Reviews – July/August 2019
Songs and lovers
Marianne & Leonard: Words of love
Directed by Nick Broomfield
Certificate tbc, 97 minutes
Released 26 July
On 29 July 2016 in Norway, a woman named Marianne Ihlen died aged 81. She is familiar to millions as the subject of Leonard Cohen’s songs ‘So Long, Marianne’ and ‘Bird On A Wire’. Within hours of learning that she was close to death, Cohen sent his ‘old friend’ a touching message about following close behind her. He died a few months later.
When they first met on the sun-soaked Greek island of Hydra in 1960, he was not the famed singer-songwriter he later became but a struggling author. She had a small son from a marriage that had fallen apart. They lived together in Hydra for some eight years. Towards the end, as his fame grew, Cohen spent more and more time away until eventually he was spending no time with Marianne at all.
Interviewees discuss Cohen’s womanising when he was away from Marianne living in hotels in America. She had other lovers too, later returning tova comparatively conventional life in Norway where she remarried.
This film from the renowned documentary maker Nick Broomfield may be his most personal yet – he too visited Hydra in the 60s and had a relationship with Marianne. She encouraged him to make his first film. He departed abruptly when another of her lovers arrived.
As Broomfield’s reminiscences of the woman, the place and the time drift in and out of the main story, a picture emerges: we see many people coming to Hydra to find themselves in the freedom it offered, but the majority become its casualties. If Marianne, Leonard and Nick coped better than most, Marianne’s son Axel did not.
Cohen may be one of the great lyricists of the 20th century, with much to say about a great many things on a deep and spiritual level while Marianne comes across as a very ordinary, self-doubting person who encouraged and nurtured creative people. While many might question their morality and lifestyle, and the results of those choices, this remains a fascinating and compelling portrait of an artist and his muse.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Discover God in other faiths
Holy Envy: Finding God in the faith of others
Barbara Brown Taylor
Holy Envy is the story of what happens when a devout but disillusioned Episcopalian priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, accepts a post to teach world religion at a small college in rural Georgia. What she doesn’t realise is that she will end up learning as much as the students.
The term ‘holy envy’ was coined by Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl, to address interfaith tensions. Using his ideas, Brown Taylor sets out to teach her students to look at what is best in other religions, and to consider the implications of this learning for their own faiths. Told with humour and honesty, the book raises relevant questions for our society of multiple religions, vocal atheists and those identifying as spiritual but not religious.
Like the students, she becomes captivated by discoveries made on field trips to mosques and temples. Some faiths allow parallels to Christianity – the Hindu deity Shiva for instance, requires the old to be destroyed to give new life. Others seem very different; Buddhism is about peace and compassion but its answers are found in personal responsibility alone. When viewed through the lens of other faiths, we may ask: Is the Christianity we know dying of old age? Can someone die on a cross for my sins, or not? It challenges our concept of oneness – one way, one truth, one God.
The author fully admits that Christians may not have all the answers to these difficult questions. However, she astutely points out, Jesus was a man who asked a lot of questions. Who is your neighbour? What does scripture tell you about your question? In doing so, he was able to get people to understand their relationship with God more fully. Brown Taylor also notes that, from Ruth the Moabite to the Persian Magi, scripture is full of blessings and teaching from different faiths.
While I may not agree with all of the author’s conclusions, I found this book engaging and compelling. It would definitely be of interest to those who want to build bridges with other faiths and for Christians who are happy to challenge their own world view in order to affirm the uniqueness of their faith.
Lisa Wilson is an ordinand based at Westminster College, Cambridge
Insights from two Church movements
Pentecostals and Charismatics in Britain: An anthology
Edited by Joe Aldred
This is a groundbreaking book by established Pentecostal and charismatic academics and Church leaders rather than an anthology. These ‘voices from within’ reflect with insight and self awareness on the history of the movements, their diversity, their relationship to mainstream Christianity and to socio-political issues.
How to reconcile the diverse white- and black-majority traditions? Some originated in the 18th century Holiness Movement and the revival meetings of the early 20th century, others emerged in the 1950s with Caribbean immigration and more recent Christian migration from Africa. These are often part of bigger global networks. The transnational megachurches are classically Pentecostal, while the charismatic renewal movement is rooted in the Anglicanism of the 60s and 70s.
The chasm between past and present Pentecostalism is skilfully handled. Should its traditional missionary identity be re-examined? Ecumenical relations are dealt with at some depth. Recent interchurch dialogues privilege a relational approach over the traditional faith and order approach. Might this be a useful template for talks with Anglicans?
Spiritual gifts are recognised to be gender neutral but attitudes to women’s leadership are ambivalent. While African Caribbean churches highly value matriarchy, this sits awkwardly with the patriarchal system of other Pentecostal traditions. In the European context, I missed some analogy with the women prophets of the radical revolution, or the medieval female prophets and mystics in England.
Pentecostalism is evolving a theology of radical and prophetic political engagement for the common good. What should replace a Protestant work ethic theology in situations where walking miles for a pail of water is not a sign of grace? How to ensure that our actions do not bring the Gospel into disrepute? This significant book raises issues which concern us all.
Fleur Houston is a retired church minister, living in Macclesfield, Cheshire
Sensory exploration of John’s Gospel
Sensing the Divine: John’s word made flesh
Andrew D Mayes
Bible Reading Fellowship
Andrew Mayes is Spirituality Advisor for the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus, and brings to his ministry and to this book a deep knowledge of the Middle East, especially the places where Jesus’ ministry took place. If John’s Gospel has a reputation for being abstract and conceptual, this book helps any reader to see it as profoundly rooted in the realities of daily life, in a particular place and time. It dwells on time and place, on empirical experiences of taste, touch, sight, sound and smell, and how God is made known in such ways. The book urges us to ‘unfold the sensuous gospel’ and reminds us that this is the Gospel in which the Word becomes flesh.
The book moves through the senses, exploring how they emerge in John’s Gospel and adding varied and liberal quotations from Christian history on each of the senses too. There is plenty of material here for someone preparing a retreat, or the book could work as a kind of retreat for a lone reader too; it has questions for reflection as well as narrative and biblical study.
The book offers some fascinating insights into the Gospel and, for me, these were the most helpful sections. There are so many distinctive things about John’s Gospel – the Bethesda story, the miracle at Cana, and the many references to ‘the garden’, among them. It is good to notice how much Jesus goes on pilgrimage in this gospel, and to reflect on all that might signify.
Sometimes points were perhaps stretched too far (do 30 references to touching really need a count?) and many quotations and exclamation marks sometimes distract from the distinctive contribution of the author. But this is certainly a useful book for providing a quiet day, or resourcing a church group. The book serves as a helpful inspiration to reflection, preaching and teaching.
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset
Biblical violence in context
God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today?: Wrestling honestly with the Old Testament
The Bible Reading Fellowship
This is a particularly apposite book for our current political situation. John Lennon wrote the song ‘Imagine’ longing for a peaceful world, assuming that that religion is one of the main causes of conflict. It would be lovely to be able to say that Christian scriptures do not advocate violence, or that only the Old Testament shows God as angry and violent. The temptation is to avoid difficult and violent Bible passages. Yet, the Old Testament is an essential part of the Christian scriptures. Helen Paynter shows that it is too simplistic to separate the Old Testament from the New.
Paynter acknowledges that violence is apparently directed and endorsed by God in Old Testament texts. In an intellectually rigorous and accessible way, Paynter wrestles with each text to show that in many cases, the violence may become more understandable, and in some cases may be fully explained. She shows that each story needs to be carefully read in context of ancient Hebrew language and culture.
For example, Paynter compares the battle of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17) – in which David beheads Goliath – with Adam and Eve’s temptation by the serpent (Genesis 3). In both stories, there is a battle that will determine who has dominion, and an evil force mocks God’s favoured. In the latter story, God curses the serpent and says that he will bruise the serpent’s head. God will have victory in the end. Though David – God’s chosen king, descended of Eve – is mocked by the giant who defies God, he is victorious. The pattern points to a greater king to come.
Paynter warns of the need to be careful how these passages are taught to children, and how they are used in preaching. This is an exceedingly helpful book for anyone who wants to honestly teach and preach the scriptures for contemporary society, affirming God’s plan for peace in the world.
Catherine Ball is Minister of The Free Church, St Ives, and Fenstanton United Reformed Church, Cambridgeshire
These reviews were published in the July/August 2019 edition of Reform