Reviews – December 2014/January 2015
Scenes from a martyrdom
Stations of the Cross
Directed by Dietrich Brueggemann
Certificate 15, 105 minutes
Released 28 November
Maria is a 14-year-old brought up in a conservative Catholic sect so extreme that she has a crisis of conscience when her gym teacher tells the class to run around the hall in time to modern music. This seems like a rather miserable way of life already, but when the priest, in preparation classes for confirmation, presses upon her the value of forgoing pleasure and offering it as a sacrifice to God, Maria’s faith becomes positively lethal.
Brueggemann’s film is closely based on the liturgical stations of the Cross, the 14 scenes in the story of Jesus’ execution that are depicted in churches. So, the first scene, where the priest gives Maria the idea of sacrificing herself, is called “Jesus takes up his cross”. It doesn’t sound like things are going to end happily. So closely does the film follow the stations that each scene is a single fixed-angle take – the camera moving only at a few key moments in the film. This gives the film a kind of austere detachment, but it also does something quite remarkable: it makes us see Maria’s story not just through the eyes of the world as a young teen’s struggle with faith, but through the eyes of the church as the making of a saint. This gives a fatalism to the story, and lays the blame for what happens to Maria at the church door, as piety and devotion make some kind of “crucifixion” inevitable.
Lea van Acken, who plays Maria with utter conviction, captures with extraordinary accuracy the struggles of a girl who internalises the inhuman demands of her world-denying religion, and is torn between the competing holy tyrannies of church, family and conscience. Her monster of a mother is a powerful presence on the screen – as intolerant of Maria’s religious excesses as she is of her desire to sing in a church choir that includes modern songs. But it is in the mother that the film falls short. It is an angry film, in its restrained way, and, while it criticises the Church, it hates above all the family faith which daily crushes its hero – but it does so without asking for a moment what drives this matriarchy. If Brueggemann had shown us some of the fear or hurt that could make someone treat her daughter so mercilessly, we could come through anger to understanding. As Maria demonstrates, an icon does not have to be two-dimensional.
Stephen Tomkins is editor of Reform
Honest journey from illness to healing
Soon after becoming a staff member of the Northern Ordination Course (“a vicar factory”), Ian Wallis – a Church of England minister – was suddenly taken seriously ill with what turned out to be a heart condition known as atrial flutter. His book is an account of, and a reflection on, that experience. It is a slim volume, but certainly not a thin one.
The reader journeys with the author: In the ambulance to A&E, through the first night in hospital, as he waits for a diagnosis and as he eventually comes to terms with his potentially fatal condition. Wallis reflects on the value of enforced waiting, telling of times of heightened sensory awareness (although later he also shares times of mental fatigue and memory difficulties). He also emphasises the importance of having to trust healthcare professionals and comments on the varying helpfulness of people trying to sympathise. Throughout the book, he is honest about his feelings, his relationships, his faith and his future. He manages an enviable lightness of touch.
Is he cured? No. He eventually arrives at the conclusion that he will have to give up work on the grounds of ill health. He discovers that any attempt to remain as he was before his illness was futile, and actually unhealthy. Is he healed? Yes! His acceptance of the limitations that life placed on him makes him a new man with new possibilities. The experience forced him to dig through all the accretions of faith until he came face to face with the man who showed himself to his followers to be alive and well although he had holes in his hands.
I would recommend this book to all healthcare professionals to give them an insight into what is happening to patients beyond the scalpels and drugs. Anyone with pastoral responsibility would find it helpful to be reminded how positive outcomes can come from human frailty. Anyone who has been seriously ill would find in Mr Wallis a life and faith affirming companion on their journey.
Graham Cook is a retired church minister living in Warrington, Cheshire
Exploring the theology of science
It is not often that one comes across a hardcore scientist crafting a work of such artistry and nuance as Tom McLeish has done in this book. In an intellectual climate where many believe that science and Christianity are at radical odds with one another, McLeish provides an historical narrative of scientific exploration that undermines such a view in all sorts of ways. The task of the scientist, he argues, is not so much about achieving certainty of knowledge as it is about seeking for wisdom in the world of nature – asking the right questions in the face of mystery and randomness. McLeish is able to move quite easily from considering the scientific reflections of Gregory of Nyssa and Bede, through the momentous discoveries of Kepler, Bohr, Einstein and Heisenberg, to questions about creation in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. He charts a discussion which moves from the cause of Job’s suffering to questions about the chaotic ordering of the natural world.
The issue for McLeish is not about the relationship between science and theology but about how to shape a coherent theology of science. The great mystery of human beings is that we are able to ask searching questions of the natural world; that we develop hunting, social and tool-making skills might be explained in terms of natural selection, but how is it that we are equipped to look below the surface and postulate the existence of electrons, photons and quarks? And why is there such disorder? According to McLeish it has to do with our need for reconciliation – reconciliation with God, with one another and with an estranged creation through a renewal of our primal covenant with it. Science is the name we give to the painful and loving theological task of mending our relationship with the world we live in.
This is a stimulating intellectual book full of wisdom and insight for those who are willing to work carefully and thoughtfully through it. I find myself unconvinced about one or two of his views regarding the eschaton, but I am totally persuaded by the paradigm-shattering thesis of the book – the possibility of a unified account of science and theology.
Alan Spence is an ordained minister serving the Thanet cluster of churches in Kent
Spiritual encounters with an ecofeminist theologian
For the class of 1982 studying at Luther King House, the writings of Dorothee Soelle were a revelation; for Andrew Francis in particular, they were life-changing – theology came alive, and his future ministry was largely shaped by her life, example and thought. Francis describes this process in a style which is engaging and accessible.
Francis’ aim is to convey the distinct flavour of Soelle’s theological works; he devotes around a third of the book to exploring Soelle’s life – from her privileged childhood in Cologne, through two marriages, the “political evensong” movement, and her formative experience in America. After this he gives brief résumés of her early works (now out of print) and of her main works (more generally available in English translation). Soelle’s writing illustrates her “accelerating theological journey” to ecofeminism: Suffering was her “magnum opus” and Thinking about God reflects her mature theology, as influenced by her experiences in the Americas. Francis describes Mysticism and Resistance as a “stunning” book, weaving the life and teaching of Jesus into her own reflections on a variety of literary sources. Soelle’s final publication is “a joyful testament to a woman of faith, hope and courage.” Then comes a summary of what others have written about Soelle and an outline of her key theological themes.
Soelle was well known as a university lecturer, chiefly in the US, a speaker at Kirchentags and local church congregations, but, Francis suggests, in the UK she was overshadowed by other post-war German theologians. At one level, this book is a helpful introduction to her work and an incentive to read further, but introductions as a genre are usually detached; here we have testimony to an engaging spiritual encounter between the author and Soelle: Poet speaks to poet, theologian to theologian, and, in the shared belief that good theology is life-changing, activist to activist. This book will appeal to readers who know that their lives are shaped by the ways they think about God and live their lives as followers of Jesus.
Fleur Houston is a retired church minister living in Macclesfield, Cheshire
Hope for a turbulent world
Gerard Hughes – who died on 4 November, aged 90 – was a much-loved and highly valued spiritual director for many decades; he wrote treasured classics such as God of Surprises. Cry of Wonder is a summing up of the wisdom gained through a long lifetime. Consequently, there is little new in this book: Rather, it is a distillation of Father Gerard’s teaching, observations and reflections.
If you are familiar with his previous books, Cry of Wonder can seem a mite repetitive; on the other hand, if you are new to Father Gerard, you will find this book a good summary of his development over the years. Its third section, on holiness, is a useful introduction to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises which have formed the basis of so much spiritual direction since the early 16th Century.
One of the aspects of Father Gerard’s thought which most struck me was how far he had come: From a pre-Vatican rigorous Jesuit upbringing with the view that there was no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church, to a free doctrine which states that, as God is in absolutely everything, your deepest desires will be by definition “of God”, and so you will find God there, whether you are a Christian or not. Your task is to get in touch with your felt reactions to every event in your life, and experience God there.
This theology is wonderfully optimistic, but I found, reading it in the light of what is happening to Christians in the Middle East today, that it jarred a little. There is indeed much to be appreciated in the experience of the immanence of God, but I want God to be transcendent too! The first two sections of the book, on unity and peace, are magnificently idealistic: If sufficient people lived by the standards that Father Gerard sets out, perhaps we would be closer to “your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”. May this book bring you hope as we end this turbulent year.
Ruth Allen is a retired church minister based at Ilkeston in Derbyshire
This article was published in the December 2014/January 2015 edition of Reform.