Sunday 31 December 2023

 Can We Trust The New Testament? John A T Robinson

Why do a blog on this little 1977 paperback? A mix of personal and intellectual reasons. First, I knew John Robinson when he was Dean of Trinity College Cambridge and I was a student there from 1974 to 77. He was of course the controversial Dean who had written Honest to God as Bishop of Woolwich a few years before. In this earlier work he had slated several Christian doctrines which he considered no longer tenable in the Twentieth Century, most famously the Virgin Birth and bodily resurrection. He championed very liberal German scholars who rejected any historical basis for the Gospels on Humean  grounds: stories of miracles could not by definition be historical and therefore must be much later fantasies created long after the facts about Jesus had been forgotten, in order to boost the credibility of their founding figure. But it was OK, because we could follow Rudolf Bultmann in dividing the unknowable Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith. The fact that according to 1 John this division forms the basis of all heresy was overlooked: “Who is the Antichrist but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” Bultmann leaves Christians free to create Jesus in their own image and make it all up as they go along – any claims to truth in some factual sense are reduced to tatters. Academic theology lapped it up: PhDs flourish in this suddenly expanded field in a way they cannot when it is asserted that Jesus is substantially revealed to us in the Gospels.

All this got very wide coverage in the popular press. It most certainly fed the growing disillusionment with Christianity in the UK: “If their own bishops don’t believe all this stuff, then why should we?” Further developments flowed from it: a roughly contemporary Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, announced that the bodily resurrection of Jesus meant nothing more than “a conjuring trick with bones.” A book called The Myth of God Incarnate appeared. A movement arose called The Sea of Faith, whose adherents seemed mostly to be clergy who didn’t believe in God any more. Churches of course emptied at an accelerating rate: why should anyone go through the motions of a faith which its own leaders renounced? An acquaintance went to Emmanuel College Cambridge where Don Cupitt was Dean of Chapel, responding to Cupitt’s stripped out faith by abandoning his own. And I asked myself, “Maybe it is honest to God to confess that there are aspects of Christianity you reject – but then isn’t it dishonest to hang on to your pay packet as a Bishop?” 

Robinson was undoubtedly a central figure in this disaster for the Church and the Gospel and ought to bear responsibility. There was a good intention of sorts behind his stance: it was clearly hoped that if a few relatively unimportant doctrines were stumbling blocks to the faith of a great many ordinary Brits, why not jettison them and watch the lost sheep come flocking back in? However this begs the question, “What are the central and unalterable tenets without which our faith ceases to be Christianity and is turned into something else?” 

Things have improved a bit since Bishop Robinson’s day: following the exodus of so many unbelievers, the churches are much smaller but are more likely to be committed to their cause by choice rather than inertia. This is actually a healthy, pruning process: as half hearted, ill-informed churchgoing is stripped out, the quality of discipleship in those who remain is increased and this gives potential for growth. Nonetheless it seems clear that the effect of Robinson’s public statements was to lower rather than boost the credibility of the Gospel in the UK.

I remember Bishop Robinson as an austere figure about the College, not greatly given to smiling, and able to leave much of the day to day contact with students to a pair of chaplains while he pursued his theological interests. He was however given to surprising members of the Christian Union by showing that he often knew the Bible better than they did. For example he put on a Lent course called “He being dead yet speaketh,” and went round asking CICCU  people where the verse comes from (Hebrews 11 if you want to look it up.) I rather think he enjoyed confounding people’s expectations: he’d enjoyed being the enfant terrible of the Church of England with his disturbing views – did he enjoy ruffling the feathers of the liberal establishment as well, by teasing them that he was more conservative than they thought? I think this teasing quality is there in the tone of Can We Trust the New Testament, a delight in renouncing the role of master heretic that had been widely ascribed to him. Perhaps the same spirit underlay his later book The Priority of John (1984) which undermined the liberal case that John was a very late spiritualising addition to the canon. Together these titles seem to indicate that the direction of travel was back to a more conservative faith.

What fun to reminisce! But there are still important questions. Where has the debate got to in the fifty odd years since those days when the issues used to get an airing in public, at least occasionally? Robinson’s book is too short to be a comprehensive analysis of the theology of the New Testament in his day, but it does make for a very useful summary of the state of play, together with trenchant observations on some of its key features. So let’s see whether his definition of the field still stacks up today.

He begins by summarising the various views of those who are uncomfortable with biblical scholarship and makes clear his absolute commitment to the academic freedom to question everything. The third chapter, The Tools of Discrimination , briefly sets out the main critical methods which scholars apply to the New Testament:

Textual criticism - which of the various texts that have come down to us are the most reliable?

Source criticism – who wrote this and what sources did they draw on?

Form criticism – what literary processes have shaped the composition?

Redaction criticism – who pulled the document together into its final shape and what were they trying to achieve? You must try to imagine what might have been the needs and expectations of the people for whom the Gospels were written.

Robinson doubts some aspects of form criticism: “some of these critics…” have been “unwarrantably sceptical about the historical value of the tradition;” and even (the Gospel writers) “have been relegated to scissors-and-paste men.” However he is most scathing about redaction criticism: “Greatly inflated claims have been made for this method!” One of the most damaging outcomes has been the atomisation of the text into often minute subsections, called pericopes, each assigned a different authorship and history. With this operational method it is no longer possible to see broad themes in the Gospels. Any wider vision they may wish to impart is frittered away into fragments.

Bishop Robinson’s response to his own titular question is strongly that we can indeed trust the New Testament. He is very good on the sheer weight of documentary evidence, very many times more abundant than any other document dating from before printing was invented, and for the dates of the surviving manuscripts – because everything had to be copied out by hand over and over again – being very much nearer to the original date of writing than those available for any other literature. There are literally thousands! Yes there are some copying errors when some NT manuscripts are compared to others of the same portion of Scripture, and one or two occasions when explanatory notes were added to the text by well meaning later scribes, for example in Mark chapter 16, which somehow ended up being included as part of the Gospel in later versions. However Robinson points out that there are very few such variations and none of them make any difference at all to Christian teaching or to the events of Jesus’ life.

And Robinson adds the important point that more and more fragments of NT manuscripts keep turning up. Since the 19th century heyday of German scholars like Harnack and Levi-Strauss, the very late dates of composition they worked with have had to be abandoned because fragments of writings keep surfacing which are demonstrated to be of earlier date. Who knows when even earlier copies may surface? A great example is a fragment of Matthew’s Gospel dated to 85CE which was the subject of Carsten Peter Thiede’s The Jesus Papyrus, published in 1996. The response of those who held to established views? The exact correlation of the Greek letters in the fragment with a section of Matthew must be a coincidence! This is the triumph of received opinion over hard evidence.

In all this discussion Robinson takes a donnish delight in his own contributions to the New English Bible as part of the translation team. He seems genuinely to expect the readers of his supposedly popular title to be familiar with the footnotes, especially the ones he personally drafted, and to enjoy sifting through them. Ah, those ivory towers!

For Robinson then, “Can we trust the New Testament?” seems to mean, “is the text of the NT reliable?” and his conclusion is essentially, “Yes it is.” However that is the limit up to which he considers the NT as a whole to be reliable. He doesn’t follow through by saying that therefore the NT is also a reliable guide to what happened historically, nor that it is reliable in relation to present faith, theology or conduct. If the Gospels were written much earlier than the liberal scholars had thought, the time required for their supposed mythologising process to take place is denied them and their whole argument is shown to be flawed. We are brought into the context which Professor Richard Bauckham explores so vividly in his excellent Jesus – the Eyewitnesses, that there were still people about who remembered what happened. I personally believe that all the evidence shows that the Gospels were written by the time of the catastrophic destruction of the state of Israel by the Roman army in 70CE – that’s within 40 years of the crucifixion… 

The other major problem with Can we trust the New Testament is that it almost entirely concerns the Gospels. These had been the focus of the quest for the historical Jesus as the foundation for the liberal consensus of that time. But what about the other 23 books? Robinson offers one trenchant comment on Hebrews, pointing out the very many references to the Temple, its worship and its symbolism, without a single hint that it has been destroyed by the Romans – and this in spite of its constant recurrence to the theme that the Temple in Jerusalem was merely a passing shadow of the lasting spiritual reality now brought about by Christ. This can only mean that Hebrews was composed prior to the destruction of 70CE.

A survey of the other books of the New Testament provides a very interesting background for Gospel studies. It is generally acknowledged that many of the epistles pre-date the writing of the Gospels: yet they present a high Christology, like that in Hebrews, in which Jesus Christ is portrayed as Saviour, Redeemer and Lord through his cross and resurrection. The aforesaid liberal consensus does not sit at all well with this background. Far from Jesus needing a bit of a boost from a good write up by fourth or fifth generation Christians, he was already acknowledged as the name above all names from earliest days. No artificially inflated stories were necessary.

I am now going to throw in a few other reasons why we can trust the New Testament, not because they are in Robinson but because they should be and I am frustrated at their absence.

As others have pointed out, the grey figure who said and did little that was remarkable, as proposed by the pursuers of the quest for the historical Jesus and their ilk, could not possibly have launched the Christian movement. It is very hard to see how his humiliating death could have failed to overthrow such a person’s following and terminate his influence, apart from a subsequent resurrection.

If the Gospels are an official history, why do they give Peter and the other apostles such a bad press? Remember that these are supposed to be people charged with passing the message on to ensuing generations. Yet they are portrayed as often foolish, wavering, unbelieving, wrong-headed – just like us in fact. One of the great testimonies to the truth of the Gospels is their warts and all presentation of the early Christian leaders.

John the Baptist is a key figure in all four Gospels and in Acts, getting more coverage than any character except Jesus Himself. A broad range of incidents and sayings are included in this coverage, showing a multiple attestation to John. In spite of this breadth, a consistent message is always concurrent: John is the messenger of repentance from sin, preparing the way for Jesus who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. Here we clearly have a polemic. The evangelists aim to establish that Jesus, not John, is the Messiah and that to follow John means acknowledging Jesus, as John himself is shown to do. The existence of this polemic establishes that John’s disciples were still a significant presence in the world of the Gospel writers. This in turn connects to the dating of the Gospels, since they must have been written while John still had followers. But how long did John’s influence persist? As his mission seems to have been primarily to Jewish people it seems improbable that it can have lasted beyond the end of the Jewish state in 70CE, and indeed after Josephus we find no references to John in the record, in contrast to the various commentators who mention Jesus. We also find clear blue water between the canonical and the apocryphal Gospels, the latter hardly bothering with John at all and showing no interest in the polemical concerns of the former. The apocryphal gospels therefore clearly date from after the waning away of John’s following. They are not playing in the same park as the canonical Gospels. I would love to research this if I can find an academic prepared to supervise me!

As C S Lewis points out somewhere, if the Gospels are fiction, they anticipate the techniques of realistic prose narrative, as we find it in say the rise of the eighteenth century novel, by many hundreds of years. It surprises me how little theologians who base their criticism of the Gospels on literary grounds show any awareness of actual literary form and composition. Composition by patchwork as they often propose is vanishingly rare.

Still thinking in literary terms, I am convinced that the person of Jesus as described in the Gospels is not fictional. Just as there is nobody else remotely like Him in history, He is also without parallel in fiction. I studied literature at Trinity and I certainly never found anyone to compare with Him in the great works of Western civilisation. His powerful and beautiful combination of compassion, challenge, simplicity, profundity, authority, gentleness, penetration, practicality and spirituality are utterly unique. Our literary heroes have to have weaknesses or we don’t believe in them. These weaknesses are often the obverse of their strengths, so that a charismatic leader often lacks humility and vice versa, or a practical person is impatient of contemplation and vice versa. How did the Son of Man manage to have all the strengths of human character without the corresponding flaws? Yet I am utterly convinced by Him and long to follow Him and become more like Him…

I’m going to conclude with two examples in which Robinson, having asserted that we can trust the text of the New Testament, refuses to trust in its teaching. The first is the virgin birth. Part of the context for Robinson was probably the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960. He had spoken in defence of D H Lawrence’s novel at the trial on the grounds that the work had artistic merit and this justified its publication and readership. Lawrence in some of the purpler passages of his books mythologises sex as holy and meaning-laden. I therefore think that Robinson may have felt that the virgin birth demeans sex through God’s non-participation in the usual means of human procreation, almost as if the morally responsible thing for God to do would be to engage directly with human sexuality. The whole area has become much more convoluted since then and all kinds of interesting variations would now need to be involved to keep it inclusive! Anyway Mary wouldn’t have existed without a mother and a father, or their mothers and fathers, so sex is never far away…

The second example is the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is odd that Robinson rejects the virgin birth in order to champion the body but then abandons the body when it comes to God’s long term purposes in the resurrection. In Can we trust the New Testament he is satisfied with the survival of the human spirit as the intention of the many passages in the Gospels and epistles that feature the risen Christ. For Robinson the point of the resurrection narratives is that they offer proof that something of us survives death. However the Lord came to do very much more than simply survive: He came to conquer! The point of those embarrassingly physical (for Robinson) testimonies to the resurrection is that Jesus takes back everything that death has robbed us of and sets in train a movement of redemption for the whole universe in which it too will be set free from its bondage to decay for a life no longer subject to the power of death. All sorts of peoples, religions and mythologies have believed in some sort of afterlife. A currently popular version seems to be that you become a star or a robin... The resurrection is totally different, a power from God breaking into the cosmos and revolutionising it. That’s what the apostles got so excited about! To miss this while surveying the reliability of the New Testament is to miss its entire point.

While it is a positive that Robinson affirms the undoubted reliability of the text of the New Testament it is sad to see so little trust in its central message. Perhaps Robinson was on a trajectory which would ultimately lead him back into the fold of believers, as a contemporary who was a postgraduate at Trinity and later one of my tutors at Oak Hill used to think. The evidence of Can we trust the New Testament however is that at the time of writing it Robinson was still a long way from the goal of that journey.

Friday 1 December 2023

 Cahokia Jazz

This novel is HUGE!  Even taken simply as a thriller it is brilliant, with all the plot twists, desperate chases, lowlife locations, brutal action, suspense and gore you could possibly want, if they are your thing. However it has so very much more… It’s about a critical point in history affecting the future of millions… It’s a reflection on politics, tensions between socialism and capitalism, aristocracy and republicanism… It’s about the mystique and mythology which society demands of its rulers and the crushing expectations those demands bring with them… It’s about race, living together, dealing with hatred, but potentially, sometimes at least, being blessed in the sharing of varied cultures… It’s a romance, the inception, rejection, and final flourishing of love… it’s a Bildungsroman, showing us how an uncertain character, Barrow, raised as an abandoned, directionless orphan, develops and matures during the few days’ course of the story… And of course it is good versus evil, what else? With such a huge reach it undoubtedly qualifies as an epic of the order of Les Miserables or, whisper it, in many fewer words, War and Peace… it even has a cavalry charge! 

Further to all the above, Cahokia Jazz is also a tragedy in the classical sense that the same forces which have awakened Barrow to find deeper meaning, confidence and vitality for his life also drive him to his final destruction. So many beautiful prospects open up for him – domestic bliss with Miss Chokfi, a successful career in the police service, above all the jazz music that so greatly inspires him. One by one he refuses them all in pursuit of his deeper calling. The strong new person he has discovered in himself is thrown away, and his own character brings it about. We have known and loved this man Barrow as he has struggled towards the light. To lose him like this is the true tragic pity and terror. Yet in the extraordinary final scene he embraces this ending as the completion of his life, not its dissolution. He gets through to a space beyond tragedy in which his sacrifice is a fulfilment, not a waste, an ending he himself embraced as the complete expression of the new person he has now become.

Without doubt this climactic moment represents a yet further layer of Cahokia’s world. This is its spiritual, specifically Christian, foundation. The novel turns out to be an exploration of the greater love that lays down life for its friends which is described, and enacted on the cross, by Jesus. The timing of Barrow’s ending, at the climax of the celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation, connects it to the coming of a great new hope from God into the world: as the fatal event unfolds, the crowd sings Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi. The fall of the would-be assassin Drummond parallels the fall of Satan and echoes the prayers of the worshippers to “deliver us from evil.” As the dying Barrow lets Drummond fall he says to him, “It’s about love,” and kisses him on the forehead.

Spufford simultaneously uses the celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation to affirm the rule of Barrow’s lover as the new Sun ruler of Cahokian society. Without the sacrifice of love, he seems to propose, the bonds that keep society together, that unite people’s values and enable rule by consent, that set up boundaries against corruption and hatred, cannot subsist. His Notes and Acknowledgements quote Ursula LeGuin: “Without the blood bond the arch would fall, you see.” Or as W H Auden puts it, “Without a cement of blood, it must be human, it must be innocent, no secular wall can safely stand.” Both they and Spufford have in mind the ancient Native American custom of adding blood to their mortar.

Spufford’s Cahokia is a world teetering on the brink of genocidal hostility and economic rapacity. It is saved and healed by the blood sacrifice of its hero. But is there, underlying the so narrowly averted threats to the peace of Cahokia, an anxiety that the same abyss is opening up beneath contemporary Western society? Traditional wisdoms and values are flouted, culture wars rage, politicians exploit and foment hatred and division instead of working for unity, people and relationships are commodified. People are being pulled apart by the forces of stress-related illness, poor mental health, the aridity of materialism, the vacuity of anti-rationalism, the false promises and endless lies of our post-truth era. The bond of blood has been repudiated and yes, the arch is falling… 

Yes there are some loose ends. I long to know what happened to Miss Chokfi, to the red-headed reporter, to the Moon after Barrow dies. Nonetheless there’s still more to this wonderful book - music, sex, tradition, leadership, culture, comedy… I’ve been a fan of Spufford ever since Unapologetic (see review elsewhere on this blog) but this far surpasses his previous already inspiring work. Cahokia Jazz connects with us through amazing prose, never preachy about its monumental themes, always bringing people, places and events fully to life: it’s beautiful and ugly, tender and violent, witty, challenging and overpoweringly awesome. What an orchestra! What music! Read it!

Sunday 12 November 2023

 The Real You?

This isn't so much a book review as a review review - my review of Anna Katharina Schaffner's review of Tara Isabella Burton's Self-Made: creating our identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement's 27 October 2023 issue. I believe the issue of identity is so  central to contemporary personal and political emotional struggle that it is vitally important for Christians to think through their responses. We have powerful insights to offer, on the self as God's beloved, made in His image, the object of His loving redemption: but also the self deracinated from God and trying to piece together an identity out of the rags of its alienation.

So I wrote to them, obviously hoping they might want to publish - but slipping it into this blog incase they don't...

Thanks to Anna Katharina Schaffner for her review of Tara Isabella Burton’s Self-Made (TLS 27 October), in particular for her stimulating insights into the divinisation of personal identity in a post-religious culture. Here are some personal responses to her stimulus.

What happens when discontent with one’s current self is the main driver for its reconstruction? Is it possible that feeding this dissatisfaction will only make the beast stronger? Won’t it then devour each new identity as it is formed? Are our quests for new identities therefore doomed to fail? Received or constructed, human identity is circumscribed by illness, age and death. How can we have a meaningful identity in view of our transience? Don’t selves constructed out of images, and therefore out of the perceptions of others, particularly carry the seeds of their own destruction? 

So isn’t our striving for a better identity more likely to be the outcome of our alienation than a bold effort at self-deification? Schaffner provocatively cites Lucifer as an example of a downfall brought on by self-engineering: perhaps he is a good metaphor for the spiritual death that may ensue. Has our culture then been too hasty in rejecting the wisdom of its long Christian heritage? The Gospel saying, “Those who seek to save their lives will lose them,” proposes that our deepest identity is to be found in that which transcends the self to become part of a larger whole. If “God is love” then the fulfilled self is that which is learning to love and to be loved. 

Wednesday 20 September 2023

 Wild Gospel, Alison Morgan

Wild Gospel explores the dynamic between cultures and the irruptive power of the Gospel. Dr Morgan looks on culture as the means humanity uses to protect itself from the dread nature of our condition. We are contingent beings, constantly subject to mortality, mischance and malaise, so we construct culture around ourselves to try and feel that we have some sort of control over the chaos, that meaning and value are still available to us. It’s a protection enabling us to huddle together against the dark through a network of shared stories and attitudes.

The problems with this are many. It can become oppressive, forcing people to share our defences against fear or be excluded. It can be extremely divisive between those of one culture and another, as history has demonstrated over and over again: for some evil reason we define ourselves by who we are not, shutting out and rejecting outsiders. Cultures also let us slip into lazy thinking, where we drift along with what everyone else expects, failing to become our own distinctive selves.  

And worst of all, culture’s promise of defence against the dark is simply not true. It creates the illusion that we can get some sort of control over life and death when the 3 Ms above are all still rampant all around us and within us. We all need culture so that we can relate to one another on the basis of shared understandings: but our cultures are always compromised. In the face of the storm culture allows us to build only on sand.

This is not life to the full! All cultures, by themselves, deliver a half life of compromise and unfulfillment. But Jesus came to give life, and give it to the full (John 10:10). It follows that Jesus is always at odds with the half life that culture promises but cannot deliver on. Jesus wants to bring out the best in humanity and is therefore never going to compromise with second best. He therefore always challenges prevailing culture: Jesus is always wild, always comes from outside the expectations of encultured people. His death and resurrection mean that cultures as well as individuals need to die to sin in order to be raised to new life. But culture is so strongly connected to identity for most people that His challenge to it is met with fear and hostility.

Morgan cites Jesus’ affirmations of all those pushed to the margins of New Testament era culture – tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, sinners – together with his condemnations of those who stood at the apex of that culture – Pharisees, priests and Levites – as evidence of his counter cultural drive. The Pharisees needed the challenge of Jesus’ love, not only for themselves, to shock them out of their complacency, arrogance, judgmentalism and hypocrisy, but also to counter the oppression they heaped upon their culture’s rejects.

There follows a survey of Christian counter-cultures, or more often sadly the church’s collusion with culture or even attempts to fashion an oppressive culture in its own hierarchical and institutionalist image. Morgan’s examples of new life coming and challenging withered cultures include the monastic movement, pilgrimages, the Franciscans, the Reformation, Evangelical revivalism, and the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. In spite of the refreshment they brought for a little while, each one of them in turn faded into a stale legalism. 

In general Morgan therefore sees the faith coming alive in the Spirit when new movements challenge stultifying norms, but falling back into a coma when we are fixated on the expectations of a previous generation, so that we fail to see what God is calling us to become now. One has only to look at the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burnings of books and people, the compromises with Hitler, or the Magdalen laundries to see how often the church as an institution has brought death instead of life to the people. “The thief comes only to kill and steal and destroy.” Sometimes that thief has been us…

Coming up to her time of writing (published 2004), Morgan sees the new culture as post-modernism and proclaims the death of Christendom which used to form the overarching narrative that once sustained Western culture, but whose symbols have now lost their potency for the great majority of people. Where Christendom has degraded into neo-Pharisaism this has been a good thing, a corrective to an abuse of the Gospel. 

But what is to be the way forward for our witness to this post-Christian culture? Morgan advocates personal renewal through charismatic experience as a response to the stultification of modernism and its deracination from its former Christian conceptual framework. I am very sympathetic to this, in view of my own experience of life in the Spirit, even though I have often sadly been charismatic more by aspiration than practice. Morgan has some beautiful tales to tell of people liberated by the Gospel, finding the power to change lifestyles that have served them badly through the presence of God’s love in their lives. We need Jesus! Desperately! Nonetheless I believe there are two important qualifications to add to Morgan’s prescription.

First, the emphasis on personal experience, vital as it is, far from countering post-modern culture, actually plays along with it. For very many people, there really isn’t anything else beyond myself. In a post-truth generation, what I think and how I feel is everything. Many people’s rejection of the dead world which is the still-birth of quasi-scientific materialism has led them into anti-rationalism in which evidence, analysis and cognition are devalued. Things are true because I believe them, instead of I believe things because they are true. So what if you believe something irreconcilably different, that’s true for you too. With these egregious cultural assumptions there is no reason to believe the Gospel, it’s just all made up, like everyone else’s truth. I believe that Jesus challenges this anti-rationalism just as much as any other false culture. He is the Logos, the Divine Word. God sustains the universe by His Word of power. The whole cosmos demonstrates that mind comes before matter. Mindlessness is a diminution of our humanity and an enemy of the truth.

Secondly I think we are seeing, not a new culture, the next wave in an endless cycle of ebb and flow, but a corrosion of culture itself, heading for its dissolution. There are no longer shared norms and narratives, which of course may be challenged as they decay into oppressive forms: instead there is a vacuum in which everyone has to make it up as they go along. We cannot base our identities on the traditional forms of country, artistic and literary traditions, history, religion, family, gender, work roles and so on because all these are held to be oppressive to somebody or other and form the seeds of hate crime. But if we could be confident in foregrounding our true identity as children of God, our background identities would become sources not of conflict but of celebration as each contributes their diversity to the benefit of all.

Instead of bringing freedom this absence of all boundaries has brought a tidal wave of anxiety and self-harm by corroding all concept of who we actually are. Cultures are no longer organic entities but carcases from which we pick out the bits that suit ourselves, so that we become people of everywhere and nowhere, every identity and none. Debate becomes ever more aggressive as those who disagree with us no longer live alongside us as neighbours but confront us as enemies. These are all things that culture was supposed to help us work round so we could live together, if not well, at least with some hope of community. We are therefore progressing, not towards a new culture, but to an unculture: not so much a new Dark Ages but a new kind of dark age.

The Christian project must certainly encompass the evangelical charismatic dimension of salvaging individuals from this tide of individualism and recovering our image of who we are as children of God in Christ. But the destruction of culture requires a further step – the redemption of culture. Individual Christians who are strong in their faith and speak out for it in their context are essential to this redemption. But there is a further dimension which I believe involves engagement with the arts. 

Much current Christian symbolism grew from the Victorian imagination and no longer resonates for our contemporaries. We need poets, film makers, thinkers, song writers, story tellers, musicians, painters, architects and writers who can breathe new inspiration into the great truths that bring life – justice, mercy, sin, suffering, redemption, love, compassion and sacrifice. When these cease to be abstractions, become clothed with meaning, and fire the imaginations of ordinary people, we will be able to speak to culture in a language they can understand. If Christians imaginatively convey a rich and worthwhile humanity, the poverty of our consumerism, the misery of our materialism and the shallowness of our secularism will by contrast be seen for the debased and dehumanising ways of life they are. We need to unleash our creativity to bring hope that our unculture may be redeemed and the people rehumanised in Christ.

Sunday 17 September 2023

 The Siege, John Sutherland

Dorking Book Reading Club 10aug23

This is a book I would certainly not have chosen without the Book Club. I expected shallow characters, stereotypical attitudes, very plot driven with lots of suspenseful twists and turns. I definitely got the last of these. Mr Sutherland proved to be very good at building tension and handling unpredictability – difficult to do convincingly when, behind the scenes, the author knows exactly what he wants to say and has complete control of all he creates. But I got a lot more than these…

First of all, I wasn’t expecting such a positive view of the Christian faith. I have become used to my beliefs constantly being portrayed as bigoted, out of touch, anti-rational, living in the past, humourless, hypocritical, judgemental, and so on. We seem to be fair game for every kind of resentful prejudice in a way that is not applied to other religions or world views. This is also true of crime fiction: whenever the clergy are present, it turns out to be the vicar what done it. So I am very grateful to Mr Sutherland for offering a much kinder and definitely more realistic presentation. The Church where the action takes place has invested in up to date facilities because it has a huge ambition to serve its needy local community. The vicar is open hearted and full of humanity…

But above all it’s the figure of Grace, who is at the heart of the book, who embodies a lived Christian faith. Her name is no accident, as the reference to Amazing Grace indicates. Grace is the virtue that cares, forgives and turns the other cheek, which is set forth in the story of Jesus Christ. He comes in humility, makes Himself vulnerable and endures the cross for our sake and for our redemption. This is love in action for those who can never be worthy of it – but God loves us anyway, and will do whatever it takes to bring us back, if we choose…

So Grace just keeps on giving. She is there for her friend Rosie the vicar, but also for the Syrian mother and children whom she has just met for the first time. When she has the opportunity to escape, she won’t take it, in spite of her desperation to be reunited with her son Isaiah, because she won’t leave until everyone else is able to come too. In the end she is even capable of seeing the humanity of someone who seems to have nothing but hatred and lies in his life, and to offer hope to her terrorist captor.

If this makes her seem an impossible goody-goody, she isn’t. It’s her own struggles with bereavement – her husband who died of cancer, her son who was murdered – that make her more aware of the struggles and suffering of others. Instead of hardening her, those struggles softened her. Instead of weakening her, they strengthened her, for she is strong! She is the one who transforms the entire situation because she is strong enough to care and thus to make herself vulnerable to others. Dealing with someone who is all hard edges, full of ideology and hatred, she offers a love for which he has no answers. Her vulnerability touches the vulnerability buried very deep under his angry dehumanised psyche. I did not expect to be moved by this book, but I confess, I wept.

Yes Grace finds it hard to pray in her desperate situation – who wouldn’t? Yes she is unable to return to the fatal church hall where she experienced so much trauma, just as we would be unable. Yes of course she needs counselling and support. Initially I expected her to be a cliché, big black momma, all heart and maternal instinct, but she is so much more. It’s so difficult in fiction to create “good” characters convincingly, but in Grace the author incarnates goodness in a way that humanises rather than dehumanises her. Clearly Sutherland admires and appreciates the values by which she lives.

Comparable processes are going on with Alex, the police negotiator, too. Although much is made of the professionalism of the police, shown in their deployment of resources, their detailed procedures and the rigour of their application to the task, Alex and his team’s best work comes from making genuine human contact with Lee the terrorist, trying to understand him, to get alongside him and even to offer the possibility of a more humane set of values to him: to be trustworthy, understanding and compassionate.

These attitudes make you vulnerable, so this is also a story of Alex’s redemption from the past trauma of a negotiation that went terribly wrong. Somehow he manages to overcome his hurt and reconnect with the hostile Lee. But it is also the story of Lee’s radicalisation and ultimate redemption as he discovers new possibilities through human connection. Grace even comes alongside him as he awaits trial in prison. He is offered at least the hope that life can be different, that a new start is possible.

Finally, the book is very positive about the Metropolitan Police, very timely in view of all the bad news that they have brought upon themselves lately. As portrayed by Sutherland, they are extraordinarily professional, dedicated and thorough, unequivocally a force for good. There is no racism, sexism or veniality in Sutherland’s Met. There isn’t even bickering. There are strong, effective female leaders, like Pip who leads the negotiating team. There are no officers who secretly feel that Lee may have a point, that maybe there are too many foreigners over here. If only reality were actually like this!

Thursday 6 July 2023


A Man Called Ove: Fredrik Backman

U3a Reading Group 29jun23

Ove would clearly be put on some spectrum or other these days – autism? OCD? He finds machines much easier to deal with than people, diagrams more fulfilling than friendships, and routines more comfortable than the baffling complexities of relationships. Signs must be respected! He takes refuge in the past because he coped with how life was back then and feels everything modern is a vexatious complication. His skills are dismissed as no longer required in the modern world – but that turns out to be not quite the case…

It’s to the author’s credit that he doesn’t medicalise Ove but allows us to get to know him a little bit at a time as a person. He tempts us to dismiss Ove as a cantankerous, stuck in the past old grump, but then undercuts that with passages describing his courtship with his wife that are almost lyrical, and then poignantly undercuts again with his despair following her loss to cancer some months before the action of the novel begins - not to mention their shared despair following the death of their only child.

This despair leads Ove, in narratives of the darkest shades of humour, to attempt suicide in various ways. His wife was clearly the anchor of his soul. She negotiated all those tricky relationships for which he was so manifestly under-equipped. She understood him – he was like her father in many ways – and valued his skills. Without her he is completely lost, like a machine that is irreparably broken, and can’t see any reason to go on living. His despair isn’t so much emotional as rational – just what is the point without her?

However this is a novel of redemption. Ove is not however saved by a Redeemer figure but by the local community of which he has largely been oblivious. Through a series of encounters they intrude again and again into the desert of his inner life, often at precisely those times when he is trying to carry out yet another suicide attempt, so much so that the coincidences begin to seem too improbable, unless we make allowance for the farcical element. The outcome of one attempt, suicide by jumping in front of a train, turns into a rescue, because of which Ove becomes a local hero.

I am not sure if communities are really as totally engaged with each other as the one portrayed in this book, especially in Scandinavia where I fancy privacy and non-intrusion are highly valued. Perhaps that’s why the first person to really connect with Ove is an Iranian neighbour, Parvaneh, who has absolutely no qualms about knocking on his door when she wants anything, no matter how frosty his reception of her might be. 

Comparisons may be drawn between A Man Called Ove and Forrest Gump – both feature people who seem to be misfits but turn out to have a deeper wisdom and to be worthy of respect. It’s hardly a surprise that Tom Hanks was cast as the star of the film versions of both novels. There are also possible comparisons with Groundhog Day, not only with the black comedy of repeated suicide attempts but also with the education of the chief characters to be more aware of and open to their fellow human beings. However with Bill Murray's character in GHD it's selfishness, not loneliness and grumpiness, that he needs to unlearn.

Lessons I would like to draw from Ove are to understand that there may be terrible pain underlying the antisocial exteriors of our fellow human beings, and to remember what a killer loneliness is in contemporary society.

Saturday 20 May 2023


The Man From London, Georges Simenon

I found this book difficult to enjoy initially because none of the main characters is likeable. It's a seedy world where nobody is really bothered about anyone else except when they can get something out of them or are professionally required to be involved.

The central character, Maloin, manifests this malaise. He’s domineering, angry and sullen with his family, bored with the colleagues from whom he pilfers brandy, unfaithful to his wife with Camelia, the town prostitute, and sees the murder to which he is an eye-witness as an opportunity for personal gain. Sleazy.

The atmosphere of a sea port in winter with its highly mechanised routines and its cold and foggy inhospitability is well caught. The ancestor perhaps of so many police procedurals on TV, where a bleak background seems to be an essential contrast to the cosiness of say the drawing room thrillers of Agatha Christie?

Nobody communicates in this place – not really. Yes they go through the motions: “How are you today?” “Fine,” or “Morning Louis” - “Morning Baptiste” but these are reflexes. Nobody is really connected to anybody else. Even the most intimate relationships, husband and wife, parent and child, are so deeply imbued with boredom and resentment that they hardly look at each other. The failures of communication between English and French characters arising from the lack of a common language underscore this universal failure to communicate one’s own personal being. It’s just as bad in England: Brown has been deceiving his wife and children about his true lifestyle for years.

The interaction between Maloin and Brown is oddly like an inverted love story. They become intrigued by each other, wonder what each other is thinking, are on constant look out for each other, study each other’s faces and expressions, speculating what the other is really like – except that they are fact falling in enmity, not love. In the climactic scene in Maloin’s boatshed they grapple face to face and body to body but of course with all its physicality it is a deadly fight, not a tryst.

Yet Maloin actually wanted to come to the boatshed in peace. He had compassion, it would seem, strangely enough in the emotional desert of this book, on Brown, who has been locked into the shed for some time without food or warmth.

This scene is a dreadful parody of true communication. Maloin cannot be completely sure that Brown is in there – he might have broken out somehow in the long time available to him – but he decides to reach out to him anyway. He’s brought sausage, pate and sardines for a man he knows to be starving. Almost desperately, Maloin cajoles, entreats and threatens in order to persuade this Brown that he can’t be sure is there to show himself and take the food he needs. All the time, Brown is standing in the shadows behind him, waiting to strike him with a metal hook and kill him if he can.

But of course it is Maloin who ends up killing Brown, in self defence. He is almost apologetic about this, especially with Mrs Brown, who comes with the Scotland Yard detective inspector to view the body. Characteristically he cannot communicate any of his feelings to her because he knows no English and she no French.

Maloin’s attitude during the coda of the story in which he is in custody, charged and sentenced is extraordinary. He has no wish to explain or justify himself even though a plea of self-defence is ready to hand. He is contemptuous of the process and the people involved in it. He seems to feel that he has gained something from his experiences that they cannot understand or participate in, and which is incommunicable to them.

Could it be that his compassion for Brown and his attempt to reach out to him as a fellow human being, even though violently rebuffed, has taken Malois to a new level of being? That he feels authenticated by his own compassionate act in a way that he never could by the life of surliness, routine and self-serving that he has settled into?

And so a familiar landscape starts to loom out of the Dieppe fog. Aren’t we in the land of the French existentialist novel? Isn’t this rather like L’Étranger, where Camus’ anti-hero finds he has killed someone without really wanting to or knowing why or how? Where people live a drifting, inconsequential and purposeless life, unless they can find some action that will raise them into actual personhood? Isn’t this what Malois has done, however feebly he is able to articulate it, in The Man from London? And isn’t it an interesting departure from Camus’ world that the act which validates Malois’ humanity is an act of compassion?

With thanks to Dorking u3a readers' club.