Phoebe, by Paula Gooder: Gooder’s academic works on Christianity, particularly on the New Testament, are noted for their friendly, approachable tone and this comes into its own here in a novelised version of the visit of Phoebe, a wealthy deacon mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Romans, to Rome. Gooder invents her story but places it in her own scholarly studies of the Roman world at the time and peoples it with likeable, interesting, essentially human characters. Perhaps not a natural novelist, Gooder nevertheless tells a good story with charm. The last 30% of the book – in which, in fact, Gooder is quite happy to admit that she is not a novelist – gives a quantity of fascinating background information and scholarly sources on which she based her story.
Book and Film Reviews
Letters to a Diminished Church, Dorothy L. Sayers: Goodness, this could have been written last week, instead of just after the Second World War. Sayers is knowledgeable and witty, and can take us from the Apostles’ Creed to crime fiction to T.S. Eliot with ease and purpose, and you find yourself nodding and agreeing with all of it. Though there are excursions elsewhere, the main theme running through the book is human creativity, how it reflects that of God and how it is essential for our happiness and fulfilment in our spiritual life, whatever that life may be. The context of industrialisation, global crisis, economic struggles and celebrity culture are very familiar to us. My only regret is that this edition, which includes questions for discussion groups, also incorporates both American spellings and some odd, probably spellcheck related, errors I’m sure Sayers herself would have winced at.
A fairly short read, written in the first British lockdown. Wright examines the various dilemmas facing Christians in the time of pandemic, comparing it with previous times of crisis. Not all his conclusions are firm – why would they be? – and I particularly liked his discussion of whether or not places of worship should be closed, which is a thorny topic with many strong arguments on both sides. The parallels with the disciples’ experience just after the Crucifixion – fear, locked rooms and doubt – was a very interesting one, well explored, and his decision that the correct, basic Christian response to a crisis should be lament, prayer and action was a comforting one (taking into account Martin Luther’s caution that one ought not to rush in if it’s going to make matters worse, for example by spreading disease further). A good and thoughtful book.
Risen (2016) is a remarkable film directed by Kevin Reynolds and starring Joseph Fiennes as Clavius, a Roman tribune, asked by his friend Pontius Pilate to investigate the disappearance of the body of the crucified Nazarene, Yeshua. Clavius saw him die, and in fact was the one who ordered he be speared rather than have his legs broken.
Pilate (played by Peter Firth) is an embittered old bureaucrat, nagged by Caiaphas the chief rabbi, bothered at how he was pressurised into having Yeshua crucified, and most of all determined to have Jerusalem looking good for the upcoming visit of the Emperor Tiberius. Clavius, too, is battle-hardened and cynical, and is keen that his new protégé, Lucius (played by Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), should be as tough as he is. But their investigation is constantly confusing: two soldiers, supposed to be guarding the tomb, have been bribed by the rabbis to say that they saw zealots stealing the body, but then confess to a much more remarkable story of the stone bursting from the entrance, the sun blazing out of the tomb. Are they mad? Mary Magdalene, well known to the soldiers, tells strange stories of love and forgiveness, and she and anyone else they question are completely unafraid of any threatened punishments. At last Clavius sees Yeshua with his followers and recognises him as the man he saw dead on the cross. He is stunned, and follows the disciples as they head back to Galilee for a final meeting with Yeshua.
This is a realistic-looking film, full of gore and flies and nasty corpses but not completely horrific. There’s a good deal of humour with Pilate, but plenty to think about, too, as the cynical tribune comes up against something, and someone, he cannot begin to explain, and watches the disciples’ reactions to the risen Yeshua. Something well worth watching, even if it’s just for the little detail of Barabbas and his unflinching faith, or Pilate washing his hands again.