Reviews – July/August 2014
Small is delicious
Directed by Jon Favreau
Certificate 15, 114 minutes
Released 25 June
A talented guy gets the chance to produce his objets d’art with a larger budget and a bigger team, but a little less freedom. This is the backstory for Chef, in which we find a lovable cook – as good as Gordon Ramsey, as cuddly as either Fat Lady – inhibited from exercising imaginative impulses, and wondering if the wad of banknotes in his pocket is worth the hassle and creative compromise of working within the system. Given that the film marks the return of writer-director Jon Favreau to smaller, funnier films after a sojourn into megabucks action cinema (the first two Iron Man movies), its subtext is an in-joke evoking wry smiles, solidarity, and perhaps even a little psychological balm for anyone who has ever been told by those who hold the purse strings that “We LOVE your vision, but…”
Taking the lead role, Favreau fills out oversized shirts and embodies a larger-than-life appetite for making food that brings people happiness and community. Quitting his job to pursue a more independent vision, our culinary alter ego just wants to make succulent (if not healthy) Cuban food, captured by a camera so leering that it could possibly be prosecuted for stalking. The fact that this food is prepared from within the embrace of a freshly painted food truck, on the road from Miami to LA, Favreau accompanied by his often second-thought son and best friend, makes the meal even more appetising.
Chef is a delightful, well-crafted film, with a central premise – that you’re only free when you live from the inside out, and that family is more important than money – that isn’t the most original, but is still handled with grace and good humour (and Emjay Anthony, playing his young son, yearning for more connection with dad, is the most wonderfully natural child actor I’ve seen in ages.) It may be easy for Favreau to say that he wants to make small films – he can get Dustin and Scarlet to act for cheap – but he is at least working from the heart, and injecting a delightfully caustic humanity into the proceedings. A scene of railing against a food critic for his snarky rejoinder to the same old menu is a clear jibe at film critics – almost daring me to write a negative notice. I’m glad I don’t have to, because his film is charming – more a soufflé than beef wellington, but as soufflés go, it doesn’t deflate before it’s time.
Gareth Higgins is a film critic for thefilmtalk.com
Short, not simple, Christianity
Iwasn’t expecting to like this book, having found Rowan Williams to be controversial and open to reforms many see as too progressive. I was pleasantly surprised. In 84 pages, the former archbishop presents the true essence of what it means to be a Christian. Strands of Christianity differ in ways that pull us apart, but Williams focuses on four essentials – Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and prayer – that all Christians share. Each essential gets a chapter. The prayer chapter helped me understand that prayer is more than just “chatting to Jesus”, and I pray differently now.
This book is useful for the growing number of people who do not know what to believe, for believers who are unsure of their faith, and also for today’s militant atheists who caricature Christianity and often seem to lack even a basic understanding of it.
As Williams explains, Christianity is not easily understood; Christians commit themselves to a lifelong journey with Jesus, experiencing and learning as they go along. There is no simple set of rules to follow, and the journey never really ends. Islam is, for most, straightforward and rule-based. Across Africa and elsewhere, dodgy preachers offer certainty to poor people who are bewildered by rapid change: “Do x, y, z and you will be prosperous and heaven-bound.” Not so, Williams explains.
In plain language, the author takes us through some very difficult concepts. He explains that the Bible is more than just a collection of instructive parables and dubious Jewish history. We are connected to the historical Abraham: “So get used to it,” he says. Some readers may find such colloquialisms jarring, but perhaps younger readers will be drawn in. This book is a quick read, appropriate for today’s short attention spans, but it is not an easy read. I find myself going back to several passages over and over.
In my job as a development worker in the Islamic Republic of Somaliland, Muslims often challenge me about aspects of Christianity they find puzzling. Williams’ book has stimulated valuable discussions here, and I think it can do so wherever it is read. I might pass a copy of this book on to Muslim friends who are genuinely curious.
John Livingstone is a development worker living in Hargeisa, Somaliland
Called to be wise
The catchy title of this book raised my expectations – would reading this slim volume transform me into a wise woman? I fear that has not been the case; for, rather than writing a self-help manual, the author has produced a wide-ranging survey of sources of wisdom. He thus encourages the reader to see parts of the Bible with new eyes and to be open to finding truth beyond words – through music and literature – as well as through silence and emotions.
The extensive bibliography reflects the breadth of territory covered in a relatively slim volume. Included are writers as diverse as Jeanette Winterson, Mahatma Ghandi, Aristotle and Paul Ricouer. Musical inspirations for Garner include Gustav Mahler and Pablo Casals. Each chapter engages deeply with aspects of its subject, the first half of the book concentrating on selected parts of Scripture, the second on how wisdom might be encountered in day-to-day life.
The author set himself quite a challenge by choosing to write about something so numinous as wisdom. I found the chapters analysing biblical material thought-provoking and his attempts to analyse what is going on when we are touched by mystery interesting. However, there is little to point the reader to ways of acquiring wisdom for themselves, other than learning from other people’s experience.
It all comes back to the title, which is somewhat misleading. There is a lot of good material here for anyone who wants to reflect on the ways in which others have experienced holy mystery. I acquired a lot of knowledge in reading the book, and was reminded of the riches to be gained when we take time to engage deeply with sources of wisdom. Garner’s concluding chapter, entitled “Wisdom and silence”, points us to the truth that, although wisdom can’t ever be contained in words, seeking it is part of the Christian calling.
Rachel Poolman is a United Reformed Church minister and warden of St Cuthbert’s Centre on Holy Island
Scottish independence – the theology
With the referendum on Scotland’s independence drawing near, and the arguments becoming heated, Doug Gay’s book is a timely theological contribution to the debate, and one whose scope lies far beyond this immediate issue. The book is partly an attempt to rehabilitate the notion of nationalism from the suspicion in which it is held due to its checkered history.
With this in mind, Doug Gay (a former United Reformed Church minister and now a minister within the Church of Scotland as well as a theology lecturer at Glasgow University) delves into an ecumenical political theology, using for his lenses three perspectives: Roman Catholic social teaching, the Reformed tradition, and the radical vision of the Anabaptist and Mennonite witness. Together, these enable him to develop a Christian account of the good society, and positive theological perspectives on nationalism.
From here, Gay focuses on the case for nationalising Scotland, given its current social and political, post-devolution profile. He offers a Christian vision for Scotland in which constitutional questions – such as the place of the Kirk in a contemporary, secular, independent Scotland – are considered.
I would commend four strengths of this book: Firstly, it covers a huge amount of ground in a concise, informed and very accessible way. Secondly, it is stimulating political theology, engaging theological perspectives with contemporary political issues that extend far beyond Scotland and the UK. Thirdly, it models good practical theology as sophisticated biblical reflection engages with the realities of historic and contemporary practice. Fourthly, in the context of a debate that is becoming more rancorous by the day, the tone of this book is measured and gracious, and therefore models a thoughtful Christian engagement.
My one reservation would be Doug’s confidence in the political process which, to this reader, made his manifesto for an independent Scotland somewhat utopian. This, however, is a small price to pay for a hopeful vision that will inform and stimulate the thinking of anyone seeking an articulate Christian perspective on pressing global issues.
Lance Stone is the minister of Emmanuel United Reformed Church in Cambridge
Taking Ash Wednesday onto the streets
Sara Miles writes that she was nervous the first time she took Ash Wednesday out into the streets of San Francisco; she wasn’t used to being so demonstrative in her faith. However, as she traced the ashes onto the foreheads of strangers, reciting the ancient words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” she realised that it wasn’t about her. She all but disappeared in the powerful encounter between God and the people to whom she ministered. As Kelsey, who also administered the ashes, said: “I don’t even know what this is, but I could do this forever.”
City of God flows from the pen of someone who sees these encounters everywhere. People are spiritual seekers by nature and God is profligate; her role is not to judge, but simply to marvel. The streets are so full of religious experience that the author clearly finds the Church a bit stifling: “Church is so much more cowardly and less imaginative than it has to be; it’s so mindlessly stubborn about its own correctness, proud of its own power, petty, judgmental, and unkind toward those who disagree.” Ouch! But Sara Miles also shows us how permeable the Church’s walls can be once you have eyes to see incarnation, redemption, healing, mercy and grace acted out on all sides of you, all the time.
The book is about the ministry of one amazing church, St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, in an amazing neighbourhood, the Mission district of San Francisco, celebrating Ash Wednesday in 2012. But I recommend it to anyone who needs their imagination rekindled in whatever place they are living their Christian lives.
It is not necessarily a challenge to take Ash Wednesday into outdoor worship, although everything you’d need to know is there in her story. It is more a call to all of us to live what we say we believe. God is busy, wherever we are, making all things new. Heaven and earth meet. Everybody needs blessing – and longs for it. Reading this book will help you see this, and may just spark your imagination towards some way of embodying it.
Roberta Rominger is a United Reformed Church minister and outgoing URC general secretary
This article was published in the July/August 2014 edition of Reform.