Reviews – February 2017
Directed by Mel Gibson
Certificate 15, 131 minutes
Released 27 January
As a Seventh Day Adventist, Desmond Doss (Silence’s Andrew Garfield) believes passionately that killing others is against the law of God. This gets him into trouble when he enlists in the US army in the Second World War but refuses to carry a gun. He wishes to serve as a non-combatant medic, exposed to danger just like his comrades but saving life rather than taking it. He sees himself as not a conscientious objector but a conscientious cooperator.
In Desmond’s childhood, his father (Hugo Weaving), emotionally damaged by the First World War, does little to stop his two young boys fighting but when Desmond picks up a brick and hits his brother in the head with it, the realisation (‘I could have killed him’) sparks his own conscience. His mother (Rachel Griffifths) holds the family together and Desmond will later disarm his father to avert a domestic catastrophe.
Desmond’s beliefs are never explicitly expounded; rather, their effects are shown as he lives his life. He feels the need to enlist and serve his country but training as a regular soldier he finds himself the object of persecution. His refusal to compromise his integrity however, ultimately earns the respect of his Sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and fellow soldiers including the sceptical Smitty (Luke Bracey).
With help from family and his equally strong willed wife Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) against court martial proceedings, he is posted to the Pacific as a medic without a gun. The Japanese army is entrenched at Hacksaw Ridge atop a cliff above a beach where visceral and bloody battle sequences put his faith and integrity to the test. He emerges with a Medal of Honour.
The screenplay is based on a true story. Its three sections (home life, barracks, active service) serve to ground Desmond’s wartime experiences in living out and sticking by his beliefs. Garfield does a terrific job portraying a man attempting to hold fast to moral and religious ideals in the face of considerable opposition. The director Mel Gibson’s Catholic sensibilities are completely in synch with his material and, quite simply, the film works.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
How to find our true selves – and God
The Only Mind Worth Having: Thomas Merton
and the child mind
Fiona Gardner is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and a spiritual director. She grew up at Thames Ditton United Reformed Church, has written three previous books and has been chair of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland. In this book, Gardner explains that as we grow, we respond to social pressures to fit in and we lose our first clear, direct perception of reality: trees are no longer trees, water no longer water – and God ceases to be a natural part of our life and becomes problematical. Our true self gets lost beneath our ‘social self’ and the disguises we put on. We cannot go back to childhood but we can transcend our false consciousness and re-find the ‘child’s mind’ that is still there, deep within us. Thomas Merton, monk, interfaith mystic, and the guiding figure of this book, wrote to a friend: ‘The Lord give you every blessing and joy and keep ever fresh and young your “child’s mind” which is the only one worth having.’
The true self is there and God is in it: Quakers speak of ‘that of God’ which is present in each person. But there is falsity and dross in plenty too. ‘So’, Gardner tells us, ‘we are in many ways divided creatures. A part of us is contiguous with God, while the balance remains categorically different from him. The question is then “With which part do we identify?” The spirit of the child places us back in allegiance with God …’
The book gets really interesting as the author suggests the sorts of experiences and activities through which we are most likely to re-find the ‘child’s mind’ and become our true self. I was going to list them but that would be a spoiler! One challenging way of reconnecting with our inner child, is play. Imagine the great Carl Jung gathering small stones by a lake shore and constructing a little village with them – an activity analogous to building sandcastles.
Peter Chave is a retired church minister
Timely sermons on Matthew’s Gospel
The Seeds of Heaven: Preaching the Gospel
Barbara Brown Taylor
Barbara Brown Taylor’s book is a timely reprint, as the lectionary readings for most of 2017 take us into Matthew’s Gospel. The book consists of 15 sermons, all more than 10 years old, but full of the sort of wisdom which does not age, but rather matures with keeping. The author is an Episcopalian priest and a religious professor at Piedmont College in Georgia, whose preaching has inspired many people over the years.
Some of Professor Taylor’s sermons are reflections on parables – from the extravagant sower and the field sowed with both good seed and weeds, to the labourers in the vineyard. I particularly appreciated the sermon on the dishonest manager – a notoriously difficult parable to understand and to preach on. I found Professor Taylor’s thoughts on forgiveness fresh, profound and moving.
Some of the author’s other sermons deal with events in Jesus’ ministry, for example, walking on water and the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. These sermons paint a vivid picture and offer stimulating insights. The sermons reflecting on the sayings of Jesus include those on his words about how to deal with conflict and about the second coming. The sermon on Jesus’ address to the crowd, inviting the weary to ‘take my yoke upon you’, gave me much food for thought.
Professor Taylor is American, and the sermons have not been altered for a UK market. This means that some of the allusions and references in her book passed me by. However, this did not greatly detract from the value of the book. It is one to treasure and to consult for its inspiring wisdom; it will form part of my background reading whenever I find myself preaching on Matthew’s Gospel this coming year.
Ruth Allen is a retired church minister, based at Ilkeston United Reformed Church, Derbyshire
Where to find meaning amid horror
The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God
in a suffering world
Richard Harries is a former Bishop of Oxford, a regular contributor to Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and a human rights advocate in the House of Lords. So, it is hardly surprising that this book takes the reader into the big issues of life and death with rigorous honesty and thoroughness. Where is God to be found? And where do humans find meaning, when beauty and horror appear as close companions?
Chapters cover topics such as the nature of interfaith dialogue, the use and misuse of religious language, sin and evil, life after death, and the presence of God in the midst of suffering. These are huge subjects and at least some of them merited more space. However, I found myself coming back to several of the themes days after I had read about them.
Harries has some positive things to say about interfaith theological dialogue arising from his own experience. Yet, I feel that it cannot stop at dialogue. We are in an existential situation in which most of us are surrounded by people of many faiths and none, and so interfaith issues should affect our attitude, our action in mission and evangelism, good community relations, and international politics. This book’s rejection of easy answers is a good starting point.
My chief criticism lies in the author’s practice of including in the text a significant body of references to and quotations from other authors. I am nothing like as well read as him and I found this practice broke up the argument and made the whole text more difficult to follow.
If you want an easy read, this is not the book for you. If you want your mind to be stretched and challenged, then this book will do it from a liberal Christian perspective. But Lord Harries is not a woolly liberal.
John Waller is a retired church minister living in Hythe, Kent
Essays on faith, truth and modernity
The Givenness of Things: Essays
I had the pleasure of reading three of Marilynne Robinson’s novels only this last summer. So I wondered how it would be to read lectures and essays that express more directly her theology and her thinking. I was captivated by writing quite as eloquent, powerful and significant.
Though written before the recent election and its shock result, these essays provide a wise and considered context in which to place them. Robinson reflects on how far fear has pervaded culture and how ‘reasonableness’ now, to many, just seems dull. She urges us to recover the value of truth and to hold fast to what has shaped us for good in the past.
I found this book one of the most inspiring I’ve read for a long time; wonderful to read someone who writes from within the traditions that have shaped the United Reformed Church, and without embarrassment or apology. She calls Calvin ‘my particular saint’ and reveals him to be someone who had profound respect for the dignity of human life, for the gravity of human action and for the power of Scripture. She celebrates the Puritans of Elizabethan England as literary people, wrapped up in grace and beauty, not at all anti-intellectual or obscurantist. She laments how key doctrines of Reformed tradition, like original sin and predestination, have been ridiculed by polemic and ignorance (‘made cartoons’) when they have been part of Christian theology for centuries. And she bewails the forgetting, even in the Church itself, of our own theology, culture and tradition.
Robinson believes that we face the greatest tests of human wisdom and decency in this generation, and that we can only face the test if we can reconnect with the best of the traditions we’ve inherited. She says: ‘We are heirs to the testimonies of unnumbered generations’. Have we grown tired of URC tradition, with its emphasis on learning, on mystery and beauty? If we have, then this book is a timely ‘wake up’ and a rallying cry. This is not an easy read, but a nourishing one, and a beautiful, challenging book for the times we are in.
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset
This article was published in the February 2017 edition of Reform.