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Reviews – June 2019 - Reform Magazine

Reviews – June 2019

Shooting childhood

Last Summer
Directed by Jon Jones
Certificate 15, 97 minutes
Released 7 June

Rural Wales. The 70s. Four pre-teenage boys. Summer. And a reminder of the important place that relationships and families have in our everyday lives.

The four boys comprise two sets of brothers: Davy Davies (Noa Thomas) and his younger brother Iwan (Gruffydd Weston) and their friends Rhys and Robbie Morris (Rowan Jones and Christopher Benning). They hang out together, shooting an air rifle at fish in a local river and sneaking into an abandoned, ruined barn to admire an owl that’s taken up residence.

All is not well in the Morris family home, however, with mum on the verge of leaving dad to move in with a shepherd who lives nearby. The sound of a gunshot causes the four boys to investigate: what happened at the Morrises will change their lives forever.

Childhood is a time of life to be cherished and everyone has memories of growing up in a specific time and place: in this instance, Wales, before mobile phones, the internet and video recorders. It’s all too easy to idealise childhood though. People in the real world have problems – and if those people happen to be your parents, your childhood innocence may go straight out the window.

Soon, the two young Morrises find themselves the centre of attention of not only the local police but also the well-meaning lady from social services. Prowling the edge of the plot with a shotgun is a third Morris brother, the teenager Kevin (Steffan Cennydd) who has been romantically involved with the police officer.

The boys, their terrible discovery and their decision to camp out in the woods recall that other terrific rites of passage movie Stand By Me while the fascination with the owl echoes the working class lad and his kestrel in Kes.

Last Summer is very much its own film though, delving into the effects on children when family life goes wrong. It never becomes patronising or preachy, delivering instead a rattling good yarn to leave you pondering its moral dilemmas long after the end credits.

Jeremy Clarke is a film critic


Insights from a Christian hymn-poet

Barefoot in the Dust: A hymn-poet’s memoir
Brian Wren
Cascade Books
ISBN: 9781498234948

Brian Wren has been on my radar for years, as I am a long-term selector of hymns. I find his hymns often fulfil his intention ‘that there is a journey worth taking, and that it reaches a satisfying end’.

Barefoot in the Dust describes Wren’s own journey: into faith and ministry, into campaigning for economic justice and nuclear disarmament, and onwards into freelance writing. The ‘barefoot’ allusion, Wren says, refers to ‘the dust of the earth, through which we feel, on unprotected feet, the joy and pain of being human’. Wren is committed to hymns that are rich in meaning. He says: ‘Skill is useless without content.’

This book defines Wren’s distinction between being a poet and a hymn-poet. It narrates how his travelling nudges, annoys and inspires him away from sexist language. It describes the process – ‘the creative spiral’ – of a hymn-poet, referencing sources of inspiration, such as ‘a mind that hunts for new ideas’, life experience, listening to others, the impetus of commissions, etc. An appendix complements the chapter on process by presenting an exchange of letters between the young Wren and the Congregational minister, composer and musicologist Erik Routley, who tells him: ‘What we need are hymns on what earlier hymnwriters didn’t think relevant. We’ve got quite enough about ourselves and the various subdivisions of sin and experience. We’ve nothing about science, politics, social matters brought under the Gospel.’ The emphases Routley gives come to be echoed in Wren’s living and writing.

Readers of this book discover the significant relationship between words and music. And there is a large section of Wren’s texts, many with commentary.

This book fascinated me, urging me to look up more of Wren’s and others’ work. Moreover, it is eminently readable (I suppose one would hope for that in a wordsmith!) For anyone interested specifically in hymn-poems, or more generally in worship, theology and mission, it is a treasure trove of ideas and I commend it. Like many Wren hymns, it has potential not to leave us where it found us.

Nigel Uden is Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly


What African Caribbean preaching styles can teach us

Preach It! Understanding African Caribbean preaching
Carol Tomlin
SCM Press
ISBN: 9780334057376

One of the delights of a multicultural society is that we can learn from one another, borrow from one another and make new things from the fresh collision of different approaches. Apparently, such cultural fusion gave us one of the UK’s favourite dishes, chicken tikka masala. Within the faith, creative borrowing could be vital to the survival of the UK Church. But to borrow creatively and responsibly, you have to understand and appreciate what you are borrowing. There are real riches ripe for sharing in the lively and evolving preaching traditions of African Caribbean Pentecostal Churches here in the UK.

With the passion of a long-term practitioner and the insight of a careful scholar, Carol Tomlin – a lecturer and pastor based in the West Midlands – takes us on a journey of discovery that uncovers the full glory of a preaching style that may have been a closed book to many of us. Tomlin traces the origins and development of Pentecostalism. She then explores the richness of the linguistic situation that developed when Jamaican patois took root in the UK and language developed and evolved, generation by generation, in exciting ways. Tomlin then takes the reader into the heart of key art forms of UK African Caribbean preaching – call and response, creative repetition, improvisation, pithy proverbs and so much more.

In the same way that a sympathetic artist and critic can take you round an art exhibition and enable you to see what you hadn’t seen for yourself, Tomlin opens up this vibrant, spiritual art form and helps us understand and appreciate it. She does her job well.

The next step is down to us: can we find ways to experience good Pentecostal preaching? And can we find our own ways in which to engage in the creative collision of learning from it and offer what we have in return? Church, can I hear an ‘Amen’?!

John Campbell is Minister of High Cross United Reformed Church in Tottenham, London


Christology for today

The Universal Christ: How a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for and believe
Richard Rohr
ISBN: 9780281078622

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr invites Christians to discover a transformational and life-giving Christology. It is not a fast read but it’s a very rich one, where theology meets meditation. Drawing on insights from the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, Scripture, mystics, psychology and Rohr’s own life experience, the book seeks to offer a theological framework which liberates the Gospel for today.

Rohr critiques the ways theology has come to express Jesus, and draws us into the wonder of knowing the universal Christ. He says: ‘We would have helped history and individuals so much more if we had spent our time revealing how Christ is everywhere instead of proving that Jesus was God.’

Rohr explores love, suffering, sin and salvation, offering a theological framework that is both profoundly hope-filled and challenging. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US, described this book as ‘trying to help Christianity to reclaim its soul anew’ which I found a very apt description.

For a theological book, this was accessible to read. I found it life-affirming. It raised questions, and at points was frustrating (I find Rohr’s views on gender are too binary) but overall, I found this book profoundly liberating and deeply transformational.

There are few books I have read recently where I underlined words on nearly every page to think through them again, but this book was so. At a Maundy Thursday service, I was challenged to think about what the story of Christianity would have been if we had chosen to celebrate foot washing in place of bread and wine. In a similar vein, I wonder what the story of Christianity could be if we used this book as a core text in our theological teaching? For any Christian who has wrestled to find a theology to express their faith experience, this book could be helpful, thought-provoking and perhaps even exciting.

Fiona Bennett is Minister of Augustine United Church, Edinburgh


On the cost of religion

Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good?
Rupert Shortt
ISBN: 9780281078714

This elegant essay gives a succinct, courteous and balanced insight into a tendentious debate. It starts by seeking to unravel the parameters of the question. Religion is not, an historian tells Shortt, an abstract noun, but part of a culture. A Buddhist interlocutor notes that it all depends on the practitioner, and an atheist philosopher suggests that the old Irish question: ‘Yes, but are you a Protestant or Catholic atheist?’ shows that God is irrelevant to the Irish conflict over identity. Loading the scales of good and harm is therefore complex.

Having grasped the complexity of the question, Shortt moves to practice and discipleship, suggesting a rigorous theological framework drawn from the world’s faiths – a transcendent God who allows the world to make itself; the rationality of nature; discipleship aligning ourselves to the good and growing into it. Religion is therefore, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, ‘part of the ecology of freedom’ and a rich source of social capital. It is, for all faiths, about the shaping of desire, tempered by the liturgical ordering of time and an acceptance of the limits of mortality.

Shortt concludes by considering bad faith and good. He is clear and sharp about the malign influences of religion with a sure grasp of their varied universal histories – homophobic, triumphalist, aberrant at specific times – yet also, at their best, protecting the sanctity of the individual as a seeker after God, and therefore promoting religious freedom and human rights. Secularism’s achievement has been not no gods but the old ones – Aphrodite, Mars, Mammon. We need the religious, he concludes (echoing the late Bishop John Hapgood) – those whose authority is that of lovers, who delight in what they love although they know they have scarcely begun to grasp its full extent. Let us hope that this wise and learned essay is the harbinger of a full-length study.

David Cornick is a retired church minister living in Cambridge


These reviews were published in the June 2019 edition of Reform

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