Reviews – February 2020
Poor family, rich family
Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Certificate 15, 132 minutes
Released 7 February
With income inequality on the rise in the UK, this Oscar-nominated, edge-of-the seat thriller from South Korea couldn’t be more pertinent. A poor family struggling to survive at the bottom of the country’s economic food chain stumbles on an opportunity to work for an obscenely rich family who pay very well. The poor family secure themselves this work through a series of deceits and scams, stealing existing positions from the family’s chauffeur and housekeeper in the process.
The characters are engaging. The poor family fervently want to better their economic lot and leave no stone unturned to do so. Their resourcefulness is impressive, their morality less so – and yet we find ourselves liking them. The rich family are likeable too, with no suggestion whatsoever that their income has derived from dishonest or dubious sources. They are neither more nor less deserving of wealth than the poor family. However they lack any comprehension of life as the poor live it, and the struggles that poor people face.
Poor families live in houses which, when it rains heavily, are subject to flooding. This forces their evacuation into a makeshift homeless centre in a local gym, while their rich employers phone to ask them to run this or that errand. Poor people will comply with these requests in order to retain their jobs.
The live-in housekeeper, whose job is at risk from the poor family, is more fascinating still, for reasons it would be criminal to reveal. While she harbours an unexpected secret, she’s essentially an honest worker who doesn’t deserve to have her reputation threatened.
You’ll read elsewhere that you won’t see a more gripping thriller released this year; it’s hard to disagree. But it is more too. Strip away the thriller veneer, and behind it is a terrifying vision of a society where wealth, consumerism and the family – that ultimate unit of purchasing power – are idolised while any concept of community or love for one’s fellow human beings is marginalised. It’s dog eat dog with every person for themself, late capitalism in overdrive. Serious spiritual food for thought.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Two Lent books
Journeying through Lent, with New Daylight
Edited by Sally Welch
The Bible Reading Fellowship
You Are Mine: Daily Bible readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day
The Bible Reading Fellowship
Both books offer a daily Bible text followed by a reflection, and either a prayer or a sentence for further thought. Journeying through Lent is the work of five writers: Stephen Cottrell, the incoming Archbishop of York; Helen Julian, a Franciscan sister; Tony Horsfall, a spiritual retreat leader and trainer; the late Rachel Boulding, who was Deputy Editor of Church Times; and the late Brother Ramon, who was a Franciscan friar. The themes of these writers’ contributions are, according to Sally Welch, the book’s editor, ‘some of the most important elements of our faith’: feasting and fasting, the Beatitudes, the wisdom of Christ, the love poem of 1 Corinthians 13 and Holy Week. The book is a small one, with the text and reflection taking up no more than two pages each day. At the end of each week’s reflections there is a page of questions for group study.
You are Mine is written by David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester. Each day there is a Bible text related to the theme of Christian belonging, and a reflection that is both personal and challenging, and both informative and engaging. Walker uses his wealth of faith experience. He opens with: ‘How do we belong with God and with Jesus? And how do our human lives help or hinder us along the way?’ Each day is no more than three pages. This book is relevant for the times in which we live, and addresses current topics as well as reflecting on biblical texts.
Both of these books would be good to use during Lent. Journeying through Lent is in a daily devotion style and can be read more quickly. You are Mine requires setting aside a little more time in order to benefit from its content. I particularly valued the depth of You are Mine. But I was sad to note the lack, in both books, of inclusive language when relating to God; using ‘he’ feels very dated to me.
Jenny Mills is Minister of Newport Pagnell United Reformed Church and West End United Church, Wolverton, Buckinghamshire
How to follow Jesus
Following Jesus: Finding our way home in an age of anxiety
(Edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw)
Following Jesus is a compilation of transcripts from Lent talks given by the late Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest who went on to work in a L’Arche community (where people with and without learning disabilities live together). Drawing upon his own experiences of loneliness and anxiety at a difficult time in his life, Nouwen spoke about how we can follow Jesus in a modern world characterised by fear and restlessness.
The talks, split into six chapters, explore the invitation, call, challenge, cost, reward and promise that come with following Jesus. Each combines scriptural exegesis and commentary on the Christian life and is underpinned by Nouwen’s personal experiences. Nouwen calls for Christians to resist becoming defined by either routine or rootlessness and to strive instead for the joy of Jesus – not happiness or humour but the deep contentment that springs from accepting God’s presence. In embracing this joy, he argues, we come to terms with sorrow and suffering.
This book is newly published but the talks it is based on were first given in 1985. Over 30 years on, Nouwen’s topic is even more relevant. It is normal, perhaps even necessary, to be anxious about the state of the world today, but Nouwen’s message gives us a way to survive in such a world. He advocates holding on tightly to Jesus in order to acknowledge our own human suffering and to tackle world suffering without succumbing to despair. Some of Nouwen’s theological points may raise discussion, but, as Gabrielle Earnshaw writes in her editor’s note, the book’s purpose is not to quibble over details but to open minds to the question of how one can find the joy of Jesus within one’s own lived experience.
This is a book for today, a book for a world that is uncertain and afraid, and a book for people who want the love of Jesus to transform their lives so that we can bring this peace and joy to others. Enjoy.
Diana Paulding is an Old Testament graduate based in Norfolk
The Way of St Benedict
This book draws together Rowan Williams’ reflections on Benedictine monasticism. It demonstrates that the 1,500-years-old Rule of Saint Benedict has been an influential text, not only for western monasticism but for the life of the whole Church. Because Benedict was declared the patron saint of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964, Williams suggests ways in which Benedictine values of community could be a powerful counter to the present European crisis.
Benedict’s Rule was written to enable good community in monasteries but his wisdom is readily transferrable. This book provoked me to think about how to live well in a local church. The Rule values stability (recognising that good life together requires commitment over time), sharing goods (mutual dependency), honesty (about oneself and others), non-superficial peacemaking, and accountability. Benedict’s way recognises that how we live with ‘the other’ is vital to our becoming fully human. We are like hermits if we only make community with those who are the same as us, and Christian community is not based on kinship, nation or class but truly builds community with strangers.
Williams explores how a life that values every part of life, that rejects acquisitiveness, that allows worship to sanctify every part of the day, can set us free to find the ‘contemplative joy’ we were made for. This is about a Christian life that is not about ‘going to’ but ‘belonging to’ church. At a time when we need a radical renewal of what we have termed church membership, and when our belonging to the European community is, at best, changing, this book has much to offer.
Reading the Rule makes its ancient origins evident. Williams somehow calms old texts’ strangeness, and makes their wisdom sound for today.
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset
On hell and salvation
That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, hell, and universal salvation
David Bentley Hart
Yale University Press
The book’s title suggests a more positive argument than is found in the text itself. What exercises the author is not so much the gracious and merciful, all-encompassing benevolence of God in saving the whole of creation, but the unreasonable nature of the claim that the eternal source of all things is sufficiently vindictive to create hell, and there to subject to eternal torment those who, while on earth, never had the opportunity to know the divine reality. David Bentley Hart appeals to the rationalistic claim that if this were the case, we are ‘bound to believe something inherently incredible’, that the whole notion is intrinsically distasteful to the ‘properly functioning moral intelligence’, and that ‘rational good sense’ would dismiss belief in a god who was capable of such a thing, even if such a god existed.
That All Shall Be Saved is at times conversational, accessible and autobiographical, and at times complex, specialist, narrowly philosophical and linguistic. Occasionally, the work requires the reader to have prior knowledge of specialist fields.
Avoiding hell has all too often been given greater prominence in the Church than the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s reconciling love in Christ Jesus, making the author’s conclusions particularly attractive. However, the book’s argument revolves too much around what the author considers to be unreasonable and immoral, and how this appeals to the eternal torment of the reprobate. Hart argues that the vast majority of Christians, for much of Christian history, have been grossly mistaken.
The argument would have been more appealing, if not also more convincing, with a more sustained appeal to Scripture’s witness to the comprehensive nature of God’s love and salvation. It would benefit from more detailed attention to what the author claims to be the misinterpretation of biblical texts appealed to in order to confirm eternal punishment, and a fuller exposition of the work of early, apparently-universalist theologians (the author names Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius Ponticus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Diodore of Tarsus and Isaac of Nineveh.)
Robert Pope is Director of Studies in Church History and Doctrine at Westminster College, Cambridge
This article was published in the February 2020 edition of Reform