Reviews – September 2020
A plea for honesty
Yes, God, Yes
Directed by Karen Maine
Certificate 15, 77 minutes
Released digitally on 17 August
Despite its provocative title suggesting a racy sex comedy about religion, this is actually a gentle independent film exploring the everyday inadequacies of American teenagers growing up within a conservative Catholic tradition. Essential life issues, including sex, truth telling, lying and religion, come up.
There’s a rumour going round Alice’s Catholic high school that she (Natalie Dyer) has been ‘salad tossing’. Having no idea what this means, she spends much of the film trying to find out. Impressed that Nina (Alisha Boe) has been on a four-day camp and seems to have her life together, Alice signs up.
The camp takes place at a Catholic retreat centre staffed by a nun and Father Murphy (Timothy Simons). Alice is immediately attracted to Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), the camp leader and school football team captain. When Nina asks Alice to surrender her watch and mobile phone ‘because you’re on Jesus’ time’, Alice keeps her phone hidden to play games on it.
Father Murphy and the camp leaders translate everything they say into Godspeak, and consequently many sessions and conversations possess a strange air of unreality. Presented with a list, several pages long, of phrases describing feelings they might have experienced, Alice circles ‘turned on’, immediately regrets it, then finds that her pencil eraser won’t work. The papers on which everyone has written their name are collected and sealed in an envelope. Her fears will later prove well founded.
Over the weekend, Alice observes forbidden sexual activity at the camp. Escaping an evening of particularly odious chorus singing she enters a bar where, in an extraordinary change of pace to the film, an older woman (Susan Blackwell) tells her how as a teenager she thought she was going to hell for practically everything she did and advises Alice to look at college places on the coast. Naive Alice is completely unaware where she is.
Alice later delivers the required homily at the camp as an impassioned plea for honesty, something Jesus requires, rather than the covering up of behaviour she’s observed. The writer/director Karen Maine completely understands the inside of her heroine’s head and the piece is perfectly judged.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic. His new website is jeremycprocessing.com
Discover the real John the Baptist
John the Baptist: A biography
There are lots of books about John the Baptist, but many are part of a sceptical quest for the so-called ‘historical’ John – much like the quest for the historical Jesus. These books severely diminish John, leaving him with little to say to us today. Charles Croll has not written such a book. His is the result of one United Reformed Church minister’s decades-long search to uncover the real John the Baptist, the John whose message and life can still speak in the 21st century.
Croll asks questions that academics often miss: why did Jesus think this desert preacher was among the greatest people who have ever lived? Why did John think that the best way to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ was to immerse people in the Jordan? How can a better understanding of John’s life and teaching help us draw closer to God today? Croll answers these questions, and more, by delving deeply into Scripture, as well as extra-biblical sources, church traditions, holy sites and religious art (photos are scattered helpfully throughout the pages). There are also several spiritual exercises to help the reader enter into the Gospel narratives. This book is not just about knowing more of John but encountering his message afresh.
The book is rigorous and well researched, yet still accessible and easy to read. There are regular snippets of New Testament Greek which some may find offputting, but they are explained clearly and concisely and are a part of the search to uncover what John actually said.
It’s a book that you sense has not been written in haste, but only after many years of careful study, reflection and meditation, a book written from both the head and the heart. I was struck by fresh insights into repentance, baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit. More significantly though, I felt the book bring John the Baptist to life and leave me with a much clearer understanding of John’s life and message. If Croll’s questions are ones you’d like to explore, this is a great place to start.
Matt Stone is Minister of Herringthorpe United Reformed Church, Rotherham, South Yorkshire
How to walk with God
The Way Under Our Feet: A spirituality of walking
Graham B Usher
Publishing a book about walking during lockdown might seem poorly timed, but this book does in fact speak directly to a world where the simple act of a daily walk became a blessing for many. It could be just the guide you need to discover an even deeper appreciation of what it means to walk. The author, the Bishop of Norwich, was previously an ecologist. He combines the richness of these perspectives, revealing possibilities of how we can learn to walk in more incarnational ways.
Usher proves to be an inspiring companion, drawing on the deep spirituality of walking found in Scripture. With the help of poetry and quotes from secular writers, such as Robert Macfarlane, each chapter draws out the diverse ways in which the simple act of walking allows us to express our humanity. He reveals the lives and sore feet of refugees and protest marchers, ordinary folk following the stations of the cross, wandering monks, mountain hikers and pilgrims. An introduction to the physics of walking contrasts with intriguing hints of the liminal places our feet can take us. With several chapters still to read, I noticed my daily lockdown stroll becoming more contemplative: I listened to my feet, and had slower friendly encounters along quieter paths.
As you savour new freedoms post lockdown, this book could be a useful guide for learning how to walk in different ways. The unfolding chapters can speak to all who walk, from daily dog walkers to Camino pilgrims and eager mountain hikers. Usher encourages readers to feel creation beneath their feet, waking them up to the possibility that even a mundane stroll to the local shop can be made in the company of the three-mile-an-hour God.
Craig Stangroom is an outdoor enthusiast and GP living in Cumbria
Support for ministry
A Handbook of Christian Ministry for Lay and Ordained Christians
I was glad to review John Pritchard’s Handbook as I have valued his work on prayer. This book is clearly written and with a light touch that makes it accessible. Pritchard makes suggestions without claiming to have the answers, though he’s clearly sharing years of experience. He delves into the foundations of our shared call to ministry and reminds us of the importance of worship, preaching, prayer and paying attention to older and younger folk – to name two examples.
I can imagine this book as a useful adjunct for elderships exploring Andrew Roberts’ ‘Holy Habits’, and for all those who need to grow their confidence together and explore the life and ministry of their local churches.
Would I recommend it? I wouldn’t, because of the lack of both inclusivity and diversity. When I reached the section on self-care, I nearly wept to read affirmation of ministers who loved old cars, played Henry VIII, turned the lathe and had a passion for railways but nothing about the bakers, knitters, or homemakers.
The majority of quotations are from white, western, male academics/churchmen. God is ‘him/herself’. It is noted that women predominate as church members, but what of the distinctive contribution of women, people of all ethnicities, or those whose sexuality or gender has been reviled – those who have had to fight for their place in the life and leadership of churches? There is nothing that celebrates their distinctive ministry, nor that supports it. In the end-of-section reading recommendations, of 194 items, 20 are by women (five of those co-authored with men) and 124 items are by men alone. Black and minority ethnic contributions are almost non-existent. I enjoyed much of this Handbook but was disappointed at the limited part of the Church it touched.
Rosalind Selby is Principal of Northern College, Manchester
On godly women
With Courage and Compassion: Women and the ecumenical movement
$29 (£19.99 via Amazon and Waterstones)
Dr Aruna Gnanadason has directed multiple programmes for the World Council of Churches, and was part of the team behind its Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women (from 1988 to 1998). Her experience shapes this book, which aims to highlight the important contributions women have made in the ecumenical movement. This is surely a welcome volume in a still-male-dominated sphere.
Gnanadason’s passion comes across powerfully. Her first chapter tracks the work of women in occupied Palestine, women journeying against South African apartheid, those fighting against sexual violence in Congo and women protecting indigenous earth relations in India. She traces how women have pushed for equal involvement in the WCC, right from the 1948 inauguration. She goes on to highlight the contribution of hospitality from women, the outcomes of their leadership, conversations around female ordination, and the vulnerability of women in the world and in the Church. The final chapter highlights the important support network between women in ecumenism.
I was impacted by the reality of women fighting against the violence of patriarchy, which, through sexual discrimination, infiltrates the economic, political and social systems, and is also resident in the Church. Gnanadason’s sympathetic treatment of the rape of a young woman at a WCC conference, and reaction to this, was telling of continued multifaceted violence towards women.
The book is not chronological, which unfortunately meant that sections were repeated and sometimes lacked clarity. Avoiding usual academic writing styles, Gnanadason quotes extensively from influential female figures in the WCC. This enables the reader to experience a multitude of marginalised voices.
By focusing on WCC-led programmes, referencing acknowledged female WCC leaders, and emphasising woman-to-woman solidarity over difference, this book does not reflect the multiplicity and diversity of women’s voices in ecumenism at large. Grassroots ecumenism is lost in this reflection. Nevertheless, this short book proves that women have made measurable contributions to the WCC, in all its realms, and their gifts deserve recognition.
Victoria Turner is a PhD candidate at New College, Edinburgh
These reviews were published in the September 2020 edition of Reform