Reviews – May 2017
Healing the divide between nations
Directed by François Ozon
Certificate 12a, 113 minutes
Released 12 May
Shot largely in ravishing black and white to recreate a time before colour photography existed – although occasional colour enhances shots of nature or paintings – this sees the established French director Ozon working in both French and German with a cast straddling both nations.
It is 1919. In a small town in Germany, the Hoffmeisters (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber) struggle to come to terms with the death of their son Frantz, a soldier who was killed in the Great War, as does his fiancée Anna (Paula Beer) who is staying with them. Walking around the town, Anna discovers a mystery man visiting Frantz’s grave in the local churchyard. He turns out to be Adrien (Pierre Niney), a French soldier who knew her fiancé before the war and subsequently fought on the French side during the conflict.
Slowly, the two young people get to know each other. However Herr Hoffmeister is understandably hostile to anyone French since the death of his son, a sentiment shared by his fellow Germans in the town. So Adrien (and Anna as she associates with him) must be careful where he goes, to whom he talks and exactly what he says.
In time, the hardness of Herr Hoffmeister’s heart begins to melt. But nothing is at it seems on the surface and Adrien harbours a dark secret…
On one level, this film concerns history, death, bereavement and healing. On another, it deals with truth and lies, concealment and disclosure. How do people, places and nations deal with the aftermath of international conflicts involving widespread loss of life? Sometimes they demonise those on the other side of the conflict. Sometimes they tell palatable untruths believing that to be less cruel than devastating honesty. Art can play a healing role in the process: Adrien performs violin pieces for the Hoffmeisters in their home, and Anna views Manet’s painting Le Suicidé saying: ‘it makes me want to live again’.
Ozon’s film provides a welcome space in which to explore these difficult issues, aided in no small part by a clutch of terrific performances from his excellent cast. With nationalism currently on the rise in the UK and elsewhere, a space like this is essential to nurture and maintain debate, and, as such, Christians ought to cherish it.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Exploring Doubt: Landscapes of loss and longing
Darton, Longman and Todd
The wider context for this beautifully written and thoughtful book is the current wars of religion: the rise of the (no longer so) new atheists and the stand-off between believer and unbelievers. The more immediate context is personal – the unexpected and unforeseen break up of the author’s marriage, necessitating the upheaval of a move from his beloved Norfolk and the devastating sense of loss, bereavement and disorientation that ensued.
The result is a profound meditation on the Norfolk landscape viewed as a metaphor for the life of faith: forever in flux, layered, rich with mystery and buried treasures and echoing the whispers of towns lost to the relentless encroachment of the sea. The bells of submerged churches are said to continue to sound from the depths. The chapter headings – ‘To be read slowly and savoured’ certainty, doubt, endurance and revival – chart the author’s own struggle with loss and the emergence of a deeper faith founded on an openness to a God who is both beyond and yet profoundly immanent. Such faith grapples with hiddenness, absence and silence, its God inaccessible both to the superficial reductionism of Dawkins and also to a strident faith whose foundations are so firm that they give no place to doubt and longing. Such bedrock certainties are belied by the shifting horizons and textures of Norfolk’s ancient terrain.
For Wright, an occasional Guardian correspondent, this is not a new take on faith but one that was known by some of the great figures of the past. An environment as bleak and rugged as Norfolk’s, familiar with plague and the rigours of nature, seems to have been fertile ground for a mysticism which finds expression in three of the county’s finest: Richelde, Julian of Norwich and Marjory Kempe. Wright’s short book is a searching meditation on faith, prompted by grief and inspired by the fusion of heaven and earth glimpsed in his Norfolk’s surroundings. It is a book to be read slowly and savoured and would make nourishing reading for Lent.
Lance Stone is a minister of the English Reformed Church in Amsterdam
How to preach
Wrestling with the Word: Preaching tricky texts
Kate Bruce and Jamie Harrison
This title conjures up a vision of preachers up and down the land as latter day Giant Haystacks, adopting muscular showmanship in preparing the words they will deliver to captive audiences on Sunday. The book considers the call to preach, summarises strategies to produce engaging sermons and exhorts preachers to grapple with the ‘hard’ texts which often come up among the lectionary readings.
Preachers from a range of backgrounds have contributed sermons on troublesome themes. These are categorised as ‘Beyond human experience’: the raising of Lazarus, the Transfiguration and the rending of the temple curtain at the death of Jesus; ‘the violent’: the retribution called down upon enemies in Psalm 137, the killing of Barak and the death of John the Baptist; ‘the terrifying’: stories of Jeptha, the rape and murder of the unknown woman in Judges 19 and the proposed sacrifice of Isaac; ‘the strange’: Belshazzar’s feast, Aaron’s breastplate and the creation story; and ‘the Abrasive’: Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians,Jesus teaching on divorce and Paul’s on civil obedience in Romans 3.
Some of these sermons successfully follow the introductory exhortations, others would have trouble holding the attention of the average congregation. Each section is followed by an analysis of the strategies used, encouraging the reader to be an actively thoughtful critic. The book concludes with an Ascension Day sermon from Justin Welby, a sermon on Jesus as the image of God and some final reflections.
Regardless of the perceived effectiveness or otherwise of each of the sermons here, all challenge preachers to re-examine their Sunday offerings in the light of the advice, to consider whether they always opt for the ‘easy’ set reading and whether their words serve to galvanise, challenge, engage or bore their congregations.
Valerie Jenkins is an elder in Bradford, West Yorkshire
Missionary life in China
Letters from Manchuria: The story of Marion
Young, missionary in Japanese-occupied China
Neil T Sinclair
Little Knoll Press
The heart of this book is the letters of Marion Young – a lively, tough, young Irish Presbyterian missionary who was sent to work in China in 1935. However, Marion’s son-in-law, Neil Sinclair, has produced a much weightier book than the letters alone would have made. He and his wife,Helen, have selected from hundreds of letters and then added explanatory notes to the selection.
Neil has told the story of Marion’s life before and after China. There is a carefully researched chapter on the history of Manchuria in the 1930s, lists of people, maps of the area and copious photographs. The book bears the marks of much labour and is, at times, laborious – but once I got into Marion’s letters, I was hooked.
Marion lived life to the full – learning to speak Chinese fluently, teaching Bible classes which also brought literacy to many women, travelling with a Chinese colleague to outlying churches, and then having a shopping break in Peking (sic) or a fun seaside holiday with other young missionaries. During her time, Japanese rule over Manchuria became more and more oppressive. Because of censorship, she could only make veiled reference to the regular imprisonment and torture of many of the leading Chinese Christians. Foreigners were safe but constantly watched and asked for papers, such was suspicion about spies within the church community. The courage of the local Christians is remarkable.
Tension rose from 1939 onwards until it seemed much of the mission work – especially the education work – would have to be given up. Marion went on leave in 1941, just as most missionaries were either instructed or encouraged to leave. Because of the war, it took Marion ten months to get home, via the US. She left behind a fiancé – a Scots mission doctor – so there is a little love interest and suspense as to whether he would escape before it was too late.
In 1946 my father was sent, with two others, by the Church of Scotland to see what had happened to the Church in Manchuria. He found it flourishing in spite of years of deprivation and persecution. I had a personal reason for enjoying this book – but it is also a good read!
Sheila Maxey is Book Reviews Editor for Reform
The Divine Dance
Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell
Describing the genesis of this book, Richard Rohr mentions a eureka moment. He realised
that the doctrine of Trinity summed up his lifetime’s experiences and was the forgotten
cornerstone of Christian living and teaching.
Over centuries, the Trinity has been reduced to an abstract, complicated theological concept, but it becomes exciting and transforming when rediscovered as an expression of our lived relationship with God, our human participation in ‘the divine dance’. Rohr unpacks this core insight over two main sections.
One explains why a Trinitarian revolution is needed. Rohr says Christianity has largely relied on static, distancing God images – for example omnipotence. This has encouraged our egocentric need to remain in control of our own salvation. In contrast, a Trinitarian, relational God image allows reconnection with the surrendered, ego-transcending God that Jesus revealed and embodied, leading to true participation in the ‘flow’ of redemptive grace and love. These points are developed through a tapestry of brief chapters, interweaving theological thinking from the Church’s traditions, current findings in science, and rich experiences and insights from Christian mystics.
In part two, Rohr gives three concrete reasons why a reappreciation of the Trinitarian doctrine is now historically relevant and important. Firstly, the Trinity can transform prayer life and Christian living; secondly, the it informs interdisciplinary and interfaith dialogue; and thirdly, it can facilitate an expanded understanding and integration of the historic Jesus and the cosmic Christ.
Rohr uses clear, everyday language and appears to mirror the Trinitarian dance – an intuitive interweaving of multiple perspectives. This is an inspiring book whose richness is possibly best savoured when read intermittently, allowing it to become part of one’s own process of prayer. It encourages an experiential, relational faith rather than a taught one. Anyone interested in exploring relational faith and looking for spiritual growth could find this book interesting. If you have a love for interdisciplinary or interfaith thinking, this could be for you also.
Birgit Ewald is the United Reformed Church Eastern Synod Advocate for Spirituality
This article was published in the May 2017 edition of Reform.