Reviews – June 2021
A girl in both ports
Directed by Aleem Khan
Certificate 12a, 89 minutes
Released in cinemas 4 June
The South Coast. Mary (Joanna Scanlan) is married to Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia), a ferry captain who regularly travels to France and back in the course of work. They fell in love as teenagers. She is white British, he is south Asian. She has converted to Islam, his religion, and integrated into his Urdu-speaking family, a language she has herself learned.
One day he comes home from work, and dies while she’s making him a cup of tea. Going through his effects, she checks his mobile phone, and discovers messages from another woman. She goes over to France to confront Geneviève (Natalie Richard), who mistakes her for the agency cleaner helping clear the house before Geneviève moves in a few days. Rather than revealing her identity, Mary plays along.
It turns out Geneviève’s family have their own secrets, and Mary starts to hear what Geneviève thinks she knows about Ahmed’s other wife in England.
After Love is impressive on many levels. The writer-director Aleem Khan presents Mary’s practice of her religious faith matter-of-factly and without judgment, adopting a similar approach to the complex personal lives and relationships of the French family. Once Mary has failed to reveal her identity to Geneviève as she intended, a line is crossed and her time in the latter’s house under false pretences enters a murky moral area.
Mary is compellingly portrayed by Scanlan as someone for whom faith is more help than hindrance in getting her through all this. Although the local imam talks to the family at Ahmed’s wake in their home, we never see Mary at the local mosque or in the Muslim community, as if it were limited to her husband’s extended family – perhaps simplifying the story at the expense of its credibility. Mary’s visits to her husband’s grave in an English graveyard bring nominal Christianity into the mix too.
I was reminded of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless: A sexual reformation, where she talks about people who, for whatever reason, find themselves outside the conventional marriage model. Looking beyond those boundaries here, Khan commendably avoids pat answers.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic. His work is available at jeremycprocessing.com
Columba: Politician, penitent and pilgrim, 521-2021
Wild Goose Publications, 2021 (revised edition)
Originally published in 1997 to mark the 1,400th anniversary of Columba’s death, this revised edition of Columba was commissioned by the Iona Community to celebrate the 1,500th anniversary of his birth in 2021.
Uncertainties about the facts of Columba’s life are tackled head on by Ian Bradley, beginning with the different theories about Columba’s journey in 563 from Ireland to Scotland. A picture of Columba’s complex character is built up, his life in apparent tension between withdrawal from the world (contemplation, scholarship, seclusion), and active engagement in the world (managing a busy monastery, negotiating with kings). Bradley then explores the historical context for Columba’s activities as ‘kingmaker and church-planter’.
Bradley gleans insights into different aspects of Columba’s ‘sanctity’ from the sometimes dubious source material, in particular Columba’s love of the Psalms, his pastoral skills, and his writing. Several interesting quotations from poems attributed to Columba are included. Bradley develops this into a broader exploration of Columban Christianity: theologically orthodox and characterised by a monastic organisational structure, rather than a diocesan one. He lists nine Ps illustrating Columba’s theological world: prayer, psalms, poetry, praise, protection, presence, penitence, provisionality, pilgrimage.
Columba’s later reputation and Iona’s changing use are covered, including partisan wrangling to co-opt Columba to different factions. Today’s ecumenical spirituality of ‘politics, penitence and pilgrimage’ represented by the Iona Community is revisited in the epilogue.
Columba is written for non-specialists, providing a good summary of the range of writing about the saint. Bradley handles the historiographical issues graciously, respecting different sources while learning from them cautiously. This short book will appeal to anyone with an interest in early medieval church history, and particularly to those engaged with the Iona Community.
Peter Skerratt is a member of St Andrew’s United Reformed Church, Ealing, London
Jesus, fact and fiction
Jesus the Troublemaker
Set during the last eight days of Jesus’ life and highlighting his Jewish roots and culture, this was a refreshing read for me. Habitually, we interpret events through the lens of Church tradition, but here the author strips much of this away, offering his readers something different – a Judaist, non-devotional, historical novel leading us through the key events of Palm Sunday, the last supper, Christ’s passion and beyond. Exercising our imagination, as well as educating us with extensive use of Jewish names, words and phrases, it takes a few chapters to get used to Hebrew/Aramaic names for people, places and events and the author is keen to point out when he is making a supposition.
There are plenty of imaginary conversations between our Lord and his ‘trainees’. The fictional dialogue is somewhat rough in places, but it certainly fits in with Roland’s resolve to remind us that Jesus was first and foremost a Jew, and not a Christian. Additionally, he explains his methodology and thinking, concluding each chapter with thorough notes, biblical references and additional information. I appreciated this more than the fictional conversations of each section, as here it stays close to the actual events, presenting authentic Gospel-based theology from the detailed accounts of the last week of Jesus’ life. This appeals to someone who likes to ‘search the scriptures’.
For the Christian pilgrim walking the way, there is value in engaging the imagination. Easter and Christmas are always popular times for ministers to use fictitious scripts in worship, often with congregational participation. This book definitely accomplishes its primary purpose of visualising what Jesus would have been like if we had met him.
Seeing Jesus as ‘troublemaker’ is essential to understanding his identity, and Roland succeeds in entwining imagination with fact – the fact that Jesus, because of his willingness to confront injustice and speak out against God’s covenant people, was a holy agitator causing trouble through love and compassion.
Tim Mullins is Minister of Tettenhall Wood and St Columba’s United Reformed Churches
Structures of abuse
Sex, Power, Control: Responding to abuse in the institutional Church
The Lutterworth Press
Fiona Gardner was the diocese of Bath and Wells’s first safeguarding advisor. Before this, she worked as a psychoanalytical psychotherapist. This training shapes the book which reflects on sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse in the Church of England.
Gardner’s BBC documentary Exposed: The Church’s darkest secret covered the abuses committed by Peter Ball and the efforts of the Church to conceal wrongdoing. She does not here recount what she explored in the documentary, but instead details the scope of her discoveries in order to discern patterns. She interlaces chapters of historical data and specific case studies with chapters based on psychoanalytical theory to try and understand the mind of the abuser, the path that leads to abuse, and the Church’s protection of the abuser.
The connection Gardner makes between spirituality – how charisma can entice people in and persuade them to commit themselves to authority in a hierarchal system – is relevant for all Christian contexts. Even if the United Reformed Church does not have episcopacy, we still have a hierarchy, and relations between ordained and lay, Moderators and youth, Church House staff and CRCWs are all structured around trust and respect. This structure can be useful, but Gardner shows how it can be detrimental when the institution of the Church is elevated above the people of the Church.
What I found less easy to relate to was Gardner’s discussion of clerical resistance to the ordination of women and homosexuality. Relating these issues to abuse in any way, for me, is problematic. I found the chapter on public school culture interesting and illuminating. On the surface, this is less relatable to non-conformist Churches, yet still significant when we think about who sits at the top of our structures – and who does not.
Victoria Turner is researching a PhD in world Christianity at New College, University of Edinburgh
Lights in the night
Stories from the Streets: An insight into the work of street pastors
Luke Randall and Sue Shaw
This collection of stories from the work of Street Pastors in the UK makes for compelling and inspirational reading. With a strong ecumenical principle at its core – at least four churches of different denominations need to be involved before a Street Pastors group can be set up in an area – and a commitment to non-judgmental service to vulnerable people, Street Pastors is a remarkable expression of Christian ministry. Founded in 2003, it has become a trusted and important element in the night-time economy of hundreds of towns. The work has branched out to include schools, railways and teams responding to emergencies as well.
This book is an anthology of stories from around the UK, in which ordinary Christians make themselves available to individuals who find themselves in discomfort or danger on our streets at night. The situations range from former soldiers devastated by PTSD, to people coping with homelessness or addiction, relationship breakups, excessive high spirits gone wrong, and so much more.
Working with the police and local authorities, volunteers offer food and drink, practical support with calling taxis or ambulances, spending time with people who are confused or distressed, or providing water and flipflops to girls whose night out has become a bit painful.
While not engaged in evangelism, if welcomed, Street Pastors will readily pray with folk they encounter – and sometimes will find themselves prayed for too!
The book begins with a reference to the story of the Good Samaritan and the imperative to care for our ‘neighbour’. It ends with a reflection on another parable: ‘The story of the Prodigal Son (or the loving father) suggests a motive beyond duty alone … most Street Pastors realise that they are not superior to those they are trying to help, but are just as much in need of God’s love.’
Ian Fosten is Reviews Editor for Reform
This article was published in the June 2021 edition of Reform