Reviews – March 2015
The true King
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Certificate 12A, 128 minutes
Released 6 February
This account of the epoch-making march at Selma, Alabama, deserves comparison to films that were cinematically epoch-making themselves, including Gandhi and Schindler’s List. In its deep and subtle reflection on the life and leadership of Martin Luther King, Selma transcends the problem that faces biopics of great figures, such as Gandhi. For it’s relatively easy to portray the big events in the lives of those who changed the world, harder to get at the heart of the protagonist, and extremely rare to do both, but Selma presents complex information about a historic moment without reducing its power to the moment itself. It shows the march not as a magic single happening, but as the outcome of many years’ work by many committed people.
Selma presents Dr King as a fully real human being, balancing the vulnerabilities of family life with the extraordinary threats he faced, handling the mantle of historic leadership without lording it over others. One stand-out scene covers the debate between King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee over tactics and credibility in Selma. Nothing feels glib – this is a negotiation that feels like real life, not the typical Hollywood version. Selma avoids the typical Hollywood version of everything – scenes evolve and overlap instead of clicking together like a jigsaw, music is more muted than melodramatic.
The film is dominated by the British actor David Oyelowo as King, who takes on the unenviable task of playing a figure everyone thinks they know. He rejects the temptation of portraying King as superhuman, instead making him comprehensible as a person like us, but one who decides to act from conscience and talent for the common good.
Selma isn’t perfect, but what it gets right enables us to interact with a story that challenges our own cultural moment. It’s not a film about one man who heroically saved the world, but about a movement led by a person, and people, who responded to the brokenness of their time by standing up, discerning their own power, and using it.
Gareth Higgins is a film writer and runs the Movies and Meaning festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Getting to grips with Galatians
Alan Spence’s Who Has Bewitched You? proves that a commentary does not have to be dense or dull in order to provide fresh and profound insights into Paul’s writings. Though mindful of the vast array of scholarly opinions surrounding the Pauline corpus, Spence focuses his attention on the theological content of the letter, arguing that there is much which can be mined by addressing the text as it is. In Spence’s analysis we find an intriguing snapshot of Paul and the deeply-held convictions that motivated him.
Central to Spence’s examination are the implications for salvation in Paul’s message. The letter finds Paul remonstrating with his Galatian disciples who have fallen into error through the influence of the circumcision party. Whilst Paul is portrayed by his opponents as someone who is tearing down the law, in his own mind nothing could be further from the truth. Following God’s promise to Abraham, the law (nomos) has played a legitimate custodial role for the people of Israel during their early years. But now Abraham’s seed, Jesus, has brought about the fulfillment of the promise and a release from the law’s custody. For the mature believer, there is no longer circumcision or uncircumcision, Jew or Gentile, slave or free – only the outrageous love of God who gave his son that we might be finally and fully freed from bondage. As such, no amount of adherence to any religious protocol will ever be life-giving. Rather, life and liberation come by accepting our identity as people of the promise who live out the Spirit’s law of love.
Who Has Bewitched You? is a short and concise read, perfectly pitched for those seeking to expand their knowledge of Paul and his teaching on justification by faith. The book, which follows the chapters of the letter, is an ideal primer for a study group leader and has some useful questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. Readers requiring more detail will appreciate the endnotes which signpost some of the wider textual and historical-critical debates.
Tim Searle is an ordained minister serving the South West Hants group of United Reformed churches
The making of an evangelist
America’s Pastor is not your ordinary biography. Instead of a chronological account of Dr Graham’s life, Grant Wacker has presented us with a thematic exploration of the evangelist’s character, background and achievements, under chapter headings such as: Icon, Entrepreneur, Pastor and Patriarch. The stated aim of the book is to explore the effect Graham had, and still has, on US beliefs and culture, and these influences are assessed in some detail. However, the thematic nature and erudition of the book need not alarm those of us who like our biographies chronological and accessible, for this is a fascinating book which is hard to put down. Beautifully written, with humour and compassion as well as critical rigour, it was a major distraction to me during the pre-Christmas rush!
The book reveals a humble man, remarkably naïve in many ways – a man who was always attracted by people of power and celebrity and who made many mistakes – the “warts” are examined sympathetically but honestly. It reveals how Dr Graham changed aspects of US culture, but also how he himself was changed by his exposure to the outside world and its complex issues. His core gospel message of redemption through Christ, the command to share the Gospel, and a belief in the life to come always remained the same, but his attitudes towards the rest of the world, his awareness of the social implications of the Gospel, and his degree of openness to those who disagreed with him did change. Exploring this steady but dramatic transformation makes absorbing reading and brought me hope for the rest of us.
Will we ever see another evangelist who combined Dr Graham’s charisma and skills? If we do, let us hope that this person will also share his humility, humour and constantly close walk with God.
Ruth Allen is a retired church minister in Ilkeston, Derbyshire
Climate and the brain
So, a 1% chance of a terrorist attack should be acted on as though it is a certainty, but a 90% chance of severe climate disruption is too uncertain for action.” Marshall’s words, in this thought-provoking book, indicate the problem: Despite scientific consensus that severe climate change is underway, with seriously malign consequences for humankind, the world’s peoples seem unable to take appropriate action. Why?
To find answers, Marshall observes and visits scientists, politicians, environmental activists, climate change deniers, and even US televangelists. He also draws upon his background as a communications adviser to governments, environmental organisations, faith groups, businesses and trade unions. The outcome is 42 short, story-rich chapters, never shying away from how serious things are, yet managing to include some genuine laugh-out-loud moments (not a normal feature in this sort of literature).
Marshall’s bottom line is that we don’t accept climate change because it stirs up too much anxiety and requires too many deep changes from us. Other threats do the same, but climate change is a creeping problem, with long-term consequences. There is no identifiable enemy to hold responsible (except ourselves), yet many currently competing groups must work together to achieve solutions.
Marshall meets with those who do not share his views. He does not shy away from criticising environmental activists who over-use insider-language, and who disdain those with whom they do not agree (though they depend upon them for a solution). He even has a chapter on “what the green team can learn from the God squad”.
Values and practices of churches offer ways forward. This includes knowing that conviction arises from more than receiving information and that receiving forgiveness gives hope. It also includes valuing groups as settings to share both beliefs and doubts, and being committed to sacred values, which trump personal or local concerns.
This is a good read, helping us understand the problems to be faced. It also asks how our churches embody values and practices that contribute to finding an adequate response to climate change.
Trevor Jamison is environmental chaplain for Eco Congregation Scotland
Living the Bible Borg’s way
Convictions consists of reflections on reaching the age of 70. Marcus Borg is author of 21 books; this partly autobiographical book is the story of his intellectual and spiritual journey and – as its subtitle proclaims – a manifesto for progressive Christians.
Growing up in a Lutheran family in Minnesota, from his early teens Borg experienced religious doubt and delight in intellectual pluralism; then came a passion for economic justice, and, later, moments of the sense of the oneness of everything. These three orientations – theological, political, and mystical – shaped his theology.
Borg moved through pre-critical naiveté, critical thinking and post-critical affirmation, as the meaning of salvation changed for him from the hope of an afterlife to transformation in this life. At the same time, he moved from uncritical acceptance of Scripture to the view that, though the Bible is often wrong, Jesus is the norm for evaluating it. Bible stories are parabolic, inviting reflection on their inner meaning.
Brought up believing that Jesus died to pay for our sins, Borg explains how he also came to see the political dimension of Christ’s crucifixion. It is about social as much as personal transformation. In “The Bible is political”, the chapter shows how Borg came to believe that “taking the Bible seriously should mean taking politics seriously.” He applies Amos to contemporary America and finds challenge; he traces his commitment to pacifism and concludes with a heartwarming chapter on what it means to be centred on God, and to live with compassion, freedom, courage and gratitude.
It’s a heartwarming read for someone already inclined to progressive Christianity; it probably won’t convince anyone who is deeply committed to the other end of the theological spectrum, but it is, as the term manifesto implies, a summary of the way many people have come to reconcile Christian tradition with their experience of the modern and postmodern world.
I found it extremely readable; scholarly but clear and accessible. It might be old hat to those who are steeped in progressive theology, but it would be a brilliant gift for an enquiring lay person who wants to explore for themselves how biblical truth relates to today’s world.
Maggie Hindley is co-director of the London Inter Faith Centre
This article was published in the March 2015 edition of Reform.