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Reviews – September 2014

Reviews – September 2014

The greatest ape

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves
Certificate 12A, 130 minutes
Released on 17 July

Charlton Heston cursing humanity – “God damn you all to hell!” – at the close of the original Planet of the Apes is a heavy note to follow, and the initial sequels collapsed under its weight, often opting for camp. But in these days of angst-ridden Batmen and therapised mafia dons, the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise has gone for the gut, returning to the bleak awe of realising that most of humankind has been buried along with the Statue of Liberty. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes follows 2011’s Rise, opening with footage of the plague that has reduced human presence to a shadow, comprised of real news bites (of the recent avian flu scare), establishing a world that feels all too plausibly real.

People are trying to rebuild society, but apes are already halfway there, led by Caesar, living in forest surroundings that might inspire Ewok envy. Caesar’s throne is not entirely secure, for Koba, one of his angriest, most wounded lieutenants, doesn’t like the Emperor’s moderation on questions of how to interact with the species that didn’t just scar them, but would burn apes alive if we could. Portraying Koba as a plausibly motivated villain, not just a computer-generated being, is only one respect in which Dawn fuses technical prowess with psychological depth. Unlike most action movie villains, Koba is a bad guy we could believe, not just believe in. We understand why he is angry, and wonder if we wouldn’t react the same way to physical torture and political repression.

Dawn unfolds as large-canvas visual storytelling. It focusses our attention on imagining what we might do given similar circumstances. It is kinetically propulsive (a one-take shot on top of a commandeered tank feels simultaneously as troubling-exciting as anything in first-person video war games, and as horrifyingly real as embedded journalism reportage), and spiritually sensitive. It’s about a conflict in which the two sides are not definable on the basis of ethnicity or political cohesion. It’s a battle between those who want to selfishly conquer, and those who see the line between good and evil as dividing each of us. Its violent climax is not played for triumphalism, and, just as in the first film, it asks human beings to reflect on our own appetite for destruction, mourning our power to collaborate in immense good.

Gareth Higgins is a film critic. His latest book is Cinematic States: Stories we tell, the American dreamlife, and how to understand everything (Conundrum, 2013)

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Rethinking Jesus

EXISTENTIAL-JESUSThe Existential Jesus
John Carroll
Scribe
£12.99

As an existential hero, Jesus is “solitary, uprooted from family and home, restless, always on the move”, with no occupation or worldly power. And, until mid-way through his mission, he has no idea where he is going. The followers he chooses fail to understand what he is trying to teach them, and everything he attempts founders. This, according to John Carroll, is the portrait of Jesus given to us in Mark’s gospel. With all the normal identifying markers of the self stripped away, all Jesus can do is proclaim “I exist”, and thus the story becomes a quest for the “I” that exists.

Carroll, who has never been a practising Christian, claims that Jesus is a central, but obscure figure in his life. The first part of his book retells Mark’s story, interpreted by the author to elicit new meanings which strike a “contemporary chord”. The second part of the book relies on John’s gospel to look at five characters representing differing reactions to Jesus. Carroll’s hope is to introduce new readers to the splendour of Mark’s gospel, and to suggest to those already familiar with it new ways of reading, so that an enigmatic, existential Jesus emerges.

Not everyone Jesus encountered could fathom the enigma. Those who looked to Jesus for healing had some understanding but they are only bit players. Mary Magdalene understands; she “gets” him. Surprisingly, Judas also “gets” him, but realises that “he [Judas] was born who he is” – there is nothing he can do about it – he will betray him. Peter, alas, never did “get” Jesus, and on that rock the Church was founded, so it is not surprising that Carroll has no kind words to offer about the Church.

This is an elegantly written book offering new meanings to well worn stories, although at times the arguments feel somewhat stretched. Carroll is certainly controversial, and for those who like to be provoked this is an exciting read. But his suggestion that not everyone who encounters the Gospel can understand it, leads to the idea of an “elect” chosen few whom, it seems, one will not encounter in church.

Patricia Brewerton is a member of Lumen United Reformed Church in London

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New light on the
 Old Testament

enzoGod, Where Are You?
Enzo Bianchi
SPCK
£9.99

This book opened parts of the Old Testament up to me in a completely new way. In 1965, Enzo Bianchi founded an ecumenical monastic community – the Bose Community – of which he is still the prior. He is dedicated to the search for a spirituality capable of giving life to Christians today, and that search is deeply rooted in the study of, and meditation on, the Bible.

This book concentrates on key Old Testament figures – Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Elijah and Isaiah – and their relationship with God. Father Enzo draws on sources mostly new to me: Jewish scholars, the church fathers, and of course the wealth of modern biblical scholarship not written in English. He has clearly meditated on the biblical passages in a way I am familiar with in relation to the Gospels, but not with these Old Testament stories.

Particularly striking is the way he takes the details of these stories seriously without necessarily taking them literally. For example, I had not noticed that Abraham spent 25 years after having obeyed God and left his kindred, his home area and the old gods, before, eventually, Isaac was born. In other words, God’s promises were deferred and deferred. To my amazement, Isaac is believed to have been 37 when he and his father made that fateful journey up the mountain together. Jesus is thought to have been 37 when he was crucified, and Isaac carried the wood on his shoulder, like a cross, and willingly allowed himself to be bound and laid on the pyre.

It is typical of Father Enzo’s reflections that there are many New Testament references, because those writers, like many since, both Jew and Christian, were wrestling with the deep significance of these old stories in relation to their understanding of God, and of Jesus. The very title of the book – God, where are you? – is challenging. It is a question which springs out of anguish, doubt, or mistrust. But, as Father Enzo says, the real question is God’s, to every human being: “Where are you?” I need to read this book again to plumb its depths.

Sheila Maxey is a retired United Reformed Church minister and book reviews editor for Reform

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Compact history of
 atheist thought

atheistsAtheists: The origin of the species
Nick Spencer
Bloomsbury Continuum
£16.99 (hardback)

Atheism has its creation myth – it was the product of reason, science and Darwinian evolution, and for the last 150 years or so, has been proclaiming the truth against the absurd claims of religions. Nick Spencer sets out to deconstruct that myth. He does so with panache, deep learning and a shrewd historical sense.

Atheism, he suggests, is best understood socially and politically. He understands the Reformation to have catalysed atheism into a response to the instability of religious and political pluralism. Hobbes’ Leviathan, written in the wake of the 30 Years’ War and the English Civil Wars, is an example. The Reformation also de-sacralised nature, enabling the development of science, which in its origins at least was a deeply Christian enterprise.

A century later, the stifling blend of ancient regime monarchy and Catholicism in France led to the fury and anger of d’Holbach and his circle, and ultimately to revolution. By contrast, Erastian Protestantism in England and Germany was able to absorb atheist radicalism within its commitment to toleration. Christian support for revolution in America effectively silenced atheism, whereas the theistic understanding of all hierarchy in Russia provided rich soil for revolutionary atheism.

Spencer’s compact history of atheist thought and philosophy proves that, far from being a destructive force, atheism is inherently creative, because it is compelled to propose different ways of living and ordering society to theism. He also shows that the dappled variety of atheisms throughout history means that we should talk of a “family” of atheisms, for Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Dawkins have very little in common. He ends by showing how the shrill voices of New Atheism have been prompted and provoked by the Religious Right’s facile anti-evolutionary stance.

The “new” atheists could benefit from a dialogue with their illustrious, and often brave, forbears like Spinoza, Nietzsche and Russell as they seek to understand the implications of their creed. Above all though, theists and atheists should learn to be nicer to each other, because actually they are both fideists, and both are here to stay.

David Cornick is general secretary of Churches Together in England and a fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge

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Timely account of Christian
 stances on war

dove_swordThe Dove, the Fig Leaf and the Sword: Why Christianity changes its mind about war
Alan Billings
SPCK
£12.99

The title of this admirable little book belies the coherence of its presentation and the simplicity of its purpose – both of which are to be found in the subtitle. Alan Billings has written a timely historical account of how and why Christians have, over the ages, changed their views on taking up arms. From the teaching of Jesus through theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Barth and Niebuhr, to contemporary writers like Hauerwas, Billings offers a scholarly commentary on their theologies of violence and the political circumstances that have shaped them. In doing so, he outlines a trajectory that begins with the pacifism of the first three centuries (the dove) and moves through the development of Just War theories (the fig leaf) to the pragmatic arguments of Christian realism (the sword). It is a path which finally returns to its starting point in the modified forms of pacifism that characterise much Christian sentiment today.

Underlying this very fair and informative account, Billings has unobtrusively developed an interesting thesis; he suggests that the Church’s view on war at any time is closely linked to its relationship with the centre of political power. According to him, such a relationship is not to be construed negatively – quite the reverse. Billings holds that it is only the religious sect or community, disengaged from mainstream politics, that is able to advance a pacifist ideology with any seriousness. His closing words illustrate this thesis: “The Church’s rediscovery of the tradition of nonviolence was as much a sign of its own weakness as of any recovery of lost virtue.” (Logicians might detect in his argument an example of what they call the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy – the false assumption that events which precede the formation of an idea necessarily cause it.)

Whether or not readers buy into this rather provocative theory, they are likely to come away from this book far more informed about differing Christian perspectives on some of the most pressing moral issues that face our world today. This means that they will generally be better equipped to make a sober judgement on them, and that is surely a good thing.

Alan Spence is a United Reformed Church minister working for a cluster of churches in Thanet, Kent

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This article was published in the September 2014 edition of  Reform.

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