Reviews – December 2013/January 2014
Faith and atheism search together
This is the true story of Philomena Lee – wonderfully played by Judi Dench – who with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) went searching for the son who had been adopted without her consent decades earlier. As a pregnant, unmarried teenager in 1950s Ireland, Philomena suffered the full penalty exacted by the repressive and punitive attitudes of the time. Without wanting to give too much away, her quest for her son throws up unexpected and deeply moving surprises. As an adoptee, this film resonated strongly with me as it reflects so much my own birth mother’s experience. This is not a depressing story by the way; it’s uplifting, intelligent, heartwarming, and very funny in places. The emotions feel authentic. Philomena is a kindly soul, a devout Catholic and feisty with it; the script never patronises her simple – yet deeply-felt – faith, and she has some deliciously sharp retorts for the jaded Sixsmith, who is genuinely baffled as to how she still believes in God after suffering at the hands of a religious establishment.
I found it refreshing to watch a film in which faith is treated seriously, even while I couldn’t help but enjoy the provocative questioning of the atheist Sixsmith. Many would empathise with his honest admission that he wouldn’t be able to forgive the nuns who treated Philomena so cruelly. Yet the script doesn’t indulge in cheap shots or crass Catholic-bashing – not all the nuns are shown in a harsh light, and we are not allowed to demonise the ones who wronged Philomena.
The final sequence is triumphant and cathartic; Philomena’s passionate, yet dignified, revelation that forgiveness is both costly and liberating, whereas bitterness enslaves and shrivels a person’s soul, feels positively biblical.
Philippa Linton is PA to the United Reformed Church secretary for education and learning
Iconoclasm – the deliberate defacing or destruction of images – is a very divisive subject. People have differing views about it – and each of us individually has contrasting reactions. When we learn that 95-99% of all English religious art was destroyed in the Reformation and the English Civil War, we are inclined to sigh regretfully at such a loss, or tut-tut at such needless violence. But when the troops enter Baghdad and set about pulling down the statues of Saddam, we approve, leaving it to future scholars of Iraqi sculpture to lament this wanton destruction.
The point is, as the curators of this intriguing exhibition make clear, that there is nothing wanton about iconoclasm. It is almost always a deliberate, calculated action with a clear, intended purpose.
The purpose of iconoclasm is not primarily about destroying images, but about changing their meaning. Pulling down a statue of Saddam clearly tells the local population that power has decisively shifted. You may take away the debris, but you publicise the photographs of the event. So too, when the English Reformers attacked saint worship, they did not totally destroy many images. Instead, they defaced them, usually literally removing the faces, but left them in place, demonstrating the shift in religious power from the pope to the king.
The exhibition also shows that English iconoclasm was not a rampage of reckless destruction, but a calculated programme, carefully executed. William Dowsing kept a meticulous daily account of the number of “supersitious” images defaced and statues that were pulled down, as he and his Roundheads progressed through East Anglia.
The exhibition also shows more recent acts of iconoclasm. Some seem to be of a different nature. The Chapman brothers deface old paintings to create new ones. Mark Wallinger obscures most of a film screen to make you focus on the edges of the action. These are quite interesting, but hardly iconoclastic. Compared to the violent antagonism of trying to reverse the meaning of a religious work, these seem little more than aesthetic game-playing.
However, other exhibits show that genuine iconoclasm is thriving, as people pull down statues, slash paintings, and deface coins of the realm. Some contain instructive warnings not to jump to conclusions: The person who poured paint stripper on Allen Jones’ Chair (a sculpture of an erotically dressed woman contorted into a chair) had surely missed the irony of the work. Meanwhile, I was shocked to find that a Hungarian refugee named Laszlo Szilvany had attacked Reg Butler’s Working Model for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner. This work has always seemed to me one of the most poignant projects of the 1950s, sadly never executed on its intended full scale. But Szilvany felt that Butler’s use of scrap metal was insulting to the victims of European political oppression, and bent it out of shape. Butler, to his credit, took the action in good part, saying: “It shows the model has something – a shilling’s worth of wire makes a symbol so powerful someone wants to destroy it.”
Visiting this exhibition is a different experience from many shows, because you are often interested in what is not there – the parts of the work that have been knocked off or scratched out. And you are looking at the object not for its intrinsic aesthetic intentions, but for the actions that have been carried out on it to impose a new meaning on it.
But the lasting impression is much as Reg Butler suggests: Whatever you may think of iconoclasm, it is a very loud endorsement of the power of art. Iconoclasts recognise that art really does speak with power. That is why they feel the need to redirect that power into a different message.
Nigel Halliday is an art historian, lecturer and teacher
Clear thinking on why God allows suffering
If you have ever asked yourself, or been asked – say, by a non-Christian – about the relationship between God and suffering and found an answer difficult, here is a book which will help. Timothy Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, not only clarifies the reasons why suffering occurs and why God allows it, but the different forms suffering takes and the varying responses people make to it. He shows how the question of suffering is top of the list of difficult questions in our time and he demonstrates ways not only of coping with suffering, but of finding God in it.
Keller’s book is divided into three sections: the first is a protracted and careful theological reflection; the second is a sensitive exploration of what suffering can feel like; and the third is an encouraging examination of ways to hold on to God in the furnace. It is easy to read and refreshingly free from theological jargon. It is biblically based, and uses the stories of Joseph, Job, David, Paul and Jesus to excellent effect. It is worth reading the book for Keller’s analysis of the Joseph story alone.
Having said all this, I am not sure that the best use of Keller’s book would be for it to be given to a person in the first throes of suffering. It requires a measure of patience which might not be readily available to a person whose world has recently been turned upside down. But, as a book to be read in times of peace, in preparation for the difficulties of life which beset all of us at one time or another, it is splendid, and I will certainly return to it over and over again, to din into my brain the lessons it gives, and store them for a time when they will be needed. Similarly, it would make excellent reading for anyone trying to help somebody make sense of hard times s/he is going through.
Ruth Allen is a retired United Reformed Church minister based at Ilkeston URC, Derbyshire
A conflicted church
Argent understands 20th-Century Congregationalism to be conflicted: Ill at ease with its separatist past, its grandees absorbed into the ease of establishment, their sons becoming Anglican bishops. Its history was shaped by those who rejected that independent past: Parker’s volte face to seek a centralised denomination, JD Jones creating moderators, driving centralisation, seeking union, Nat Micklems angularly brilliant reclaiming of Congregationalism’s Calvinist heritage, and John Huxtable relentlessly pursuing the ecumenical vision.
The simultaneous developments of ecclesiastical architecture that eschewed the meeting house for the parish church, of written liturgies that revealed a lack of confidence in Spirit-led worship, and of the eclipse of liberal theology by theologies of the Word, all combine (for Argent) to diminish Congregationalism’s early 20th Century key values of “faith, freedom and fellowship”.
Argent’s narrative could easily be recast as a courageous quest by those same shapers and forces to explore the Savoy Declaration’s ecumenical insistence that “all saints are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God.” However, his sympathy is instead with the subtext of radical dissent, freedom in the Spirit, and the rugged independency which was left largely by the wayside. That perspective should not detract from what is sure to be the standard history of 20th Century Congregationalism, for, as he acknowledges in a fine chapter on the uses of Congregational history, all historians are interpreters too.
There are gaps. An engagement with the literature of secularisation would have been welcome, because the decline of nonconformity cannot be properly appreciated without it, and (surprisingly from the biographer of Elsie Chamberlain) there is little exploration of why Congregationalism was receptive to the ministry of women. But, this is a denominational history of fine, deep, even-handed scholarship, worthy of its place on the shelf alongside Tudor Jones and Geoffrey Nuttall. It fills a significant gap with aplomb, and no student of 20th-Century nonconformity can afford to ignore it.
David Cornick is general secretary of Churches Together in England
Sullivan without Gilbert
Not everyone is a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and only choral singers of a certain age may be aware of “The Golden Legend”, but many people will have sung “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “Hushed was the evening hymn” and “Alleluia, Alleluia, hearts to heaven and voices raise”. These songs are all part of the large body of hymns, cantatas and oratorios written by Sir Arthur Sullivan who, at the height of his fame, was reckoned to be on a par (in his choral writing) with Mendelssohn and Brahms.
Critical opinion has disagreed with Sullivan’s own assessment that his sacred music was his best work, favouring instead his Savoy operas; yet, Ian Bradley argues for a reassessment. He quotes the trenchant and often entertaining comments of Sullivan’s critics, before responding with a detailed examination of the works themselves and the context in which they were written.
The chapter headings of this comprehensive and critical study will tantalise those who know their Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Bradley traces Sullivan’s importance (not least for Free Churches) as congregations and chapel choirs enthusiastically embraced Sullivan’s hymns and anthems, and their members populated the Victorian choral societies which performed his oratorios up and down the land.
An early crossover artist with much in common with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sullivan emerged from the musical tradition of high church Anglicanism to dominate the world of musical theatre, yet (according to his critics) never found his authentic voice in church music. Given this mixed background, the most rewarding chapter is the one which discusses the spiritual and humanitarian qualities of Sullivan’s operas, where his music is recognisably the best, and where the therapeutic qualities of his optimism combine with his “rare gift of placing the cynical mind at rest”.
Ian Bradley has spent much time promoting contemporary revivals and recordings of Sullivan’s sacred works. It is only as these become better known with modern audiences that it will be possible to decide whether the judgment of the critics or the people will carry the day.
Ray Adams is a United Reformed Church minister serving in Palmers Green, Ponders End and Winchmore Hill, North London
Faith and disability
Drawing on his experience as a person living with impairment, the national disability advisor to the Church of England offers a theological reflection on disability. McCloughry’s use of language is very deliberate as he explores contemporary attitudes to disability whilst bearing in mind that an individual’s physical or cognitive condition may not be what disables them, but rather the attitude or arrangement of the world around them.
In a short, easy-to-read book, the author covers much ground: The development of disability issues and how they have been approached through medical and social models; the disabling nature of physical and cognitive impairments, as well as mental illness; and the “tyranny of normality”.
At the heart of the book, McCloughry presents a Christian perspective on disability. Whilst there is little room in a book of this length to address in any depth the church’s historical response to people with disabilities, through four building blocks of the Christian faith, from creation to completion, the reader is challenged to consider that inclusion and equality are not essentially about rights but rather about the very nature of God and what it means to be made in God’s image. For the author, Christian communities should be places where all are not only enabled to be present but are truly welcome; where all are not only tolerated but desired; where worth is not found in perfection but in presence.
This engaging book will interest not just those who find themselves disabled in our world, or live with those who are, nor only those who long to see churches and communities of faith becoming places where all are truly welcome and enabled to participate. This is also a book for those who are uncomfortable in a world that measures worth only through achievement and power, and wish to be reminded that our true value is given to us by the one in whose image we are made and whose image is carried by all in our society.
Craig Bowman is the United Reformed Church secretary for ministries
“A book I will remember” by Noel Harrower
Proof of Heaven: A neurosurgeon’s journey into the afterlife by Eben Alexander, first published by Simon & Schuster, 2012
There are several books containing weird accounts of near-death-experiences, but I have never before read one by a surgeon. Dr Eben Alexander is a busy, renowned US neurosurgeon, who was formerly sceptical about an afterlife and is now convinced that it is real.
In a straightforward style that makes you never want to put the book down, he describes some incredible experiences that he encountered while he was in a coma. He feels certain that he entered a heavenly world, beyond time and space. The doctors and family around the bedside were astounded by his complete recovery after six unconscious days. Scans of his brain had revealed massive damage, which seemed to have been caused by a rare form of bacterial meningitis. His family were preparing for the worst, when a miracle happened. He brain went from near total inactivity to comparative normality. He awakened convinced of a life beyond death and was able to say that he was no longer a sceptic because, at a very deep level, he had been transformed by his spiritual experience.
I would recommend believers and sceptics alike to read this book and form their own opinions.
Noel Harrower attends Glenorchy United Reformed Church in Exmouth, East Devon
These reviews were published in the December 2013/January 2014 of Reform.