Reviews – February 2019
Standup for the underclass
Directed by James Gardner
Certificate 15, 101 minutes
Released 15 February
Margate. Sarah (Liv Hill), a 15-year-old schoolgirl, acts as mother to her younger siblings, Marcus and Lucy – getting them up in the mornings, taking them to and from school, doing the cooking and the housework. Their single-parent mother Karen (Sinéad Matthews) is mentally ill and can barely manage to get out of bed most mornings. The family live on benefits.
Sarah doesn’t really fit in at school, which seems a waste of time to her. She works for Vince (Angus Barnett) in an amusement arcade after school to make a bit of extra money for the family.
The school’s drama teacher Mr Hale (Cyril Nri) despairs at her. While other kids prepare dance routines or conjuring tricks for an forthcoming show, Sarah puts them down and generally disrupts the class. But when Mr Hale sends her to watch Frankie Boyle on YouTube, something clicks. She starts working on jokes in a little notebook.
Her situation worsens. When her mum’s benefit is stopped, Sarah takes desperate measures to raise the outstanding rent money, but her delighted mum immediately spends it on something else. Mr Hale bans Sarah from his class for preparing nothing. A nightmare unfolds at work. Desperate, gatecrashing Mr Hale’s show, she marches onto the stage armed with her notebook of material…
With a script that never misses a trick and an astonishing performance from its 16-year-old lead, Jellyfish brilliantly explores the appalling situation of a child forced to care for her incapable and irresponsible mother and the welfare state’s utter failure to provide a safety net. There are many British independent films that explore such grim scenarios and offer no hope whatsoever. This one manages to suggest that everyone has a talent of some sort, if they can only find it and make use of it. Not a comedy as such, Jellyfish is a great film about a standup comedian, following the tradition of Punchline, Funny Bones and Funny Cow. It is also a film about finding one’s purpose in life.
Two wise and reflective Christian books
Striking Out: Poems and stories from the Camino
With God we live without God: Reflections and prayers inspired by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
These two little books contain a wealth of distilled Christian wisdom. Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, is a poet and a wise practical writer. In 2016, he walked the Camino pilgrim way by the northern, quieter, more mountainous route – 700km in three weeks. While on his journey, he found himself composing a poem in his head each day. Those poems are collated in Striking Out, aside longer spiritual reflections. Some of the poems are in sonnet form, some are rhymed, some are free verse. As with all good poetry, they are distilled experience and reflection, and so are not always easy to grasp at first reading. To combat this, Cottrell gives us a facing page with some context to each poem. Those facing pages are often touchingly honest, from the painful state of his feet, to his sad bewilderment that many people do not share the faith which is the bedrock of his existence.
Cottrell’s exhilaration as he reaches the highest point in the Camino del Norte is expressed in a wonderfully witty poem that made me smile as I read it: ‘I put down the bird that was in my hand/ And found a flock of swallows in the bush/ I purchased a pig from a man with a poke./ And fashioned two silk purses from her ears/ I held an acorn tightly, and felt the oak./ It sent my faint heart beating once again.’
Martin Lind is Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Great Britain. With God we live without God has been translated from the original German into English. Most of Lind’s reflections begin with a quotation from the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, usually one from near the end of his life in a Nazi prison. The quotations are often quite provocative, for example: ‘Belief in the resurrection is not the “solution” to the problem of death.’ A brief Bible text follows, then a reflection and a very brief prayer. This is a book to savour, slowly.
Sheila Maxey is Book Reviews Editor for Reform
Memoir on how to live as God intends
A Cry Is Heard: My path to peace
Darton Longman and Todd
As he approached his 90th birthday, Jean Vanier – a philosopher, a theologian, the founder of L’Arche communities, and a deep and humble listener – set out in writing his life’s journey and the important discoveries he has made along the way. In A Cry Is Heard, with a little help from the poet François-Xavier Maigre, Vanier presents 46 short reflections which together form what he describes as, ‘a memoir, a spiritual autobiography and a call to unity’.
There are four parallel journeys here. The first is a chronological review of the episodes of his life. The second is the establishing of L’Arche – from taking two men with learning difficulties into his home, through discovering that they were in truth teachers of real wisdom, to seeing L’Arche as a worldwide movement. The third journey is Vanier’s own learning that being faithful had little to do with doctrine and almost everything to do with deep and humble attentiveness to where the Spirit leads. The fourth is the awareness that peace across divisions of ability, gender, race and religion is both the true human goal to be desired and a real possibility.
High profile Christians, like Pope Francis and Mother Teresa, feature in these journeys, but far greater learning value is attributed to the many people Vanier has encountered, lived with and been blessed by, and whom society can regard as having little worth.
Reading this book felt like watching waves on the shore. Reflections returned frequently to the same themes, yet left me with a sense of accumulating understanding rather than unhelpful repetition. With that understanding came a sense of being ministered to, refreshed and inspired.
The book also challenges readers to put what Vanier has learned into practice by ‘encountering difference and working constantly to build bridges and not walls: this is the path to peace.’ This little book has wide appeal, but would speak particularly to anyone who is weary of trite or partisan answers to the question of how best we should live as God intends us to.
Ian Fosten is Minister of Wrentham Chapel, Suffolk
How Levantine culture reveals Jesus’
The Culture of God
Hodder & Stoughton
Father Nadim Nassar was born and raised in Syria, studied in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and was ordained a priest of the Church of England. He is Executive Director of the Awareness Foundation, London, which works to empower people of faith to embrace diversity and build peaceful and harmonious communities. For Nassar, the culture of God, which Jesus revealed, is also one that embraces diversity and builds communities. But in order for the west to perceive the culture of God, Nassar argues, we need to better understand the Levantine culture in which Jesus lived.
Nassar understands that the Levant ‘still shares a significant amount of culture, customs and turns of phrase with the earthly culture of Jesus’. For Nassar, the culture of God is not an abstract concept. He argues that if we are to live God’s culture today, we first need to understand how Jesus did – for example, we need to understand the customs of an ordinary meal, Syrian style. The custom involves one loaf of bread (which is basic to all meals). The bread is broken and shared between everyone around the table, using no plates. It is then dipped into shared dishes. Perhaps this knowledge provides a deeper insight into the Last Supper.
While I sometimes found myself at odds with Nassar’s approach to Scripture, I found myself strongly agreeing with his conclusions and greatly inspired by the stories he shared of his own experience, cultural heritage, and the light these cast on the life of Jesus. I learned a lot through reading this book and think anyone interested in gaining more insight into the life of Jesus would also.
The Culture of God offered me a fresh perspective on very familiar Gospel stories, revealing in new ways how counter cultural Jesus was. It was also very inspiring to hear the stories and reflections of Nassar, who has experienced much conflict throughout his life and still works for peace through the hope and faith he finds in God, revealed in Jesus.
Fiona Bennett is Minister of Augustine United Church, Edinburgh
These reviews were published in the February 2019 edition of Reform