least helped me make some autobiographical sense of the plot.

But the rest of the movie is also a celebration of life - we see birth, beauty, grace, hard work, mercy and forgiveness. There are scenes of love: romance, brotherly love, and parental love. But yet like ‘The Thin Red Line’ (also directed by Malick) it is uncompromising in its portrayal of this fallen world. It does not hide the ugliness and brokenness of human nature too - anger, cruelty, death, temptation, failure, jealousy, resentment and grief. We cannot escape the pain of this life - at least not yet.

It has been described by others as ‘a poem’, ‘a prayer’, ‘a hymn to life’ or ‘a psalm’. Perhaps it’s a lament - some of the pieces on the soundtrack are requiems. It is deeply Spiritual and yet it does not provide easy answers about the meaning of life. We all have a story. And in that sense, I suppose like any movie, we identify with the experience of life. But we also identify with the deeper questions from the narrator voice-over, literally crying out to God for purpose and answers. “Why? What are we doing here? Where were you? You let a boy die. Why should I be good when you aren’t?” Like the rest of us, it is a journey of faith. And on the surface of the movie there aren’t a lot of answers.

It seems like a view of God from Job’s perspective. “Life is tough. Don’t question me.” But there are some subtle hints that Malick believes there is more than that. At the end of the movie, in a moving role reversal of what God has done for us, we hear Mrs O’Brien whisper “I give him to you . . . I give you my son”. She has come through her grief to a place of accepting and faith. And the director invites us to do the same.

One of the songs played during the final credits is listed as Hymn 87: Welcome Happy Morning. (HT).

"Welcome, happy morning! Age to age shall say:
hell today is vanquished, heaven is won today!
Lo! the dead is living, God for evermore!
Him their true Creator, all his works adore!

Thou, of life the Author, death didst undergo,
tread the path of darkness, saving strength to show;
come then, true and faithful, now fulfill thy word,
'tis thine own third morning! rise, O buried Lord!

Loose the souls long prisoned, bound with Satan's chain;
all that now is fallen raise to life again;
show thy face in brightness, bid the nations see;
bring again our daylight: day returns with thee!"

I can’t say for certain what Malick believes but I believe that it is only because of Jesus we have hope. We have hope for the future. Death is not the end. The resurrection is real. The Bible doesn’t teach “pie in the sky when you die” or that we will play harps on clouds forever. Instead for those who take that step of faith we can look forward to resurrected life in new physical bodies as part of a new worshipping fellowship on this earth which will be completely restored. I believe we will be able to enjoy many of the good things we already enjoy here including music, art, food, nature, beauty, work, discovery, creativity - all done as worship of our Creator.

And because of Jesus we also have hope for forgiveness and the redemption of our past no matter what they hold. There is some suggestion that Jack comes to a realisation of this in his soul searching. I believe in a God who rescues people. Ultimately Jesus’ death reveals the depth of God’s sacrificial love for us when he completely dealt with our sins and our shame at the cross. The resurrection and the subsequent coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost demonstrates the power of God to conquer death, break the hold of sin and defeat the power of the devil. And we are offered that chance to share in that death and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism is a picture of this – we go down into water/death and up into resurrection life. Jesus came to bring freedom which means we don’t have to live in our old world life anymore. “If anyone is in Christ – he IS a new creation.” 2 Cor 5:17

And finally, Jesus gives us hope for today. Our salvation is ‘worked out’ in our ordinary every day lives. The church is called to be a loving community of people who enjoy the benefits of reconciliation with God, inward peace with themselves and renewed relationship with each other. We are enabled to take this resurrection ‘new creation’ energy and let it loose on the world. Into all areas of life. In church and outside. Politics. Economics. Law. Medicine. Culture. Art. Music. Literature. The environment. The list goes on. We get to live life now to the full in the sure hope of God's certain future!

The tree of life is described twice in the Bible. Initially in Genesis 3:22 after the fall when relationships are broken and sin enters the world. Adam and Eve were thrown out of the garden so that they would not eat from the tree of life and live for ever. And it is mentioned again at the end of the Bible after Jesus comes back in judgement, there is a picture of the new world in Revelation 22:1-2.

"Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."

This is when the fall is reversed and the power of God’s love finally makes ‘all the bad things come untrue’. And it is love we are called to start practising now. It’s our duty. Our destiny. Love demonstrates resurrection life. People who truly hope will be people enabled to love and forgive in a new way. Conversely people who are living by rule of love will be people who are learning more deeply how to hope.

It is a sad movie but one which inspires me to hope. Did I mention it's beautiful?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Avatar

I'm back after a bit of a blogging hiatus! So . . . Avatar then. I'm not sure what I expected. I had seen some of the hype but we haven't been to the cinema in months so partly went to experience the 3D. And visually, director James Cameron's $300million 3D graphics were impressive, despite the annoying glasses. Although I think 3D is a gimmick to get people going to the cinema again and not something which will really catch on.

Spoiler Warning (ie don't read on if you haven't seen the movie)
The plot however was relatively unsubtle. We've seen this basic story before but it was retold well and the graphics don't distract from the narrative. It's basically a sci-fi mixup of Dances with Wolves and The Matrix! Avatar is set in the year 2154 on the planet Pandora. The natives perfect existance is under threat from humans in search of a rare mineral which could save planet earth from extinction. Its hard to miss the lesson of the greedy humans who have turned their attention from destroying earth to plundering and exploiting another planet paradise instead. The key to most good sci-fi movies is that they're actually movies about us disguised as movies about other planets. The Na'vi aliens are essentially another race of humans and the film touches on love, war, injustice and culture clashes, with plenty of politics and eco-politics thrown in.

But I want to focus on some of the theology. On one level this story can be dismissed as pantheism, a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world. There are definitely elements of gaia worship but I do think there is a deeper spiritual story here and some Biblical parallels. Pandora is a perfect world where the people commune with God and with nature - like when Adam and Eve walked with God on our planet before the fall. And like the garden of Eden, there are two sacred trees - the 'home tree' and the 'tree of souls (or voices)'. After the fall, God banished Adam and Eve from the garden so they would not eat from the tree of life (Genesis 1:21). The humans in Avatar are trying to get back to the tree of life for the one mineral they need: unobtainium (I told you it was unsubtle - a bit like Asterix!). So Cameron puts mankind back in the garden and again we fall: sin, greed, exploitation and murder.

While the humans of the future seem to be completely secular, the Na'vi people are defined by their worship. But this is not true pantheism. These people, I mean aliens, do not worship everything, but only one god: Eywa (nearly Yahweh). Nor is this god just a cosmic energy force, but one who communes with her people and actively answers prayer and intervenes in their battles.

Ironically salvation for the Na'vi from the humans comes through another human, Grace Augustine (surely a reference to St Augustine's doctrine of grace) and her avatar program. The main character, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic ex-marine. He seems to symbolise the human race and like his planet is paralysed and sully-ed. As he spends more time with these new people his old ways seem less and less important to him to the point where he abandons his old life to become part of the tribe. He enters this new paradise through the Na'vi avatar body as a messiah like figure - fully human, yet fully Na'vi - trusted by both sides as the perfect mediator. What a great picture of what Jesus did for us. Avatar actually means 'incarnation' in Sanskrit! He brings them a message of salvation and eventually leads them to victory over the human 'sky people'. He even gets that moment at the beginning when Eywa anointed him like a dove from heaven. Later he goes to the tree of souls as a high priest to ask for divine help on behalf of the people. At the end Jake is fully initiated into Na'vi society by actually transforming his consciousness into his avatar, a process which he describes as being "born again" which allows him to live in his new, perfect body.

Overall I would say that it does live up to the hype and is worth seeing. It's not perfect but it is the next step in computer animation. Often movies contain spiritual symbols which can easily be overlooked. Cameron's theology (as is mine) is far from perfect but it's too blatant to ignore. Avatar is full of opportunites to discuss spirituality, faith, protection of the planet, and how to relate to other cultures. Big movies become part of our culture and are an insight into how many people understand spiritual things. I'm still waiting for Nelly's book on pop culture!

Finally as with many of the other names, I'm sure that the name of the planet, Pandora was not an accident. In the Greek creation myth she is the Eve character created as the first woman by the gods (read it here). She was given a box by Zeus which she was told not to open. Like Eve, Pandora's curiosity leads her to eventually open the box releasing all the evils into the world. The story finishes when she opens the box again to release 'hope' which had been left inside. Despite her actions and the consequences of her disobedience there was still hope for mankind. In Cameron's world this is likely a message that there is still a possiblity of redemption for our planet and the human race if we get our act together. As Christians we know that our Hope is fulfilled in Jesus precisely because we are incapable of getting our act together. Biblical 'hope' is not just a positive feeling but a confident expectation that what God promised will happen. Paul talks about the 'hope of the gospel' (Col 1:23). This is the good news of the hope of forgiveness for the worst of sinners (a weeping prostitute saved by faith), the hope of reconciliation (the prodigal son coming home), the hope of holiness (the leper cleansed by Jesus' touch) and it available to all. "Come!" Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. (Rev 22:17)

And I didn't even mention 'Hell's Gate' or the floating 'Hallelujah Mountains'!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ignore the critics

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
- Theodore Roosevelt

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Wife for life

I love my wife. I love her even more now than I did three years ago. Asking her to marry me is the best decision I've made so far in my short life. Some days I feel qualified to write about marriage. Some days I get it so wrong. But as it's our wedding anniversary, I thought I would attempt a marriage post! Here are a few of my recent thoughts about marriage.

I believe in marriage. I believe that God created it and with Him at the centre, it works. . . for individuals and for society. Marriage is a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the church. When it works, it reflects God's character, love, and forgiveness.

What is christian marriage? It's a solemn commitment in front of God (and man) to love, honour, cherish and maintain exclusive intimacy, through anything, until death. It's a promise (and a covenant) to commit and submit. With no get-out-clause! It's hard work and it requires trust. And it's risky: you have no control whether the other person will behave or keep their promise. It's not like a business contract where each party is in the deal for what they can get out of it. That kind of relationship ultimately breaks down when one (or both) no longer gets what they want or think they deserve.

At its most romantic, marriage is two people so crazy in love with each other that they can't live apart. But emotions, situations and people change. Feelings alone won't hold a couple together forever. Love, as a feeling, is beautiful, magical and can be described but not easily defined. But marriage is different. It has to be. It's not an emotion but a real and concrete daily decision. By definition, this is not romantic but practical.

We are made for relationships. I believe that it is possible for any man and any woman to fall in love with each other. Physically, emotionally, properly, in every way. The attraction may or may not happen immediately but given the opportunity, time and sometimes hard work, true love (with all the feelings!) is possible. That's why arranged marriages can (although not always) be successful and filled with love. And why there is always hope for 'dying' marriages.

Here's the secret: It's not about finding a completely perfect person, or someone who will tick every box. They don't exist! Nor is it about waiting for the right feelings! Feelings are great but can be so deceptive (both for and against a decision). Although your heart has to be involved, actually choosing who to marry should be (mostly) a head decision.

So how do you find "the one"? I'm no expert but here are my tips! First, get your head sorted out. Wait until you are mature enough to know who you are and what you want out of life. Then decide what sort of person you are looking for. What qualities are essential? Don't just settle for anybody! Find (that's the tricky bit!) someone you are willing to trust. Be intentional. Choose to get to know that person and be known by them. Find out what makes them tick. What do they want in life? What is their relationship with God like? Will they build you up or pull you down? Choose to fall in love.

Next you need to independently decide whether or not you are ready to commit to loving and serving that one person - for life. (Ok - they need to do the same thing). It's still not about the feelings! Pray. God may guide clearly but it's also easy to misinterpret 'signs'. Take advice, but it has to be your decision. When you are completely sure in your own heart and mind that you are ready give/surrender/submit to someone else, then you have found "the one".

Then do it! Grab the opportunity with both hands - there is incredible blessing in doing it right. Commit. Promise. Love. Choose to keep falling in love. For life. True love is about giving, not receiving. Its about putting someone else's needs before your own. Unlike a romantic fairytale, it's a real (and sometimes difficult) journey of daily making that other person "the one". Then the feelings you have for each other will grow and deepen as you experience life together.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Dark Knight

Spoiler Warning (ie. don't read unless you've seen the film)
So we went to see
the new Batman movie to see what all the fuss was about. And yes, it does live up to the hype. It's big names, big action and it goes a bit deeper and darker than most comic book thrillers. But in classic comic book style it was still good versus evil, the law versus the lawless, right versus wrong, the Batman (and the good cops/lawyers) against the Joker (and the bad cops/criminals) in a battle for Gotham's (civilization as we know it) soul.

Bruce Wayne is an ordinary man and a philanthropist who dresses up as a bat at night to do battle with evil. It seems people will still pay money for that! When his parents were murdered, he chose to dedicate his life, time and money to to fighting crime in the city of Gotham. While not as blatant as Superman there are shades of Batman as a messianic figure. He loves justice and loves his people. He works behind the scenes to protect people. He never feels the need to defend himself. At the end when the Joker seems to have won, in an act of grace and forgiveness, Batman sacrifices himself and his reputation for something greater. "That's the point of Batman," Alfred (Michael Caine) tells Bruce Wayne/Batman. "He can make the choice no one else can make, the right one." However, unlike other superheroes, he possesses no superpowers. So while he is fully superhero, he is still fully man and as such is a flawed hero. As a vigilante he is no stranger to committing acts of violence and his jealousy at times clouds his judgement. The shades of right and wrong become blurred. Is violence ok if protecting others from violence? What about using torture to protect lives? Given the right circumstances, does power always corrupt?

Batman's nemesis, The Joker is convincingly evil, has a wicked sense of humour and is completely mad (think somewhere between
Hannibal Lecter and Jim Carey in The Mask. Like a comic book version of the movie Heat, The Batman and The Joker try to outmaneuver each other. A lot of hype has surrounded Heath Ledger's recent suicide but it has to be said that he plays 'The Joker' superbly. He has no regard for anything or anyone and is reckless (and interestingly also suicidal) in his quest to terrorise a city. He is an agent of chaos and a criminal mastermind and has an uncanny ability to always be one step ahead. This is a 'post 9-11' Gotham city which raises more dilemmas: Is democracy strong enough to protect a city against an enemy with no rules? Surely a city with Batman in charge, with his 'judge&jury' act and his 'ends-justify-the-means' ethics of torture and total surveillance would be safer? How can you fight against/ protect yourself from a man who has no regard for his own life or the lives of others and whose only goal is to bring terror (?a suicide bomber)?

On the other side Batman is quite similar to the Joker: both insane, obsessive, and masked vigilantes. Unlike Batman and Harvey Dent/Two Face you only see one persona of The Joker and don't know anything of his past story. He drives the plot by being consistently unpredictable. He seems to know people better than they know themselves and (?like Satan) takes it upon himself to bring out the worst in people. He manages to devise situations (?temptations) which push all the characters (Batman, the police, the law, and the citizens of Gotham) to their breaking point (think Kevin Spacey in
Se7en). He says: “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules” and in this sense he makes the most sense by tapping into the cultural zeitgeist. Call it 'postmodern' if you like but it's hard to deny that we live in a society which has rejected God as their moral centre. Each individual must decide for themselves where to draw the line so that the logical conclusion is that we all must allowed the right to pursue our own desires. When you mix moral relativism with total depravity you ultimately get anarchy. The ugly fact is that that this depravity lurks inside of each of us. We (personally and as a society) need a moral grounding and (I would argue) God's help to enable us to rise above our base nature.

The Gotham civilians are fickle. They love batman when things are going well. When not so well, they blame him for the trouble they're in. They need a saviour but they don't really deserve one. One of the final scenes leaves mankind with some hope. Two ferries with convicts on one and "innocents" on the other have the chance to blow each other up to save their own boat. Both groups in the end do the unexpected thing by showing that we also have the ability to choose good. The Batman is an inspiration because he is a man living up to his potential and inspiring others to join him.

I also liked the descent into madness of Harvey "The White Knight" Dent. He started the movie as an agent of justice who made his own luck. The coin he flipped had a head on both sides. He was in control of his own destiny. His personal torture into Two Face caused by the Joker's madness meant that he no longer believed in anything greater than chance. This too as a worldview was shown to be folly.

This is more than just a comic book movie. Although violent (and not for kids) the characters have real depth so that the viewer cares what happens to them. It is definitely not predictable and the cinematography and special effects are awesome. I would definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Short Term Missions

(nb. this is just a few of my thoughts and opinions on STM - not intended to be critical of any particular program or group)

It's easy to be critical. It's harder to suggest how to change things. At present, this is largely an issue for the Western Church although God knows that we need missionaries here too. I usually like to start with where I'm coming from: I have been on a short term summer team to Romania. I have lived as an
MK in Nigeria and seen teams come and go. I've travelled a good bit and I (humbly) know a bit about the global church. I believe in Missio Dei - that mission is part of God's nature. I believe that we have good news and that we are commanded by Jesus to go into all the world and preach it. I also believe that we are called to a missional day-to-day life in our own community and local church. (See here for a interesting discussion on the word 'missional')

I was motivated by a link (HT:
TSK) to this Washington Post article which contained the following information:

"A Princeton University study found that 1.6 million people took short-term mission trips -- an average of eight days -- in 2005. Estimates of the money spent on these trips is upward of $2.4 billion a year. Vacation destinations are especially popular: Recent research has found that the Bahamas receives one short-term missionary for every 15 residents. At the same time, the number of long-term American missionaries, who go abroad from several years to a lifetime, has fallen, according to a Wheaton College study done last year. A 2006 study in Honduras found that short-term mission groups spent an average of $30,000 on their trips to build one home that a local group could construct for $2,000."


Here are some problems I have with (badly done) Short Term Missions:
  • In my opinion, most short term teams are more for the benefit of the people on the teams more than the people they go to "serve". If they are only about us going, then we're exploiting another culture for our own benefit.
  • Religious tourism. I have seen this. It's easy to jump on the summer short term mission bandwagon - get to see the world, get a great tan, get some photos with some poor kids and feel like you're making a difference! It's harsh, but in my experience is sometimes close to the truth. I have met these people on mission trips. They have no real interest in the people they meet but are there for the experience. Think: Prince Harry or Madonna celebrity photo ops.
  • Expense. Could the money raised be used to support longer term missionaries or local church workers? Admittedly, it might not be possible to raise any money for a cause people know nothing about unless these people go on the trip.
  • It takes up valuable time and energy at the receiving end looking after the team.
  • They should not be seen as a substitute for supporting or going on longer term mission.
  • They are done with wrong motives. They should never be a status symbol in the church or as a salve for a guilty conscience.

Good things about Short Term Missions:


  • They can work. Jesus sent his disciples out on short term teams. (Mark 6:7-12) The fruit of mission does not necessarily depend on the duration of the commitment.
  • The people going on the trips do benefit. That's not a bad thing. With good leadership, the whole process is a form of discipleship for (usually) young believers. Benefits include: developing faith; developing healthy relationships with other Christians; giving people an opportunity to serve others, bringing hope to the needy, expanding horizons, and giving people cross cultural experience. It is hard to get involved and usually care about making a difference somewhere unless you have seen it for yourself. And they are better and a less selfish way of spending a summer holiday than just going on a foreign holiday.
  • Foreign mission trips can change perspectives. Travel and cross cultural experience broadens the mind and helps us to see that God is at work across the world. They can propel people into longer term missions and increase their passion for home mission. It is also good to realise that poverty is not close to becoming 'history'. Worldwide, there is a lot of daily deprivation/sickness/suffering that money shelters us from. It raises questions: Why am I so blessed? What is my duty? How is God calling me to make a difference?
  • They benefit the sending church by making them more outwardly focused.
  • When done right, they can impact churches and communities across the world.

Short term mission teams should:


  • Be God centred. They should seek to honour God. They should seek to bring him glory. They should seek God for his guidance about where/when/what to do instead of just going with a set agenda. God can powerfully use anyone who submits to him so they must go in prayer and seek His annointing. Above all the team should love and be a witness of God's love - acts of service must glorify Him, not the team.
  • Build relationships between the sending body and the people who live there. I believe that the aim should be one of developing a longer term commitment to future teams/ future missionaries/ financial support as appropriate. Everyone would benefit more from longer term teams (but then they wouldn't be short term teams!). Short term teams can be a springboard to something better. Go with a perspective of what God is doing before, during and after you show up!
  • Know their purpose. This should be something needs discussion with the local church/ receiving partners. If the purpose is evangelism then the this is essential so that any new believers will not be abandoned when they leave. If the purpose is a service team - like Habitat for Humanity - the team goes to accomplish a task which will benefit local believers. Again best if this is suggested by the local church eg. something they need or which they could not afford themselves. Questions: Will this take work away from local people? Would the community benefit more from the money spent to get the team there? How can the team also work to build relationships?
  • Be aware of the culture. This is true for any kind of missions. The relationship between the west and the developing world is complicated. Historically and today this is often one of exploitation. Mission teams can change this but also can foster anti-western feeling through insensitivity and arrogance. We have a lot to learn from the developing world church about faith and relying on God.

In summary, short term teams should not be a substitute for a life of mission. However, percieved criticisms of them should not be used as an excuse not to go. If you're thinking about mission (and you should be!) - go on a short term team. Then go long term. There are many different types of short term teams. Go with an established mission organisation who have developed local partnerships. Be inspired by getting to know some missionaries. Click here to read some missionary blogs!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Passion for Life

I admit this is a bit of a rant against a new Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill currently being debated in the UK Parliament. I had the privilege of attending a public meeting in Belfast on Thursday night, called the "Passion for Life" tour. The event was run by LIFE, CARE, and RTL and was well attended by local politicians and clergy. The bill is currently going through the House of Lords and will return to the House of Commons for some final amendments before the final vote to pass this as law. Although backed by the government, the bill originates from the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA), an "independent regulator overseeing fertility treatments and embryo research". I have reservations about much of what the HFEA has recommended to government. It is seemingly (in my opinion) an organisation bereft of any ethical standards and with a distinct lack of respect for human life.

Let me start with what I believe: human life begins at conception. It has to! At that point it is alive by any definition and already completely unique to any other human ever created. There is no other milestone which I can point to where that life suddenly becomes a human being. And I have studied embryology and child development! In my current job I am involved in a lot of antenatal scanning and I recently became a parent. All of which makes this much more personal for me. Because an early embryo/fetus cannot survive without nutrients from its mother does not make it less of a person. Even when born, a baby is completely helpless and dependent on its parents to keep on living. It can't communicate yet but then neither can a person in a coma - that's not a reason to switch off their life support. And it certainly can't defend itself - which is why we must fight for it. Obviously I'm against abortion, but I'm also against experimenting on embryos (currently allowed in the UK up until 14 days).

The argument states that further experimentation on embryos (including creating hybrids and eventually cloning) is "vital" in mankind's fight against disease. Obviously disease causes suffering and alleviating suffering is a good thing. But at what cost? Utilitarian ethics are championed where the end justifies the means. Really? Where does that stop? Human dignity must impose certain moral constraints on medical research. What about performing painful experiments on children or the vulnerable to find a cure for cancer? What about ending someones life to stop their perceived suffering? Would the ghoulish experiments of Nazi doctors be morally justified if they ultimately resulted in discoveries that alleviated human suffering? Is suffering a benchmark of human dignity? Or can suffering ever be good for us?

The holy grail of these experiments has always been the creation of stem cells. Simply put, these are special "source" or "starter" cells which have the ability to grow into different types of adult tissue. The hope is that these will one day be used to treat/ cure diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer's disease (although progress on this has been slow). And while an embryo is full of stem cells, it is not the only source. Scientists have recently shown that they can create stem cells from other body cells with out the need to create or destroy embryos. Problem solved! We can now potentially get the same cures from the stem cells but without the ethical dilemmas.

Let me outline a number of new (worrying) elements in this bill as it stands. It will allow:

* The increased use of embryos in stem cell research, despite available alternatives.

* The creation of animal/ human hybrid (up to 50%) embryos . These have recently been promoted in the media to try and change public opinion. Again they are unnecessary and in my opinion, unethical. No one knows where this will lead or what we can create. Are these still human? Are they created in the image of God? As Mark Durkan MLA said this week, this is 'scientific joyriding'!

* Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis allowing created embryos to be screened for any unwanted traits and if not perfect, destroyed prior to implantation. This is an extension of the current discrimination which allows handicapped babies (including minor problems like cleft palate and club foot) in the UK to be aborted up until birth. If it is wrong to discriminate against a disabled person then it is still wrong before they are born.

* The creation of saviour siblings. These are human beings, no longer seen as someone but as something. They are designed with the purpose of harvesting their cells and organs for another child. Where is their human dignity? How will they be affected? What does the future hold for 'designer babies'?

* The removal of "the need for a Father" from law and birth certificates. Already a father has no legal rights over his unborn child but this further undermines fatherhood. Legally this would mean, for example, that if a lesbian couple has a child together by IVF (already possible) that the child can never know who his/her biological father was. While sadly many children grow up without fathers, for the state to make it as if they are unnecessary and never existed will only serve to further undermine the family.

* The liberalisation of the abortion law in the UK includes certification of abortion by only one doctor and allowing abortions to be carried out more easily (eg. in GP surgeries). Another amendment seeks to remove the conscientious objection rights which would bar professionals who do not support abortion from providing information, support, and counselling to women considering whether or not to have an abortion in case they bias a woman's decision.

* Finally, the last and most worrying of all for me is an amendment to the bill which would legally extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. This is against the wishes of the majority and all four main political parties here yet would still be legal if this is added to the bill.

So, if you're still reading, please join me in writing to your MP (I've got postcards!) to oppose this bill. And also write to Gordon Brown to ask him to allow MPs a free vote on this ethical issue (rather than a whipped vote with a strong government majority).

Essential links:
* The HFE Bill in full
* A summary of the ethics of this bill (CMF)
* The 'Passion for Life' Campaign
* Lord Alton of Liverpool