Reviews – April 2019
Painting to grasp God
At Eternity’s Gate
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Certificate 12a, 111 minutes
Released 29 March
It’s quite a feat for a well-known actor with a well-known face to transform themselves into a cultural icon so thoroughly that you forget the actor, but that’s what Willem Dafoe achieves here. You really feel like you’re watching the artist Vincent Van Gogh.
Vincent approaches an unknown young woman herding sheep on a road and asks to sketch her. He has to take down his one man show – which should have been a group show but the other artists let him down. He feels a need to get out of the city and his friend Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) tells him to go south. So he heads on foot from Paris to Arles in the south of France.
We look, with him, down at his feet (which are in fact those of this production’s cameraman, Bernard Delhomme) as they trudge through waist-high stalks in a field. We see vast fields of sunflowers. We see him walking through a standing alleyway of trees.
The director Julian Schnabel is no stranger to biographical films about artists, having made 1996’s Basquiat. That was set in mid-20th-century New York; this is in late-19th-century France. That was about an essentially secular artist; this is about a deeply religious one. More than that, actually: a painter trying to access God by communing with nature through the act of painting.
And this film is more than most movies about art too: it’s like spending the best part of two hours inside the Van Gogh’s head, seeing the way he sees, painting the way he paints, getting some understanding of what drives him.
Vincent is a highly unorthodox individual who doesn’t really fit in with societal norms. Nevertheless, it’s clear that his motivation lies in a sense of his own place in the universe relative to the God he wants to know better and about whom he wants to discover more. This is a film about art, life and religion all rolled into one. And what an incredible experience that proves to be.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Church as Jesus’ banquet
The Table: Knowing Jesus: Prayer, friendship, justice
Darton, Longman and Todd
After a long and varied ministry, Paul Bayes was appointed Bishop of Hertford in 2010 and Bishop of Liverpool in 2014. This book arose out the inaugural sermon he preached in Liverpool in November 2014, where he took the table as his central image: ‘a simple table but well made, because it was made by a carpenter’, a table for meeting and talking around, for laughing and above all eating.
A time of study and reflection in the US allowed Bayes to develop this theme and to identify four ‘dimensions of Christian practice’: meeting at the table (the foundation), drinking from the fountain (the scriptures, creeds and liturgy), watching in the moment (going deeper into prayer) and stretching for the kingdom. In his exploration he is not afraid to confront difficult issues or challenge churchspeak. For example, Bayes argues against using the word ‘fellowship’ which he describes as a ‘poor, pastel-coloured word’ with male overtones in comparison to the rich biblical word koinonia. He prefers instead the idea of ‘open friendship’. He writes from an Anglican perspective, but one warmed and widened by an ecumenical heart and vision. As a result, he draws widely from other Church traditions in his carefully chosen and inspiring quotations.
This book gives me hope for the Church of England and the Church as a whole. Within the United Reformed Church it could shine much needed light on our ‘Walking the Way: Living the life of Jesus today’ focus and our exploration of holy habits.
There is much common ground between missional discipleship and what Paul Bayes is writing in this book, but he also brings new insights, challenges and depth to bear. He brings to the table voices that have often been left unheard or shouted down. He reminds us that the way Christ invites us to follow involves joy and cost – it is ‘that serious and playful road’. How good it is for all of us to learn both aspects of Christ’s Way.
Terry Hinks is Minister of Cores End United Reformed Church and Trinity, High Wycombe
Exploration of Jesus’ ‘I am’ sayings
Jesus Said, ‘I am’: Finding life in the everyday
Bible Reading Fellowship
The Hebrew scriptures record God’s revelation of the name of the Godhead to Moses as: ‘I am who I am.’ Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but not the type of Messiah expected by his contemporaries. He was not a rich and powerful prince or a trained priest in the temple of Jerusalem. His ministry was not to lead an army to attack and overthrow Rome, but to lay down his life for the world. Yet, he could only accomplish this if the legal and religious authorities did not realise who he was and what he had come to do.
To those who had ears to hear and eyes to see, Andrea Skevington argues, Jesus reveals himself as the Son of Man and Son of God in a most original and startling way, in his famous ‘I am’ sayings: ‘I am the bread of life.’ ‘I am the light of the world.’ ‘I am the good shepherd.’ ‘I am the gate for the sheep.’ ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ ‘I am the true vine.’ As Skevington says, ‘I am’ is such a common construction in every language; it is how we define ourselves, but it is also
a very deep mystery.
Each chapter of this book explores one of the stories in which Jesus says, ‘I am…’ It looks at its context and characters and shows the transforming power of Jesus’ words for his listeners. Skevington goes beyond the classic seven ‘I am’ statements, also including Jesus’ words to the woman at the well and what he said when he was confronted by soldiers in the garden of Gethsemane: ‘I am he for whom you are looking.’ Each time, Skevington includes a prayer and meditation and gives suggestions for further study and some creative responses in service and practical outreach.
This book could be used by individuals for their own personal faith development or used as a study guide for group discussions. It would make an excellent Lent course!
Catherine Ball is Minister of the Free Church, St Ives and Fenstanton United Reformed Church
How ‘listening in’ can guide daily prayer
Eavesdropping: Learning to pray from those who talked to Jesus
Darton, Longman and Todd
This is a very enjoyable and accessible book by a chaplain at Manchester prison. Laid out in bite-sized portions, it is a helpful resource, intended to stimulate, question and encourage prayer.
Eavesdropping is intended to guide daily Lenten reflection but could equally be helpful at any time of the year, to facilitate the holy habit of daily prayer. Martin’s premise is to walk with and lead the reader, while listening in on 49 biblical conversations that individuals had with Jesus. Martin reflects on Jesus’ responses, and in turn challenges us to question: ‘So, how does this help us with prayer?’ The technique works well. Along with a delightful scattering of stimulating and creative prayer exercises suggested by the book, Eavesdropping is a useful and refreshing resource.
As he is an artist, Martin often uses visual stories to set a scene, sometimes pairing modern images with what’s going on biblically. For example, Martin uses a scene involving the character of the banjo-playing pope (from the satirical 1980s TV programme Spitting Image) to illuminate the disciples’ encounters with the post-resurrection Jesus. In this scene, the pope is interrupted, while serenading the Vatican crowds at his window, by a cardinal declaring: ‘Big J has arrived!’ The pope’s ensuing meltdown is compared to the disciples’ reactions. In another visual story, Martin remembers a Bruce Springsteen concert where fans dressed up in outlandish costumes to catch their hero’s attention. Here, Martin finds parallels with Peter’s shout out to Jesus after walking on water: ‘Lord, save me!’ Reflecting on crisis prayer, he comments that crisis prayer is not a replacement for a daily pattern of praying: without a healthy discipline of prayer, we are far less likely to call on God when a crisis hits.
Martin’s book is a good read, a refreshing, thought-provoking journey of discovery. But on occasions, Martin can take the reader down unexpected theological paths through a pro-LGBTQI+ agenda. This could, for some, make Eavesdropping, like all ‘listening in’, a not-entirely-comfortable experience.
Sally Willett is Minister of Thamesmead Community Church, London
Guilt-free prayer guide
Prayer in the Making: Trying it, talking it, sustaining it
The Bible Reading Fellowship
Prayer in the Making begins by acknowledging that prayer is something that many people struggle with, often declare themselves poor at and apologise for. This book is not a guilt-inducing publication nor is it deeply theological. It is an honest offering which reflects on different types of prayer, and how to use them in order to help believers in their faith journey. Prayer in the Making opens up a conversation and invites readers to reflect on what they have read about prayer. It then encourages the reader to discover the prayer life that works for them. It doesn’t dictate how prayer should be done.
Prayer in the Making is written by a freelancer who previously worked as the Salvation Army’s prayer coordinator for 10 years. As well as her writing, Lyndall Bywater now heads up an international prayer community and works with Europe’s 24-7 Prayer team. Bywater’s book is divided into 12 chapters, each focusing on a different style of prayer. For each prayer style there are options that include listening, activity and intercession. Each chapter is based on Scripture and includes the author’s own stories and experiences, as well as theological reflection. The author speaks about getting to know God through prayer, as well as getting to know our individual prayer style.
The book is written from an evangelical perspective and I was unsettled by the chapter on warfare, as the views expressed in that chapter are not where I find myself. However, the ideas introduced are accessible to all and realistic.
This is a book that can be dipped into and used individually. It could also be used as a starting point for longer term discussions in a group setting, as its introduction to prayer types, different ways of praying and suggestions for how to use them could be usefully explored over a number of weeks.
The book gives practical suggestions at the end of each chapter and includes a ‘Trying it’ section for each prayer style. If you feel your prayer life needs a boost, or more variety, and you are struggling for ideas, this would be a good book to start with.
Jenny Mills is Minister of Newport Pagnell United Reformed Church and West End United Church, Wolverton, Buckinghamshire
These reviews were published in the April 2019 edition of Reform