Reviews – September 2018
Not exactly God’s promise
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Directed by Desiree Akhavan
Certificate 15, 91 minutes
Released 7 September
Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a sexually active American teenager who, while attending the homecoming ’93 ball, supposedly with her boyfriend, gets caught by him in the back of a car in flagrante delicto with another girl. So her family pack her off to God’s Promise, a gay conversion therapy centre seeking to cure its charges of SSA (same-sex attraction) and restore them to full heterosexuality, the way God intended.
At least, that’s how Dr Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her formerly gay assistant Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr) see it. The problem is that Cameron can’t really see what might be wrong with her attraction to members of her own sex. She falls in with two pot-smoking rebels Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eye (Forrest Goodluck) who likewise have no intention of conforming to Marsh’s agenda.
The conservative Christian America briefly seen at the film’s opening is a world where teens attend Bible class but Christian understanding is in practice irrelevant to everyday living. The environment of God’s Promise, where most of the film takes place, on the other hand is as stilted as its name: the attempt to cure Cameron on ‘Christian’ grounds grates. A fellow student gives an impassioned, impromptu reading of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ speech from 2 Corinthians, but on the whole the characters’ theology, where they have any, is one-dimensional.
Perhaps the director Desiree Akhavan hasn’t been around Christians or churches that much outside of nominal, US evangelical ones and doesn’t really understand them. What she does understand, though, is that people are made a certain way in terms of sexual orientation and it might be a really bad idea to try to change this. Yet the film lacks any real theological exploration as to why ‘gay conversion therapy’ might be at odds with Christianity. Rather, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. While helpful to LGBTQ people coming to terms with their identity and rightly holding up its hands in horror at the very notion of ‘gay conversion therapy’, the film has little beyond that to say to the Church. It’s consequently a lot less radical than it thinks it is.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Two books on conscience and consciousness
Being Human: Bodies, minds, persons
What are we Doing Here?
Being Human follows on from Being Christian (an exploration of the salient aspects of the faith) and Being Disciples (which suggests how faith works out in living). Rowan Williams describes his writing of this trilogy as ‘unintended’.
Often, in ministry, I have found myself saying something along these lines: ‘When all is said and done, it’s only relationship that matters – with each other and with God. Everything else is background.’ Hardly original. Dr Williams wouldn’t claim originality either for this argument that runs through much of Being Human. But, as is regular in his work, Dr Williams’ precision, clarity and breathtaking use of language breathes life into thoughts long since filed away as given and understood. More remarkably, and masterly, is the way in which he lays out his propositions and insights. They cause smiles of recognition: ‘Ah yes, of course,’ was my frequent response. His first chapter (‘What is consciousness?’) was such a treasure chest of forgotten connections that it impelled me forward with great hopes for what is to come. My hopes were never disappointed.
Clearly, we don’t give enough attention to our minds. And yet there, the great adventure happens. There our humanity dwells, and it provides the guide for our lives as human beings. Dr Williams’ deep and so sensitive gift to us is to open paths into this wondrous place where we can discover how to live a better life. No less! His epilogue, ‘Humanity transfigured’ – a reflection on the Feast of the Ascension, is exquisite, and profoundly pastoral.
I’ve wondered whether this marvellous book would serve as material for a study group. My conclusion is that parts of it would and other parts wouldn’t. But to help things along, Dr Williams ends each chapter with a couple of questions to ponder. They could be considered by individuals and, yes, by a group. I should like to be there when it is tried.
Marilynne Robinson: I had heard of the name but, other than having read of her as a significant figure in US public theology, I knew little of her work. She was once famously invited to a colloquy with President Obama where, with humour, passion and deep searching, they considered where faith and society were meeting, or failing to meet. It is said that the question ‘what are we doing here?’ was posed by Obama to Robinson. In any event, this collection of lectures and essays tackles many aspects of that question.
Where Dr Williams begins with a probing analysis of consciousness, Robinson bypasses that foundational stage and goes to her own starting point – conscience. Dr Williams is more forensic and analytic than one might expect such a fine poetic mind to be. Robinson’s lectures and essays are in a sense less disciplined, more far-reaching. To that extent, Robinson might be easier to read, but on many points less fruitful.
I found the background on New England Nonconformism particularly interesting. The Puritans, driven by conscience, rebelled and departed England to establish a new culture – democratic and pure in its intention. Where that way of life went wrong, she argues, is when it began to embrace a spirit of competition. She demonstrates how today, conscience and competition form a constant battle ground on which competition is the regular winner. Business ideas and tools, such as cost-benefit analysis, make for a people who will always work to satisfy their own preferences, to the detriment of compassion and human grandeur.
Is this book ‘useful’? I think it would make an admirable read for a book group, and would open up a good number of points for discussion. Many of its insights spring out of the US story. But these days, so much of our attention is focussed on the ‘Grand Experiment’ that is the US, often with an increased sense of bewilderment. Robinson invokes a call to theology as a way of understanding, examining and correcting a slide towards ideological populism. The prize? Precious intellectual integrity!
John Smith is a retired church minister living in Peebles, Scottish Borders
How to ‘be with’ others
Incarnational Mission: Being with the world
In previous works, Samuel Wells has argued that ‘working for’, ‘working with’ and ‘being for’ others are inferior to the practice of ‘being with’ the other – a practice Wells sees as intensely powerful, perfectly enacted in Jesus’ incarnation and the foundation of mission. In this book, Wells expands on the practice of ‘being with’ and investigates how it unfolds through ten different scenarios, ranging from being with excluded people right through to being with government and institutions. He examines eight dimensions which should characterise all these relationships: presence, mystery, attention, participation, partnership, delight, enjoyment and glory.
Incarnational Mission attempts to recalibrate our understanding of our ‘incarnational’ calling to love the world. It challenges the dominant understandings of piety and good works ‘for’ others, and offers a dynamic understanding that the greatest joy is found through relationships, as we learn to get alongside, learn from and delight in those around us. The recalibration is sometimes ponderous as Wells seeks to be exhaustive, but is rescued time and again by his use of imaginative examples using either real-life testimonies or dramatic illustrations of his arguments.
The breadth is daunting, discussing being with seekers alongside being with government. Initially, some scenarios seemed to be much more relevant than others, but time and again I found the book stretching me. I began with frustration as he insisted the metaphor of the good shepherd was all we needed to know, but I ended with an enlarged understanding of its scope and applicability to mission.
Wells is a radical and imaginative thinker. He is deeply honouring of how we might ‘be with’ those of other faiths, and yet pulls the rug away from some of the practices we might expect interfaith dialogue to involve. If you are looking for fresh thinking about how to relate your faith to those around you at a deep but practical level, this book is for you.
Stephen Newell is Minister of Zion United Church in Frampton Cotterell, South Gloucestershire
On Paul’s life and times
Paul: A biography
In ‘Paul versus religion’, a one-page article in the April 2018 edition of Reform, Tom Wright, one of the world’s most prominent and prolific writers on the New Testament, informs us that he has written a biography of St Paul. He mentions that Paul’s writings fill less than 80 pages of the average Bible but does not mention that his biography extends past 450!
This book is a big read, and not just in terms of page count. Wright brings to bear decades of learning on Paul, the ancient world and the Bible, to produce what at times is a gripping account. The picture he draws is always plausible, if at times necessarily speculative, given the gaps in our knowledge of the apostle’s life.
Wright’s story relies upon firm answers to questions that divide New Testament scholars. It also takes as read views he advocates which have not yet convinced all his academic peers. (Readers yearning to hear those alternative views can find them in Wright’s 2003 book on Paul which weighs in at 1,600+ pages.) The narrative skips along at its most lively when following Paul’s story in the Book of Acts, aided by the beautifully simple, clear maps heading each chapter. The journey slows, however, when, having located all 13 of the letters within that storyline, Wright explores each at length.
Wright confronts some popular misconceptions of Paul, arguing that he was and remained a Jew, reorienting his faith in the light of the conviction that Jesus was the awaited messiah. Also, the apostle was no aloof thinker but an impassioned pastor, encouraging congregations to live out faith by imitating his perspective on Jesus, but with results that differed from place to place. Here Paul’s views on slavery are helpfully explored but controversy about his attitude to women gets little attention.
This book is full of intriguing insights and packed with information. But how many people will read all the way through to the end? Perhaps Tom Wright could rise to this challenge and help by producing a distilled version; maybe one about 80 pages long?
Trevor Jamison is Minister of St Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, Tyne and Wear
This article was published in the September 2018 edition of Reform