Reviews – September 2019
Birth in wartime
Directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edwards Watts
Certificate 18, 96 minutes
Released 13 September
Waad is a spirited young woman studying at the University of Aleppo in Syria, who starts to document events on her own initiative using her mobile phone. Initial fervour at the revolutionary uprising against the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad – ‘Christians and Muslims are fighting alongside one another’ – becomes a deeper commitment when Russian warplanes begin daily bombing raids. Waad decides to remain in the city to document events at the local hospital which has been started from scratch with no government infrastructure and staffed by a mixture of qualified professionals and committed volunteers.
Waad is surprised when Hamza, who set up the hospital, proposes to her. They marry and have a baby girl, Sama. Waad resolves that the documentary she is making will explain to her daughter why her parents stayed in Aleppo to raise her in a place where, one might think, no child ought to be raised.
If that explanation isn’t really forthcoming, what we get instead from this documentry is a thorough, candid, on-the-ground picture of urban life under siege, where fewer buildings are left intact each day. The film features some highly traumatic material.
Children appear quite a lot. There is baby Sama, who simply gets on with being a baby and being looked after, despite the bombardment. But other kids also come into hospital bringing, for example, wounded siblings.
Astonishing medical sequences include a pregnant woman with a head wound admitted on the verge of giving birth. Can the doctors and nurses save the mother, the baby, or both? This would be gripping under normal peacetime hospital conditions, but taking place where it does increases the tension considerably.
Waad has no interest in gratuitous exploitation and her camera never dwells on the gore, but the piece has a raw power. It deserves to be seen in the UK, not least because of our country’s appallingly large amount of arms sales around the globe. Take a group from your church to see it and discuss it afterwards. If it’s not on, ask your local cinema to book it specially.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Alan Sell’s life and theology
Crucicentric, Congregational, and Catholic:
The generous orthodoxy of Alan PF Sell
£29 (£24.99 from urcshop.co.uk)
Having provided the Reformed Church with a notable book about its theology (Reforming Theology, URC, 2002), David Peel has used his time in retirement to delve into the theology of one of the Church’s recent theologians, Alan Sell. The result is thoughtful and stimulating. One of this book’s pleas is that the Church comes to value academic theology more highly, and encourage new theologians. In that desire of both Peel’s and Sell’s, I wholeheartedly concur.
The book begins by telling Sell’s story – he was a Christian, minister, teacher and prolific writer – and by providing the wide-ranging context of Sell’s thinking. It then focuses on key theological themes – including creation, and ‘the means of grace and salvation’ – before concluding. Peel covers a lot of ground in each chapter, and I struggled at times with the multiplicity of approaches he referred to and the convoluted language of some modern theologians.
This is not an uncritical study of Sell’s theology. Peel presents both its strengths and weaknesses, and relates it to wider theological trends. For all its strengths, Sell’s theology is found wanting. The apologetic task that Sell set himself required greater daring and creativity to meet the challenges of many faiths, militant atheism, relativism, postmodernism and the ecological crisis.
Having served on a church committee with Sell some years back, it was good to read Peel’s excellent summary of the life and theology of this faithful and dedicated minister of the Gospel. Despite the weaknesses of his classical and historical approach, Sell’s focus on the cross, his work in Christian apologetics and his commitment to an ecclesiology, both congregational and ecumenical, have important things to say to today’s Church. Beyond the theology, one image from the book that will perhaps stay with me the longest is of Sell as a young minister. Visiting one of his church members, he was unexpectedly introduced to her pet alligator!
Terry Hinks is Minister of Cores End and Trinity United Reformed churches, Buckinghamshire
The Bible for non-experts
A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths
This is a book by an expert, for people who are not. John Barton is an Anglican priest who has spent his life teaching Old Testament studies at Oxford University. His writing style is full of information, yet not dense or difficult. The book unfolds in 20 chapters of about 25 pages each. Eight of these consider the various books of the Bible – what they have to say, and how they got to be the way they are. Four concern the assembling of the books (to use a mechanical term for processes that were actually quite intuitive) into what we call Old Testament and New. The remaining eight look at how these scriptures have been used over the centuries, in the diverse faith communities of Judaism and Christianity.
Reading a book of this size requires motivation. It does not, in this case, require vast background knowledge. You need an idea of the shape of the Bible, and some notion of the story of the Church. Barton will fill in the gaps. Lively turns of phrase keep us engaged; for example: ‘The prophets were not helpful people.’
Barton clearly wants to steer his readers between two poles. On one hand, ‘in some churches and synagogues the Bible is not really held in much regard: it must be read in public worship … [but the people’s belief] … derives largely from secular consensus’. The opposite path is the kind of conservative Christian belief that leans tightly on the content and authority of Scripture. For Barton, the complexities of the Bible make this track impossible to follow with integrity.
Apart from a page on inclusive language, not much is said about feminist responses to Scripture, nor liberationist readings. But whether or not your concerns match Barton’s closely, it would be difficult not to learn from him, and to find some interest and pleasure in doing so. This book will be widely used, and very many people will find it helpful.
John Proctor is General Secretary for the United Reformed Church
Curated analysis of John
The Knowable God: A fresh look at the fourth Gospel
£12.99 (Available from urcshop.co.uk)
Peter Brain makes clear from the beginning that this book is not a critical commentary, nor a set of devotional meditations but an exposition of some aspects of John’s Gospel. The book’s 23 chapters each relate to a particular incident, theme, or character. For instance, one considers John’s theology of Holy Communion, and another the raising of Lazarus. While these are comprehensively treated, not all of the text is covered. The chapters are all fairly short, and avoid technical language.
The book is soundly written, based upon sensible scholarship. However, the sources quoted are almost all from the 1960s or earlier – a pity, since the last 50 years have generated plenty of interesting material on John. There is an over-reliance upon CH Dodd, though he was the greatest biblical scholar of his time. It was also disappointing to see Wikipedia quoted as a source. These criticisms, however, do not detract from the book’s value.
The Knowable God will not be helpful to those seeking an academic-style commentary, nor will it suit those who are looking for devotional material. Bible study/discussion groups will find enough material in each chapter for a session. The book would also be of use to those who preach and lead worship, those looking for ways to feed their own faith, or those seeking another angle on this Gospel. I would recommend the book to people who fit into these categories. The Gospel of John is a book that many shy away from, and this book will surely encourage some to consider it afresh or more deeply.
Michael Hopkins is Minister of a group of Methodist and United Reformed churches in Surrey, and Clerk of the United Reformed Church General Assembly
Books in Brief
Alpha Hotel!: Letters from Iruna Hospital, Papua New Guinea
Honeybee Books, £9.99
This is Ruth Archer’s second book documenting her years as a Council for World Mission nurse, as told through her letters from 1969 to 1976. As in Archer’s first book, Delta Echo (reviewed here), her calm and often humorous response to medical and other emergencies makes this is a good read. It is also an account of the changing face of missionary work at the point when Papua New Guinea became an independent nation.
Yestermorrow: A futuristic novel
Self published, £12.99
Commended by the celebrated author Michael Morpurgo, this futuristic work of fiction follows families in East Devon as they grapple with the devastating effects of climate change on their landscape and relationships. It’s not all doom and gloom though, and the novel’s four parts generally avoid preachiness. The book’s themes include race, class, privilege and human responsibility, but the main focus is sustainability and concern for the climate.
Church of Snails: Poems to a sluggish Church
Available from urcshop.co.uk, £5.99
The latest anthology from church minister and performance poet Lucy Berry is short but sparky. This is no light and leisurely collection of descriptions. Her intelligently succinct imagery calls on churchgoers to search themselves and the dynamics at play in their church/the Church. It’s delightfully thought provoking. There’s a helpful and challenging set of notes and questions at the end, which could be good for group study but is probably intended for personal reflection.
These reviews were published in the September 2019 edition of Reform