Reviews – September 2016
Divine family fortunes
The Brand New Testament
Directed by Jaco Van Dormael
Certificate 15, 110 minutes
DVD released on 8 August
At the end of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), being pressed on the problem of evil, bumbles around in a lounge lizard suit mumbling: ‘I think it has to do with free will, or something.’ A similar sense of whimsy pervades the latest film from Flemish director Jaco Van Domael (Toto the Hero, The Eighth Day) who reworks God the Father as a slobbish despot. Many people in contemporary western culture struggle with the idea of a loving, patriarchal God, so if you’re going to have a crack at exploring Christian theology in a way that makes sense to those who don’t normally go near a church, this is not a bad place to start.
Conceived before Brexit, the film also reboots the Garden of Eden as an empty, present day Brussels where Adam wanders around naked save for a black rectangular special effect covering his private parts to meet Eve (likewise attired) behind the counter at an otherwise empty cafeteria. Much begetting produces an extended family of humanity.
God (Benoit Poelvoorde) appears as a grumpy man working on a computer in his study making up spiteful rules for creation (if there’s another queue, it always moves faster than the one you’re in). His son left home to garner 12 disciples and spawn four testaments. Timid, much put-upon housewife Mrs God (Yolande Moreau) is a baseball fan who reckoned there should have been another six disciples. Their ten-year-old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne) revolts, sends text messages to the world’s population telling everyone how long they have to live, locks God’s computer screen and escapes into creation via a tunnel from the washing machine which comes out in a launderette, then seeks six disciples and a Gospel writer to record her subsequent ministry on earth. Could the God of love be female after all?
What ensues is all highly inventive and utterly charming, with some sex and violence, but nothing I wouldn’t want a ten year old to see. In short, it’s the year’s most theologically incorrect, essential DVD, and a great discussion starter for a broadminded home group. For maximum enjoyment, watch right to the very end of the credits.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Feeling the Bible
Things Hidden: Scripture as spirituality
At the heart of this book is Richard Rohr’s conviction that Christianity needs to find a balance between outer authority, the Great Tradition, and inner experience, and make clear connections between the prime ideas of Scripture and pastoral spirituality – between, that is, head and heart. Rohr reflects on what he sees as Christianity’s great themes and considers the difficulty arising from the dualism which has developed between the spiritual and the non-spiritual.
Rohr shows how Christianity’s prime ideas are indicated from the beginning. Continuing with his theme of the problem of dualistic thinking, Rohr points out that when God separated darkness and light and heaven and earth, the Bible does not say this was good. According to Rohr, the rest of that passage is about putting these seemingly opposites back together. In an appendix Rohr sets out some unresolved issues arising from dualistic thinking where the Church has been forced into making a choice: justification by faith versus justification by good works, for instance.
Rohr maintains that true spiritual wisdom can only be found when a union of opposites is created. He offers three indicators of the ‘invitation to divine union’: the first is water, the symbol of God’s constant flowing out towards us; the second is blood sacrifice, which leads to an understanding of the crucifixion which ‘the dualistic mind’ makes into a ‘tit-for-tat thing’. Rohr does not understand the crucifixion as a sacrifice for our sins or God putting right something that has gone wrong in the world, but as evidence of the ‘eternal nature of the heart of God’ which flows towards us in blood as in water.
This is a work so full of ideas which come so thick and fast that sometimes one feels out of breath. Its author, however, writes from a position of deep faith in the love of God and the possibilities that offers to mankind.
Patricia Brewerton is an elder, serving at Lumen United Reformed Church in London
The perils of unity
Ecumenism in Retreat: How the United Reformed Church failed to break the mould
Wipf and Stock
I had often assumed that the United Reformed Church had an ecumenical vocation. My experience serving ecumenical committees, being the minister of a local partnership in Sheffield in the 1990s, and service in ecumenical chaplaincy teams, had always reinforced my ordination vow ‘to cherish love towards all other Churches and to endeavour always to build up the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’. Martin Camroux’s book, however, has unsettled me.
The book discloses an underlying concern about the ecumenical mandate of the denomination – even amongst those whom Camroux calls the ‘greying ecumenists’. Regretful or critical comments by some of the elder statespeople of the denomination (some now deceased) astonished me. Camroux is pointed in his honesty which some may find hard to swallow, for example: ‘One reason for the United Reformed Church’s precipitous decline can be found in the way that it alone so committed itself to local unity.’ He contends that the ecumenical paradigm adopted by the URC, although having some benefit, has not in any way contributed to numerical growth. On the contrary, he is bold enough to state that the Church has suffered a ‘catastrophic implosion’ to which the Church’s ecumenical policy has contributed.
From time to time I discover people asking: ‘What is the URC?’ and I confess that it has become harder for me to offer a definition except to say something about it being of a Reformed confession. Our identity is a contentious issue as was evidenced by the failed Zero Intolerance initiative, about which Camroux offers a useful overview.
This is an honest book about the failure of an ecumenical ideal and perhaps a premature post mortem which may well become part of the denomination’s epitaph. There is, however, a restorative final chapter, which leaves me more encouraged, in which the author affirms that the denomination’s ecumenical goodwill has extended God’s purposes, especially where ecumenical effort had been energetically championed.
Cecil White is Minister of Cavendish, Clare, Haverhill and Long Melford United Reformed churches
Spiritual reflections on nature
The Lives Around Us: Daily meditations for nature connection
Nature writing is in. Typically, bookshops have a column of shelves lined with flowing prose such as H is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald, Vintage, 2014) or exploratory searching as penned in Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways (Penguin, 2012). I love the genre, so jumped at the chance to read this book by Dan Papworth, who is an environmental scientist turned vicar, and is now involved in Forest Church – a movement that draws on outdoor sacred practices.
Papworth sets the scene by observing that Jesus is often described as walking with the disciples, calling their attention to an aspect of nature, then making a spiritual observation. What follows are 40 short chapters that do the same: first, a descriptive portrayal of a British species, then a Bible text and finally a section for reflection and prayer. From hawthorn to fox, hedgehog to jay, Papworth observes, reflects and makes a point.
So, did it work for me? Well, like the curate’s egg, it was good, even profound in parts, though from time to time it felt a little contrived. The author’s honesty owned that some of his research was from the web, giving the feel of someone not always familiar with his chosen species. He also assigns a gender to each species, which has an awkward feel. But such minor irritations aside, there are some wonderful insights and lines. On the pervasive rosebay willowherb, the reader is invited to ‘delight in the ethereal beauty of the drifting seeds which speak to us of our own temporariness and pilgrimage’. His prose led into a reflection on weeds, coupling it with ‘those at the edge of society … and the welcome characteristic of Christ, his habit of avoiding the wealthy, the powerful and the popular.’ In such nuggets the author connects or reconnects our humanity, the natural world and the Creator.
The 40 chapters could be read daily through Lent, or simply dipped into for ten minutes, then put down again for another day or week. Selected chapters could also be used by a Bible study or house group. However it is read or used, it offers vital and valuable insights into the natural world and our relationships within God’s kingdom.
David Pickering is Moderator of the Synod of Scotland
What is religion for?
Treasure Beneath the Hearth: Myth, Gospel and spirituality today
What is the purpose of religion? What do humans in this scientific age need in order to grow and thrive, living with integrity and purpose? Given the decline of the Church in the west, has Christianity’s usefulness ended? The answer given to the last question is a resolute no. Former priest Edward Walker employs depth psychology and biblical scholarship to mine the treasure in Christianity and to articulate a reasonable and resonant faith for the 21st century.
Noting the incessant human hunger for meaning and the degrading insufficiency of consumer capitalism, Walker argues that religion is a container for the myths that enable us to live vibrant and realised lives, awake to God’s purpose. Myths which express essential truth, human and divine, communicate the archetypes and symbols that articulate yearning and orient direction towards human wholeness, individual and communal.
Walker rescues the Bible from literalism that is hostile to the breadth of human knowledge, closes down meaningful critique and stunts spiritual growth. He observes that the Gospels are a mix of biography and myth. The life and teachings of Jesus, the archetypical Son of God, reveal the human task and journey towards fullness of life that is responsive to God, with death and resurrection illuminating the costliness of the journey. The way of Christ is appropriated in follower’s lives by corporate worship, historical-critical Bible study and prayer, engaging both intellect and imagination. The Lord’s Prayer in particular is presented as living water through the ages and dissected to illumine its power to assist those who regularly contemplate it on the path to wisdom, freedom and transformation.
Arguing that monotheism is not enough for the survival of humanity but that ‘mon-anthropism’ – the awareness of the unity of humanity – is also required, Walker hopes this work will contribute to conversation between and among those of no faith and those with diverse religious beliefs.
This intelligent and well-written slim volume provides seekers and thinking believers with food for the journey, enabling what Paul Riceour called a ‘second naivete’ that embraces the truth of Jesus alongside rational inquiry.
Carla A Grosch-Miller is a practical theologian
This article was published in the September 2016 edition of Reform.