Reviews – April 2014
Paying for the sins of the fathers
Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Certificate 15, 100 minutes
Released on 11 April
Brendan Gleeson’s Father James is a better priest than we are used to seeing on screen. A man of profound integrity and compassion, he devotes his life to parishioners who repay his care with sneering and resentment. He takes time with everyone, including local pariahs, refusing to resort to wisdom “out of a book”, but tirelessly listening and putting his shoulder to the burden.
It is about to cost him his life. A man enters his confessional and recounts his long experience of childhood sexual abuse from a priest. Father James is willing to listen and help, but the man wants blood. Another bad priest being killed would make no impact, but killing a good priest, he says, that would say something. James is to go to the beach, a week Sunday, where he will be shot.
So a kind of whodunit – or whosgonnadoit – ensues, as Father James goes about his normal business of dealing with domestic violence, bereavement and bearing the brunt of a nation’s anger at the sins of his Church. Gleeson gives us a compelling portrait of goodness, that hardest of qualities to sell cinema audiences, and of the pastoral vocation, which isn’t much easier. The film reflects on ideas of sacrifice and atonement, and while we wait to find out who his prospective killer is, and whether he will go through with it – and whether James will – an interesting thing happens. The latter question becomes almost irrelevant, as we see that giving his life to offer healing to others is what James does every day. It would be easy for a film like Calvary to fall for the myth that violence is redemptive. Instead, its final scene powerfully illustrates how, in the bleakest darkness, grace reaches out to mend and restore.
Stephen Tomkins is editor of Reform
Adventures in transformative capitalism
Travels with an Inflatable Elephant: Attempts to make things happen and not happen
Instant Apostle, £12.99
Jerry Marshall has been a Christian activist and social entrepreneur for a quarter of a century, and Travels with an Inflatable Elephant is a memoir of his work and life. In 1990, he founded a business in Coventry providing training for unemployed people facing disadvantage and exclusion. He has advised and helped British people who want to invest in social enterprises in the developing world and in the UK and, now, he runs the Arthur Rank Centre, which offers resources and training for rural churches.
Two of the campaigns he talks about in the book particularly caught my attention. One is coordinating opposition to the High Speed Two rail link. He chairs Action Groups Against High Speed Two (or AGHAST) which brings together 74 national and local groups against HS2 and promotes alternatives. It is not the kind of issue you generally associate with Christian activism – and indeed he admits that it had not seized his attention until he found out the new rail link was going to run through his back garden! But he said he pledged to put personal prejudice aside and investigate the issues, and found that the project was an unviable waste of money.
Equally unpredictable is his work for Palestinian people. Creating much-needed, decently paid jobs there has the extra problem of the difficulties of travel caused by the segregation and checkpoints. Marshall’s ingenious solution was to establish a call centre in Bethlehem in 2012, creating business and employing people without requiring them to travel outside the West Bank.
Jerry Marshall’s story is impressive and inspirational, showing what a positive difference business can make. This is especially worth hearing when big business gives it such an extremely bad name. Having no head for business myself, I just admired his work from a distance, but for those with greater abilities in that area, this is a read to give you big ideas.
Thomas Stephens is a writer and lay preacher in London
How does the Bible treat its women?
God Remembered Rachel: Women’s stories in the Old Testament and why they matter
Is God male? It’s hard not to feel he is sometimes. It’s not just the beardy pictures and the “he”, “him”, “his” language – though they are a bit of a clue; worse than that, it’s the way that when he gives us his book – comprised of umpteen writings, in different genres, from different times and places, and different attitudes – every one of the writers is a man, so it reflects male attitudes, and most of its subjects are men. I love the Bible, but I don’t always feel like its target audience.
This is why I loved Jenni Williams’ study of biblical women, and appreciated it and learned from it. She covers 10 stories, including Sarah, Hagar, Leah and Rachel, Ruth and some women whose names are not preserved. She offers re-readings of their stories, weighs up their patriarchal assumptions and biases, and considers what they have to say to us in our spiritual lives today. At one extreme there is the wonderful – how the book of Ruth celebrates her (and Boaz’s) success in escaping the roles laid down by their society. At the other extreme are the stories where Michal’s life is ruined by the structures of male power in 1 and 2 Samuel, and where the nameless “Levite’s concubine” in the book of Judges is cut to pieces as a kind of parable; in each case the writers don’t particularly seem to take the woman’s side.
God Remembered Rachel is helpful on how to deal with passages in the Bible that we don’t like. It gives equal weight to the value of being honest about our discomfort and unhappiness with some of these stories, and to the value of staying with them and listening to them. There are questions for reflection at the end of each chapter, which I’m sure could lead to some very interesting discussion.
Bronwen Hughes is a primary school teacher in Cardiff
A manual for pain and loss
Stitches: A handbook on meaning,
hope and repair
Hodder and Stoughton, £12.99 (hardback)
I’m sure the problem of pain is a fitting subject for abstract theological musings, but I’m not sure it is actually a lot of use to anyone. It is a theological conundrum we’ve probably all tussled with: Can any coherent picture of God be reconciled with a creation so full of suffering? We might find or be given answers to the question, but how often they break down when we face real loss or heartbreak ourselves – and any theology of pain which cannot cope with real pain is, if you ask me, not worth having.
So what do we turn to when those answers are not good enough? That is the question Stitches looks at, and the stories it tells and the thoughts and experiences it shares make it an answer itself – this book is one of the places you could turn to when you need an understanding voice to help you through pain.
There are theological musings here to be sure, but rather than offering watertight academic answers, it feels more like the author weighs the questions in her hands, then passes them around so that we can discuss what they feel like. The answers she offers are personal ones, more like talking to a sympathetic friend than reading a religious book.
The author also tells personal stories of dealing with tragedy – taking Sunday school after a school massacre, carrying on after the death of a friend, and what a nearby town did in response to a devastating fire caused by local teenagers. None of them end: “And thus it can be seen, the meaning of tragedy is…” yet, Stitches leaves you feeling that there is meaning in it. The meaning doesn’t come through answering theological questions, it comes through taking the trouble to walk with someone through the hard times and share the weight. That is what this lovely, hopeful, helpful book does.
Kim Kelly is a secondary school English teacher
This article was published in the April 2014 edition of Reform.