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Reviews – April 2020

Reviews – April 2020

Gang life

County Lines
Directed by Henry Blake
Certificate 15, 90 minutes
Released 17 April

‘Do you know what an acceptable loss is?’, a voice asks a teenage boy. ‘In your business, you’re the acceptable loss.’ County Lines may be this year’s hardest hitting movie, a British drama about a vulnerable boy groomed into working for county lines drug networks. A tough film to watch that deserves to be widely seen, not least by teenagers, it’s an uncompromising look at a pressing social issue.

An introverted, 14-year-old loner, Tyler (Conrad Khan) gets into fights at school. His low-paid single parent mum, Toni (Ashley Madekwe), works nights and is exhausted struggling to hold their family together. One night, in a local chicken restaurant, Tyler is rescued from the school bully by a stranger, Simon (Harris Dickinson). Over the coming days, Simon loiters in his car near Tyler’s home. The boy’s initial gratefulness leads first to shopping trips for new trainers then to working for Simon taking railway journeys out of town to move drugs.

Far from having Tyler’s best interests at heart, Simon is cynically exploiting the boy who will consequently be exposed to drug dens and run into serious trouble that has grave repercussions. There’s a palpable sense of the child learning the ways of violence as his involvement deepens, and the impact it has on others.

County Lines is the first feature by writer director Henry Blake, who drew on his own experience in recent years as a youth worker, dealing at first hand with children in similar situations. The results are both raw and authentic. The worlds of large comprehensive schools, blocks of flats and fast food takeaways will be familiar to parts of the country. Blake approaches his subject matter-of-factly, eliciting astonishing performances from Khan as the used and abused teenager, from Madekwe as the beset mum and from Dickinson as the inarticulate yet smooth talking dealer. ‘Why do you do it?’, the mum asks the dealer. ‘Because it’s easy,’ comes the chilling reply. Skilfully made, timely and emotionally devastating.

Jeremy Clarke is a film critic


Faith reflections

A Year with Andrew White: 52 weekly meditations
Andrew White
£14.99 (hardback)
ISBN: 9780281079476

In his tenth book, Andrew White has brought together his faith and his experiences in a sequence of meditations. Though there are 52, they do not follow a secular or liturgical calendar. The episodes and reflections are prefaced by Scripture and end with a short prayer.

‘There are times when the darkness seems too great,’ White writes. This is a recurring theme. His ministry, especially as the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’ (from 2005 to 2014), has left him with a unique overview of the Middle East – its faith communities, political subtleties and amazing personalities. His own worsening MS condition often features in the book: ‘What I find very strange is that, even with my physical problems, God has used me in the ministry of healing,’ he says.

All of the meditations are first-person testimonies: some are biblical commentaries, some introduce distinctive personalities and some give insights to moments of tension in his peacemaking ministry. There is some name dropping which is forgivable if occasionally distracting. His other books recount dealings with ‘names’. Here, he offers background scene setting for stories that made headlines, but mostly the people introduced are known only to a few.

There are powerful passages which affirm the true meaning of Sabbath, which deal sensitively with prison ministry (including work on ‘death row’) and which tackle some of the perennial issues of peace (between nationalities and subgroups, between Christian and other faith traditions, etc). All very perceptive and helpful.

White describes himself as ‘a radical extrovert’, saying he needs and is empowered by others. But above all, he needs and finds God as safe space, as strength in a crisis, and as unquenchable love (even for ‘enemies’). A core invitation to hope runs through this book (and White’s other writing) as through a stick of rock. If ever you needed to distinguish hope from optimism, here is how to do it. We are not whistling in the dark (and it can get very dark). We are people of the dawn.

Peter Brain is a retired minister and former United Reformed Church Secretary for Church and Society


Why for Jesus, war is never just

If Jesus Is Lord: Loving our enemies in an age of violence
Ronald J Sider
Baker Academic
ISBN: 9780801036286

Reading this book is a disturbing experience – at least it should be for anyone trying to follow Jesus Christ today. Sider is a prominent evangelical voice from the US on major social issues. Here, he sets out the case for Christian pacifism, doing so in a way that demands our attention and response, even those of us who have not been convinced up to now.

Sider begins by acknowledging the major criticisms of the Christian pacifist position: that sometimes, using lethal force is the only way to prevent vile destruction meted out by tyrants, and that pacifist passivity is a self-indulgent failure to love our neighbours, who are the victims of violence. Sider responds: Christian pacifism is not passive but involves active, nonviolent resistance which confronts and frustrates those who would use violence. If Jesus’ words and actions carry authority for us – if ‘Jesus is Lord’ – then Christians will not kill. Challengingly, Sider makes his case on the basis of a wide-ranging, informed exploration of the Bible, particularly focussing on the person, teaching and actions of Jesus. Sider argues that the current main Christian approach to conflict, regulating the use of force through Just War thinking, proceeds by setting aside the teaching of Jesus concerning enemies and violence. For him, this is unacceptable. Citing historical examples, he questions whether the evidence supports pragmatic arguments that using force has long-term benefits.

Being so focused upon Jesus’ teaching, which comes from one historical setting, Sider’s approach might appear more relevant to living under occupation than being under military attack. Some might question how to apply nonviolent resistance in contemporary situations, such as where drones kill from a distance. How can you resist what you cannot see? In light of this book, Christians earn the right to ask such questions only when we take seriously what it means to listen to Jesus as the basis for faithfully following him in an age of violence.

Trevor Jamison is Minister of St Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, Tyne and Wear


God in literature

Make-Believe: God in 21st-century novels
David Dickinson
The Lutterworth Press
ISBN: 9780718895471

Is ‘make believe’ a simple definition of what all fiction is? Or is it a term for literature that might make you believe in God? Despite predictions that both the novel and religion are dying, thousands of novels are published and bought each year, and many have religious and spiritual themes. Such books may not make us believe in God but they certainly invite us to think about our understanding of God. Dickinson’s Make-Believe attempts to explain why this is, by analysing a variety of books from different genres, written by a range of authors. Some of the authors Dickinson chooses are award winners, others are not so well known.

Dickinson taught secondary school English in Newcastle upon Tyne before training for Methodist ministry. He served as Director of the St Albans Centre for Christian Studies from 2005 to 2013, and is now minister of Trinity Church, Sutton, which is both Methodist and United Reformed. His book is split into chapters that highlight different types of literature, including literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy.

Throughout the book, Dickinson shows how religion is key to the context of the novels he chooses to discuss (at least two from each genre), from the novels’ historical setting to how we understand the seen and unseen elements of fantasy worlds. He provides the reader with material that opens their mind to how literature can deepen understandings of God.

I enjoyed reading Dickinson’s analysis of books I had already read – Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Geraldine Brooks’ The People of the Book and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent – and I will certainly now read some of the less well known books Dickinson mentions. This book will be of interest to past and present literature students, those who love the philosophy of literature, and perhaps church book groups looking for material to stimulate discussion.

Alina Burns is a friend of Brentwood United Reformed Church, Essex


This article was published in the April 2020 edition of Reform

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