Reviews – April 2013
Finding God despite dementia
Statistics tell us that more of us are afraid of developing dementia than any other illness, including cancer. We are not afraid of just losing our dignity, but our personality – our identity itself. I know that every time I forget a name, or struggle to recall a word, the thought occurs: Is this a symptom of the fell disease?
John Swinton’s book asks the most profound questions: Since memory is such an important part of our identity, “who are we, when we can no longer remember who we are?”, “Are we nothing but our memories?” and “how can we relate to God, when we cannot remember who God is?”
Professor Swinton homes in upon the very nature of human identity and what it means to be human when experiencing major brain disease. He describes the malignant social psychology, rife in our culture, which treats people with dementia as non-persons and questions the purpose even of their continued existence. He looks honestly and fairly at the difficulties which dementia visits upon both sufferers and carers, and neither sentimentalises nor understates them.
As the book progresses, so the glimmers of a theology of hope begin to appear. Our Christian response to dementia does not have to lie in hand-wringing, or in dour stoicism, we can hold our afflicted friends in our memories when theirs have failed; we can hold them in God’s memory; we can, through the beautiful old-fashioned virtues of hospitality and spending time with them, recognise holiness in them and God’s presence in this situation.
This is a wonderful book, and it should be required reading for anyone involved in pastoral ministry, or asking themselves where God is in their dealings with dementia. As I read it, I could sense my fears diminishing, as it brought hope into a dark area. Dementia does not have to be the end of the world – God is still there in it all.
Ruth Allen is a retired United Reformed Church minister based at Ilkeston URC, Derbyshire
Witty analysis of what Christianity feels like
The subtitle of Spufford’s book – Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense – reveals its intention: to describe “what Christianity feels like from the inside”.
Early on in this very personal account, he describes how once, when he “hushed his noise sufficiently”, he experienced feeling loved by “the God of everything”. Although he acknowledges that this transcendental experience can be explained away as “unmysteriously physical”, nevertheless, his feelings are still his feelings. This determination to accept that there may be a rational explanation of his experience is typical. Spufford does not duck difficult issues. Having experienced being loved by “the God of everything”, he feels compelled to examine the problem of suffering in a world presided over by this all-powerful and loving God. He looks at various theodicies which attempt to deal with the conundrum and declares that none of these work. And since the contradiction of a loving God with a cruel world cannot be resolved, one must just accept that all is not well with the world and find consolation in the story of Jesus/Yeshua, which he retells in a “simplified” and “heightened” fashion. This story, which dispenses with the need for resolution, requires us to use our imagination if it is to console us.
Spufford, like many people of faith, is irritated by New Atheist certainties. Although he is amused by the devotion with which the “Dawkinsites” “extract a hobby from the thought of other people’s belief”, he argues passionately with their certainty that there is no God. He doesn’t attempt to prove them wrong – as he says, he doesn’t know if there is a God and neither does anyone else. However, he finds that it makes emotional, hopeful sense to believe that there is.
For those unhappy with New Atheism’s certainties but struggling with their own uncertainty, Spufford’s book – often witty and acerbic, sometimes poetic, always honest – offers an understanding of Christianity which acknowledges what cannot be known and what cannot be resolved. It would surprise New Atheists too.
Patricia Brewerton is a member of Lumen United Reformed Church in London
Examination of end-of-world mania
As you may have noticed, the world did not end on 21 December 2012, as the Mayan calendar purportedly said it would. Nor did it end on 21 May 2011, as the American evangelical preacher Harold Camping said it would. Nor did the world implode on New Year’s Day 2000, as many said that it would (because computers would fail to cope with a change of millennium), and so on. Ted Harrison’s book is an exploration of humankind’s age-old obsession with the end of the world and its current manifestations – both in religious beliefs about the return of Christ, and in current secular versions where global warming and the nuclear threat replace divine vengeance as punishment of the human race for our sins and follies.
Clearly, end of the world speculation is rife, and on the increase. Harrison points out that of the 200 or so known instances over the past 2,000 years of individual days being identified as Doomsday, half have occurred over the past 50 years. And, paradoxically, the disappointment that follows a failed prediction only strengthens the resolve of believers – out of failure new cults and expectations grow. Unless, as in the case of Jonestown, the end is accompanied by mass suicide. Such speculation is also influential – apparently George Bush tried to persuade the French government to support his plans to invade Iraq by reference to the place of Gog and Magog (see the biblical books of Ezekiel and Revelation) in the unfolding of biblical prophecy.
Harrison is a former BBC religious affairs correspondent and his book makes fascinating, if bewildering, reading. Why this obsession, contrary to Jesus’ explicit warnings against such speculation? Harrison makes some tentative suggestions: fears about mortality; the desire for a corporate, shared end in a world where death comes to us individually; and, increasing anxiety about the future in a threatening world. Is it significant that the overwhelming majority of day-specific predictions in recent times have been made by Americans?
Harrison’s book is well researched, very readable, and bears eloquent testimony to human gullibility.
Lance Stone is a United Reformed Church minister based at Emmanuel URC in Cambridge
Scotland, slavery and excuses
The Free Church of Scotland was formed in 1843 as a consequence of the Disruption. Faced with the difficulties of creating and funding a new denomination, delegates were sent on a fraternal visit to the USA in the winter of 1843 to garner support for the new church’s principled stance against state interference in the life of the church, and to raise funds. The delegation was a powerful one, headed by the massively intelligent theologian William Cunningham. They walked, seemingly unwittingly, into the midst of one of the most contentious issues of the mid 1840s, the “peculiar institution” of the Southern States – slavery. When they returned, with donations in the bank, and the good wishes of US Presbyterians ringing in their ears, they encountered fierce controversy, and demands from a variety of abolitionists to send back monies tainted with the blood of slaves.
This accessible, scholarly, and enjoyably-readable monograph tells the story of just four years – 1843 to 1847 – during which the great and the good of the new Free Church (Thomas Chalmers, Robert Candlish and William Cunningham) tied themselves in increasingly troublesome intellectual and moral knots as they sought to justify keeping the money, whilst balancing the fragile unity of the new church, good relationships with US Presbyterianism (itself at that stage a precarious unity of North and South) and a proper moral and theological abhorrence of slavery. It is not a particularly edifying read, but it is a sobering one.
Whyte’s cast and plot is almost Dickensian: casuistical clergy, passionate women abolitionists, demagogic US preachers, scurrilous street balladry, a highly suspicious adultery case which looks like a stitch-up, and the wonderful Frederick Douglass, a self-liberated slave whose rhetorical powers put some of Scotland’s finest preachers into the shade.
And relevant? Most certainly, as with a discerning and thoughtful eye, Whyte draws parallels with the emergence of the Confessing Church in Germany and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches’ debate on apartheid in the 1980s. It is a fine miniature of the perils of moral decision-making.
David Cornick is a United Reformed Church minister and general secretary of Churches Together in England
Visit a mythical land – our own
Mythogeography is about keeping alive the many potential meanings of places in the face of creeping uniformity. Its key device is the group walk, a ”collective practice of dialogue and anti-wayfinding that can only be realised on the hoof and in communion with others, and not in any book”.
Mythogeography originally arose from the work of a group of site-specific performance artists based in Exeter. Phil Smith, group member and author, describes it as ”a set of approaches to the world, accessible to anyone, that teases out connections and journeys, celebrates the many-sidedness of things and sees the multiplicity of possible viewpoints not as a problem but as the pleasurable means for getting closer to truths.”
The book embodies the subject, and as such is not entirely conventional. Part is a toolbox of ideas about how to walk differently, to be treated as a handbook rather than read straight through. Part is show-don’t-tell narrative: the cautionary tale of the disappeared SJ Salmon; and the story of a long walk by the author’s alter-ego Crab Man. And part is a gallimaufry of introductory notes, publishers’ notes, editors’ notes, footnotes, endnotes, and appendices, that by turns question, explain and extend the text.
One day of Crab Man’s walk is illuminating. It began with a chance meeting with a council sub-contractor, who took him on a journey through a labyrinthine economic reality of renovated mills and a fantastical clandestine England, down tunnels to underground ballrooms and up roads to nowhere. But it ended in seeking the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, and finding a fenced tree and ”the plastic horror of the visitor centre”, which squeezed the multiple myths of the forest into a single meaning and trashed them.
The book provides a goldmine of ideas for embarking on this path, well-supported online at www.mythogeography.com.
Clare Bryden is an honorary research fellow of the University of Exeter
A hymn to God’s absence
Two years after his last film, The Tree of Life, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Terence Malick’s new offering, To The Wonder, caused laughter and jeers at the premier at the Venice Film Festival last September, and some critics have called it disappointing and insubstantial.
The film, Malick’s first set in the present day, tells the parallel stories of Neil (Ben Affleck), an American who falls out of love with his French wife Marina (Olga Kurylenko), and Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a Catholic priest whose faith is wavering.
Neil and Marina’s relationship begins in Paris, rapturously, on backlit beaches and parks, with dreamy voiceover from Marina (“You got me out of the darkness. You’ve brought me back to life.”) Once Neil moves Marina to Oklahoma, their life disintegrates; Marina becomes homesick, and Neil is drawn to a childhood friend (Rachel McAdams).
Paralleling this story of disillusionment is the couple’s priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who’s suffering a crisis of faith, struggling to find God’s love in the unhappy, impoverished lives of his congregation.
The film has been described as a B-side to The Tree of Life, but it’s more like a reflection in an old mirror – everything is backwards, and darker. While the earlier film’s themes were faith, eternal truth and spiritual love, this one’s are doubt, fading emotion and physical love.
God is constantly present in his absence (“I could not see you,” the priest laments). Only an elderly janitor at the church can feel God in his life; he exhorts a bewildered-looking Bardem to rest his hands on sunlit glass to feel the warmth of God.
So why has To The Wonder been met with jeers and criticism? It is mostly because the film is reckless. The dreamy, emotive voiceover in a French accent, combined with footage of beautiful people on beaches, invites comparisons to a perfume ad. Audiences are tolerant when Marina dances in parks and bedrooms, but snigger when she dances in WallMart.
But it’s hard to condemn a film for occasionally stumbling when it is walking on new ground. To The Wonder is brave and inventive, rejecting scripted dialogue for visual poetry, and wavering towards documentary as Bardem talks with drug addicts and alcoholics in smalltown Oklahoma. It knows audiences want suspense, bare flesh, and a happy ending, and it gives us a meditation on doubt and love, trees, and space to think. And it’s a film made by Hollywood for grown ups – itself, a wonder.
Natalia O’Hara is a freelance journalist and script reader
This article was published in the April 2013 edition of Reform.