Reviews – December 2016/January 2017
A hero on trial
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Certificate 12a, 96 minutes
Released on 2 December
On 15 January 2009, in New York City, a commercial passenger aircraft in trouble managed to land safely on the Hudson River without any loss of life. While Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger was hailed as a hero by the media, he was simultaneously being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to see whether the course of action he took was in fact the correct one.
The first side of the story struck a chord with people at the time. Following 9/11, New York had become synonymous with terrorist attacks and was desperate for a piece of good news to counter that perception. The safe landing of a airplane provided proof that the action of human beings could be good and brave and directly benefit their fellow people. Yet at the same time, an industry as highly complex and safety-conscious as aviation needed to see its rules and protocols properly followed – not a stance they were about to relax after 9/11.
The man at the centre of this double whirlpool, Sully, is an experienced pilot simply trying to do his job to the best of his ability. The casting of that US everyman Tom Hanks helps make Sully someone we can easily relate to. Which is just as well, because he spends the film holed up in a New York hotel with co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) pending NTSB investigations. He can only communicate with his wife Lorrie (Laura Linney) by phone.
The skilful script is adapted by Todd Komarnicki from Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow’s book Highest Duty (William Morrow, 2010, £10.99). It explores Sully’s state of mind after the event and the investigation as much as the river landing itself. It would be all too easy to turn a story like this into a manipulative pot-boiler but Clint Eastwood, seasoned pro of a director that he is, exhibits a lightness and sureness of touch in his handling of the material. The flight and river landing scenes are realistic and gripping.
We need heroes who remind us of the good of which humanity is capable. Beautifully put together by a master craftsman, this film depicts someone who, for one brief moment of time, achieved that – only to then have to deal with unexpected legal consequences in the immediate aftermath.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Spirituality can be practical
The Virgin Eye: Towards a contemplative view of life
I read The Virgin Eye waiting in a bustling international airport, ironically. A book that says that ‘every hour is a rush hour’ seemed particularly striking! Robin Daniels by all accounts, lived life ‘at an adagio pace’, and his writings, here distilled and edited after his death by his widow, left me wishing that I could have known him.
Daniels worked and wrote in the place where psychotherapy and prayer meet. His writing draws on psychology, on the ‘spiritual classics’, on poetry and the arts as well as his own, won over a lifetime, insights on human life.
He writes with a spaciousness that invites readers from many backgrounds and interests to find a welcome within the pages. There is reflection and insight, as well as very practical advice for developing your own life of contemplation and prayer.
The title echoes Daniels’ recommendation that we learn to see everything with true attention, as though for the first time. He invites us to slow down, to live fully in each moment, to learn to dwell, all day, on one verse of scripture, one short prayer or one virtue of Christ.
The author also writes with profound awareness of the reality of poverty, recognising that any kind ‘spiritual’ life has to be lived in response to that and not be a turning away from it. He believes that the test of a good prayer life is whether we are more loving, that prayer should keep our feet on the ground.
I sometimes find books on ‘spirituality’ rather abstract and fey, as though being a Christian could be about anything other than how you live and change the world. The Virgin Eye was something else entirely: admirably practical, rooted in common – and profound – sense, with a wisdom that will help you slow down and take the time needed to learn to live and love in each moment of life.
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset
The story of Christianity in Wales
Our Holy Ground: The Welsh Christian Experience
John I Morgans and Peter C Noble
This is the book which one of the thoughtful ministers of the Untied Reformed Church had to write, with photos by another. All of John Morgans’ ministry has been in his Welsh homeland and Our Holy Ground gives us fresh understanding of the nation. He tells a moving story of the history of Wales and of Christianity there. His knowledge and passion are revealed in the clarity of his writing and the honesty of his judgment.
The book’s most revealing section is about the 800 years between the Romans and the Normans, when many missionary saints claimed traditional holy places and people for Christ. This was when Wales became a nation, having kings, borders, laws, bound together by a common language and by the Christian faith.
The Reformation came to Wales later than in other parts of the British Isles, and it was only in 1790 that the Bible was translated into Welsh. Within a couple of generations, the working class became literate and the majority, recognising the imperialism of the Church of England – Wales was England’s first colony – became nonconformists. Wales became the first industrial nation, but this did not kill off the chapels. In the 19th and early 20th century, a succession of revivals led to church growth. The final chapter looks to the future, and a United Church of Wales with a single congregation in every community.
Peter Noble’s fine photographs sadly reflect mainly the Christian Wales outsiders see now: old monuments, old buildings and empty worship spaces, only two of congregations. This book is worth reading by Scottish, English and Welsh who will learn more about Wales’ bond with Christianity but also see their different histories and religious experiences in a new light.
Tony Burnham is a retired church minister
An inspiring life
Thérèse Vanier: Pioneer of L’Arche, palliative
care and spiritual unity
Darton, Longman and Todd
Thérèse Vanier, Jean Vanier’s elder sister, was an influential and inspirational woman. This biography is in three sections, as its subtitle suggests. Vanier wove these three areas of concern into one integrated whole. She was often frustrated in this mission, yet, her story is a testament to the difference one devoted life can make to human flourishing.
Vanier was raised in a Canadian Catholic family and her faith shaped a long life underpinned with her sense of service. She was a haematologist before heeding God’s call to tend the medical and spiritual needs of those who were dying. Her parttime work at St Christopher’s Hospice with Cicely Saunders developed holistic palliative care which attended deeply to spiritual pain. This became an abiding passion which shaped the practice of such care worldwide. Vanier defined palliative care as ‘everything that remains to be done when there is nothing more to be done’.
Thérèse responded to Jean’s hope of founding a first community of L’Arche in Britain. L’Arche communities enable able-bodied carers and those with intellectual disabilities to live together and discover mutual need and joy. In France, these communities were Catholic but here in the UK, other traditions were represented and thus division arose when Communion was celebrated. This was agonising for those who saw themselves as one in Christ; they bore with it, and, in time, inclusive expressions of worship were created, foot-washing and blessing liturgies becoming a hallmark of L’Arche.
Vanier’s life embodied this longing for unity and commitment to ecumenism. Her funeral in 2014 was the first Catholic Requiem Mass held in Canterbury Cathedral since the Reformation. Her death was testament to the palliative care she espoused; her struggling a day or two ahead of dying was felt by her doctors not to be terminal agitation requiring medication, but a deep internal spiritual wrestling.
She died peacefully as the unity conversations between the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury in Rome concluded; she died as she lived, wrestling for Christian unity. Truly an example to follow.
Deborah McVey is a chaplain for Addenbrooke’s Hospital Cambridge, and a retired church minister serving as an Area Pastoral Advocate
Why Interfaith? Stories, reflections and challenges from recent engagements in northern Europe
Edited by Andrew Wingate and Pernilla Myrelid
Darton, Longman and Todd
This ‘working book’ addresses the key issues that emerged from the Porvoo Communion consultation on interfaith relations in 2003, but its appeal is not limited to Anglican or Lutheran churches who were the main participants. Most of the 40 contributors are practitioners.
Why Interfaith? gives us a picture of how interreligious dialogue developed in Britain and Scandinavia, and a reminder of how trust and understanding depends on forming relationships. Grief unites. The Gothenburg disco fire, the Utoya massacre, the September 11 terrorist attacks and the London bombings all led to shared mourning. With closer social relationships, Christians and Muslims can begin to address together the difficult questions posed by the Muhammad cartoons. Joint youth work is crucial and three important projects are described.
The challenges of the recent influx of people of faith into Sweden are in evidence: aggressive coverage in the media, culture clashes and questions for churches about evangelism. But the Westminster vigil for refugees, organised in November 2015 by the Churches Refugee Network and addressed by leading Jews, Muslims and Christians gives hope.
There are some memorable cameos here: the vicar and the sheikh, the king in the car park, Iftar and scones, the river harp creating harmonies as people cross a bridge, the rabbi-doctor who earned the trust of Muslims by circumcising their sons. The contribution ‘Jerusalem’ is beautifully written. Overall, the style is variable with some repetition. The general use of ‘interfaith dialogue’ feels dated; articles from Sweden and Norway favour the more apt ‘interreligious’ dialogue.
As with all attempts to be comprehensive, some things are missed out. There is repeated mention of St Philip’s Centre, Leicester and an article from Luton, but no indication of the important work being done in Blackburn and Darwen. Although this volume arose from a Porvoo church context, the primary emphasis is on England, Sweden and Norway; the Baltic churches are absent.
Anyone who wants to understand people of other religions better will appreciate this book – but it is best read in bite-sized chunks!
Fleur Houston is a retired church minister living in Macclesfield, Cheshire
This article was published in the December 2016/January 2017 edition of Reform.