Reviews – July/August 2020
The new normal?
Fanny Lye Deliver’d
Directed by Thomas Clay
Certificate 18, 110 minutes
Released digitally on 26 June
Shropshire, 1657. The aftermath of the English Civil War and a time when ideas about politics, relationships, religion and society are up for grabs. Fanny (Maxine Peake) is the young wife of Captain John Lye (Charles Dance) who fought under Cromwell and has been given a farmhouse by way of thanks. The puritan couple have a son, Arthur, who is too young to have lived through the war. The God-fearing and articulate John takes the family to chapel weekly (we never see them there, just going and returning) and keeps his son and, particularly, his wife in order using a mixture of Scripture reading, prayer and corporal punishment.
Into this domestic arena comes a young couple: Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds) and Thomas Ashbury (Freddie Fox), naked as Adam and Eve, having apparently been robbed of everything they own. While the freethinking Thomas initially bonds with John, having fought on the same side in the war, the two men’s ideas are a long way apart, making conflict between them inevitable.
Put upon in the service of her husband’s and son’s needs, Fanny is slowly drawn to the couple, who act more like two equals than one lording it over the other. She is shocked when Rebecca reveals to her privately that the couple are not married. Thomas preaches an attractive-sounding gospel of freedom which boils down to sexual licentiousness. Is that a better way to live than Fanny’s subjugation to her severe husband?
Meanwhile, the appearance of a local high sheriff in pursuit of this ‘heretic and his harlot’ will change the lives of the family and the couple at the farmhouse forever.
A terrible, institutionalised violence lurks amid the English countryside’s peaceful facade. The tale delivers Fanny to a new normal in which, Rebecca’s closing voiceover informs us, she will become a travelling Quaker preacher. If the characters are fictional inventions, the issues with which Fanny grapples are devastatingly real. Some of the ideas here may be unorthodox to say the least but they provide considerable food for thought.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
What trauma reveals about Joseph
Joseph: A story of resilience
At a time when it’s sometimes quite hard to concentrate, I found this book gripping and fascinating. It’s an unusual kind of book, in that it crosses boundaries and mixes categories, but that makes it all the more interesting.
Joseph is a wonderful exposition of the biblical story, and would be worth reading for this alone. It is clearly rooted in expert scholarship and takes us deep and close into the text, but not in an academic footnote kind of way. The writing is so engaging that readers can easily catch the author’s own delight in discovering new connections and insights.
This is also a study of a biblical story through a lens of the experience of trauma – an experience we might know as individual people and one that we are, in a sense, exploring together right now. Meg Warner invites us to see the story of Joseph (and indeed the wider biblical story of Israel) as one of dealing with intense trauma and recovery. Drawing from her own time as part of a theological project on trauma, as well as from her own life experience, she opens up the story of Joseph, and of all our lives, in a new way. Warner reveals some of the different ways we all react to trauma (for example, we sometimes work out trauma by repeating it) but she also reveals ways to build a healthy resilience.
It’s rare to find a book that combines biblical studies and personal reflection so boldly, and in which the author ‘breaks the wall’ and asks the reader: ‘So, what do you think?’ It’s easy to ask such questions but in Joseph we are also given resources and encouragement to reflect for ourselves.
This is an empowering book and an enlightening one. It would be a good choice for a church book group and provides another opportunity to see for ourselves something more of the wisdom and wonder of the Bible. It’s good to know that Warner is on the staff of Northern College, Manchester, one of the United Reformed Church’s own resource centres for learning!
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset
Franciscan Footprints: Following Christ
in the ways of Francis and Clare
Bible Reading Fellowship
This book charts the development and flourishing of the Franciscan tradition, from the 13th-century lives of Francis and Clare of Assisi to the modern-day Anglican Franciscan community. Employing an unusual but effective style, Helen Julian focuses on individuals who have embodied the teachings of Francis and Clare throughout the centuries, and those who have lived out lives devoted to Christ within the Franciscan tradition. These individuals are numerous and diverse. Through biographies of each of their lives, Julian seeks to illuminate the ways in which we too can live Christ-centric lives with the devotion and humility that the first founders modelled.
Richly researched, Franciscan Footprints contains dozens of brief biographies, grouped by the subjects’ defining characteristics, be that writers or mystics, martyrs or preachers. The great strength of this structure is that it allows the reader to view the tradition from many angles, rather than simply as a timeline of significant members. Nonetheless, Julian also manages to cover the range of eras and cultures that the Franciscan tradition has spanned, taking us to medieval Italy, Reformation Europe, the seminaries of 20th-century China, among Peruvian guerrilla organisations, and to the Twin Towers on 9/11.
In many ways, Franciscan Footprints is a who’s who of the Franciscan tradition, although the brevity of each biography means that it only provides introductory information about each person. Reflective questions at the end of each chapter encourage the reader to consider how these disciples’ lives can inform and inspire their own. The common themes of service to others, humble lives, and devotion to God can provide inspiration for us all, regardless of our own religious tradition. The 17th century ‘flying friar’, however, may be best read as a good story about levitation rather than inspiration for our own preaching!
Diana Paulding is an Old Testament graduate based in Norfolk
Men and women, and Adam and Eve
Equality is Biblical
Penelope Wilcock, a Church of England vicar, tells the story, in Equality is Biblical, of writing for a series of daily Bible-reading notes in which she said that the Bible depicts disparity between the sexes as a result of the fall, healed in the cross of Christ. The publisher wouldn’t let her say that, she and they parted company, good riddance to them. Or that was my conclusion from the story, but Wilcock’s was to write this book, and make the same argument, at slightly greater length, that she was not allowed to make in the notes. It should be noted that while the title may sound broader, the book is specifically about sexual equality and does not touch on race, ability or any other areas of equality.
It is a brief book, taking the reader through the opening chapters of Genesis dealing with creation and fall, through the way the story has been misused by the Church to restrict the role of women, and through the affirming attitude of Jesus and Paul. The author also reflects on questions of the authority of Scripture and tradition.
Though it could possibly be read in one sitting, Wilcock asks the reader not to do so, but to stop and reflect personally on the questions raised in each chapter, and she provides questions to facilitate that.
My heart dropped slightly when I first saw Equality is Biblical. I thought: How can it be necessary in 2020 to be still making this case? Surely we all get the theory by now, and should be focussing our efforts on making the Church better reflect it in practice?
In reality, Wilcock’s story demonstrates that there are still corners of the Protestant Churches where equality demanded by Genesis 1 is not even theory, let alone practice. So long as that’s the case, books like Equality is Biblical will still be needed, and I suppose we also need to keep making the case in each generation, so that it does not get forgotten. That does not, however, let those of us who have grasped the theory off the hook of the making it true in practice.
Stephen Tomkins is Editor of Reform
An introduction to Christian activism
12 Rules for Christian Activists: A toolkit for massive change
This book’s title sounded exciting and interesting for people, like us, who are keen to change the world we find ourselves living in (although coronavirus seems to be doing that too). The book was not quite what we were expecting but it contains some great chapters looking at different ways in which Christian activists have been involved in action, at different levels, to try and change unjust situations.
The book’s discussion about dignity, involving the whole community and not thinking of yourself as being a saviour, was good. A line from that section is well worth repeating: ‘Thinking we have the answers and believing we are the best people to offer advice or take action is such a great temptation to us activists.’
Ellen Louden’s book collates a collection of writings from many different people. A better title, or subtitle, may have been: ‘An Introductory Reader in Christian Activism’. It proved difficult at times to identify who had said what, but the comments were from true life, which was something the author was keen for the reader to note.
The book list and references at the end were excellent and provide a lot more to think about. They enable you to pick up the threads of topics that might personally interest you. We would have welcomed a more inspirational introduction, to explain why it is important to be active in social justice issues – it’s not an optional route for a Christian, as far as we believe; this would have better set the scene for what followed. Hopefully the lack of this will not put people off checking out a helpful collection of articles and commentaries.
Mark Meatcher and Melanie Smith are Ministers of a group of United Reformed churches around Enfield, north London
These reviews were published in the July/August 2020 edition of Reform