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Books Relating to Religion and the Arts - Blog Entries

The Message Behind the Movie
by Douglas M Beaumont is a new book about "how to engage with a film without disengaging your faith". Beaumont, who teaches Bible and philosophy at the Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina USA, has a work that is really three books in one. At times it's a work of Christian apologetics from a Protestant perspective (in fact the Protestant sensibility is evident many times). I particularly liked his outline of how reasonable it is to believe in God and can see myself using some of that material in school. Secondly there's an ongoing piece of fiction running through the book as some young adults talk about faith using various films as starting points. I found this the weakest point in the book as it's not compelling fiction, and more distracts from than illustrates the points the author is making. The treatment of faith and films is the core of the book, and what is said is thought provoking, though I'd like to see a more in-depth in approach. The films used as examples are right up to date, and it's good for a change to find a book considering the moral implications of films, not just their artistic merit. Particularly useful is the point that even if we consider a film harmless because it mightn't have an adult rating, it's important also to consider the values being imparted even if the content seems innocuous enough. The book also has the feel of a manual, aimed perhaps at the education market - the exposition is straightforward and there are "Reflection Questions" at the end of each section. Further, there's a very detailed reference section at the end which contains lots of interesting side comments.

The Shack: This novel by William Paul Young has been a big hit in evangelical circles, and while I enjoyed parts of it, I have some issues with it. Without giving too much away, it's about Mack, a man whose daughter Missy is kidnapped. During his trauma Mack meets God and learns a lot about himself, about life and about God.
The earlier part of the book, including the kidnapping, is really well written, as gripping as any thriller, with thoroughly interesting characters. In the long middle section, where he meets God, the pace slows down dramatically, to suit that unusual plot development, but I felt it took from the novel as a novel. In that section it was too much like a theology book, too much like the author rather unsubtly using the characters to drive home his own vision of God. I like theology and I like fiction, but theology thinly veiled as fiction I'm not too keen on.
However I did like the way God is portrayed - the imagery is striking. God is most definitely portrayed as a Trinity. God the Father is Papa, no surprises there, but Papa is a kindly female figure - God needs to approach Mack this way as Mack has had unhappy experiences with his own father. Jesus is Jesus, another kindly figure who loves Mack and accompanies him on parts of his journey of discovery. The Holy Spirit is Sarayu, an ethereal being, hard to pin down, hard to focus on. God is entirely loving, forgiving and understanding, altogether a pleasantly warm presence. I particularly liked the bit where God has hung pictures painted by humans in the Shack - just like any loving parent would hang picture painted by their young children.
There is an issue with a human writer putting words in God's mouth that aren't scriptural, and any Christian writer has to proceed with caution. God has a lot to say in this novel, and at times He's overly dismissive of religion, and even politics, which grated. Also He's not keen on moral rules, which I thought was na´ve on the writer's part. Fair enough, some believers can be too legalistic, and also if we are all perfect, we would be moral without any need for rules, but we're far from perfect!
The novel falls into the trap of going for spirituality over religion, which to me suggests of an underlying distaste for the imperfect community of struggling and flawed believers who make up any religion.

Recently I finished reading an excellent novel - Danny Gospel by American writer David Athey. It came highly recommended and I wasn't disappointed. It's a spiritual novel, but the touch is light, and it's not doing any heavy evangelising. Danny Gospel, the central character, has an interesting family background - part of a family gospel singing group, but a family that has known great tragedy. Yet the tragedy is blended with hope, and while at times the approach seems surreal and mystical there are no pat solutions. At times it's achingly beautiful and at times achingly painful, as Danny searches for meaning after the events of 9/11 leave a profound mark on him. I love books and films where the minor characters are well developed and this is certainly the case here. I came back every night to the book as I would to a good thriller, and have just started re-reading it and am enjoying it all over again, and hoping to make better sense of what mystified me first time around. It has been well received as the reviews on Amazon testify, and I'd certainly recommend it to Religious Education teachers for their own enjoyment and inspiration. Selected passages might also be useful for senior classes doing "search for meaning".

Have just finished reading The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It's a Man Booker prize winner (2002) and is now one of the texts on the Leaving Cert English course. It's quite a spiritual book, in ways that surprised me, as being intriguing and innovative from a purely literary point of view. I'm not sure that I'd use it for the English course as it's long and very complex and I'm not convinced that my students would take to it, but I could see myself using quotes and extracts in the RE classes.
The story's central character, Pi Patel, is a young Indian boy who becomes a castaway after a shipwreck, but this story goes way beyond your typical castaway story. Pi is a very spiritual boy, and tries to practice a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu, at the same time. And yet this is no any-religion-will-do philosophy, though younger readers might take it that way. It provides one of the funniest moments in the book when Pi and his parents meet up with the clergy of these three religions, each of whom claims Pi as a follower and is taken aback to find he has been following the practices of the other religions as well.
There is a wry humour throughout the book, but there is also a huge respect for religion and belief in God. Pi holds to his faith in God through his trials as a castaway, and when the ordeal is over (it's told in the first person so I'm not giving anything away here) there is a surprising section at the end that has a lot to say about belief in God as against other beliefs. The point seems to be: as there is no absolute proof either way on the existence of God, isn't the God story the better one to believe in?