Reviews – June 2014
Questions are not enough
Directed by Wally Pfister
Certificate 12A, 119 minutes
Released on 25 April
Sitting recently with a distinguished elderly couple who had just faced the possibility of imminent death, I was struck by how often older humans seem less superficial than younger ones, or at least the ones that make movies like Transcendence. They told me how their experience taught them to cherish each day even more, and to discover depths of mutual love previously hidden to them, despite 60 previous years of partnership. I believed them because I’ve known them for almost a decade, admiring how they manifest the best hopes any of us might have for how people might live together.
It’s perhaps not fair on Transcendence to be compared with such a great love. But it’s certainly appropriate to expect a film that purports to portray the adventures of a techie couple so intertwined with each other that when one dies the other uploads his brain to the internet, to offer a convincing dramatisation of that love – not to mention a universe that coheres with the ideas that its characters inhabit. Alas, Transcendence, which brings together Johnny Depp as the sexy genius – Rebecca Hall as his delicate-yet-powerful wife, Paul Bettany as their skeptical, yet adorable best friend, and Morgan Freeman as Morgan Freeman – does neither.
It asks great questions: Does the ability to heal disease warrant unbridled power? Are we our memories? But it makes the fatal – and typical – mistake of thinking that simply mentioning ideas is the same thing as bringing them to life. This film could have provoked audiences to think about how technology can diminish as well as elevate; it could have become a witty interaction between Wendell Berry-type admonitions to live closer to the land or to our neighbours and the undeniable gifts that our technology grants us. Instead, it believes the audience is so dumb that a character says; “I’m going to run a diagnostic,” to someone who knows they are running a diagnostic because that’s the obvious thing to do, not to mention the fact that the other character can see that they are indeed running a diagnostic. My diagnostic of Transcendence is that the singularity, when Hollywood action and intelligent thought permanently settle down together, is still pretty far off.
Gareth Higgins is a film critic for thefilmtalk.com
The challenge of parables
Susan Durber – former principal of Westminster College in Cambridge, and now theological adviser to Christian Aid – is a scholar whose particular field of study has been the parables of Jesus. Surprised by Grace is divided into 31 little chapters, each one beginning with a parable, then a reflection, and then one of the author’s personal, honest prayers on that theme.
Dr Durber clearly does not see parables as moral tales but rather as tantalising stories that we, the readers, have to wrestle with, chew over and still not know whether we have really got to the heart of them. Her style is clear and accessible, and she has a scholar’s scepticism about the layers of interpretation which may be obscuring Jesus’ original stories – from Matthew’s desire to see that good is rewarded and evil punished, down to the many sermons we have all heard which turn the parables into moral instructions.
It is quite an unsettling book because Dr Durber does not allow an easy response to any of the parables. Sometimes she begins by suggesting that a parable’s seemingly obvious meaning needs to be questioned. For example, by the time she has finished delving into the story in Matthew 21 about the two sons asked to go to work, the reader does not know quite what to think. Her final sentence: “Never take it for granted that you know what God is up to,” may well have been the heart of Jesus’ original message.
When she comes to the parable of the prodigal son and the elder brother in Luke 15, she warns that the trouble with getting to the meat of this one is that we know it too well. Most of us have come to love the younger son and dislike the older one. Dr Durber, of course, does not let the reader get away with such a simple response. Yet, far from insisting she has the answer, she constantly challenges the reader to discover her/his own genuine response.
This is also a beautifully illustrated book – the images on each page feeding our imagination as we approach Jesus’ endlessly fascinating parables. I will return to it again and again.
Sheila Maxey is book reviews editor for Reform
Let us play
Given our sport-obsessed culture, sooner or later someone was going to see the need to theologise upon the phenomenon, and, Lincoln Harvey – a devoted Arsenal fan – does a good and sophisticated job.
He begins by giving us an overview of the relationship between sport and religion, showing how they are both universal and have always been intertwined. Examples are given of the original Olympic Games and sport in Roman culture. Lincoln then turns to Christianity and the different attitudes taken to sport in the early church and throughout history.
He summarises Christian attitudes to sport under three headings: Instrumentalism – whereby sport was used by the Church to serve its own purposes, reinforcing health, and virtues such as discipline; opposition – whereby it was associated with idolatry; and lastly, popularity – whereby the Church had to acknowledge that, like it or not, sport was popular and was going to remain, rather than be suppressed. A fascinating chapter on “Sport, Puritans and Muscular Christians” shows how these three different perspectives have engaged with one another. Lincoln demonstrates the tangled, messy relationship between Christian faith and sport, and how the Church has been forced, often reluctantly, to embrace it, often only conditionally and in the service of mission.
The second part of the book goes into greater depth, and is rather less accessible, as Lincoln discusses sport in the wider context of play. He considers what constitutes play and arrives at the conclusion that it is a “radically unnecessary but internally meaningful” activity. This leads him to compare sport with worship, maintaining that there are strong parallels while insisting on their distinction. It also leads him to some thought-provoking reflections upon the mass commercialisation and professionalization of sport, concluding that amateur sport is true sport and professional sport a corruption.
This is an informative and thought-provoking book. The early historical chapters are an easier read than the later, more analytical ones, but for their insights into human nature, play, and the relationship between sport and worship, they too are well worth the effort.
Lance Stone is a United Reformed Church minister at Emmanuel URC in Cambridge
Timothy Keller is a Presbyterian minister, the founder of three congregations in New York and the author of numerous bestsellers. It was a privilege to review his Walking with God through Pain and Suffering for the December 2013/ January 2014 edition of Reform, so I was looking forward to reading this latest book.
I was not disappointed. Encounters with Jesus is full of wisdom and depth, all expressed in straightforward, everyday language. In 10 quite short chapters, Keller looks at episodes that are mostly from John’s gospel, drawing out of them insights which, as the book’s subtitle says, provide “unexpected answers to life’s biggest questions”. He examines Jesus’ conversations with: His mother in Cana, Mary and Martha in Bethany, Nathanael and others, and perceives depths I had not noticed before. His chapters on Jesus in Gethsemane and on the Ascension I found particularly helpful.
Keller shows how some apparently simple conversations with Jesus have the most profound implications for our belief and theology; he has the skill and the knack of helping us to see where our thoughts and opinions don’t make logical sense and don’t lead into truth. He invites us to “come and be ready to have our priorities and categories changed”. And all of this is done with graciousness, humour and plenty of anecdotes.
One can well imagine much of this material being used very effectively as a resource for preaching, and I know I will mine the book for its wisdom to illumine my own sermons. Encounters with Jesus would make a splendid present for someone who is beginning to work on the implications of following this Jesus. It is good theology at its most readable, its most comprehensible, its most enlightening.
Ruth Allen is a retired United Reformed Church minister at Ilkeston URC, Derbyshire
Our Churches and our world face confusing and disturbing times. In this book, Tom Wright investigates three contemporary phenomena, two of which have a long history: Gnosticism, empire and postmodernism. Gnosticism offers secret knowledge as a means for individuals to escape or control this imperfect, material existence (hence the attraction of conspiracy tales such as The Da Vinci Code); empire, known both in the ancient and modern world, nowadays exists as a dominant economic system, crossing national borders, claiming it is impossible to live any other way; the postmodern perspective denies the authority of shared “big narratives” such as those offered by a religion, each individual choosing “what works for me”.
The result is a society careless of the creation it inhabits, where many Christians hope to escape it by going to heaven. Some are rich, but many suffer, and society shrugs its shoulders, saying “there is no alternative” to the dominant economic model. Many sneer at religious foolishness or deplore economic injustice, but, influenced by postmodernism, are unable to offer an alternative “big story” to current approaches.
Wright’s response is based on a Trinitarian framework and explores a large number of biblical texts. “Creational monotheism” affirms the goodness of creation and God’s intention to renew it, not destroy it; the lordship of Jesus over human life denies ultimate authority to any earthly empire, and the spirit of truth is intellectually understood as love and expressed through actions of the whole church in all ages.
This slim book, broad-brush in social analysis, comparatively detailed in biblical exploration, might work well for discussion groups. It is likely to provoke. Wright castigates fellow evangelicals for being in thrall to Gnosticism, over-ready to flee God’s world for heaven, welcoming creation’s destruction rather than its renewal. He criticises theologically liberal commitment to social action, where confidence in a material world renewed is misplaced without belief in God’s great act in the process of renewal – the Resurrection. So, certainly not the last word or the final thought on the issues – but not a bad way to start the discussion.
Trevor Jamison is environmental chaplain for Eco-Congregation Scotland
This article was published in the June 2014 edition of Reform.