Reviews – October 2016
In Pursuit of Silence
Directed by Patrick Shen
Released on 21 October
This non-narrative film falls somewhere between a documentary and a meditation on its subject, silence. It opens with an image of a tree in a field. Tall grasses blow in the wind. This opening turns out to be an homage to John Cage’s infamous piece of music 4’33” for which an orchestra, or other ensemble of trained musicians, play a score in which nothing happens for exactly that length of time. The piece outraged concertgoers when first performed in 1952 but is often seen today as a chance to explore silence in the context of a concert hall.
Such a view makes great sense in the post-industrial urban west where silence is all too rare a commodity, and so In Pursuit of Silence looks at attempts to find and engage with silence. It explores the Christian monastic tradition of contemplation, although sadly not in any great depth. Quakers, whose Sunday meetings are built around silence, don’t even get a mention. Instead, we get comparative religion with some fascinating insights into the world of Japanese zen gardens and the Buddhist tea ceremony.
Several secular elements are served up too. A man who has taken a vow to walk across the US in silence is interviewed on camera. He doesn’t speak but holds up cards with written words to express his thoughts. A park ranger who cares for a vast area of Arctic wilderness extols its virtues. We are told that in silence a human being can hear the sound of their own nervous system. We are taken into a room which has been acoustically constructed to be the quietest place on Earth.
Cage remains central to the film’s thesis that we live surrounded by noise which is damaging the collective health of humankind. The whole thing is beautifully put together with considerable respect both for cinema and for silence. There’s much here of value yet there’s something missing. More about contemplative, Christian approaches to silence and to meeting God there would have helped, perhaps relating these to urban life with its inevitable background noise. As the film stands, I felt somewhat shortchanged. However, it’s definitely a discussion starter.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Sexuality discussion resource
Amazing Love: Theology for understanding discipleship,
sexuality and mission
This book was written as a resource to aid effective listening and well informed discussion within the Church about same-sex relationships. Each chapter offers a brief summary of diverse views and the development of these views through time about different aspects of the discussion. Amazing Love covers the topic of same-sex relationships from a range of angles, including a review of what modern science can reveal, biblical perspectives on sexuality and gender, and discussion about whether or not the Church needs to create different definitions of loving relationships.
I found that this book achieves exactly what it set out to do. In clearly defined chapters, it provides overviews of discussions about sexuality from scientific, biblical and Christian perspectives, whilst also opening out the bigger questions about how we wrestle with Scripture, tradition, reason and experience to discover the Gospel in our lives and world today.
Amazing Love clearly comes from the position of affirming gay and bisexual people. The author wants this broader understanding of sexuality to be held within the discipline of healthy Christian relationships.
There have been many books written on the same or similar subject matter and from varying perspectives. The strength of this book is that it was written collaboratively, drawing on a broad range of academic insights, and it is expressed in comprehensible short summaries. I hope this will make informed discussion around this topic more accessible to a wider group of people across the Christian Church.
My only disappointment is that I feel it needed two more chapters: one about the history of Christian marriage and another which explores the potential worth of Christian marriage today. But I would recommend this book as a very useful and easy to use book, for individuals or a group, to explore the topic of same-sex relationships in an informed way.
Fiona Bennett is a Minister at Augustine United Church in Edinburgh
Why Christian teaching is relevant today
Preaching the Big Questions: Doctrine isn’t dusty
Catherine MacLean and John Young
United Church Publishing House, Canada
£8.36 for the Kindle edition
This eminently readable book is for ministers, lay preachers and anyone who wants to think about their Christian beliefs in the 21st century western world. Catherine MacLean and John Young are church ministers and theologians in the United Church of Canada. This book reflects the North American context but many of their ideas are transferable to British society.
The authors argue that Christian doctrine need not be ‘dusty’ – that is, only for those who are academics studying systematic theology and interested in scholarly disagreements. They give a brief, accessible explanation of the history of traditional beliefs in western Christianity and how these may be understood and expressed in our contemporary, pluralistic society in the light of scientific and technological advances.
Thirteen key doctrines of Christian faith are explored in the book, including the sovereignty of God, the atonement, the Church, human nature, ministry and Holy Communion. Rather than treating these doctrines as abstract beliefs, they base each in real life and ministry. The authors identify related Scripture readings that fit in the Church’s calendar year, and also give pastoral application of those doctrines; they then provide a sample sermon from which preachers may get ideas.
The Free Church in St Ives does not have Bible study groups but we do have discussion groups on current issues from time to time. One of our elders suggested a series asking: ‘What do we believe about … creation/ evolution/ Jesus’ birth/ life after death etc.?’ This book will be an excellent resource as we consider what we believe today.
Catherine Ball is Minister of The Free Church, St Ives and Fenstanton United Reformed Church, Cambridgeshire
Insights into Hebrew prophets
Daniel and the Twelve Prophets for Everyone
Daniel and the Twelve Prophets for Everyone is the final book in the ‘Old Testament for Everyone’ series – a companion set to NT Wright’s earlier ‘New Testament for Everyone’ series. John Goldingay is a well known Old Testament scholar, author and Anglican priest now based in California. In this book, he introduces the latter books of Hebrew Scriptures to Christian readers.
The Scripture readings are broken up into fairly short sections of a new translation by the author. Each is followed by a short personal anecdote before a more detailed look at the passage itself, exploring the historical and cultural context of the writings. Goldingay’s translation can, on occasion, help to bring a fresh feel to the more familiar texts. He provides a helpful glossary of people, places and terms.
As Reformed Christians, we are called to take the Bible seriously; yet, I suspect that these ‘minor prophets’ are to a great extent unfamiliar to many Christians today, except for the famous stories – Daniel and Jonah – and occasional verses which are referenced in the New Testament. A delve into this relatively accessible book might encourage more Christians to engage with the ways in which God was speaking to people in the centuries before Jesus.
Whether or not you enjoy the book will depend to some extent on your response to the author’s personal stories. Whilst some were quite powerful, I didn’t always relate easily to them or see quite how they connected with the Scripture readings. I gained insights into the issues facing those for whom the message was first spoken and written but I was also frustrated by the lack of connection to present day issues of power and privilege.
It is not a book which you would normally read cover to cover. The style lends itself to being a resource for preachers or Bible study leaders who are looking for depth, without the technical detail of more academic commentaries. This book — or others in the series — might appeal to some as a basis for daily devotions. Goldingay has skilfully taken his own rigorous study and made it accessible to many, though ‘everyone’ is possibly a little over-optimistic.
Clare Downing is Moderator for the United Reformed Church Wessex Synod
This article was published in the October 2016 edition of Reform.