Reviews – July/August 2017
Love crosses the cultural divide
The Big Sick
Directed by Michael Showalter
Certificate 15, 119 minutes
Released 28 July
A stand-up comedian who moonlights as an Uber driver, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his gigs. He takes her back to his flat(share) to watch Night Of The Living Dead in bed. A relationship ensues over several weeks despite both their attempts to stop. Until suddenly he says the wrong thing and it all falls apart. The wrong thing relates to his background.
Kumail is Pakistani Muslim and his mother is determined that he should marry a nice Pakistani Muslim girl. Whenever he visits home, a suitable girl of marriageable age will just ‘drop in’ as they happen to be passing. After each meal, he throws the latest girl’s picture into a box in his flat. When one day Emily finds the box, he’s forced to explain. He didn’t think she’d understand. Her only problem was that she was ugly in high school. Boom!
After she’s walked, Kumail can’t find another girl like her. Then he gets a phone call from a friend of Emily’s to tell him that she’s in hospital in a coma and they didn’t know who else to call. Can he go in and keep an eye on her? He does and soon finds himself in conflict with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) who think he messed up over their daughter.
Based on the real life relationship of its two co-screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani (the leading man) and Emily V Gordon, this covers a lot of ground. What brings people together? What pulls them apart? Talking to unsympathetic parents about a partner. Living together versus arranged marriage. The validity of religious tradition in the modern world. Dealing with the fact of one’s estranged significant other being in a coma.
Somewhat incredibly, the deftly directed script juggles all these issues without short changing any of them. The writers do an extraordinarily good job of putting down their experiences on paper; cast and crew do an equally fantastic job of putting them all up on the screen. While there are many funny moments, it’s also extremely touching and packed with wry observations. As has been said before, there is more that unites us than divides us. The Big Sick eloquently articulates that truth. Nor does its near-two-hour running length outstay its welcome. Full marks to all concerned.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Magisterial analysis of Protestantism
Protestants: The radicals who made the modern world
Alec Ryrie dryly calls this his ‘Big Book of Protestants’. It certainly is. Its genesis lies in his research into the Reformation which coincided with South Africa’s democratic transition and his discernment of a common thread. The ‘big book’ is the result of tugging that thread, an unflinching ‘warts and all’ portrait, notable for its dispassion, the striking lucidity of its judgments and its limpid prose.
The Reformation, ‘notorious for two fat men’: Martin Luther and Henry VIII, occupies the first 150 pages, revealing the two essential characteristics of Protestantism: it is a passionate love affair with God, conducted by impossibly argumentative people. The arguments never stop and tumble into schism.
Protestantism, Ryrie suggests, is best appreciated as a rumbustious family (albeit with a dysfunctional edge) rather than as a theological system or a doctrine. That enables him to include such first cousins as Pentecostalism and a rather more distant family like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons (at least some of their DNA is Protestant). All this lends a historical backbone to his analysis of the ways in which Protestantism has shaped the modern world.
However, it is the breadth of his scholarship which will make this the standard work on its subject. Protestants are shown to be both perpetrators and liberators as his spotlight moves from the slave plantations of the American south in the 1860s to Nazi Berlin in the 1930s, to apartheid-ridden Johannesburg in the 1970s. Here is no high moralising but a deep humility, for example: ‘We might imagine, or hope, that had we been there, we would have done something or taken some stand, but we are fooling ourselves … we, like them, would have lowered our heads and muddled through increasingly terrible times.’
In a final sweep, the fortunes of Protestantism in Korea and China are evaluated before he concludes with a fine chapter on Pentecostalism. Ryrie leaves us with the final provocative thought that, far from settling into middle age, Protestantism is ‘embarking on a footloose adolescence’.
David Cornick is General Secretary of Churches Together in England
Reflections on the Great War’s impact
Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, ritual, memory and God
Darton, Longman and Todd
The passing of 100 years has led many to look again at the First World War. This book is a fine example, weaving the author’s family history with cultural analysis and theological reflection. Rachel Mann challenges us to see the war not so much through the literary products of the upper-middle classes but from the perspective of the labourers, farm hands, shop workers, mill hands and clerks who died in even greater numbers. She shows how this war challenged our understandings of masculinity, loss and God, and how the most immediate effect of the war was a repression and psycho-social trauma before it was the outpouring of memoir that we now recognise.
There are so many revelations here. The total killed in the Boer War was 20,000 – that many were killed in one day at the Somme. For many families, this was the first time that they ‘took part in history’. Since the ‘fallen’ could not be brought home, village memorials were invested with all the grief of a community. The author shows deep sympathy for a people bearing so much grief together and refuses to adopt the stance simply that ‘it was all futile.’
There is theological reflection here, judging that the Church of the time was unprepared and had no theology that could express, carry or comfort such trauma. But were there not theological voices at the time offering deeper insights than the Church Mann criticises? She seems to ignore those theological voices and traditions beyond the Church of England, that had long been challenging the patriarchal God of Empire and nation. Wasn’t the reason that many war memorials were in the village square and not the church yard that it was not only Anglicans who were part of this vast loss?
The most resonant note for me – and the one to which I shall return when leading Remembrance Day or conducting a funeral – is that ordinary people, those whose lives leave little trace in what we think of as history, are worthy of remembrance too. No one should ever think that their past is not worth preserving. Amen to that.
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset
Biography of an Eritrean educator
Long Way from Adi Ghehad: Journey of an asylum seeker: Dr Teame Mebrahtu
The remarkable life story of a distinguished academic is the fruit of an extended dialogue with an experienced journalist. It charts Dr Mebrahtu’s journey from village life in the highlands of Eritrea through to the beginnings of the Eritrean liberation struggle and then to life in the UK.
The story is intensely personal. Childhood memories are vivid – what do you do with a swarm of bees? Food, language, religion (Orthodox Christian), the humiliation of having no shoes – and the emphasis on respect for elders and teachers are all memorably illustrated.
Education is a red thread in Dr Mebrahtu’s life. The first in his family to go to school, he pays tribute to his father’s vision and self-sacrifice to ensure his education. The odds against him are well charted and the mule journey in chapter two is especially evocative. When, finally, Dr Mebrahtu became Director of the Asmara Teacher Training Institute, his life came under threat. He was granted asylum in the UK where he gained a PhD and joined the Bristol School of Education.
Dr Mebrahtu’s profound belief that education can transform institutions and society is evidenced by the links he then established between primary schools in UK and Eritrea, and the Eritrean camp schools he set up. His desire to give back to his host country and his belief in the connectedness of humanity led to a notable record of UK public service, not least as an elder for Redland Park United Reformed Church. As a mentor for international students in Bristol, he won wide respect.
Despite a tendency to flatness of language and repetitiousness, this account is memorable. It is a salutary illustration of one man’s reasons for flight, of his desire to contribute to his host country, of his passion for education. At a time when refugees are regularly dehumanised in public discourse, this story shows how people of different cultures can find understanding and common ground.
Fleur Houston is a retired church minister living in Macclesfield, Cheshire
Spiritual encouragement for seekers
Experiencing Christ’s Love: Establishing a life of worship, prayer, study, service and reflection
The Bible Reading Fellowship
I found John Twisleton’s book a bit patchy. The key word in its subtitle is ‘establishing’; this is a book which gives help, advice and encouragement to anyone hoping or trying to establish the disciplines listed in the subtitle. In that sense, the book does what it says on the cover.
The downside, for me at least, is that the advice is strongly Anglican, with considerable emphasis on formal liturgy, including weekly celebration of the Eucharist, auricular confession, the creeds and practice of the Daily Office. So, if you are seeking a handbook to get you started on creating a measure of spiritual discipline in your life and you can cope with the ‘high church’ approach of Experiencing Christ’s Love, well and good.
Having said that, I found many things to appreciate in the book. The author is very broad-minded and offers insights from a charismatic stable as well as advice coming from much experience as a spiritual director. He is also open-hearted and self-disclosing. I felt as if I got to know him well and to like what I found. Twisleton includes many personal anecdotes, shedding light on his own deep faith and his background in science. This is a work which encourages rational thought as well as spiritual depth.
Twisleton’s little book (just 86 pages long) is strongly biblical and has an encouraging, positive tone. An insight I shall treasure is the author’s use of the word ‘adjustment’: ‘In the most profound way, God has said to us in Jesus Christ: “I will adjust to you. I will change for you. I’ll serve you, though it means a sacrifice for me.”’ The reflection chapter of the book would be helpful reading for anyone facing suffering.
Ruth Allen is a retired church minister, based at Ilkeston United Reformed Church, Derbyshire
This article was published in the July/August 2017 edition of Reform