Reviews – June 2016
Dying to self
Embrace of the Serpent
Directed by Ciro Guerra
Certificate 12A, 125 minutes
Released 10 June
When a film picks up quotes calling it “transcendent” and a “religious experience”, Christians will want to know whether it lives up to that. This one does. Embrace of the Serpent takes place in the Amazon forest as two European explorers, separated in time by 40 years, undertake journeys in the company of the Amazonian warrior Karamakate to find the legendary yakruna plant.
Hollywood might have made a thrilling but throwaway Boy’s Own adventure out of this but the Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s interest lies somewhere altogether more spiritual. His concern is instead with the conflict between the scientific, materialist values of the west and the indigenous people’s respect for the created order.
Adopting the perspective of Karamakate, Guerra weaves together two parallel narrative strands. In the early 20th century, the younger Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) guides the feverish explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet) and his assistant along the river. The explorer has the advancement of scientific knowledge as his prime goal, but he will die unless administered the medicine found in the yakruna plant. Forty years later, the older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador) takes the healthy Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) on a similar journey in search of the yakruna.
As each of the two explorers encounters, then travels with, Karamakate, the two Europeans from distinct historical periods seem to merge together into one archetypal western explorer, just as the younger and older Karamakate seem to merge into one archetypal Amazonian warrior.
En route, the travellers find a Catholic mission converting pagans by bringing them to the faith and trampling on their culture. They also encouter a religious despot who has convinced an entire tribe he is Jesus the Son of God and is venerated by them.
Both episodes, though they illustrate how different religion and spirituality can be, feel like sideshows to the film’s main concern. More central is Theo’s determination to travel and learn even at the cost of his life and Evan’s need to jettison his material possessions to embrace Karamakate’s non-materialist values. To a rich western audience, these demands may seem as impossible as a camel passing through a needle’s eye. But then, that is how it is with parables. They’re not always easy to take in but we need to pay attention, absorb and unpack them.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
How to live well
Just Living: Faith and community
in an age of consumerism
Hodder & Stoughton
In every generation, and in different settings, Christians have to work out anew what it means to be followers of Jesus. Now, for the early 21st century, Ruth Valerio, of the Christian conservation charity A Rocha, explores how to live well in our globalised, consumerist world.
The first part outlines our shared situation: globalisation, in which nation states are now only one of the important players alongside major business corporations; consumerism, which dictates our choices whilst distancing us from producers and products; and the Church, which has a rich tradition of simple living, but with a tendency to understand this only in individual terms.
The book’s second part, written with painful honesty concerning our personal shortcomings, commends a theology that rejects extremes, either of self-denial or hedonism. Instead, each of us is asked to consider our own particular tendency – for example to retreat from the world or to immerse ourselves in the world – and consider how to shift in the other direction towards a happy medium.
The concluding section offers a host of suggestions for practical action in areas of life such as global and ecological concerns, money, material goods and ethical consumption, local community activity and intentional use of time, including the space to stop for prayer and silence. Throughout, the author shares her own experiences and dilemmas: “Why am I queuing up to buy skinny jeans I want but don’t need?” She also states, with passion, that what draws her to Jesus and drives her life choices is the Bible’s earthy, nature-affirming, relationship-based revelation concerning God, creation and ourselves.
For a church book group or for individuals ready to wrestle with hard questions and complex issues, this clearly written book could be a great resource. A section with appropriate questions for discussion would have been helpful and might appear in future. What Ruth Valerio most hopes for, however, is that her book encourages not only thinking and discussion but the move to positive, practical Christian action.
Trevor Jamison is Environmental Chaplain for Eco-Congregation Scotland
Life’s Great Questions
If you are looking for an objective reflection on great philosophical questions, you will find this book frustrating. If you long to know what one of the most interesting Christian disciples living today says, with authority, in the face of such questions, then you will love this book.
You don’t always find what you might expect from the chapter headings. Typically, the author thinks about the question in a new way. The chapter titled “Why is there so much suffering?” asks instead: “How can I live in such a way that this suffering becomes a source of life?” Rather than “why is it so hard to be good?” we are asked to consider “what inhibits me from being open to life?”
Jean Vanier lives in community with those who have intellectual disabilities, and bears testimony to how much they can teach us about what it really means to be human. Vanier urges his readers to engage with their own experiences of life, especially the shocking and paradoxical ones, and to find the meaning of life there. This is what Vanier has done himself, and it is the fruit of his experience that is the real joy of this book.
Vanier notices that we are often kept away from those who are different from us. But we will not find, he argues, the fullness of reality and of life until we meet those on the other side of the divide. He urges us to befriend and to pray for all kinds of people, not so that we can solve their problems but so that we can learn. At one point, he urges the reader to put down the book and to talk with someone instead – to find communion with another person who, like you, is beloved of God.
As my reading of this book accompanied some days of pastoral visiting, I found myself referring to it again and again. From a remarkable life and a profound faith, here is wisdom for the lives we are living. I think that’s recommendation enough.
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset
Mindfulness for Christians
Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality:
Making space for God
Tim Stead aims to show how mindfulness can enrich Christian spirituality. This is timely, as very little has been written about this relationship amongst the plethora of literature on mindfulness.
In part one of the book, the author explains mindfulness, defining it as being “more fully aware of your experience in the present moment in a non-judgemental way”. Clinically, mindfulness has been found effective in stress reduction and the treatment of anxiety and especially depression. Its key components – awareness, experiencing the present moment and being non-judgemental – when practiced regularly, facilitate a conscious process of retraining habitual mental patterns, thus creating, according to Stead, a prayerful space for God and “life in all its fullness”.
In part two, Stead describes how practicing mindfulness has enriched his understanding of who God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are. He says: “Mindfulness … is primarily about how awareness of our experience leads to all the other benefits, including … how it might enrich our faith as we move from simply believing something in our heads to knowing something in our lives.”
In part three, Stead expands on the key mindfulness stance of being over doing. When we allow the present moment and its possibilities to unfold, we open a space in which the grace of God can enter more fully into our lives. The author refers to the biblical story of Mary and Martha, exploring different ways of moving from doing to being in the subsequent chapters. Throughout, Stead offers practical examples of mindfulness practice.
This is a stimulating book in its attempt to integrate mindfulness practice – which is originally derived from eastern, Buddhist spirituality – with our western, Christian heritage. Stead shows how Christian thinking and spiritual practice can be enriched by mindful wisdom, leading to a deeper openness and fuller experience of God’s grace. This book is for people who like to think outside of the box and for those who are looking to enhance their spiritual practice.
Birgit Ewald is a church minister and the United Reformed Church Eastern Synod Advocate for Spirituality
Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness:
Same-sex love and the Church
£12.99 (ebook: £3.99)
Christian thinktank Ekklesia launched its publishing imprint with this valuable addition to conversations in many denominations about sexuality. Seeking to address a broad readership with diverse views, Hensman maps the terrain that has been travelled in recent decades and provides food for the journey as the Church universal continues to wrestle the issues. Throughout, she exhibits her roots in scripture and tradition whilst aiming to reach the broad place where people may disagree respectfully within the bond of Christian unity.
The book is divided into four parts. Part one introduces the tools of Christian theology – Bible, tradition, reason and experience – and reviews the shift in theological thinking since the mid-20th century about sex in general and towards greater acceptance of same-sex relationships specifically. Acknowledging that there remains significant opposition, Hensman sketches the debates that intensified in the 21st century, highlighting the importance of Christian ethical reasoning.
Part two provides a snapshot of Church struggles on the issue through essays Hensman wrote for Ekklesia between 2007 and 2014, providing both fresh reportage and theological reflection. In part three she looks afresh at the Bible and tradition, bringing new eyes to old stories and tackling, head on, the question of the clarity and centrality of the Bible. Finally, in the too-brief fourth part (titled “Living with Disagreement”) she very helpfully describes a seven-part spectrum of opinion on same-sex relationships and makes a convincing case that there is a shared middle ground where most Christians reside and where living together respectfully is more than possible as the Church continues to wrestle the issues.
Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness is a positive contribution to the literature of sex and the Church. It will be most appreciated by people who are not entirely convinced by the extreme views on either side of the conversation – those who are in the muddle in the middle, value Christian faith and tradition and are willing to wrestle a bit to receive a blessing.
Carla Grosch-Miller is a freelance practical theologian and educator in the area of sexuality and spirituality
This article was published in the June 2016 edition of Reform.