Reviews – December 2017/January 2018
How do people cope?
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Certificate 12A, 105 minutes
Released 12 January
Outraged at police slowness in solving her daughter’s rape and murder case, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) commissions the eponymous three hoardings as a direct message to the local Police Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). He, meanwhile, has other pressing concerns on his mind. He’s dying from cancer, while his number two (Sam Rockwell) has anger management issues which inflame this and every other local situation.
It’s a drama rather than a comedy, but the writer-director McDonagh (In Bruges) injects a lot of humour making the grim subject matter much more bearable to watch. McDonagh’s main interest is in what makes his characters tick and the comedy arises from that interest. Essentially a three-hander, the piece constantly veers between mother, police chief and deputy without favouring one of them over another. It’s a cleverly written script which, combined with McDonagh’s shrewd direction, allows each of its three main actors enough room to deliver unforgettable and highly nuanced performances.
Although McDonagh’s script relentlessly pursues its concerns right to the end, it’s unafraid to go off at tangents developing such quirky, minor characters as the hapless ad salesman Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) who rents Mildred the billboards without thinking through the consequences, and James the used car salesman determined to take Mildred out to dinner (Peter Dinklage).
Meanwhile, the main event is the matter of why people do what they do in difficult circumstances, coping with the hand life deals them, however tough. Each of the three protagonists has very different personal challenges to overcome. Mildred is like the lone outsider in a western, except that rather than being the violent male traditionally associated with that role, she’s a tough woman not easily given to violence. If Three Billboards is a film that’s unafraid to have one character suddenly throw another out of an upstairs window, it’s equally capable of having a character without any obvious redeeming features suddenly surprise you in a good way. A challenging film to watch which provides much food for thought afterwards.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
How Christians can better our world
Reclaiming the Common Good: How Christians can help re-build our broken world
Virginia Moffatt (Editor)
Darton, Longman and Todd
The concept of the common good in Catholic teaching has an honourable place in keeping political discourse unselfish. This essay collection commends the work of the ecumenical Joint Public Issues Team – of the Baptist Union, Church of Scotland, United Reformed and Methodist Churches – and explores key social and economic themes.
After tracing the idea of the common good back to Aristotle, the book considers British challenges and then the wider world. The authors see immediate post-war Britain as a golden age – which might surprise those who remember bread rationing – but recognise that we now live with very different popular mindsets and thus need to find new ways of promoting social justice.
An intriguing contribution comes from the URC minister, Vaughan Jones, who considers how migration questions would look if viewed not from the starting point of national borders but from the perspective of a Church that is multinational and has been enriched by migration. Missionaries have settled in foreign parts and east European workers have revived British churches. Here is a Christian perspective beyond any offered in a party manifesto.
The authors are more at home with politics than economics. They imply that the failure to address social issues as they would wish with huge increases in government spending is a failure of political will. Nowhere do they grapple with the policy pinch facing the Labour, coalition and Conservative governments of the last decade, as a result of the failure of the British economy to grow as expected. They say surprisingly little about the potential for taxation policy to promote the common good in times when the size of the economic cake is not growing.
The most obvious gap for a book designed to promote political debate is Brexit. Do the constraints on the free market imposed by being a member of the EU promote the common good? What trade deals should Britain negotiate to promote the international common good? These are urgent questions. But should you be tempted for a moment to think Britain is a fair country, this book will explode your complacency. And you will also learn what anthropogenic means!
John Ellis is Immediate-past Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly
Life with God and grief
One for Sorrow: A memoir of death and life
This is a special book. I have read many books on grief and bereavement in my time, but this one has moved me more than any since CS Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. It is the account of the illness and death of Alan Hargrave’s son Tom, at the age of 21, from malignant and incurable melanoma, and it is written with devastating honesty.
No punches are pulled, no prisoners taken, as the progress of the disease and its effects on the whole Hargrave family, on Tom’s close friends and on the medics who cared so devotedly for Tom, are recorded. You will need a hanky.
The author is an Anglican minister, now retired after years of work in the southern US and then as Canon Missioner of Ely Cathedral. Tom died while Hargrave was working as a vicar in a council estate in Cambridge. The author’s relationship with God is a major theme of his meditation on Tom’s death. There are two chapters called ‘Bottom line’ where, having hit rock bottom, Hargrave does find love – but nowhere is there triumphalism or a slick or facile answer to suffering. Alan’s God knows what suffering is like because his God has gone through that experience too.
I loved the way Hargrave relates parts of his story to scripture. The references are relevant and kept short, because grief cannot concentrate, but they are neither laboured, pompous or abstract. Instead, you can see how God’s experience and Alan’s went hand in hand through the darkest of times. Alan’s language is everyday, often blunt (he originates from Yorkshire) and always intensely readable. The book is short and contains some well-chosen poetry. I shall treasure it, and I hope it will help to support you, should you ever go through such suffering in your life.
Ruth Allen is a retired United Reformed Church minister based at Ilkeston URC, Derbyshire
Fictional tales of Jesus’ ‘gap years’
Jesus in Nazareth: Tales from his gap years
This is a work of fiction. ‘The Gospels leave an eighteen year gap in the story of Jesus. … What happened in those eighteen years?’ So begins Tony Burnham’s Jesus in Nazareth. It’s fiction but fascinating. Which of us hasn’t wondered about those years? Here, the United Reformed Church’s one-time General Secretary uses decades of Bible study, ministry and radio broadcasting to fashion 16 short stories.
Inviting us to use our imagination, these pieces are vehicles for suggesting how Jesus’ thinking and sense of vocation developed. They are rich in biblical allusion, with references both to the Hebrew and Christian writings and a list at the end to help readers trace the passages used. We are offered a foretaste of the theological ideas that appear in the Gospels, such as baptism, inclusivity, mercy and the motherhood of God.
Jesus in Nazareth might be regarded by some as an exegetical step too far – a reading into the Bible’s account of Jesus that demonstrably is not there. That said, these cameos are no mere flights of fancy – the plots’ theology emerges from scripture, and this reader’s imagination is stirred by Burnham’s account of what those 18 years might have included.
Burnham’s biblical fluency, pastoral acuity and Lancashire wit all shape the narratives; they are taut, clear and insightful, with twists of the unexpected, and not a few ‘aha’ moments. He writes of profound things accessibly, and thereby creates a volume that could be of real value both to those exploring the Christian story for the first time, and to those who know it thoroughly and are seeking fresh understanding. Though a connected and unfolding narrative, each story stands alone, and, because none of them exceeds four pages in length, they make for ideal daily reflections.
This short book conveys more than meets the eye. There is barely a wasted word, rarely an empty dialogue and plenty to think about. In ‘A Life in Wood’, a final chapter with intimations of the cross, we learn that wood is ‘God’s gold’. There is gold in this book too.
Nigel Uden is Minister of St Columba’s and Fulbourn United Reformed churches, Cambridge
Daily biblical reflections
Gift and Task: A year of daily readings and reflections
Westminster John Knox Press
If you have appreciated Brueggemann’s scholarship and spirituality, you will appreciate this book. In classic Brueggeman style – rich biblical insight expressed in living faith – this book offers a one-page biblical reflection (almost a sermon) for each day of the year, enabling the faith story expressed in the Bible to speak into our lives and world today.
A page is given for each day, on which four readings from year two of the daily office of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer are listed, along with a short prayer and a reflection. Brueggemann suggests that we read the Bible texts aloud and generally draws on one of the texts for his reflection. Each day is ordered and titled according to the Revised Common Lectionary year B, but in an appendix shows how the book could be used for other liturgical years. He also uses texts from Ecclesiasticus which he includes in an appendix.
‘Rich in depth but easily accessible’ is Lee Hull Moses’ description of this book, Senior Minister of First Christian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. I would echo her thoughts. However, I would add that easily accessible does not mean simplistic – these daily devotions are not romantic. This book challenges its readers to think and to wrestle with what it means to be people of God today and would probably appeal to people who find intellectual challenge enriching to faith.
I would hesitate to limit its appeal to a stereotype. This is full blown Brueggemann in daily doses: he brings weighty intellect and compassion and uses them to enable his readers to draw deeply from the wisdom and story of Scripture in order that they may be nourished to live out its transformational and hopeful story today. This book feels to me a treasure which I am excited to have found, and which has the potential to cause a lot of challenge and change: indeed, both gift and task.
Fiona Bennett is Minister of Augustine United Church, Edinburgh
This article was published in the December 2017/January 2018 edition of Reform