Reviews – May 2016
Harrowing vision of the Holocaust
Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes
Certificate 15, 107 minutes
Released 29 April
Knowing its subject matter in advance doesn’t prepare the viewer for just how difficult this movie is going to be to watch. What was it like to be a Jew interned in a Nazi concentration camp? Saul is a member of a sonderkommando prisoner group responsible for herding groups of unwitting fellow Jews into the gas chamber for extermination, then disposing of the bodies afterwards. It’s a form of slavery in which he is simply trying to survive the daily ordeal, day after day.
From the opening, the camera follows Saul (Géza Röhrig) in a series of almost unendurable extended takes. As he constantly moves around the camp doing his work, the camera keeps him in the frame through his encounters with Jewish charges, fellow workers, medical staff, Nazi officers and guards. This in itself would be upsetting enough, but the details in the background, often out of focus, prove far more difficult to take. Naked men, women and children file past, unaware they’re walking to their deaths. Later, mounds of fleshy corpses are piled in corridors. We glimpse details: an arm here, a torso there, a lifeless breast.… The rigour with which Nemes’ vision is executed makes watching it an extremely harrowing experience. The memory of those caught up in the Holocaust’s historic atrocity deserves such a powerful treatment. Indeed, the movie was awarded this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar.
Saul discovers a body he believes to be that of his own son and, despite the fact that the camp authorities require that all corpses be swiftly and unceremoniously disposed of, resolves to give his son a proper Jewish ceremonial burial. To do this, he must find a rabbi prepared to help him, despite being constantly and mercilessly worked by his Nazi masters. He is trapped in a world where space for religious observance and ceremony has been denied, and enacts his own personal rebellion by attempting to restore such rites. It’s a noble, humanising and God-affirming aim but a seemingly impossible one in such appalling circumstances. A bleak and difficult movie to watch, perhaps, but one which needs to be widely seen.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
A story of love, dementia and infidelity
One Yellow Door: A memoir of love and loss,
faith and infidelity
Rebecca de Saintonge
Darton, Longman & Todd
This is a beautifully written and brutally honest account of a wife’s care for her husband Jack, while he is suffering from dementia. It is likely to be widely read and deeply influential. The invitation to enter into the author’s pain, loneliness, loss and moral dilemmas is hard to resist. We find ourselves gently drawn through an open door into Rebecca de Saintonge’s suffering – not for our titillation but rather to engage with the terrifying questions and unbearable pain with which she is confronted.
As the young minister who invited Jack and Rebecca to Zimbabwe as reconciliation workers, I bore witness to the remarkable Christian character of the man Rebecca so loved and the effervescent joy of their relationship. Her apparently effortless literary brush strokes capture his engaging personality. Integrity permeates her account.
A significant theme of the book is guilt. Like many, the author does not approve of the classical Christian emphasis on sin but she said of her family home: “We lived in the invisible presence of unforgiveness, of unresolved guilt.” And, of herself, she wrote: “To me, even relatively innocent deception is a betrayal.” Yet, de Saintonge found herself compelled to take a lover while the man she loves so deeply, her husband, lies helpless and unrecognisable at home. She is forced to pull back emotionally from Jack, to whom she is so closely bonded, in order to simply survive.
These pages are shot through with decisions that leave no space for notions of primal innocence. How does a moral person cope with such contradictions? De Saintonge appears to do so by seeking approval for her actions from the trusted figures in her life: her psychologist, her doctor and her good Christian friend Chrissy. But when two old friends condemn her infidelity she is devastated. In a messy world, where we are often left feeling culpable and wretched from the choices we have made, are we not all in need of absolution and not just approval?
Alan Spence is a minister in east Kent
Biography of a complex pacifist
Pilgrim of Peace: A life of George M Ll Davies
This book details the life of George Maitland Lloyd Davies (1880-1949) – a one-off with very particular gifts and experiences but also a man whose life story can help us address issues such as Christian pacifism, recurring depression and the place of personal conscience in public life. Davies lived an episodic life, with spells as a bank manager, housing association secretary, Methodist minister, Westminster MP and leader of several community projects. But his time as a prisoner of conscience during the First World War was the most formative period for him, leading to a life devoted to peacemaking and reconciliation, including contributions in Ireland and industrial relations in the 1920s. Jen Llywelyn lays out these contrasting episodes in recurring and interlocking strands, with plenty of anecdotes.
Davies the public figure had a national reputation for his eloquence, writing and organising ability, while the private person was frequently treated for depression and felt unsettled, maybe even unfulfilled. The young man who joined the newly-created Territorial Army in 1909 became in 1914 a leading conscientious objector and founder-member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation which he helped to lead all his life.
The young man growing up in “the suffocating Liverpool Welsh community” became a fervent Welsh nationalist in later life – though always critical of using force or worse for that cause. The young man who wooed and won Leslie Royde Smith (against his mother’s wishes) was perhaps bisexual and not averse to living apart from their daughter for long periods when his work demanded it.
One of his fellow prisoners from 1917 called him “one of the loveliest souls ever to live on this earth”, yet he took his own life. In a perceptive last chapter, Llywelen comments that “most older suicides seem to be a response to a total life situation rather than to a single event.” She does her best to introduce this complex “pilgrim of peace”.
Peter Brain is a retired minister living in Exmouth, Devon
Survey of discipleship
Making New Disciples: Exploring the paradoxes of evangelism
Mark Ireland and Mike Booker
This is a book to excite and terrify in roughly equal measure. The analysis of the current missional scene is very thorough yet it pulls no punches in exposing the moribund nature of the majority of traditional local churches in the UK. I found it to be more inclusive of divergent theological views than the title might suggest. Much is made of the importance of proclaiming the Good News in word and deed.
The research is current, and broad in its range for a paperback of this nature. The facts are clearly presented and surprisingly free from emotional weighting – the reader is presented with data and given space to deal with it. I was left feeling – reminded of the famous Mark Twain quote: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” – that reports of church decline are less exaggerated than we would like. The fact that church growth through Fresh Expressions is masking the real decline in traditional church felt like a blind side hit, and is a cause for genuine concern.
When considering how to make new disciples, many resources are explored. Alpha and Messy Church are given a whole chapter each. Catholic and Reformed material is referenced and the book provides a broad field of discipleship material all in one place; this alone makes it a valuable point of reference.
The concluding thoughts on the subject of making new disciples display a convergence of thought to which the Holy Spirit seems to be drawing Churches of different denominations. Making disciples is the calling of all God’s people. Each of us who affirms the Lordship of Christ is commissioned to be both disciple and disciple maker. The embryonic exploration of missional discipleship taking place within the United Reformed Church is in step with the themes in this book. I am convinced it is the antidote to the terror of Church demise.
Making New Disciples is a good and timely read, a great source of ideas and offers a wide range of helpful information. I would encourage anyone who has a heart to see women and men become disciples of Jesus to read this short book.
John Hardaker is the Minister of Christ Church in Hitchin, North Hertfordshire
The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence
Darton, Longman & Todd
The experience of workshops and Bible study groups often reveals our assumptions about what is in the Bible. This applies both to those familiar with the scriptures and those new to them. The Upside-down Bible is a valuable and exciting tool for such adventurous exploration. Symon Hill writes from his own experience of leading workshops, and notes the enthusiasm of those – even those whose experience of church has been negative – who come, open to hear what Jesus actually says.
This engaging, accessible and innovative book quotes well-known theologians, while giving equal emphasis to those who are completely unfamiliar with the texts and come with a fresh eye. The introductory chapter starts with statements which can shock, such as: “Jesus has been a profound embarrassment to Christianity.” This is immediately enticing. Hill then empowers the reader by pointing out there is no such thing as objectivity (“I’m biased – and so are you”) before affirming that each person’s perspective is valid. The chapter concludes with a section on how to use the book.
Hill then gives a basic overview of what we actually do know about Jesus, and each later chapter offers a standalone resource for study, whether for groups or individuals. Each chapter includes the text (so a Bible is not needed), questions about initial reactions, insights from people reading the passage for the first time and a reflection on various interpretations, ending with questions challenging the reader about their thoughts and conclusions. The chapters are divided equally between money, sex and violence. The concluding chapter is entitled “Where next?” and leaves the reader with the responsibility of drawing his or her own conclusions. There is a helpful section on suggested further reading.
This book is superb! It has challenges galore for both those new to Jesus and those who think themselves familiar with him and the texts in which his words and ministry are recorded. I would recommend this for a study group but also for individual use as the questions leave room for all sorts of avenues to explore.
Zam Walker is one of two ministers serving Greenock West United Reformed Church, Renfrewshire
This article was published in the May 2016 edition of Reform.