Reviews – March 2018
Serving the true God
Wings Of Eagles
Directed by Stephen Shin, Michael Parker
Certificate 12, 108 minutes
Released 12 March
A sequel of sorts to Chariots of Fire, Wings Of Eagles tells the story of Eric Liddell’s missionary years in China. He’s played here by Joseph Fiennes, an actor who has grappled with one aspect or another of Christianity in several stories (Risen, The Handmaid’s Tale, Luther) and seems to thrive on roles like this. The film’s focus on British missionary work in China evokes The Inn of the Sixth Happiness about Gladys Aylward.
Liddell famously refused to run an Olympic race on Sunday, believing that no work should be done on the Lord’s Day. Later, he went to China with the London Missionary Society, taking his family with him then sending them home after the Japanese invaded. He was subsequently interned in a Japanese camp and died five months before the Japanese surrendered.
Eric is in the process of marrying Hugh (Jesse Kove) and Catherine (Augusta Xu-Holland) when Japanese soldiers enter the Church building, take the couple’s not yet exchanged rings and arrest all British present. As a prisoner, Eric admonishes the camp commandant for sending Hugh to the men’s quarters and Catherine to the women’s with the words: ‘Whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’ ‘The Emperor is the only God here,’ says the soldier. ‘We do not serve false gods,’ retorts Liddell.
Before his internment, Liddell is seen running with several of his school children, all of them clearly enjoying it. In the camp, he’s challenged to run against an athletically inclined Japanese soldier. He loses, having given all the food that was supposed to build his strength to others, and is put in a rudimentary underground cell affording little shade from the harsh sun.
He subsequently races the Japanese again in a wager for medicine needed to prevent Hugh dying. Ultimately, he allows the pregnant Catherine to leave the camp in his place, believing her and her unborn life more important than his own.
If the Christian faith espoused by Liddell feels very much of the British establishment, with its adherence to black ties and physical sport, his beliefs are shown as both sincere and costly. There’s nothing heavy-handed about the sympathetic portrayal of Christianity here. Highly enjoyable and well worth tracking down.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Christian identity from an Asian perspective
Is God Christian? Christian Identity in Public Theology: An Asian contribution
D Preman Niles
$34 (£24.99 from Amazon.co.uk)
If nothing else grabs you, the shorter title of this volume, Is God Christian?, will. While some would already have a ready answer to the question, God may have been signalling differently. In this brief review, what is important for readers who are interested in this question is the years of personal ecumenical and interreligious/interfaith experiences that D Preman Niles brings to the task.
Niles is not breaking new ground. What is new is the way that he unites various threads – cross-cultural, postcolonial and situation-specific – into his primary focus, Christian identity in public theology. In particular, he explores this theme across Asia, which has an inheritance of what is called ‘two stories’ but which should perhaps be at least three – religions, cultures and poverty. In this Asian context, the question ‘Is God Christian?’ is more layered and complex than it may, at first, appear. As Niles demonstrates, the multiple ways in which Asian Christians have responded to the question suggest that this is an ongoing conversation in context(s) where peoples express their identity as ‘multiple belongers’.
Following up on his previous writing, Niles documents the social biography of Asian theology, drawing from the voices of his generation who explored ways of refuting any rigid answer to the question of religious affiliation of the Divine in Asia. What has been and should be important is where the emphasis is placed in ‘public theology’. The author and his generation came down on the side of ‘public’, meaning that the question should be situated around questions and issues that affect the life of the people. Theology’s task remains that of understanding its world rather than trying to change it, that is, making sense of life and living. This is the concern of the Divine. God neither writes nor reads theology! In this regard, this volume, though not an easy read, has relevance for any context, with its multiple stories, as we attempt to walk the way of Jesus.
Michael Jagessar is United Reformed Church Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries
Honest about suffering
Everything Happens for a Reason:
and other lies I’ve loved
The Canadian historian Kate Bowler is most famous for charting the origins and rise of the US prosperity Gospel movement – she describes this as ‘the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith’. I was amused and intrigued by the subtitle of Bowler’s memoir (‘and other lies I’ve loved’) which hinted that its contents would be refreshingly honest. I wasn’t disappointed.
The book begins with joy and devastation in quick succession. Three months after giving birth to the child she’d wanted for years but had begun to believe would not be possible, at age 35, Bowler was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. She is tempted to believe well wishers who tell her that ‘God will make a way,’ that her suffering has meaning, or that God will take away her pain if only she could… for example, get to know God better. But she cannot easily reconcile these comforting platitudes with the reality of her experience: ‘God, I don’t want to know you better. I want to save my family.’ It is the tension between wanting to believe in easy explanations for suffering, and the reality of not believing them, that makes for the most interesting of the insights within this personal, thought-provoking book.
Bowler’s memoir is easy to relate to. It makes skilful use of humorous anecdotes and will appeal to anyone who has tried to reconcile neat explanations of why humans suffer, with real life experience.
The appendices at the end of Bowler’s memoir contain advice on what to say to suffering people. These could make for lively group discussions. Similarly, Bowler’s reflections on grief and Good Friday in chapter eight, entitled ‘Restoration’, could be discussed in the lead up to Easter. For those, like me, who struggle with surrender, for those who would not naturally seek wisdom from a self-described ‘incurable optimist’, and for those needing companionship in the midst of fear, this book could be helpful.
Charissa King is Production and Marketing Officer for Reform
How churches can help mentally ill people
Tackling Mental Illness Together:
A biblical and practical approach
Alan Thomas’ book aims to inform readers and local church members about the true nature of mental illness, both theoretically and by way of numerous case studies. He offers practical ways in which thoughtful pastoral ministry can be a positive complement to professional intervention and may, sometimes, avoid such intervention all together.
Thomas is a consultant psychiatrist and an active church member. In this readable book, he attempts to combine explaining, and sometimes debunking, contemporary ideas about mental illness with a simple, fairly literal understanding of biblical teaching. Thomas provides a helpful overview of modern psychiatry trends while clearly prefering some forms of treatment – medication, electroconvulsive therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and supportive pastoral care. He is less keen on Freudian analysis and many of the person-centred ‘talking therapies’ and is concerned about a popular inclination to mislabel many everyday stresses as mental illness.
Thomas believes, based on experience, that an informed and thoughtful church community can provide an effective means for people encountering difficult life circumstances to deal with imbalance and impairment. His many stories of people who have been enabled by careful pastoring to move from despair and incapacity to full health are encouraging, though at times I wondered (from my own experience) how well equipped many of our congregations are to undertake this level of support.
At times, Alan Thomas might raise eyebrows with his literal reading of the Bible – the Fall and Noah’s Ark are, for him, unquestionably historic events – and his avoidance of political correctness, for example: ‘Bad parenting provides no excuse for anyone to sin.’ On balance, I found this to be a moderately helpful read and I liked his readiness to sidestep a contemporary tendency to apply labels of ‘mentally ill’ and ‘victim of circumstance’ without sufficient thought about cause and consequence or expectation that healing is often, at least in part, in the hands of the sufferer.
Ian Fosten is Ministry Team Leader for the Norwich Area of United Reformed churches
Paul’s life, work, reception and influence
Paul: A very brief history
John MG Barclay
Paul was a Jewish intellectual, a travelling craftsman, and propagandist for a set of new and extraordinary claims about Jesus of Nazareth.’ That’s how John Barclay, Durham University professor and author of substantial studies on Paul, begins this small book.
Small does not mean lightweight, however; every word in its 87, shortish pages is made to count in positive ways. In successive short chapters, Barclay provides a mini biography of Paul, thumbnail sketches of the content of his letters and the churches which received them, and an account of how he and they fitted in, or failed to fit in, with the Jewish traditions and Roman-dominated world of his time. At this point we are still less than halfway through the book!
Barclay then considers how people have reacted to Paul, already having noted that, ‘not everyone was delighted to receive a letter from [him], and not everyone agreed with what he wrote.’ Near to his own time, some, such as the author of Acts, portrayed him as hero, and others wrote letters for their own situation, claiming his authority for their attempts to further his work (this is how Barclay understands some of the New Testament letters that bear his name.)
Subsequent chapters explore how Paul’s letters came to be regarded as Scripture, and how St Augustine’s particular reading of them influenced the western Church, especially Reformation leaders such as Luther and Calvin. This in turn has heavily influenced how we think we understand Paul today. One example given is how Paul has been used, misused and abused in the sensitive area of Christian-Jewish relations. We get a helpful guide as to how recent academic biblical study challenges negative assessments of Judaism.
The final chapter addresses Paul’s role as a social and cultural critic, invoked both by those with conservative views and those who seek to overturn the status quo. Paul’s role in doing the latter is attractive to some otherwise secular contemporary philosophers. For anyone who thinks they know Paul, this ‘very brief history’ is an excellent, informative, thought-provoking reintroduction to the apostle.
Trevor Jamison is Environmental Chaplain for Eco-Congregation Scotland
This article was published in the March 2018 edition of Reform