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Reviews – May 2014

Reviews – May 2014

An earnest epic

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Certificate 12A, 137 minutes
Released on 4 April

After years of controversy, Noah – Darren Aronofsky’s blood-and-thunder biblical epic – has finally been released. Bad press began in 2012, when a leaked draft prompted a wave of criticism on Christian blogs, continuing with unsuccessful pre-screenings to religious groups. The film is banned in Indonesia and a number of Middle Eastern countries for contravening Islamic law relating to the representation of prophets. Yet, since the film’s release, Noah has generated healthy box office returns, making $44 million on its opening weekend in the US.

The major criticism has been that the film takes liberties with Scripture. Though the story is (loosely) from Genesis, the mood – dark and apocalyptic – is closer to Daniel or Revelation. In this retelling, God is not purifying mankind but wiping it out. Numerous plot elements are not scriptural, including anachronistic environmentalism, stone-crusted fallen angels called watchers, and a Noah whose faith dips into murderous fanaticism.

Yet, it would be hard to make a two-hour movie out of a few chapters of Genesis without some embroidery, and the film’s additions are more along the lines of wild interpretation than complete fabrication. The watchers are a nod to the giants that lived in Noah’s time, and the idea that God wished to destroy humankind completely has roots in Genesis 6, where God “repented that he had made man on earth”. Even the film’s most disturbing plotline, which involves Noah’s granddaughters, echoes Abraham and Isaac.

If there is one thing the film cannot be accused of, it is its lack of earnestness. A throbbing score (by an Aronofsky regular, Clint Mansell), overwrought dialogue and heavy biblical imagery created in florid CGI are all employed in an attempt at bestowing biblical weight. But, both the language of the Bible and its imagery are so deeply rooted in our culture, that it takes a subtle hand to use it without lapsing into cliché. When, in the final scene, Noah stands on a cliff admonishing his young to “be fruitful and multiply”, while a sunset, a rainbow, and two doves vie for attention above, subtlety is as dead as the line of Cain. The problem with this movie is not the reimagining, but that it never finds the style – visual or verbal – to match the gravity of its material.

Natalia O’Hara is a freelance film journalist


War: The high price of
 doing what is right

in_defence_of_warIn Defence of War
Nigel Biggar
Oxford University Press
£25 (hardback)

War is always waged by one set of sinners against another.” From this quote (which was on page three) to: “I judge that the invasion of Iraq was justified,” (on page 325 is a mighty long way!) Professor Biggar offers us “not a textbook but a series of essays” of which the set-piece, 70-page essay on the Iraq invasion would merit a review on its own. For me, it almost undermines the careful case built in the previous chapters.

In his seven essays he first dismisses outright pacifism, but immediately moves on to assert that “love” is the key, even on the battlefield – to want to kill is, of course, wrong, but to choose war and accept that people will be killed may well not be. It may rather be part of God’s purpose for justice and, thus, for real peace in a world where power is constantly abused. Biggar asks: “Why should we suppose that the price of doing what is right should never be enormous, indeed dreadful?”

The other major essay, on the First World War, offers a double study of the ius ad bellum (case for war) and the ius in bello (right conduct in war) – the twin framework of just war theory. The former echoes the television drama 37 Days – a careful analysis of the impersonal and personal pressures in play during 1914, far subtler than either Michael Gove or, indeed, Blackadder. As to the actual fighting, Biggar offers a controversial evaluation of the Battle of the Somme, using a quote from Churchill comparing Haig to a surgeon in pre-anaesthetic times, within the theatre of war.

The language of policing only surfaces three or four times; surprisingly I thought, but then Biggar is sceptical of the possibility of a world order which would reduce the use of force to universal standards of crime and punishment: “Such a prospect seems so remote as to be utopian,” he says.

Although Professor Biggar admits to a “bookish view”, this is a very important book; dense but well-written, required reading for anyone who wishes to think about war and peace, especially if they do so from within Christianity.

The Revd Peter Brain is a retired United Reformed Church minister living in Exmouth, Devon


Church contributions 
to peace

religion_civil_societyReligion, Civil Society & Peace in 
Northern Ireland
John D Brewer, Gareth I Higgins and Francis Teeney
Oxford University Press

In the 1970s, our church in Derby hosted a group of Catholic and Protestant children from Belfast for a holiday. It was our contribution to peacemaking, made with the best of motives but incredible naïvety. My direct involvement with peacemakers continued for 25 years or more, by which time I thought I was pretty well informed. This book showed me there was more to learn.

Books about the peace process in northern Ireland say little about the churches’ contribution. Working from the thesis that religion is part of the problem, but also part of the solution, these authors show that the work of politicians depended on what had previously been done by churches over years; yet, the picture is far from even.

The book suggests that churches as institutions achieved little, while individuals from churches made remarkable breakthroughs by using back channels. The best contacts were made with those of “the other side”: Catholic priests meeting Loyalist paramilitaries, Protestant ministers meeting IRA members. Ecumenists (for example the Corrymeela Community) are praised for their thinking and writing, but evangelicals are praised for making the most significant breakthroughs.

Church leaders are criticised for only speaking out for “negative peace” (ending the violence), while fearless individuals are praised for speaking for “positive peace” (transforming society). I was fascinated by the importance given to the “sacred space” of church premises as a place where those who would not normally meet each other felt able to do so.

This book is not an easy read. It is academic and might be hard to follow if you have no direct experience of events in northern Ireland. But anyone who wants to think deeply about the role of churches in conflict situations, or about church leadership in places of tension, would find the effort rewarded.

As I read this book, there were sad reminders in the news that all this is unfinished business. Negative peace has largely been achieved. Positive peace remains elusive.

The Revd John Waller is a retired United Reformed Church minister living in Hythe, Kent


Discover Booth’s theology

boothCatherine Booth: Laying the theological foundations of a radical movement
John Read
Lutterworth Press

Previous writing on Catherine Booth – a cofounder of The Salvation Army – has been broadly biographical, but this book concentrates on theology. With our way of putting people into boxes, we might think of her as a social activist and forget that her work was rooted in a theology of salvation and a longing for Christian holiness. For Catherine, as this book makes clear, theology was a major preoccupation, more than amply demonstrated in her correspondence.

The book reveals some of the major debates that were hot topics in some 19th-Century Christian circles: How to understand the atonement, whether you needed a very personal experience of salvation, the relationship between prevenient grace and personal choice in relation to faith, the place of sacraments in the life of the church, the risks of antinomianism etc.

The author seems very keen to emphasise how Catherine Booth was faithful to Wesley, and that, though she was much influenced by the US-rooted Holiness traditions, she was never other than Methodist. What is interesting to me as a United Reformed Church reader is the reminder of the differences between Calvinist and Wesleyan theology. These were very vivid differences then. While Booth hoped to see a union between the best of the two polities, it was very much harder to see how the theological differences could be reconciled. Does this help us understand, in days when we have many united Methodist/URC congregations, why there are stumbling blocks between us still?

Comparisons with today’s renewal movements are invited by this book too. The Booths were inspired to live a Christianity that was faithful to the first generation of Christians. Is that hope as lively today? Are we as hungry to be faithful to the apostolic church?

This book reminded me how far away the recent past can seem, but I was nevertheless glad to rejoice in a woman who preached at the City Temple, whose funeral was attended by 40,000 people, and who was resolute in believing that social action is simply the expression of God’s indiscriminate love for God’s people.

The Revd Susan Durber is a United Reformed Church minister and is theology coordinator for Christian Aid


How to help and to hope
 in hard times

billingtonI’m Fine! Removing masks and growing
into wholeness
Wendy Billington

I’m fine!” is an answer we all give when asked how we are doing, without even thinking about it. This book aims to unpack the issues that lurk behind this reply, raising awareness of the variety of life’s struggles which the answer tries to mask. By understanding the silent sufferings of others, we are more able, when the opportunity arises for those masks to come down, to minister to them.

I’m Fine! explores 10 topics; from depression and loneliness through to relationship issues, financial issues, addictions and loss. The structure of the book allows for dipping into topics that are most relevant, or to explore more widely the whole range of issues that we and others may face. Each chapter includes helpful reflections intermingled with real-life stories of those who have faced such issues with varying outcomes, and concludes with a prayer for those struggling with that issue, and suggestions on where to go for help, and how to help others in need.

I found this book a reminder that we all face difficulties and, just as we struggle at times, so do others – although their struggles may be over completely different issues. Being awakened to the reality of these struggles in our own lives, puts us in a position to see the warning signs in the lives of others and be better equipped to provide support and point others to the professional help they need.

I would recommend this book to all who have a pastoral role in church, and those who want to enlarge their ability to care as Christians. It will also be useful to those facing difficult situations themselves, who need the reassurance that others have been through similar times and have emerged successfully from them. This book brings hope to the darkest places of our lives.

The Revd Catey Morrison is a United Reformed Church minister within the East Cleveland Group of URCs


This article was published in the May 2014 edition of  Reform.

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