Risen, which will be in UK cinemas from 18th March, has been billed as the unofficial sequel to The Passion of the Christ. It was even described by one overexcited film critic as ‘Gladiator meets CSI’.
On an artistic level, this film doesn’t quite live up to the hype. But when viewed in terms of a Hollywood production that stays faithful to the Bible’s account of what happened after the resurrection of Jesus, there’s much to be commended in Risen. The central character is Clavius, a fictional Roman centurion who witnesses the crucifixion and burial of the historical Jesus. When rumours circulate that the Jewish Messiah has risen from the dead, Pontius Pilate assumes the disciples have stolen the body and so tasks Clavius with locating the corpse.
In one early scene we see Pilate and Clavius sitting in a Roman bath together mocking monotheism. The willingness of the film-makers to tell the story of the resurrection not through the eyes of the disciples, but through the eyes of a non-believer (in Clavius) gives the film a hefty dollop of credibility. The brief portrayal of the crucifixion at the beginning of the film is as historically accurate and gruesome as you would expect from a 12A rated film. The decision to use the Hebrew term ‘Yeshua’ in place of ‘Jesus’ is admirable (although the rest of the speech is in English).
The initial encounter of a non-believing Roman centurion being confronted with a living, breathing Jesus Christ right before his eyes is well portrayed. Ending the film on such a cliffhanger would have allowed the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the resurrection. Risen could have been both a superb conversation starter, and an excellent piece of art. Instead, in its second half, the film ups the ante and insists on driving home the point that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Christian audiences may love this, but for a non-Christian viewer, the second half of the film is in danger of overreaching and appearing much too preachy. The film begins to leak artistic credibility as it focuses on imparting a message, rather than telling a story. Nevertheless, Risen is a very watchable and mostly entertaining production. Secular critics won’t love it, but neither should they pan it as they have other Christian films (most notably God’s Not Dead).
We live in a time where, if recent surveys are to be believed, 40% of Brits think Jesus was a mythical figure. This film could prove to be an excellent confrontation to that misconception. It represents the historical Jesus in an accessible and mostly non-cringey way. For that reason alone, Risen is worth watching this Easter. Hollywood doesn’t often make films that are biblically accurate. The last time there was a biblically faithful movie released to a mass market was arguably The Passion of the Christ – and that was back in 2004.
In today’s climate, it seems filmmakers are forced to choose between either making a biblically faithful movie that doesn’t get a wide release (Son of God) or a movie that takes great liberties with the story of scripture and does a lot better at the box office (Noah). Risen will be most in danger of falling into the former category. But Damaris, who have provided resources for churches based on Risen (risen.damarismedia.com), have promised the film will receive a general nationwide release this Easter. If this happens, and if Christians get behind the film, then Risen could have a phenomenal impact. SH
HOW TO BE HERE
Rob Bell’s eighth non-fiction book (he recently penned a novel entitled Millones Cajones) is a relentlessly positive, uplifting and encouraging read.
How to Be Here begins by arguing that each of us is creative. We all have something unique to offer the world. Bell offers good advice on how we can find our ikigai (a Japanese word for ‘what gets you out of bed in the morning’), fulfil our potential and overcome the lack of self-confidence that he identifies as holding many of us back. There are tips on how to deal with criticism and a section on the importance of having a Sabbath’s rest. So yes, it’s a self-help book. But it’s a good self-help book.
Bell’s critics may argue that his ‘good advice’ is not ‘biblical advice’. But if any book could prove such categories are not always mutually exclusive, it’s this one. There’s nothing heretical about encouraging people to
take risks, put first things first, be grateful, work hard, rest hard and have humility.
Bell’s trademark conversational tone and one-sentence paragraphs make this 200-page book a very easy read. He shares personal stories of highs (preaching his first sermon) and lows (burnout) and explains how earlier works including Velvet Elvis and Everything is Spiritual came into being (should we read anything into the absence of any mention of Love Wins?).
This isn’t a book to hand to someone who has just completed an Alpha course. But Bell isn’t pitching How to Be Here at that audience. Truth be told, he’s not even pitching it at a Christian audience. Although it references Genesis and occasionally quotes Jesus, this isn’t really a ‘Christian book’ in the classic sense. But it is a good read. SH
A VAST MINORITY
How should we live as a minority in a culture that no longer embraces our values, shares our vision, or even knows our story? The Christian community used to be a majority and is not well prepared to live in a world that now contradicts many of its ambitions and regards them as irrelevant. This book argues that we must learn from the literature of exile in the Bible, because in many ways we are now in exile in our own country.
Murray is convincing in both his analysis and realism. His observations and recommendations about the changes needed in discipleship are trenchant and challenging.
He suggests three ways forward for the Christian community. We need to become more creative in sharing the gospel and more humble in partnering with agencies who may not be overtly Christian, but whose activities reflect kingdom values. Thirdly, in a world beleaguered with uncertainty, we should be a community of hope and quiet assurance of the future that God has promised.
Becoming a creative, prophetic and hopeful community are great springboard ideas for reimagining Church. This is a good read for church leaders and anyone else who is thinking about Christian engagement with today’s culture. PV
PEOPLE TO BE LOVED
In People To Be Loved, Preston Sprinkle undertakes a thorough re-examination of the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality. Although he holds to a traditional position, Sprinkle believes some common Christian arguments against same sex relationships are fundamentally flawed. He argues that God’s judgement on Sodom was not a judgement against ‘loving, consensual, monogamous gay sex’. He’s also disparaging of unhelpful and offensive one-liners such as ‘It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’.
Some Christians who hold a traditional view would argue the issue of homosexuality is a simple one. Sprinkle disagrees. He undertakes a slow and careful exegesis of Greek words and re-examines often-quoted biblical texts, as well as their contexts. Ultimately he concludes from a variety of passages, including Romans chapter 1, that it’s ‘destructive’ to encourage people to fulfil their desire for sexual intimacy with a person of the same sex. But he also writes, ‘If you’re thrilled to read this chapter in order to find biblical artillery to blast your affirming friend, then please stop reading. Stop. Pray. Confess. Repent.’
Sprinkle is eloquent in explaining his own theological position, but he has little to say about some of the pastoral implications. That said, he has clearly spent plenty of time listening to those who are gay. As the subtitle suggests, Sprinkle is at pains to point out that homosexuality is not just ‘an issue’. His harshest statements are reserved for homophobic Christians who have mistreated those who are gay. His tone is consistently respectful and his refusal to attack straw men is refreshing. He consistently engages with opposing viewpoints in their strongest form. All this makes People To Be Loved a clear, well-reasoned and levelheaded contribution to one of the most divisive and difficult issues that the Church faces today. SH
NOTES FROM A WAYWARD SON
Andrew G. Walker
This profound and provocative book is a collection of Andrew Walker’s articles, interviews and essays from the 1980s until 2014. The book is divided into five sections and deals with a variety of interesting topics such as: the rise of pentecostalism, charismatic renewal, the house church movement (restorationism), the new church movement and spiritual warfare.
Walker also looks at the life and work of CS Lewis, and reflects on the theology, liturgy and prophetic role of the Orthodox Church, of which he is a member. His insights into Lewis’ fascination with the power of myth and story in conveying deep aspects of Christian theology and spirituality particularly stand out.
The articles are well researched, academically rigorous and spiritually reflective. Walker has made academic theology and sociology accessible to the general reader. I would recommend that the reader selects the articles that most interest them in terms of prior reading or present reflection. However, all the articles are worth perusing.
This is an outstanding book. It is well researched and academically stimulating; but more than that it is spiritually enlarging. It will expand your soul and stir your spirit. I warmly recommend it as a ‘must read’ for 2016. DAP
NIV ZONDERVAN STUDY BIBLE
Hodder & Stoughton
The production of this new Study Bible has been overseen by general editor and evangelical heavyweight, Don Carson.
As you might expect from a Study Bible, there’s a running commentary exploring noted or tricky verses in sections at the foot of each page, with cross references and a concordance. The comments reflect the interests of the 60 contributors, who come from a wide range of evangelical denominations and perspectives, and share an openness to charismatic understandings. Controversial issues such as creation and the apparent genocide in Joshua are approached from a robust, conservative angle but with awareness of contrary opinion.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so not everyone will like the single column text, but few will baulk at the gorgeous colour pictures of places, items, archaeological finds, maps and more that punctuate the text. It’s in classic black leather and the thumb index tabs will help those who don’t know the Genesis to Revelation chorus. The weight gives you a workout if you take it to your Sunday service, so you may prefer to download the contents to your mobile device (a serious bonus for some).
This release suits the serious Bible reader who doesn’t want to wade through commentaries when troubled by an issue in their daily reading. And if you also want to grasp the wonders of biblical theology – this is a great place to start. AP
ZEAL WITHOUT BURNOUT
The Good Book Company
Recent surveys have identified burnout among pastors as a growing problem within the Church. This short and highly readable book offers advice on how to maintain one’s zeal for serving the Lord while also preserving one’s health and sanity.
The book’s subtitle conveys its key message: ‘Seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice’. Ash makes the point that offering our bodies as a ‘living sacrifice’ (Romans 12:1) only makes sense if that sacrifice is also sustainable over time. He argues that we need to establish habits such as better quality sleep and observing a Sabbath rest (even if it is not a Sunday) to protect us from physical and mental burnout.
Ash also challenges the motivations of Christian leaders: are we subconsciously rejoicing in our own gifts (and thus stressing about our fruitfulness) or are we consciously rejoicing in God’s free grace? These are vital questions for anyone engaged in Christian ministry, for whom this volume should be compulsory reading. JM
WHY BOTHER WITH CHURCH?
The Good Book Company
This small and accessible book is very positive about church and argues that attendance is essential for the Christian life.
Allberry briefly covers context and theology of church. He then provides suggestions on how to find a ‘good’ church. There are short passages on ‘what is Communion?’, the varieties of church government and the question of whether women should be church leaders (Allberry thinks not).
For a Reformed/conservative audience, this book is a useful introduction to the issues. A new Christian who is open to learning and has a blank canvas may also benefit from it. However, the question ‘why church?’ is often asked by those who’ve been hurt or think that church leaders are hypocritical. There are also those who are shy and genuinely find being in a group of people difficult. These people’s doubts are unlikely to be dissolved by this book. That said, the title is worth a place on a pastor’s bookshelf, to give to the right person at the right time. HT
TABLE TALK FOR WOMEN
The Ugly Duckling Company
I was dubious when I first received this box. It is part of a range of Table Talk conversation starter kits, and I was unsure that there was any need for a pink ‘for women’ version. Do women really need a different set of topics for conversation? With topics such as ‘Superwoman’, ‘Selfies’ and ‘Girls’ Night In’, I remained unconvinced – and felt a little patronised.
However you can’t review a game without playing it, so I gathered a group of women to try it out. The game simply consists of spreading the question cards out on the table, face up, someone picking one, and then everyone answering it. It took us a few minutes to grasp that this wasn’t really a ‘game’ in the sense we were expecting – there are no rules, no turn-taking and no winner.
But as soon as we turned over the first question card and began to answer it, our conversation flew. We went from laughter to tears, repeatedly, and got to know each other well. The questions are very well pitched to open up conversation – ‘what is your most precious memory’, for example, took us from happy holidays to deathbeds. I have rarely had such a good evening of conversation as prompted by this game. So despite the pink box, I’m happy to recommend Table Talk For Women. MTH
THE ULTIMATE SURVIVAL GUIDE
CVM Demolition Squad
Malcolm Down Publishing
If you like your apologetics with a pint, this book is for you! It is an easy read with some helpful chapters tackling difficult topics, including suffering, other religions, the Bible and hell.
The book feels very blokey, as it would, coming from Christian Vision for Men (CVM). It is theology-lite and Dave TV rolled into one. But with a little more thought and some other illustrations, the book could easily reach a wider market and find appeal aside from those who typically watch football and the film 300.
The section on hell is helpful and insightful. So too is the chapter on the reliability of the Bible. There are also some memorable quotes: ‘Heaven is not a treat. It’s not Centre Parcs. Heaven is the undiluted presence of God.’ There are some laugh-out-loud moments too.
More rigorous editing might have eradicated some annoying little mistakes, but after reading The Ultimate Survival Guide you do feel strengthened in your faith and a little more confident in entering reasoned debate with your mates down the pub. MLS
THE HEAVEN PROMISE
Hodder & Stoughton
It’s a sad state of affairs that serious interest in God’s future plans for his people has slowly waned among many Christians. ‘Eschatology’ – God’s future plans, are rarely discussed. We are more preoccupied with having fun on earth than looking eagerly for what God wants for us, both in time and in eternity. Heaven seems to have been ‘airbrushed’ out; ignored, neglected, and obscured, by many Christians consumed with their own contemporary spiritual plans and priorities.
Thankfully, Scot McKnight’s new book, The Heaven Promise is an accessible and scintillating introduction to the main features of the future – particularly for those of us who are too preoccupied with earthly priorities. It covers God’s plans for his people and our future eternity in God’s presence in the new heaven and earth. It is rare for eternal issues to be so seriously explored. McKnight has done the Church a great service in putting this excellent title together. GH
Featuring five new songs and a few reworked classics, Open is a ten-track taste of the new sound of Vineyard Records UK. Produced by 29th Chapter’s David Plumb, the album comes as a follow-up to last year’s much-loved Waterfalls.
The opening title track is a brooding one, emitting an urgency that permeates the rest of the album. It introduces themes of an open heaven, as well as electronic sounds in tracks such as ‘Living in the Light’, ‘We Need More’ and ‘My Heart is Free’.
This isn’t a perfect album. The electronic effects can feel overused at times. But standout track ‘No Longer Strangers’ is an unexpected gem, with its soft jazz tempo and soulful vocals.
Perhaps it is closing track ‘Glorious’ that best summarises the album: offbeat electronic sounds juxtaposed with melodic depth and stirring vocals. This is an album that’s beat-driven rather than band-driven. It points towards a significant and exciting remoulding for the brand. NW
SALVATION’S TIDE IS RISING
Passion has taken the unusual step of releasing their album before the event in order to encourage conference-goers to be familiar with the songs before turning up. As such the production on every track is superb; the sound is clean and full, despite the lack of an audience voice in the mix.
The album holds offerings from the usual Passion crowd – Crowder, Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman among others. Crowder’s two offerings, ‘My Victory’ and ‘All We Sinners’ are particular stand-outs.
At times the tracks can feel slightly generic; many follow established patterns of crescendo and can be lyrically unadventurous – they are easy to sing, but somewhat predictable in their outcomes.
Overall, this is a solid album with songs that could comfortably be introduced into Sunday worship. However, I can’t help but wonder how much more impacting tracks like ‘Salvation’s Tide’ would be if we were able to hear 30,000 voices singing along. NH
The book that changed my life
FAITH IN THE FOG
When I first became a Christian I remember Rees Howells: Intercessor (Lutterworth Press) challenged me so much that I went and stayed at his Bible college in Swansea, hoping that a bit of this godly man might rub off on me! Then there was Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan). I’ve never forgotten his words: ‘grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less’.
But the latest book that really helped to change my life was my friend Jeff Lucas’ Faith in the Fog (Zondervan). Trying to pick up my life having nearly died from cancer and experienced heart-breaking bereavement, I was impacted by how Jeff opened himself up in this title. We have both stood on stages facing thousands of people, some who mistakenly think we speakers have our lives totally sorted out. Reading Jeff’s book encouraged me that I am not the only one who has unanswered questions and is still struggling to be the person that God wants me to be.