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Study with Martin Sheen and Victor Hugo

by
31 January 2014

First put on the CD or DVD. . . David Winter tries courses

Another Story Must Begin: A Lent course based on "Les Misérables"
Jonathan Meyer
DLT £5.99
(978-0-232-53027-8)
Church Times Bookshop £5.40 (Use code CT877 )

The Long Road to Heaven: A Lent course based on the film "The Way"
Tim Heaton
Circle Books £7.99
(978-1-78279-274-1)
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT877 )

Build on the Rock: Faith, doubt - and Jesus
John Young
York Courses £3.90 (booklet)
(978-1-909107-021)
Church Times Bookshop £3.50 (Use code CT877 )
(Course pack, including booklet, CD, and transcript, is available from
www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516)

THESE three Lent courses have one great feature in common: the written word on its own is not enough. Jonathan Meyer expects participants to familiarise themselves either with the film or the musical Les Misérables (though they could, if they preferred, choose to read Victor Hugo's extremely long novel). Even lyrics of songs from the show are cited as discussion material.

Tim Heaton's course requires participants to watch the film The Way, which starred Martin Sheen as a bereaved father who makes the pilgrimage to Compostela de Santiago with an extemporary group of travellers. None of them initially is undertaking the Camino for religious reasons, although all are seeking release from pain, anger, disappointment, or bitterness. Their journey, movingly depicted in the film, becomes, in the hands of a skilful devotional writer, a powerful exposition of the Christian salvation story.

Build on the Rock follows the pattern, familiar by now, of the highly popular York Courses. The course book, written by the founder of the Courses, John Young, is supplemented in the weekly discussion sessions by contributions on CD by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, the former general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance Joel Edwards, and the New Testament scholar Paula Gooder. Each session ends with a reflection by the Methodist minister David Gamble, who formerly chaired Barnardo's.

The three courses are very different in their style, and each would probably appeal to a different clientele. Les Mis, as it is known, has been hugely popular both as a musical and as a film. Another Story Must Begin is built around the characters, and may well appeal to those who might be hesitant about joining a traditional Bible-based study. Hugo's novel is essentially about issues of suffering, repentance, forgiveness, and grace; so the Christian content, including Bible passages, feels appropriate and unforced. Meyer devised it for his own parish, where scenes of the film were shot. It may reach parts of other congregations, too, which traditional courses fail to attract.

Build on the Rock: Faith, doubt - and Jesus follows a well-tried formula. It is genuinely ecumenical - the York courses have often brought people from different denominations together in Lent groups - and primarily devotional. It reflects on issues of faith: the life of Jesus, his teaching, death, and resurrection, and the Christian hope. John Young wears his thoughtful theology lightly, and the recorded sessions offer an interesting range of insights.

With provocative quotations on every page and plenty of human interest, this course probes more deeply than its gentle, friendly style might suggest. It also makes things as simple as possible for those running it, though experience suggests that organisers ought to expect the unexpected, especially in home-group discussions.

The Long Road to Heaven is distinctly different in style and approach from the other two courses, and will probably appeal to thoughtful participants who are prepared to wrestle with some fairly challenging material. Heaton writes beautifully - indeed, chapter four, "A Love Story", could stand alone as a powerful and moving allegory of salvation.

The book is as effective a treatment of its great themes as I have read. What are we saved from? What are we saved for? Who can be saved, and how? Given the right group of people, I would love to be a fly on the wall as they tackle those disarmingly simple questions under Heaton's persuasive probing.

The main problem facing those who are planning a church-based Lent course is getting the right kind of material for the likely participants, rather like choosing a supermarket for your shopping. I suggest that Tim Heaton's is Waitrose, Jonathan Meyer's is Tesco, and the York Course is the Co-operative.

Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, anda former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC.

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