Subtitled How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, film critic and committed Christian, Josh Larsen, writes Movies Are Prayers to explain his perspective that films are one of our ways of communicating with God. Films, or movies as they are oftentimes referred to in this book, can be many things from a form of escapism to historical information and artistic expression, but as Larsen maintains, they can also be prayers.
“Movies are our way of telling God what we think about this world and our place in it.” Apart from those based on Biblical characters or Christian messages, films are not usually a deliberate attempt at speaking to God. What Larsen is suggesting is that God can be found in places you would not expect – the cinema, for instance. Prayer is a human instinct, even for those who have no religious ties. We are forever asking “why am I here?” or “why me?” alongside feelings of gratitude and love for our positive experiences in life.
Josh Larsen explores several expressions of prayer, including the tenets of the Lord’s Prayer, to examine numerous films from popular classics to contemporary Disney. Beginning with wonder at the natural world (Avatar, Into The Wild), positive forms of prayer are identified in well-known cinematography, such as reconciliation (Where the Wild Things Are), meditation (Bambi), joy (Top Hat, and most musicals) and confession (Toy Story, Trainwreck). But Larsen does not stop there, he goes on to use examples of emotions that many may not consider forms of prayer: anger (Fight Club, The Piano) and lament (12 Years a Slave, Godzilla).
To back up his theory, Josh Larsen relates film sequences with Bible passages, for example, the prayers of David and Job. He likens the ending of Children of Men with the Christmas story and identifies the worshipping of false gods with Wizard of Oz. Larsen also suggests the obedience of the main character in It’s a Wonderful Life reflects the experiences of Jonah.
As well as Biblical theory, Larsen refers to citations from other respected Christian writers on the matter of prayer, challenging preconceived notions of both the religious and the atheist. Despite the fact Movies Are Prayers is heavily steeped in religious connotations, it may appeal to film buffs who wish to delve deeper into the hidden meanings of films.
Although the examples in this book are mostly well-known titles, it is unlikely that readers will have watched all the films. Helpfully, Josh Larsen provides details and descriptions of the scenes he has chosen to focus on so that even if you are not familiar with the story, it is possible to understand the author’s perspective. Having said that, Movies Are Prayers contains a lot of spoilers.
Everyone has their own personal view on Christian theory and prayer, so Movies Are Prayers can only be treated as an idea rather than gospel. However, Josh Larsen has developed an interesting theory that makes you think more about the ways we can communicate with God, even when we may not have deliberately chosen to. Being easy to read and not overly long (200 pages), Movies Are Prayers is the ideal book for film-loving Christians.
Where Are You Hiding, God? is a children’s picture book by the Austrian illustrator Elisabeth Zartl. Originally published in 2013 under the German title Wo versteckst du dich, lieber Gott? it has been translated into English in order to reach a wider audience. Primarily targeted at children of Christian families, the book attempts to explain the concept of God.
The short story begins with an anonymous little girl searching for God in a manner that resembles a game of Hide and Seek. She looks in her bedroom, the bathroom and the garden before giving up in defeat. As she sits desolately alone, a gust of wind and a falling leaf prompt her to realise that God does not have a corporeal body, but is, in fact, everywhere. Exhilarated by her newfound understanding, she exclaims that God was in all the places she looked and that he is inside her, too. God is everywhere.
Aimed at children ages three and over, Where Are You Hiding, God? explores the confusion a child may have in comprehending the idea of God. For a child, knowing something or someone is there but not being able to see them is a difficult idea to grasp. This book, through the demonstration of someone their own age, helps to explain their questions and uncertainties.
Elizabeth Zartl’s illustrations capture the attention of those reading or looking at the pages. Filling each page with a full-colour palette, the drawings are child-friendly but realistic, making it easy to process, and accurately creates a visual narrative of the written words. The language is also suitable for the intended demographic and, although three-year-olds may not be able to read it themselves, they will certainly understand the story.
From a design point of view, the text and illustrations do not quite match up. The full-page artworks make it difficult to place the short sentences in a way that both elements can work together. This, however, is not the fault of the author/illustrator who would have originally been working with a German text.
Overall, Where Are You Hiding, God? is a sweet, short story that can be read to children or grandchildren over and over again. As well as being a source of entertainment, it introduces them to the beliefs they will encounter during their Christian upbringing and prepares them to develop a greater understanding of God.
In 2014, ITV broadcasted the first episode of Grantchester, a drama series based on books by British novelist, James Runcie. Although written during the twenty-first century, the story is set in the 1950s in a village on the outskirts of Cambridge. Sidney Chambers, a young Canon in charge of the Church of St Andrew and Mary, is a polite and friendly character who, despite his reluctance, ends up acting as a detective in a variety of crimes.
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is the first book of six in The Grantchester Mysteries. Split into six individual baffling cases, the background story of Sidney’s private life continues to develop throughout. Each crime is committed and swiftly solved by the Canon and his friend, Inspector Geordie Keating, although it is Sidney who ultimately resolves the case.
Murder, jewellery theft and art forgery and just some of the felonies Sidney grudgingly gets involved with. In fact, unresolved crimes tend to land in his lap rather than offering his assistance willingly. Up at dawn to work on sermons before rushing off to capture criminals, Sidney is never off duty.
A vicar may seem like an unlikely candidate for a detective, however, people tend to open up to him and unintentionally reveal delitescent information. Listening to suspects and witnesses without pre-judgement allows Sidney to think things through carefully rather than jumping to conclusions. From the moment the crime is committed right up until the story’s denouement, Sidney passionately does everything he can to make sure the correct culprit is discovered.
What makes this series different from other crime novels is the focus on Sidney Chambers’ own life. James Runcie emphasises the loneliness of a bachelor living in a vicarage with only a curate and crotchety housekeeper for company. Readers are drawn into Sidney’s stories and hold onto the hope that his dalliances with the beautiful Amanda turn out to be something more concrete.
Those who have watched the ITV series will be familiar with the stories in this book because the producer has stuck to the exact storyline, not missing a single thing out or adding anything extra. The fact that there were only two years between publishing and screen production goes to show how well written and thought out these stories are. Unlike famous detective novels such as Sherlock Holmes or those by Agatha Christie, The Grantchester Mysteries are not set at the time of writing, so, although they are historically accurate, the prose is suitable for present day readers.
Each story is quick to read and is easy going, making it a relaxing and enjoyable book. It is not a thriller or horror, although some of the crimes are quite terrible. Instead, it is entertaining and often humorous. It is suitable for crime fiction fans as well as those new to the genre.
Regardless of whether you have watched the television series or not, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is a delight to read. Of course, ITV has given away all the endings, but it is a different experience to read it in print rather than seeing it acted out on screen. Featuring the face of James Norton on the cover so as to work as a TV tie-in, the series will be easy to spot in prime position on bookshelves both in shops and personal collections.
Where did religion come from? This is the question Reza Aslan, a scholar of religions, attempts to answer in his latest publication, God: A Human History. To date, Aslan has tackled subjects such as the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and the origins, evolution and future of Islam. In this book, the author journeys back to the earliest evidence of human existence and, using a mix of resources, theories and investigations, tries to determine how our ancestors conceived the idea of gods and souls. Maintaining the idea that the majority of humans think of God as a divine version of ourselves, Aslan also looks at the way our perception of life after death has altered due to the changes in our governments and cultures.
Reza Aslan claims that he, a Muslim-devout-Christian-convert-turned-Sufi, is neither trying to prove or disprove the existence of God or gods. Instead, he is providing readers with a thorough history of religion with a strong suggestion that we, as believers, have fashioned God in our image, and not the other way around.
Insisting that belief systems are inherited from each previous generation, Aslan takes a look at ancient cave drawings where he, and many other theorists, surmise that a form of religion was already well underway. Lack of written word results in a lot of speculation and hypothesis as to what these, usually animal-like, drawings represent, however, many have come to the conclusion that early humans had some form of animistic belief system.
Although not a dig at religion, after all, the author is religious himself, the following chapters bring in to question the authenticity of past and present beliefs. With reference to various psychologists, Aslan poses the theory that ancient humans may have misinterpreted dreams as evidence of a spirit realm. With no one qualified to clarify the things they did not understand, anything without a clear explanation may have been attributed to a god or gods.
As the author describes how religious ideas may have developed from these primitive beliefs to the fully detailed faiths of today, he labels the human race as anthropocentric creatures that have based their religions on human traits and emotions. By reporting in this way, it comes across that the past ideas of the soul, spiritual realms, gods and so forth could not possibly be true, yet, as the final chapters suggest, Aslan is still adamant about the existence of God.
Aslan’s narrative speeds up, finally reaching the recognizable religions of today. Beginning with the Israelites, enslaved by the Egyptians, the author explains, using biblical references, how the first successful monotheistic religion came about. However, researchers have studied the early Bible texts and are inconclusive as to whether the God worshipped by the Jews was the only divine being or whether there were others of a similar standing.
Next, Aslan explores Christianity, posing more questions than he solves, for example, is God one or is God three (i.e. the Holy Trinity)? He defines and compares the definitions of monotheism and pantheism, eventually bringing in Islam and the development of Sufism, which he is not afraid of admitting he agrees with.
God: A Human History is disappointingly short, ending with the feeble conclusion that humans are born with the ability to be convinced of the existence of a divine being and the soul, but it is our own choice to decide whether or not to believe in them. The remaining third of the book is an abundance of notes on the texts, bibliographical references, and Reza Aslan’s personal opinions about the ideas and theories mentioned in his history of religion.
Although an extensive history on the origins of religion, God: A Human History leaves readers none the wiser as to whether their belief is founded in truth or whether it is something that has evolved over time due to lack of understanding about the world. Granted, it was not the aim of the book to prove or disprove the existence of God, however, it may unintentionally sow seeds of doubt or, potentially, anger devout believers. However, there is no attempt at persuading readers to believe one thing or another, thus making it suitable for people of all religion and none.
Is the Bible really gospel truth? This is the question the honourable, academic Robert Babcock aims to find out on his quest to find the earliest copies of the gospels in order to prove the reliability of the story of Jesus as recounted in the King James Bible. However, this is not the key focus of Stephen Taylor’s fictional novel, Gospels. The main character is the perfidious John Campbell-John, a rogue, imposter and swindler who flees 19th-century England in an attempt to escape from his debts.
John meets the magnanimous Robert in Venice and, despite being polar opposites, become firm friends. After being honest for the first time in his life, admitting to owing thousands of pounds in gambling debts, Robert offers John the opportunity to accompany him on his quest through the deserts of Egypt. John accepts and the pair finds themselves on an adventure of discovery and personal redemption.
John and Robert make an unlikely but excellent team. Robert’s knowledge of the Bible and ancient history is vital, however, John’s propensity for falsehoods and cunningness gets them out of a few scrapes and tricky situations. Nonetheless, it is difficult for John to give up his old ways and his insular behaviour threatens to get them in more trouble.
Fortunately, Robert’s humility begins to influence the young scoundrel, as does his penchant for historical artefacts. As the story progresses, John begins to leave his past behind and becomes interested in Robert’s work, learning new things about Egyptian culture and the origins of the Bible. However, when a new gospel comes to light that threatens the whole of Christianity, Robert does not know what to do; and only John can give him counsel.
John Campbell-John is a character that the author introduced in a previous book. However, the timelines are not sequential, therefore Gospels is a stand-alone novel. The time frame for this book needed to be set in 1835 to correspond with historical truths. Although Robert’s discovery of a Gospel of Thaddeus Jude is an invention of the author, the quest itself is based on the journeys of three 19th-century Bible hunters. Stephen Taylor has conducted an enormous amount of research, including the biographies of Robert Curzon, Constantin von Tischendorf and Émile Amélineau who, on separate occasions, sought the same knowledge as the fictional Robert Babcock.
Despite being titled Gospels, the novel, for the most part, focuses on John Campbell-John and his wicked ways. Through a first-person narrative, John explains his past, his betrayal of a friend, and his addiction to gambling. Initially, he has no qualms about his behaviour and acts only for himself and his selfish greed. Whilst Robert goes in search of knowledge, John goes on a journey of redemption, coming to terms with his previous wrongdoings. However, acknowledging these faults is not enough, he needs to turn away from these roguish ways.
It is disappointing that the narrative does not focus more on the gospels, both real and imagined. There was enormous scope for an in-depth look at the life of Jesus and the inconsistencies in the Bible. The fictitious Gospel of Thaddeus Jude evokes a similar reaction in Robert as the Non-Canonical Gospel of Thomas found in the 19th-century had on many devout Christians. There was so much potential with this direction of thought, however, the author passes over it in preference to the life of John Campbell-John.
Slow to begin but increasingly interesting as it progresses, Gospels is a book of many themes. History, both 19th-century and ancient; religion, although not a Christian story; and achievement and absolution combine together to produce a unique tale that takes the reader from the back alleys of London to the River Nile and the deserts of Sinai. A subtle clue in the prologue keeps readers alert as they await the conclusion of the adventure – an ending that ambiguously reveals whether John moves on from the follies of his past.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon