Reviews – November 2020
Subdue the forest
Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart
Certificate PG, 100 minutes
Released 30 October, then on Apple TV
from 13 December
The tree cutters attempting to clear the forest around the walled town of Kilkenny, Ireland, live in fear of wolves. They also believe in wolfwalkers – human by day, wolf by night – who appear in daylight to call off wolf attacks on humans. Ireland is under English rule, administered by the God-fearing Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) through his northern English officer Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), charged with clearing the forest of wolves. Bill’s young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) dreams of slaying wolves with her crossbow. However, children are barred from leaving the city.
This prohibition doesn’t prevent Robyn from sneaking out to the forest, however, where her wolf hunting goes disastrously wrong and she is brought home by her furious but kindly father. Unable to keep away from the forest, she runs into the feral girl Mehb (Eva Whittaker), a wolfwalker, in an encounter that will have considerable consequences for the Goodfellowes.
The Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon was behind both of Moore’s earlier hand-drawn features based on Irish mythology, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, as well as The Breadwinner (see Reform, June 2018), a study of a young girl’s life in Kabul, Afghanistan under the Taliban. If anything, Wolfwalkers is a step up from those already impressive projects, a real feast for the eyes in terms of the design of its characters, backgrounds and pictorial storytelling.
The script focuses largely on the rivalry-turned-friendship of the girls but also explores the stern but gentle father and his ruthless master. The Lord Protector is driven by that deficient brand of theology that believes that subduing the earth means you can destroy large chunks of nature in the cause of progress. Goodfellowe has bought into the idea that serving authority is in everyone’s interests and this subservience, which his daughter rejects, is slowly stifling his humanity.
Although the film never directly references Catholicism, the image of Mebh and her wolfwalker mother bring to mind the Madonna and Child. While ostensibly a children’s picture, this animated gem has a lot going on beneath its visually breathtaking surface.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic. His work is available at jeremycprocessing.com
Personal Quaker histories
Passion and Partings: The dying sayings of early Quakers
Jane Mace was inspired to write her latest book after discovering a dusty volume in her local Area Quaker Meeting archives. Piety Promoted was published in 1703 and contained some 150 short biographies of Quakers, beside their ‘dying sayings’. Mace’s book sets about reflecting on and decoding this poignant record, and provides welcome access to this otherwise elusive text.
Thanks to Mace’s capable editorial commentary, the testimonies in the book become endearing, relatable and moving in turn. We meet brave Elizabeth Braithwaite, who died at 17 while imprisoned for not attending church; Christopher Bacon, reformed after first going to Meeting only to ‘scoff and deride’; and George Fox, who said: ‘Tho’ I am weak in body, yet the power of the Lord is over all.’
Mace’s selection of sayings is well judged, avoiding repetition of sentiment and allowing for thematic development. The inclusion of a reflective moment after each category of excerpts – which Mace likens to a small Quaker Meeting – effectively encourages personal contemplation. Her style is helpful, incorporating both scholarship and emotion. Anecdotes and personal reflection allow the book to become something more and better than a historically-focussed reader’s guide, introducing us to friends as well as Friends. The book’s explanations of Quaker persecution and rebellion help provide historical context, and are likely valuable to those not well-versed in Quaker history.
As a younger Quaker, I was grateful for the chance this book offered me to engage with the origins of my faith in a concrete way. It is clear that Mace felt called to produce this work; as such, it is beautifully considered and has the power to provoke deep reflection.
Grace Spencer attends Nailsworth Quaker Meeting, Gloucestershire
Engineer’s guide to Christianity
Building Bridges Not Walls An engineer’s guide to theology
At 28, Peter Bold left his career as a railway research engineer and trained for ordination in the Church of England. Studying academic theology compelled him to examine a faith that had been born and nurtured in childhood. Approaching theology as an engineer helped him through, and he offers this guide to others in the spirit of ‘someone who has been this way before’.
Bold begins with a short chapter on basic psychology: how we learn, why faith issues can be so emotive, why walls go up between Christians, and between Christians other faith traditions. He explores sources of theology, and how he adapted what he learned when training for ordination into something approaching a ‘scientific method’. He lays out some foundations for faith and examines evidence for God’s existence and the reliability of Christian scriptures. He then sketches answers to some ‘why’ questions of Christian faith, before exploring divisive issues in the Church. The book concludes with a brief look at faith in action, glancing at issues including global warming and politics.
This book is ambitious in scope and intent. It lays ground well, and uses the author’s ‘scientific method’ to define boundaries between historic fact, faith and doubt, in an accessible way.
His personal journey is used to good effect. Bold writes with humility and courage about issues where he has changed position. The writing style is concise and the arguments are mostly easy to follow. There are plenty of quotations from Scripture and illustrations from engineering, which occasionally interrupt the flow.
In his exploration of divisive issues, the author does not duck the difficulties. The final chapters left me feeling a bit short changed – as if the author had constructed strong foundations but did not quite have the budget to complete the bridge. This book would be a useful companion for Christians revisiting the foundations of their faith. It may be helpful for those studying academic theology for the first time.
Jonathan Cain is Vicar of St James’ Church, Woodside, Leeds, and a former engineer
Priest’s mental health journey
Broken by Fear, Anchored in Hope: Faithfulness in an age of anxiety
Rob Merchant is an Anglican minister and director of St Mellitus College, Chelmsford. What we have in this book is a very personal account of the author’s life as he lives with a mental health condition, and of how his faith has challenged and comforted him.
Disarmingly honest, Rob’s use of Scripture throughout the book, especially the Psalms, challenges all of us to reflect on how we live out our faith day by day. This is a timely publication: we are hearing of so many people struggling with their mental health because of Covid-19.
It is often far easier to talk in abstract ways about faith and Scripture, and to apply both of these to others, rather than to apply them to our own lives. Merchant does not allow us this wriggle room, as, using his personal experiences, he takes us on a journey. Using the chapter headings of fear, shame, anger, despair, surrender, forgiveness, faith, hope and love, the author helps us to have a better understanding of those who face mental health battles. He also helps us to learn how to love ourselves for who we are.
This will prove a useful book for those who struggle to be at peace with and love themselves. It will help the rest of us to have an insight and fuller understanding of those who fight mental health issues. In turn, this should lead to the offering of a better and more compassionate pastoral response.
Peter Ball is Director of Church Resource Development for Westminster College, Cambridge
How Church can change
Rewilding the Church
Saint Andrew Press
Steve Aisthorpe’s book is the natural sequel to his well-researched The Invisible Church (Saint Andrew Press, 2016), which explored how many church leavers, once freed from bureaucracy and maintenance, experienced deepened and more focussed faith. In this new book, Aisthorpe takes the current concept of rewilding, from ecology, as a useful tool for church renewal.
He applies three rewilding processes to Church as it is frequently experienced: firstly, removal – of ‘invasive species, those that have no legitimate place in an ecosystem and hinder its healthy development’. He says: ‘What began as a Spirit-empowered movement has become hindered by excessively complex and risk-averse institutions.’ Then, reintroduction – of key species that have been lost. ‘The Christian way has been domesticated and it is time to rediscover the adventure of faith,’ Aisthorpe argues. Third is ‘daylighting’ – the ‘reopening of rivers to the sky, peeling back their man-made covers and reuniting rivers with life above and around.’ Rewilding reminds us of Jesus’ instruction to ‘Look! See! Open your eyes! Observe what is going on around you.’ Or, as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, to ‘find out what God is doing and join in.’
Aisthorpe’s prescient use of ecological case studies highlights the intimate and inextricable relationship between the Church’s commitment to proclaim the Good News and safeguard the integrity of creation. Observing the personality types of those rarely seen in church, the book identifies key groups missing from our congregations. It makes interesting reading for people who have wondered why they do not seem to fit comfortably in mainstream churches.
If we pray that the Church post Covid-19 will not return to its pre-lockdown ‘norm’, Aisthorpe offers glimpses of what that might be, and how it may happen. The Church needs to be brave enough to root out practices that hinder, imprisoning bureaucracy and risk-aversion, and rely instead on its rootedness in Christ, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, deep love for one another and concern for those its members encounter in their daily lives.
Don Nichols is a retired United Reformed Church minister based in the Peak District
These reviews were published in the November 2020 edition of Reform