Reviews – September 2021
A house of her own
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Certificate 15, 97 minutes
Released 10 September
Herself has a brutal opening in which Sandra (Clare Dunne), a mother of two girls in Dublin, is physically assaulted by her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), an incident witnessed by her youngest daughter, Molly (Molly McCann), while her eldest, Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara), races across the estate to the local shop to deliver a pre-written emergency message.
From here, it becomes a tale about a single mum’s struggle to find a decent home for her and her kids in the face of a social welfare system that can’t cope with either the level of need or any innovation through which people try to legitimately help themselves. To survive financially, Sandra juggles two jobs, working at a local pub and cleaning for the disabled, retired local doctor, Peggy (Harriet Walter).
I mention innovation because Sandra, who can only access the internet by using Peggy’s computer when she is in the other room, stumbles upon the solution of building her own home. This would cost the local authorities less than it would to pay her rent for a year or so, but the housing department officer, bound by government policy, cannot authorise such irregular things.
Peggy discovers Sandra’s research and offers her a plot of land in her garden, plus a loan to pay for the building. Middle-aged builder Aido (Conleth Hill) and a crew of friends help her construct the house. All the while, she finds herself threatened by Gary, who is trying to get custody of their girls, even though Molly is terrified of him.
The actor Clare Dunne initiated and wrote the screenplay, and was only later persuaded to play the lead by the director. She delivers a terrific performance, as do the two kids. In a sense, it’s really Dunne’s film, although Lloyd’s reliable directing holds it all together.
While Herself works well enough as a feel good movie about female empowerment, the issues it raises – about the problems of abusive marriage, housing need and the welfare system’s often unhelpful insistence on box-ticking – also provide much food for thought.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic. His work is available at jeremycprocessing.com
Critique of Islam
Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?
Growing up a Baptist in London, Andy Bannister got a PhD in Islamic Studies. Living in Scotland, he teaches and writes on issues surrounding faith, culture and contemporary society. His book’s starting point is the assumption he suggests is widespread: that all religions are essentially ways to worship the same god. By contrast, he wants to affirm that Christianity is true and that Islam is false. This book becomes a defence of that conclusion and a brief glimpse of some of its implications. Relatively short, at 180 pages, the style is conversational, storied, and aimed at the non-expert. Each chapter ends with a short list of ‘key takeaways’. There are further resources suggested at the end.
Well aware of the risk of Christian arrogance in approaching other faiths, Bannister takes time to lay the ground. Believing our own beliefs to be true need not make us intolerant if we are prepared to also listen to the heartfelt beliefs of others. A series of chapters takes us through key aspects of Christianity and Islam, and the contrasts Bannister wants to highlight between them: the nature of God; being human; the world’s brokenness; the solution to the world’s brokenness. Much material is covered through extensive quotation from the Bible and the Qur’an. The book concludes with reflections upon the uniqueness of Christ and the Bible’s claims about salvation through the cross.
This is not a book about the dialogue between religions. It is a primer in what makes Islam and Christianity different. Its aim is to answer the question in its title as clearly as possible with a resounding no. Thus it is more a book about the uniqueness of God’s self-revelation in Christ than a wider discussion of what Muslims believe and what encountering Islam might mean. My experience of inter-faith dialogue is that it always demands more clarity from me as to what I believe, but also a profound willingness to listen to perspectives and truths from others. Bannister helps us with the former, I suspect, and lingers little upon how we might do the latter.
Neil Thorogood is Minister at Thornbury and Trinity-Henleaze United Reformed Churches, Bristol
Chosen: Lost and found between Christianity and Judaism
Chosen is a must-read book by a must-write author. It took ten years of struggle to complete, during which Giles Fraser rediscovered his Jewish family roots. Fraser, famous for theological observations in the Guardian and on Radio 4, attracted public attention as Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral in his response to the Occupy Movement in 2011.
People who wanted to protest about the banks outside the banks but were forced to camp instead outside St Paul’s, asked if some might come inside and talk. Some sensed that Jesus himself might agree with them, but the cathedral chapter declined to debate the issue. Unwilling to collude with the eviction of the protesters, Fraser resigned. That was the easy part; much harder were the consequences which were horrendous. He became very depressed but could not admit it, felt suicidal but was helped by wise counsellors. He had tried to explain to his wife and children why they must leave such a posh job and splendid home, but it all became too much for their marriage. After 20 years together, his wife, who had accepted his decision, left him. He now felt very insecure and so, no doubt, did the family.
Some of Fraser’s comments and questions apply to us and our United Reformed churches. St Paul’s, like our congregations, is free to debate and decide on big issues that concern her, but failed to do so. Our Prime Minister, then Mayor of London, never sacks anybody but told the Dean of St Paul’s to sack his Chancellor. He was firmly told by the Dean that this is none of his business. We too ask about our personal and church identities and can discover as Fraser did that, yes indeed, we are chosen. God made a covenant with his and our Jewish ancestors which he never revokes. ‘Salvation is of the Jews’! We learn this from St Paul. Fraser learned it too from Bonhoeffer and his new Jewish mother-in-law in Israel. Alleluia! Read on!
Donald Norwood is a minister engaged in ecumenical research in Oxford.
A Celtic life
Monk in the Market Place: My autobiography
Darton Longman & Todd
Ray Simpson is simultaneously an engaging and somewhat daunting person. In both the book and also in person, Ray is welcoming, avuncular and alarmingly honest. Monk in the Market Place is an engaging yet challenging account of Ray’s coming to faith and subsequently discerning his call to the way of ministry to which God undoubtedly has led him.
Through sometimes painful learning in London and the Potteries around Stoke-on-Trent, Ray began to hit his stride when called to a pioneering ministry in Bowthorpe, a new development on the edge of Norwich. Without a predetermined masterplan, the work required qualities of a secure personal faith alongside a deliberate openness both to the needs and opportunities of this new community but also to the leading of the Holy Spirit. For good reason Ray has been described as a ‘contemplative charismatic’.
After building a viable ministry in Bowthorpe, Ray crystalised his interest in Celtic Christianity and charismatic understanding into a book, Exploring Celtic Christianity, and took a leap of faith which led to him living on Holy Island (Lindisfarne) and the founding of the Community of Aidan and Hilda. A significant range of books and initiatives have flowed from that move.
Ray Simpson is inspired, intelligent, optimistic, idiosyncratic, at times naive, but invariably well-intentioned and always attentive to where he believes God is calling him. This book reflects all of those characteristics – and more. It provides a useful insight into the growth of ‘Celtic spiritualty’, it is a fascinating case study of one person’s journey of seeking to discern and then live out God’s call, and it is a reminder that tidiness and careful planning are rarely the ingredients by which the Kingdom of God becomes reality.
Ian Fosten is the book reviews editor for Reform
Learning from trees
Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the wisdom and intelligence of the forest
Canadian Suzanne Simard tells a fascinating story of growing up in a logging family and, through her love of the forest, becoming a researcher into its life. The logging companies had a policy of clearing away all growth after a logging harvest, planting seedlings in a space free from ‘competing’ species. Her research challenged this practice and it has taken many years for her ground-breaking work to gain support.
Generally, trees and plants are not competing at all, they are cooperating. Through underground fungal networks linking their roots, they are communicating: seedlings signalling their needs receive support and nourishment from tall, established ‘mother trees’. Simard found that mother trees are able to recognise their own seedlings, and from their reserves, give support to surrounding vegetation and so maintain a healthy environment for their seedlings.
This wisdom and intelligence of the forest contrasted with the practice of the logging companies with their monoculture and chemicals. The connectedness of the natural forest was producing better and healthier crops of trees. The forest is not a chaotic struggle for the survival of the fittest but an organic, cooperating whole through these underground networks.
Simard’s book comes at a time when we have seen movements both here and abroad that are set on paths of separation, division and competition. The forest challenges us to think again. Mother trees supporting their offspring can echo our Christian vision of the Kingdom of God, such as in the United Nations where richer nations can help poorer ones. When nations separate from the international community or receive sanctions from it, they inevitably suffer, like seedlings isolated from a mother tree. The interconnectedness of trees demonstrates a better way than separation and competition. The forest reminds us of our interconnectedness at a time when international cooperation has become urgently needed if the world is to avoid the looming calamities we now face.
Rodney Wood is a retired minister living in Whitstable, Kent
This article was published in the September 2021 edition of Reform