Reviews – July/August 2018
Written and Directed by Dan Kokotajlo
Certificate tbc, 96 minutes
Released 27 July (Cinemas and On Demand)
In Dan Kokotajlo’s debut feature film Apostasy, student sisters Alex (Molly Wright) and Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), and their working mum Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) are Jehovah’s Witnesses in Manchester waiting for the New System, when Christ will return and paradise will be restored on earth. Alex has a blood condition and is only alive because a hospital nurse gave her a transfusion after birth before her mum and the elders were aware of it: now she’s 18 and must decide for herself whether she will allow transfusion in the event of a life-threatening emergency. She’s a model Witness, attending Urdu Bible classes in order to take the Word to the local ethnic minority community.
Luisa, in contrast, gets pregnant. The father has no interest whatsoever in coming to meetings, so the elders at their Kingdom Hall ‘disfellowship’ her until such time as she can demonstrate true repentance. Her mother and sister are forbidden to talk or eat with her, although Mum is allowed minimal contact, so she goes round to clean the fridge and prepare food. When Luisa visits her sister to pick up her stuff, instead of talking with her, Alex prays out loud for Luisa in front of her.
Meanwhile, Alex is befriended by a new elder, Steven (Robert Emms). He courts her, she explains her medical condition. Then one day, she collapses…
Kokotajlo was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness family and clearly understands the mindset which he presents here without judgement one way or the other. The proceedings take place largely in people’s homes and in the local Kingdom Hall which speak of a simple lifestyle and an ordinary northern aesthetic. The film is well cast and the actors do a fine job of conveying the Witnesses and their spiritual dilemmas.
Anyone familiar with the more fundamentalist end of the Church will recognise many elements here. Transcending the specific Jehovah’s Witnesses subject matter, the film raises many questions about the prescriptive nature of more legalistic manifestations of Christianity and should provide some considerable meat for serious discussion about that subject. A small, magnificent and ultimately devastating film.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Framework for a better Britain
Reimagining Britain: Foundations for hope
This book is an antidote to tweets. Both the President of the United States and the Archbishop of Canterbury tweet frequently. Reimagining Britain gives space for one of them to show that there is a considered, clear, coherent, compassionate and Christian vision for society behind his comments.
The Archbishop believes that, for reasons that go beyond Brexit, Britain now needs to make a radical reassessment of what sort of country it wants to be. Welby uses his longest chapter to create a framework for assessing options. His key values are community, courage – which includes elements of aspiration, creativity and competition – and stability or resilience, which creates the confidence needed for tough tasks.
After a heartfelt argument for the centrality of family, Welby moves on to more obvious areas of public policy. He identifies three which have long been vital to national reimagining: housing, health and education. Then he addresses the even more complex area of economics. This is crucial as, though he trusts in God to have the final word, economics, Welby argues, ‘has the penultimate word’. Welby’s professional background means that he avoids the common Church trap of thinking more regulation must be the answer to immoral finance.
Then the horizon widens further to consider the global setting of Britain. A creative use of the book of Ruth provides a framework for his thoughts on migration.
Whatever the topic, Welby finds some positives to justify his subtitle while also offering suggestions for attacking the evils he deplores. He recognises that it is easier to say what should happen than to make it happen and he has been close enough to the dilemmas of government to see that it is not always ill will that leaves problems unsolved. In the Churches and beyond, we need people who are patient builders alongside the visionaries.
When Justin Welby was unexpectedly appointed Archbishop, some of us prayed that the impossible, churchy demands of the job would not stop him using his inquisitive, well-stocked mind to reflect on wider society. If you agree that is what we want from an Archbishop, read this book.
John Ellis is Immediate-past Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly
Humanist former bishop explores life and death
Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on life and death
An author in his 80s is well placed to reflect on life and death. There has been long experience of life, and death has to be faced as not too far away. The last bus will soon be due.
The reader of any of Richard Holloway’s previous books will not be surprised to learn that in this one he approaches some difficult subjects with intellectual rigour and remarkable honesty. In his first chapter, he describes frankly some of the increasing frustrations that age can visit on us. A younger reader will soon see why we oldies can be so frustrating to deal with.
But that is just a beginning. Holloway quickly moves on to such questions as: what is the meaning of an individual life when it will all too quickly be over and forgotten by all but a few? What is the total meaning of the billions of lives lived on this earth so far? Elsewhere, he notices – as I have – the tendency of funerals to concentrate on thanksgiving for life rather than confronting the reality of death and considering what lies beyond. He himself does not shrink from such matters; indeed, he confronts them head on. That will not make easy reading for some people.
The potential reader needs to know a bit about the author. This former Bishop of Edinburgh no longer sits comfortably with a traditional Christian faith. He explores issues intellectually but when intellect is exhausted and words are inadequate, he turns more often than not to poetry. His exploration is that of a humanist but it is no less stimulating for that.
As a man in his 80s, waiting at the bus stop of life, I did enjoy reading this book. Yet, having lived by faith thus far, I take issue with Richard Holloway. Using his analogy, I believe the bus company is in the hands of God and that Jesus Christ drives the last bus.
John Waller is a retired church minister living in Hythe, Kent
How to hear God’s call in life
Listening to your Life: 30 ways to discern direction for your future
Listening to your Life is a resource which offers 30 exercises to discern God’s presence and call in and through our experience. The book is rooted in Christian theology and spiritual practice. It is designed to be used by individuals but each exercise also offers adaptions for group use.
The exercises are not a progressive programme but a collection to be drawn on as and when they are useful. They are similar and yet diverse in their methodology and metaphors, in order to appeal to different learning and spiritual styles. All of the exercises involve working with or on paper in some way to deliberately involve the participant in a process of reflection.
On flicking through this book it could be easy to dismiss it as simplistic, but each of the exercises, and the useful introductions, reflect the author’s depth of perception and years of experience as a spiritual director, trainer and Anglican priest. Peppered with thoughtful quotes from Anthony de Mello, Thomas Merton and Meister Eckhart (to mention but a very few) the book invites us to engage with a rich collection of metaphors and open questions, held together by a theology of grace and hope. This resource, first published in 2016, offers a collection of insightful and creative exercises through which to explore some very real and relevant questions of meaning and purpose.
Listening to your Life would be a useful tool for anyone who is in a form of ministry that seeks to nurture individuals and groups. It would also be useful for an individual who is willing to make time for reflection and seeking to explore questions of meaning and purpose.
I do wonder if the insights of the exercises for an individual in Listening to your Life might well bear more fruit discussed with trusted companions in faith. The book itself does offer in the final pages a list of useful contacts and further resources. For me, it was an insightful, useful and challenging resource worth using.
Fiona Bennett is Minister of Augustine United Church, Edinburgh
Answers to the question: ‘Who is Jesus?’
The Mystery of Christ: Meditations and prayers
The United Reformed Church’s mission and discipleship focus, ‘Walking the Way: Living the life of Jesus today’ raises the question as to who this Jesus Christ is, whom we follow. Keith Ward’s short book aims in many ways to answer that question, drawing in particular on the theology of the four Gospels. Ward takes us on a theological journey as he reflects on the different aspects of the person of Christ, beginning with the pre-existent Word and culminating in the mystery of the Trinity.
With a lifetime of theological reflection to draw on, Ward – a 79-year-old Oxford professor, philosopher, theologian and priest – considers the key images that have been used by Christians to describe Christ and his transforming effect on human life. In doing so, he recognises that our context is very different to those of biblical times or centuries since then. Ward takes seriously what he calls ‘the new and hugely expanded view of our universe that scientific investigation has revealed’ and finds within it potential for an even deeper and awe-inspiring faith in Christ.
Much of Ward’s reflection takes a traditional approach to its subject but the theology of the main sections is at times supplemented with a more critical interpretation of the Gospel text. These sections are placed in a different font, perhaps as a warning to readers of more conservative inclinations! The writer himself is at pains to affirm a variety of approaches to the text and that more radical interpretations can still affirm the heart of Gospel.
It is good to see a distinguished theologian leading us through thinking to praying and the inclusion of prayers at the end of each section turns apologetics into meditation. Ward’s prayers are personal and heartfelt, though I found their language a little staid and limited. However, there is no questioning that for Ward, Jesus Christ continues to point us both to God and to what humanity is meant to be, inspiring us to pray: ‘Live in us, as we seek to live in you.’
Terry Hinks is Minister of Cores End and Trinity United Reformed churches, Buckinghamshire
These reviews were published in the July/August 2018 edition of Reform