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Reviews – April 2017

Reviews – April 2017

Nonconformist poet

A Quiet Passion
Directed by Terence Davies
Certificate 12a, 126 minutes
Released 7 April

A stern matriarch divides a school room of young women into those who are saved on one side and those who hope to be saved on the other. This leaves Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) in the middle because she hasn’t got as far as that yet. Rescued from the seminary by her father Edward (Keith Carradine), Emily confesses that she was suffering from ‘evangelism’.

Thus begins the latest film from the British Catholic director Terence Davies – a biopic of the 19th-century US poet Emily Dickinson, from her leaving school, through her life as a single woman in an era when women were supposed to marry and have children, through to her death. Directed with Davies’ usual visual cinematic rigour and punctuated by large chunks of Dickinson’s poetry in voiceover, the film also drips Christianity. It never attempts to convert anyone, but neither does it shy away from portraying a household in the southern states where faith and theology are everyday discussion topics. Edward has raised Emily, her elder brother Austin (Duncan Duff), and younger sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) within the faith, but also to be open to intellectual questioning and cultural exploration. Thus Emily is equally able to engage in witty banter with her atheist friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) or hold forth on Wuthering Heights.

From young womanhood, Emily refuses to attend church, which is barely seen in the movie aside from the occasional wedding. She cherishes being allowed by her father, in whose house she lives, to write her poetry at night. (She remained largely unpublished in her lifetime and suffered considerable editorial interference.) Deeply introverted, she becomes increasingly isolated from the outside world, preferring rather the company of parents and siblings.

In portraying a life, Davies does not hold back from portraying death. The scene of Emily’s mother on her deathbed held and comforted by her two daughters following a stroke is profoundly moving, as is the sight of her father’s body lying in an open casket. Emily’s own death is equally affecting, the camera rising over her peaceful body to gaze down upon it prior to showing us her funeral procession towards a waiting grave. The character’s voice is heard on the soundtrack quoting the lines:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

Jeremy Clarke is a film critic


A call for new social policy

Citizen’s Basic Income: A Christian social policy
Malcolm Torry
Darton, Longman and Todd
ISBN: 9780232532609

The idea of a citizen’s basic income (CBI) could be one whose time has come. It is talked about favourably on both sides of the political divide (albeit for different reasons) and is receiving increasing coverage in the media. It is being tried in several countries and even made the agenda for this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

It’s a deceptively simple idea: instead of a means-tested benefit system, which can be unwieldy and discourage unemployed people from looking for work, the state pays a set amount to every citizen which is not reduced when they start earning (or earning more). As Malcolm Torry explains, it’s ‘an unconditional, non-withdrawable income paid automatically to every individual as a right of citizenship’.

Torry has long been an advocate of CBI – it’s not a new idea – and believes the case for it to be compelling. Indeed, Torry wrote an article for Reform about this in the combined December 2016/ January 2017 issue.

As a Christian, Torry finds CBI consistent with the concept of grace and other core teachings in Scripture, and wants to spread the word. If Christians wish to see society shaped according to ‘our understanding of the characteristics of the Kingdom of God’, Torry writes, the aspects of the faith he discusses can help us consider how our tax and benefits system ‘might more closely mirror the character of the Kingdom’ and be a signpost towards its coming.

In 19 short and clearly-written chapters, Torry covers a wide range of Gospel themes, including forgiveness, love, mutual dependency, covenant and service. He draws heavily on Scripture, avoiding a dogmatic style; he wants to start a conversation, not preach.

The chapter on how CBI might be funded looks critically at our taxation system – for example, why do we tax income and not, say, land (an idea with a ‘good theological warrant’) or more of the practices we want to discourage? I thought it could also have challenged the prevailing philosophy which sees paying tax as a negative rather than a positive.

If your appetite was whetted by Torry’s article in Reform, you should definitely read the full version in this book.

Andrew Bradstock served as the United Reformed Church Secretary for Church and Society from 2013 to 2015. He is currently writing the official biography of Bishop David Sheppard


Fresh expression church reflections

The DNA of Pioneer Ministry
Andy Milne with Michael Moynagh
SCM Press
ISBN: 9780334054092

How to be Church in the diverse contexts of today’s culture is one of the most pressing questions facing the historic Churches. The title suggests a systematic approach, but don’t be misled. This is the story of a single successful fresh expression stretched over a light theoretical structure.

Sorted grew from a vision of a church for and by young people on the council estates of Bradford. We learn of the persistence and prayer needed. We get reflections on experience and lessons learnt. We are told, more briefly, how Sorted has been reproduced in different cultural contexts. What’s not to like?

But there is a problem. It’s not clear what kind of book this is and who it’s for. Andy Milne is a Church Army evangelist and Sorted’s prime mover and shaper. Michael Moynagh, based at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, has written the core reference text on fresh expressions. Milne tells his story in lively, enthusiastic first person. Then the academic moves in, in the third person, as if to rescue the text. The interruption obfuscates the narrative flow, while only hinting at the wealth of research behind it. I found the constant oscillation of tone hard going. It’s frustrating too, that the many helpful practical tips are not consistently signposted.

Pioneer ministers will read the textbook. The rest of us, if we can struggle through this book, will end up more aware and more inspired. Or, we can go to the Church Army and Fresh Expressions websites for this, and other stories, and for information – for free.

Pauline Barnes is a retired church minister living in Milton Keynes


Four little guide books

Why Be Good? Who Was Jesus?
Why Did Jesus Have to Die? and
Why Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?
Robin Gill, James Dunn, Jane Williams, James Dunn
SPCK, £3.99 each
ISBNs: 9780281076567, 9780281076604,
9780281074402 and 9780281076581

Although small, these books address weighty issues of human nature and the rationale for belief in God through Jesus Christ. They are part of a longer series of books (Little Books of Guidance) that have academic integrity and are up to date with current scholarship. They are also accessible for someone to read quickly, learn about the relevant issues and arguments and to get a clear understanding of the topic in question.

The first book, Why be Good?, shows how belief in God gives a superior basis for morality than rational arguments of self interest or duty. Robin Gill, Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, acknowledges that people of faith are not necessarily kinder and more loving than those of no faith, but shows how they have greater reason for seeking to be good, because they believe God to be good and because they have access to guidance, rituals and examples to help nurture human goodness.

The other three books are useful monographs addressing the distinctiveness of belief in Jesus Christ. Who was Jesus? gives an overview of Jesus’ birth and life as depicted in the Gospels. In Why did Jesus have to die? The theologian Jane Williams acknowledges the mystery and challenge of Jesus’ death as she explores the different images and models of the atonement in the Scriptures. Why believe in Jesus’ Resurrection? describes this crucial Christian belief as revealed through the accounts in Scripture, starting firstly with Paul’s testimony and then looking back through the Gospels. James Dunn, Emeritus Professor of Divinity for Durham University, shows that even though Jesus’ resurrection is unique and exceptional, it is the most plausible conclusion in the light of the response of Jesus’ followers.

I would recommend any of these books as useful reference on the issues involved in these central Christian beliefs. They are good starters for those seeking to understand the Christian faith, and would work well as study guides for personal theological reflection or for use with discussion groups.

Catherine Ball is Minister of The Free Church, St Ives, and Fenstanton United Reformed Church, Cambridgeshire


How hope can shift from politics to God

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons learned in the Obama White House about the future of faith in America
Michael Wear
Thomas Nelson
£18.99 (hardback)
ISBN: 9780718082321

In 2008, an 18-year-old Michael Wear had a chance meeting with the then Senator Barack Obama. As a result, he talked his way into the successful Democratic Party campaign to elect Obama as President. Wear worked in the White House for four years, leaving, exhausted, after Obama’s re-election in 2012.

Wear, a Roman Catholic who made his faith commitment in an evangelical setting, was enthusiastic in helping politicians work positively with faith groups, particularly for the benefit of vulnerable people. He writes engagingly and in detail about his successes and frustrations. He also gives significant space to positively describing Obama’s statements about his own Christian views and commitments.

Approaching the 2012 election, Obama shifted from publicly opposing same-sex marriage to supporting its introduction, ascribing his evolution on the matter to Christianity and its golden rule. In fact, this had been his position in 2007 but he had not said so, for fear of damaging support among religious voters. When facing re-election, Wear believes Obama was courting other voters, so used the language of faith as a tool.

In the book’s final chapters, Wear reflects on his experiences, warning against identifying any political candidate or movement as the source of human hope. Instead, Christian hope, rooted in faith in God’s intention to redeem all things, is expressed in both individual and corporate (political) commitment. Strikingly, he contends that Christian political work and witness always includes doing good to one’s enemies.

For some readers, the accounts of the cut and thrust of American political events may be over-detailed. Also, Wear could do more to flesh out how Christian hope makes a difference to the political process. His book, though, invites us all to explore the pitfalls and possibilities when we apply Christian faith to our own political setting and commitments.

Trevor Jamison is Environmental Chaplain for Eco-Congregation Scotland


This article was published in the April 2017 edition of  Reform.

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