Reviews – April 2015
Rain of terror
Written by Tony Jordan
BBC One, broadcast 30 March, 90 minutes
Noah looks in silence over a post-diluvian landscape, fingers the dry ground and surveys the remaining pools of floodwater on the barren land. Then, suddenly, we leap back in time and the camera is underwater as a body plunges into the depths. But it’s all right – it’s not the flood yet, it’s just Noah’s sons larking about. They’re supposed to be building fences, but they’ve taken time off for a swim. Slightly naughty, but forgivable.
Cinemas are being deluged by the revival of biblical epics at the moment, and this Easter the BBC gives us the flood story. From the writer of the BBC’s Nativity, and starring David Threlfall as Noah, The Ark has the look of traditional British Bible telly. It goes beyond simply re-enacting the Sunday school story in two ways though: First, it fleshes it out into a family drama with dilemmas of loyalty and obedience, protection from the wicked world and fostering independence. Jordan gives Mr and Mrs Noah a fourth son, Kenan, with the implication that all may not go well for him, arkwise. Secondly, The Ark nods the contemporary issues that, Jordan suggests, might make God want to wipe out humankind these days: There are bankers profiting from debt and espousing atheism.
However there is also something thoroughly traditional in The Ark’s version of the story. Noah’s belief that God has decreed the extermination of humanity (give or take) is doubted and tested but proves right. And yet this human race seems pretty decent really: Their main fault seems to be that they’re urban and Noah is a farmer. The programme accepts that they deserve to be washed off the earth, but never makes sense of that idea.
I’m asking a bit much. There is an important place for TV like this that simply keeps alive the traditional story. But it does make me itch for a film that wrestles with that story, asking what kind of God destroys humanity and what kind of believer believes in him.
Stephen Tomkins is editor of Reform
Keith Ward has written a series of books examining the rational case for theological belief; this is the latest. Ward’s point of departure is that the material world does not account for all dimensions of human life – our feelings and our senses also tell us something about the reality we experience; these can indicate a spiritual dimension. Ward instances this in six areas: The arts, morality, philosophy, science, religion and personal experience. Taken together, these might point to God (or “Spirit” to use Ward’s preferred term). But experience cannot be reduced to sense-experience; it has to be interpreted. And that leads Ward to set out his views on the purpose of the universe, the existence of evil and the omnipotence of God. These sections are over-condensed and the view that God cannot create a good world without the necessity of human suffering needs fuller explanation.
Ward holds that “cosmic mind or Spirit is the reality underlying the physical cosmos” and gives important space to Stephen Hawking’s explanations of why we exist. Ward sees his own philosophical Idealism, not as a contradiction, but as “a supplement and an adjustment” to Hawking’s claim that “mind is the basis and best explanation of the physical universe.” This leads Ward to an exploration of rationality and the role of reason. Ward rebuts at some length WK Clifford’s argument that we should not believe anything without material evidence. Evidence, Ward maintains, can also be a matter of insight into different experiences, and the Abrahamic faiths, Hindu, and East Asian traditions are all ways of approaching “Spirit”. Although the statement that our faith is provisional may be unsettling, cumulative evidence for God is “overwhelming”.
The book is a robust defence of traditional theism – anyone who is looking for an account of the grace of God revealed in Christ will be disappointed. It is not necessarily an easy read. The thought is cumulative but abstract and there are various places where the reader might feel a need for further amplification. It is, however, accessible to the reader who is accustomed to philosophical discourse and method.
Fleur Houston is a retired church minister living in Macclesfield, Cheshire
It’s not the end of the world
In this religious account of US history, Matthew Avery Sutton argues that “radical” evangelical beliefs about the end of the world are key to understanding US social discourse. He gives a sweeping account of the apocalyptic beliefs that have often been a key indicator of the likely approach to other doctrines.
Sutton writes with empathy, avoiding caricatures and respecting the diversity within the evangelical community whilst refusing to sweep under the carpet many of its ugly secrets. He challenges the oft repeated lie that evangelicals have been “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good”. Sutton also contrasts early apocalyptic calls for Christians to be separate from the world with the later prophetic and political stances this theological perspective produced.
American Apocalypse reminds us that no theology is developed in a vacuum. Sutton shows how pre-millennial evangelicalism, fed by fears during the Great Depression, became a vehicle for racial and antisemitic prejudices. This reminds us of the danger false beliefs pose to the Church and the need to test everything and hold our faith humbly.
In a century where many believed that social progress would usher in a triumphant era of peace, these radicals never took their eyes off the international situation, scanning the horizon for signs of the end times. In a chapter entitled “The Rise of the Tyrants”, Sutton quotes Billy Graham’s father-in-law, L Nelson Bell, who viewed Mussolini’s rise to power from the perspective of biblical fundamentalism; Bell said: “The way is being paved for the Final restoration of the old Roman Empire… What a joy, to have the hope of His Coming before us, rather than the mirage of a world getting better and better.”
From the First World War through Cold War isolationism to the current culture wars, Sutton has charted the way radical evangelical beliefs in a premillennial return of Christ have influenced and been influenced by global events and American political culture. In this way, he serves students of history and religion seeking to reflect upon the social and political contribution of evangelical faith.
James Church is minister of Lillington Free Church and Radford Road Church, both in Warwickshire
Practical Christian wisdom
Following his 2012 title, The Shape of Living: Spiritual directions for everyday life, there comes this sequel from Cambridge University’s regius professor of divinity. As with the previous volume, Professor Ford’s concern is for a practical Christian wisdom that can inspire and bring fulfilment to everyday life with all its patterns and complexities. Here, the “drama” replaces the “shape” of living, supplying a key metaphor for the life of faith.
Anyone familiar with Ford’s works will recognise recurring themes and interests: The biblical notion of wisdom; the L’Arche Community and Jean Vanier; face-to-face relationship, the Scriptural Reasoning project (an interfaith practice of theologians reading and discussing sacred texts) and, above all, two overriding Fordian passions – the Gospel of John and the works of the Irish poet Michael O’Siadhail. These are his key dialogue partners as he considers a swathe of topics including love, sex, death and beyond, extending the “drama” metaphor to include improvisation (related especially to life in the Spirit) with particular reference to jazz.
The book is shot through with autobiography – Ford’s palpable enthusiasm frequently carryies him into the realm of the personal and anecdotal. Especially where O’Siadhail’s poetry is involved, this is not a quick, easy read, requiring time and re-reading (both characteristics of wise living dealt with in the book). However, despite (because of?) his passion for O’Siadhail as well as John’s Gospel, I do not think that he does justice to either; often, long extracts or quotations from O’Siadhail’s work do not benefit from being pressed into the service of the book. At times I felt that Ford just loves quoting and expounding O’Siadhail (understandably) and there – as in other areas, not least the lengthy description of his father-in-law’s death – a bit of discipline and editing was called for.
What I was left with was a glimpse of a Johannine vision of the cosmos created by and for love, some intriguing insights into John’s Gospel, and a not entirely satisfactory reunion with O’Siadhhail’s poetry, last encountered in a previous Ford tome.
Lance Stone is a minister of the English Reformed Church
Diary of a missionary nurse
This book is a traditional account of the daily life of a missionary nurse in an isolated bay in what is now called Papua New Guinea – and it is none the worse for that. Bernard Thorogood comments in his introduction that “in the popular imagination today, missionaries have a poor image”. Delta Echo offers a much-needed corrective.
Ruth grew up in a farm labourer’s cottage in rural Essex with no electricity, gas or running water. This may have prepared her for her 1965 commission through the London Missionary Society (now Council for World Mission) to serve in Papua. She was sister-in-charge of a bush hospital in Fife’s Bay – huts with corrugated iron roofs with no running water, a primus stove and a fish kettle for sterilising instruments. She found a good selection of basic drugs in a locked cupboard full of cockroaches. There were no toilets for patients as they had fallen down. Ruth was assisted by a Papuan nurse who was also her interpreter and she dedicates the book to the Revd Reva Henao, the district church leader whose support meant so much to her.
Ruth’s stories – of difficult births (sometimes with her midwifery textbook in one hand), of trying to save patients with cerebral malaria, of nursing tiny babies with three-hourly feeds, of trying to radio a doctor on another island for advice, of somehow getting a desperately ill woman onto a canoe through rough seas to the larger boat which would get her, many hours later, to hospital – are told in such an unassuming way.
This is not a polished book, but I could not put it down. It is time we celebrated the dedication of those like Ruth who left home, and home comforts, to follow their call to Christian service. That Ruth herself would not have missed the experience for the world does not take away from the cost of that form of discipleship.
Sheila Maxey is a retired church minister living in Brentwood, Essex
This article was published in the April 2015 edition of Reform.