Feature

A new perspective on faith
Greg Daly meets the man behind a film series helping young adults wrestle with Christianity

A scene from Nua.

Dublin’s Gonzaga College might seem an unlikely place for the launch of an evangelical video series produced by the historically Protestant and highly dynamic Scripture Union (SU) group, but according to Jonny Somerville, presenter of NUA, it made perfect sense. 

“I’ve had a relationship with Gonzaga for a while, mainly because of Danny McNelis, a chaplain there who passed away a few years ago,” he says, “a Jesuit who was a very ecumenical man and used to pray with an Anglican every week on the phone, he was someone who was always very kind to me and I know he would have been very proud of NUA.”

Thanking the school principal Damon McCaul for his support, Jonny says about 200 people were at the project’s mid-March launch. Among these, significantly, were Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin Dr Eamonn Walsh and the Diocese of Dublin’s post-primary adviser Anna Maloney.

NUA is an eight-part film series that recognises people’s doubts and is intended to encourage questions about Christianity, primarily intended to help provide young people with a way of discussing their worldview and wrestle with aspects of Christianity they may find challenging. 

Now the 29-year-old father of four small children, including twins, Dubliner Jonny first got involved in youth ministry when, aged just 16, he volunteered at youth camps in Avoca, Co. Wicklow run by SU. An internship with SU followed, after which Jonny studied theology at the Irish Bible Institute – then accredited by the University of Wales – before returning to work full time with SU in 2008.

Some of his work involved retreats, before he became the ‘Alpha Youth Coordinator’, starting a partnership between SU and the group that’s pioneered perhaps the most iconic evangelising tour in English-speaking Christianity over recent decades. 

Four or five years in this role, often working with schools, led Jonny to pick up on questions that young people regularly had. While Jonny himself was quite good at engaging with these questions, his supervisor wondered how that ability could be multiplied, recognising that “these are tough questions and a lot of youth workers struggle to engage with questions of the Christian faith”.

A quest for funding began, with proposals being taken to trust funds and others. “We got significant amounts of funding and then launched into scriptwriting and ultimately production for the NUA film series,” he says, with them eventually making eight 15-minutes episodes, each episode being broken into three segments, which people can engage with individually or as part of the set.

“It starts with science and faith,” he says, continuing, “We look at the complexity of the universe, and we talk about the great chance that we could be here by chance – amazingly – or that there could be a cool designer behind it all, and with that we also tap in a little bit into our search for meaning. Why does this longing for the ‘why?’ seem to be inbuilt in us? Why are we so fixated on it?”

Gospels

After that, he says, the series turns to the four Gospels. “Instead of trying to go for the whole Bible we thought we might just look at the Gospels, asking the history of the Gospels, how they were written, who they were written by, what their agenda was,” he explains, pointing out how problems in the Gospels may help support the basic accuracy of the story they tell. 

“We look a little bit at the disciples and just their foolishness and waywardness that’s found in the Scriptures – if they were fabricating the Gospels, why did these guys, who went on to be the leaders of the early Church, why didn’t they fix parts?”

Acknowledging that this can be contested, he says, “There is a good case – it’s not foolproof – that what we read today isn’t far from what was originally written, although it can’t be proven. We just want to put a case for that.”

The third episode considers what Jonny calls “conspiracy theories against the Resurrection”, asking, “what have been the best efforts to disprove it over the past 2,000 years?” This entails looking again at the disciples noting how to judge by the New Testament, “they were cowards before Jesus’ death, and they seemed to be courageous after it” and asking what changed them.

“Episode four,” he says, “is a character assessment of Jesus.” The episode considers whether we’d actually like Jesus if we had known him during his mission, pointing out how “how he treated people reveals his character”, and examining his encounters with the woman caught in adultery, the woman who was bleeding for 12 years, and ‘doubting’ Thomas. 

“We did street interviews just 15 yards down the road (on Talbot Street) and one girl said ‘I bet he wasn’t a banter person’,” he says, continuing, “That’s a really interesting insight. I actually would like to think that he was full of fun.”

Chesterton, of course, wrote in 1908’s Orthodoxy that “there was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth,” but Jonny is grateful for how in his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ Mel Gibson featured a scene where Jesus is shown laughing with his mother. “I’ve used that in talks,” he says, adding, “Fair play to Mel for that little bit.”

The second half of the series begins with an episode about stereotypes of Christians, asking why is there so often a disconnect or conflict between Christians and the Jesus they follow. “It’s a reflection on how far we can drift from the Jesus we follow into people who become arrogant and judgmental and rule-based,” he says, continuing, “or even just Christians who live out of fear, who live in a bubble and don’t engage with or don’t meet the needs of the world because they’re protecting themselves from the world.”

The sixth episode, then addresses the subject of suffering, which Jonny says is probably the single biggest issue raised by young people with doubts about Christianity. While the episode does glance at some classic intellectual arguments around the issue, its heart instead is more a reflection of where God stands regarding suffering: “As in suffering sucks and life sucks, so where is God in the midst of that? 

“Ultimately we reflect on suffering from Jesus’ perspective as one who came to suffer not only for us but with us, a God who wants to meet us in our suffering and pain,” he says, continuing, “It’s not an episode that has all the answers – not like William [Lane Craig] would give those intellectual arguments, which are fine and there’s a place for them – but ultimately we just want to talk about a Jesus who wants to meet with us and unfortunately we’re going to have to journey the rest of our lives and maybe carry our questions.”

The shortest verse in the Bible offers a particularly pertinent passage for contemplating this. “One part we home in on is that very short part in Scripture where Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb,” he says. “it’s so bizarre for Jesus to cry at that moment, but I think the real revelation of his compassion is at that moment. 

“He’s going to bring Lazarus back to life, but that’s not the point – he sees their pain and enters into it. That’s the Jesus that I find in the Scriptures. That’s the character of God ultimately revealed, if Jesus is the Son of God, and the revelation of God: that’s what I hope God is like.”

The next episode, he says, reflects on the history of the Church, observing that “a functioning Church is unfortunately made up of broken people, and sometimes those broken people make horrendous mistakes”. 

Pointing out that “It’s not Jesus who makes those mistakes – it’s the people,” he says, “We seek also, without glorifying it, to present the other side of the story, how say the Catholic Church specifically has been responsible for schools and hospitals and infrastructure throughout the last 2,000 years, and even Christian organisations today that are doing tremendous things. There are always two sides to the coin, and unfortunately people will let us down – that’s really that episode in a nutshell.”

The final episode ultimately asks what all this should mean for us. “It’s a reflection on Jesus’ message, on how him dying for me impacts my life, it goes away from us as sinners to the actual effect that sin has on us as people who struggle with our identity, our self-worth, even our drive in life,” he says, pointing to how it presents God as wanting to speak into our identity and give us “hope and purpose”.

It all sounds impressively well thought through, but Jonny is quick to stress that NUA “isn’t just one man’s theology”. He points out that while he was – along with UCD chaplain Scott Evans and series director Greg Fromholz – one of the series’ three core writers, it was also considered at length by an ecumenical committee made up of an Anglican, a Methodist, and the Augustinan scripture scholar Kieran O’Mahony, who, Jonny says, “was identified as a theologian who would rip the scripts apart, and at times he did, which was cool”. 

There was a time, Jonny concedes, when he might not have been comfortable with that sort of thing, but years in youth ministry have knocked some corners off him. “Some of my best ideas were thrown out, and some of my scriptwriting wasn’t used,” he says, noting that with a bit of maturity under his belt, he was okay with this, and not precious about his ideas. “I think if I’d been a younger Christian I would have been more arrogant,” he says. 

The scripts went out to a further 35 people from all walks of life, from young professionals, to teachers, chaplains, parents, continues Jonny, and then a focus group from two schools as well, with the entire writing process taking around a year, with another year to make the series with Jonny fronting the episodes. 

“Unfortunately, it’s me: I’m the host or presenter, so you journey with me. We filmed here, and in Israel and Palestine, and over in the States a bit as well,” he says, continuing, “It’s not like only one portion of it is in Israel or Palestine – it can chop and change and suddenly I’m jumping continents, but it doesn’t really matter because there’s a bit of quirk to how it’s filmed.”

It was a real pleasure to make the series, he says, pointing especially to how “it was great to work with professionals – even beyond people of Faith, just people who were great at their job”. 

Praising their work, and their contribution to the end product, he says: “It was great to be able to do it right.”

As for what the series might achieve, he says: “We really want it to be a significant resource for senior cycle religious education across the country, something that can supplement RE teachers and chaplains. Particularly as in the Republic we have a lot of non-exam RE, there’s the freedom to engage with these types of resources. I know RE teachers are always crying out for a good credible resource, and I believe this gifts them one.”

Beyond Ireland, he thinks the series can be promoted a natural follow-on to Alpha courses around the world, starting with English-speaking countries, and through SU itself. In the meantime, though, the series needs to walk before it can run, and Jonny says early feedback has been encouraging. 

“Some people over the last couple of weeks have just binge-watched the whole thing, like they would on Netflix,” he says, “and the overriding feedback is that though they can clearly see that we have targeted this for young adults, this is completely universal, as in parish groups and groups of any age will benefit – there’s quirk in there and there’s fun, but there’s nothing childish or patronising.”

Describing how groups of his peers have gotten together in evenings to watch an episode, while chatting and eating, he says, “that’s very encouraging, because it will be interesting to see if it will have that universal usage”.

Hopes

Similarly, he says, early feedback from schools has been good, but he’s more interested in what he’ll be told down the line when schools have completed the series.  The sort of thing he really hopes to hear, he says, is comments to the effect that NUA helped people to have new conversations, or take conversations to a different level.

“We want, especially with the new generation, to model a better conversation, because that’s what I believe the new generations need,” he says, continuing, “For the people of faith, I think this will help them to build confidence to speak naturally about why they believe, but also for the sceptic, it’s something that’s credible to chew on. 

“They can still dismiss it, and that’s fine,” he continues, “but I hope it will generate well-respected conversations, because that is my motto, that verse from Peter – always have the reason to explain your faith, but do so with gentleness and respect. With NUA we want it be gentle in the right way.”