Reviews – February 2021
Not such a harmless prank
Directed by Ryan White
Certificate 12, 104 minutes
Released 29 January, online
In 2017, Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia briefly became headline news when Kim Jong-nam, half brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was killed there. The story behind his assassination is truly unsettling, involving as it does two young women who seemingly had no idea what they were getting into.
On one level, this documentary tells the story of the aspirations of two very ordinary women trying to better their lot. On another it provides a fascinating insight into an aspect of southeast Asian culture barely known in the west. On another still, it serves as a warning of what totalitarian states can be capable of in their pursuit of despotic ends.
The two women are immigrants from Indonesia and Vietnam respectively, who’ve come to Malaysia to pursue what they have been duped into believing are honest and lucrative work opportunities. These jobs relate to video prank culture, wherein paid participants stage practical joke events for the purpose of generating viral internet video.
For instance, a woman might appear behind a male ‘victim’ in public, cover his eyes and ask: ‘Guess who?’ They might even have harmless paint, cosmetics or baby oil on their hands to make the incident funnier for the camera. Upfront, it appears well paid. However, when unbeknown to you, your video producers are actually North Korean agents, your victim the exiled brother of a ruthless dictator and the baby oil on your hands the deadly VX nerve agent which kills in about an hour, the job looks rather different.
The two women soon find themselves imprisoned by the Malaysian justice system, trial pending, with the likelihood of the death penalty hanging over them. The film tells a fascinating story of vulnerable immigrants out of their depth, lawyers trying to get them out of the trap into which they’ve unwittingly walked and journalists trying to uncover the truth and inform the world about what is going on.
It’s a frightening example of the horrors powerful regimes can inflict on vulnerable people. It’s also an inspiring story of how, despite dire circumstances, others can both help and fight for those same vulnerable people.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic. His work is available at jeremycprocessing.com
How Christians tackle climate crisis
God is Green: Christianity and the environment
Darton, Longman and Todd
In this revised edition, 30 years after the original, Ian Bradley aims to provide a short, non-specialist introduction to the Christian response to the environmental crisis. He argues that ‘the Christian faith is intrinsically green’, and supports this view with strong biblical exegesis and theological insight. The book makes a compelling case for Christians to engage in a range of actions to help restore our damaged planet.
In his foreword, the hymnwriter John Bell reminds the reader that ‘God so loved the cosmos’, not specifically humans. This makes an early connection with the book’s underlying theme that anthropocentrism is humanity’s over-riding sin. Bradley’s introduction provides a useful overview of recent Christian thinking about creation, supporting his case for recovering a lost green understanding of Christianity, and thereby offering hope to the world.
Chapter one provides an excellent exploration of key biblical passages, suitably contextualising ‘dominion’ verses within a broader biblical understanding, and leading to a renewed respect for, and joy in, creation. The second chapter redresses a desacralised view of nature, before turning, in chapter three, to the Fall and the intertwined destinies of nature and humanity. This leads to an exposition of the cosmic Christ, then a critique of his own anthropocentrism in the 1990 edition. The postscript contains a range of ideas for ‘greening’ churches, including some good hymn recommendations. Throughout, Bradley deftly weaves together a range of sources, including Celtic Christianity, eastern Orthodoxy, contemporary science and poetry.
In this edition, Bradley has gone beyond his stated goal of providing an introduction – he has delivered an experience of doing eco theology, rather than simply reading about it. This is an essential book for anyone interested in Christianity and the environment.
Peter Skerratt is a member of St Andrew’s United Reformed Church, Ealing
The Wild Silence
Michael Joseph (Penguin)
I have been a Christian all my life. As a young child, one day I lay on my back, in the garden of our suburban home, and encountered an indelible sense that the earth I lay upon, the birds and squirrels in the trees, the formations of clouds above, the family and home just a few feet away, and me, lying there, were profoundly and purposefully connected, and held within what I have always known as ‘God’. It was with this background that I read Raynor Winn’s successor to her well-received book, The Salt Path. In The Wild Silence, which the author would in no way describe as Christian, I nevertheless encountered deep, familiar echoes of my childhood, formative experience.
Having lost their home and livelihood, and subsequently walking more than 600 miles around the southwest coast of England, the author and her terminally ill husband, Moth, find a temporary roost in Cornwall. Despite now having a roof over their heads, Moth’s illness, which had been in remission on their arduous trek, becomes more debilitating. Winn is similarly weighed down by an inescapable sense of disconnectedness. What follows is a tale of serendipitous opportunities, how nature can make us more human and truly alive, the role of ‘thin places’, real community, a lot of hard graft, and a gradual relearning how to trust other people.
As I read this, and Winn’s previous book, it felt like I was meeting up with someone who has travelled on a very different path to my own but with whom I was sharing common ground of the sort that ‘green’ Christians, Forest Church enthusiasts and others would readily recognise. Maybe this book might lead church folk away from sterile matters of fine doctrinal tuning and into a more refreshing ‘new ecumenism’, in which the Creator’s works, rather than Church politics, are more important!
Ian Fosten is Co-editor of the United Reformed Church Prayer Handbook and Book Reviews Editor for Reform
Traidcraft: Inspiring a fair trade revolution
Who better to write a history of the first 40 years of Traidcraft than someone whose working life has been intertwined with it from almost the beginning? Joe Osman’s experience enables him to give an inside view in detail.
The book begins with an account of Traidcraft’s formative years; the most recent history, from 2010 to 2019, is left until near the end. Traidcraft almost ceased trading in 2018, much to the dismay of those involved in selling its goods through churches and other fair trade outlets.
Separate chapters focus on some of the core commodities that have been the backbone of Traidcraft’s sales since the jute hanging baskets for which it was renowned in the early days. Tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa/chocolate and palm oil are discussed in depth. The book also describes Traidcraft’s relationships with supermarkets, and considers whether Traidcraft is a Christian organisation.
By the end of the book, your head will be full of acronyms and names connected to the fair trade movement. There is a very useful timeline of the most important dates and events of Traidcraft’s 40-year history.
The book is a very informative read for those involved in any way with the fair trade movement and those keen to know more. It shows how far, in difficult circumstances, Traidcraft has come.
In much the same way as foodbanks, although on a global rather than a local level, we should wish there wasn’t a need for bodies like Traidcraft. However, in an imperfect world, they need our support.
Linda Hounsome is a Traidcraft seller and member of Norwich Area United Reformed Church, Norfolk. See also ‘Fair enough?’, an interview with Joe Osman, Reform, October
What God might think of ageing
Finishing Well: A God’s-eye view of ageing
Ian Knox’s latest book is written in an attractive style, with a sharp biblical lens and a wide range of scholarly and literary references. ‘What is God’s attitude to our ageing?’ is the author’s root question.
As people of faith, we trust we are already in God’s hands and will never escape his eye. Knox establishes this principle early, drawing on a wide-ranging familiarity with Scripture. He challenges contemporary ageist attitudes: ‘Society must restore to the old their sense of their value as human beings.’
Knox draws upon the Scriptures as he seeks to build up our confidence. For example, he turns to Isaiah 46:4 (‘Even to your old age and growing hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you’) and prompts us to respond: ‘O God, make it true for me.’ At retirement, Knox reminds us to make necessary adjustments to God’s presence in our lives. God still has a purpose for us, so, how are we to make the best use of his gifts? ‘There is no point in our lives at which God draws a line and says: “That’s it. You’ve no need to be saying your prayers any more.”’ Knox also draws from a wide variety of pastoral experience, his own and his colleagues’, in the UK and abroad.
Two chapters particularly moved me: ‘Feel the fog’ (chapter 11) and ‘The long goodbye’ (chapter 12). In ‘Feel the fog’, Knox describes the experiences of friends facing their own deaths, and coping with the loss of those they loved. ‘The long goodbye’ discusses how we can age with God, and how to help those who have dementia to do this.
For some readers, the use of Scripture may be insufficiently critical but I commend this book both for individuals and for those who care – or want to care – for the elderly. The author has thoroughly researched his book and his bibliography is excellent. Finishing Well could galvanise churches to develop their ministry to, and with, the elderly.
Peter C Jupp is a United Reformed Church minister and honorary divinity fellow for the University of Edinburgh
These reviews were published in the February 2021 edition of Reform