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Reform Magazine | August 18, 2017

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Reviews – June 2017

Reviews – June 2017

Meet the Trinity

The Shack
Directed by Stuart Hazeldine
Certificate 12a, 132 minutes
Released 9 June

Mack (Sam Worthington) takes his kids on a camping trip with friends. Tragedy threatens to strike when the canoe of his daughter Katie and her boyfriend capsizes, but Mack’s swift swimming saves them. Returning to land, however, he finds his youngest daughter, the six-year-old Missy gone. Every parent’s nightmare. The FBI are called in; at an abandoned shack they find evidence she’s been murdered. Mack blames himself.

Years later, a note from Papa (his wife’s name for God) appears in Mack’s mailbox inviting him to visit the same shack. Compelled by the need to know who sent it, hoping it’s God but fearing it’s the killer, Mack drives there where he meets, talks and hangs out with Papa (Octavia Spencer), Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara) and Papa’s son (Avraham Aviv Alush). God in three persons. Their discussions cover such weighty topics as free will and why the innocent suffer. Their time also includes eating Papa’s meals in the house, gardening with Sarayu and walking on the lake with the son. Then he meets with Wisdom/Sophia (Alice Braga) to be confronted with judgment. Catharsis.

The script judiciously edits the bestselling novel on which the film is based; a few sensible, minor changes keep it intact, allowing it to wrestle at length with some deep theological issues. Chocolate box gardening visuals occasionally threaten to overwhelm the seriousness of the proceedings, in the manner of the afterlife epic What Dreams May Come, but the overall story more than compensates.

I was won over the moment God the Father appeared and she’s black. The sensibly and sensitively unbiased casting includes a Japanese woman as the Holy Spirit, an Israeli man as the son and a Brazilian woman as Wisdom. The Shack avoids the whitewashing criticism that has beset recent US films and all four actors give strong, nicely understated performances. Portraying God, or even Jesus, on the screen is fraught with problems, as numerous films have shown, yet it works surprisingly well here, and not naming Jesus as such makes the enigma all the more effective. (In the book, Jesus is named when he first appears; the film names him only in the end credits.)

If this fails to look beyond the personal dimension of Christianity to its wider social and political ramifications, it still tackles tough questions from an unashamedly Christian perspective without offering easy, cut and dried answers. Not bad for a mainstream Hollywood movie.

Jeremy Clarke is a film critic

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How disability impacts a theology of time

Becoming Friends of Time: Disability,
timefullness and gentle discipleship
John Swinton
SCM Press
£19.99
ISBN: 9780334055570

I was excited when this latest book by John Swinton dropped through my letterbox for review. Swinton, Chair of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, has a string of excellent books to his name and this one, winner of the Michael Ramsey Prize 2016, has set itself an unusual and captivating topic – theological reflection on time and disability. My interest was further enhanced when I read the jacket review by my friend, David Ford, Regius Chair of Divinity at Cambridge, who writes: ‘How Swinton brings together God, time and disability transforms the understanding not only of disability but also of church, society and ordinary life.’

I must admit to an initial disappointment when reading the introduction which, in setting out the context and thesis of this work, appeared to me to be rather disjointed. However, this was soon set aside as I delved into the book proper. Swinton’s focus is primarily on intellectual impairment, dementia and acquired brain injury. He is well-placed to write about this having previously been a mental health nurse and a hospital chaplain; those experiences undoubtedly shape, for the good, his practical theology.

The book begins by establishing an inescapable link between time and disability. There follow two insightful chapters on a theology of time, before two moving ones on the vocational call of disability. He then addresses time’s relationship with memory and the heart, before finally challenging the horror of time. The book ends with interesting reflections on funerals which helpfully develop his 2009 book.

Much of Becoming Friends of Time proceeds by the parallel exploration of his principal strands of thought but in their juxtaposition lies deep truth and insight. It will require some considerable work on behalf of the reader, but the best books always do. Pastors, theologians and health professionals alike will find this a rewarding read.

The book did ultimately live up to its promise. I concur with Ford’s judgement: ‘This is a profound and moving book, both pastoral and prophetic.’

Keith Straughan is Associate Priest for the Walton Churches Partnership, Milton Keynes

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A Christian approach to poverty

Global Poverty: A theological guide
Justin Thacker
SCM Press
£25
ISBN: 9780334055150

This book is readable, resolute and profoundly relevant to the concerns and pains of a divided world. Yet it is not easy. Though the style is clear, the substance both stretches the mind and challenges the conscience.

Thacker has the credentials to address this theme. He is a former medical doctor and he knows the life of low income countries (LICs) at first hand. He studied theology to PhD level and teaches at the Methodist Cliff College. He cares, and he supports the work of various Christian relief agencies.

The book is laid out in five sections. The scheme aims to follow the biblical plotline and Global Poverty’s message comes through what Thacker does with each act of the drama. For example, ‘Creation’ – the image of God resides ‘in the whole of humanity as a corporate entity’. Wholesome relationships embody that image, and patterns of dominance deny it. ‘Fall’ – the history of the last few centuries creates a debt, a ‘liability’, of high income countries to LICs. That we owe this is structural sin; to ignore the fact that we owe it would indeed be personally sinful. The third section, ‘Israel’, explores the relevance of the Old Testament. The fourth, ‘Redemption’, evaluates various theories of development, both secular and Christian, giving noticeably high marks to Catholic social teaching. Finally, ‘Consummation’ asks about aspirations and prospects, for creating a truer community and equality across the world.

Thacker steers deliberately between prosperity theology and liberation theology, between unbridled capitalism and systematic socialism. He believes trade could eventually do much more than aid to help LICs but does not suggest, as some have done, that western business models be copied all over the world. The west ought to change some of its practices, not export them all.

This book is so wide-ranging that you could not expect to agree with everything in it. But it could help most of us to think more deeply, care more persistently, and look at the needs of God’s world with fuller insight and humility. I commend it with conviction.

John Proctor is General Secretary for the United Reformed Church

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How to understand the Old Testament

Who Needs the Old Testament?: Its enduring appeal and why the new atheists don’t get it
Katharine Dell
SPCK
£9.99
ISBN: 9780281065042

For those of us of one religion who treat the scriptures of another as our own, the question in the book title might be easily answered. But it is not until page 206 that we read: ‘We cannot understand the New without the Old, nor the God of the New, and the fresh revelation made in Christ, without reference to the Old.’ This book is a rather uneasy mix of evident scholarship and such simplistic generalisations.

The first part deals with assaults on the Old Testament by polemicists such as Marcion (mid second century) and, in more detail, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Dell rightly argues that such critics confuse the literary, historical and theological interpretations. Of one Old Testament passage she writes: ‘It does sound demented to our ears and there is no condoning it. I seek merely to understand the context … to comprehend it not to justify it.’

Against that background, the second part makes ‘a plea for a wider appreciation of the Old Testament in its own right and on its own terms’. Her personal expertise on books such as Job or Psalms or Proverbs, as distinct from the Torah and ‘the histories’, is evident and helpful. The selection of passages to illustrate the various strands of writing is interesting and shrewd, even if Jeremiah (surely the greatest prophet?) receives less than a page. And there is a good summary of recent archaeological controversy, notably around whether there ever was a single kingdom under David and Solomon.

Dell argues: ‘The kind of approach that distrusts the biblical evidence and redates the archaeological layers has pulled the proverbial rug out from under the feet of biblical interpreters.’ She will ring a few bells with her (unanswered) question: ‘How far should congregations be protected from some of the more radical utterances of biblical scholars?’ An honest overview, then, even if rather more reassuring than the evidence and the academic debate warrants.

Peter Brain is a former convenor of the United Reformed Church/Methodist interfaith group

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These articles were published in the June 2017 edition of  Reform

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