Books


A few days holiday allow space for recording a few books read recently.

Doctors at War, ethnographer Professor Mark de Rond’s powerful record of his time embedded with a medical unit at Camp Bastian in Afghanistan, provokes much thought and emotion. It is clear that exposure to the sheer unnecessary and seemingly random suffering of ordinary people as well as combatants raises questions of theodicy. This disturbs Mark’s own faith questions, and leads him ultimately to an expression of atheism. Reading the book, however, provoked in me a different question: not how we account for suffering and evil, but, rather, how we account for joy in a world of such suffering? This is not glib; I would love to see a further discussion of it.

At the other end of the scale is Simon Jenkins’ entertaining romp
through Christian faith and its oddities, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse. The book comprises columns Simon published in the United Reformed Church (not ‘Reform’ as it says in the book itself) magazine Reform. Making theology simple and accessible is not as easy as Simon makes it look. He shines an unusual light from an unusual angle to open up our thinking and not close it down. As I know from years of writing scripts for Radio 2, this isn’t always an obvious or simple task.

Sitting here in Berlin waiting for a thunder storm to break, it is worth
recommending James Hawes breathless race through the entire history of Germany. The Shortest History of Germany is excellent and enlightening, but it is clear he neither likes nor trusts Prussians. A better overview of Europe’s most important country you will not find – and in these days of Brexit and Trump, with a German election coming up later this year, it is worth the quick read.

Finally for now, Tom Fletcher’s book about the impac of digital change on international diplomacy, The Naked Diplomat, is excellent. Again, an easy read, it says a lot about communication, leadership and handling change. It also contains the most memorable quote about diplomacy – inevitably from Winston Churchill: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

Discuss.

While looking for another of his books in a London bookshop, I came across Jews and Words by Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger – he a novelist and she a historian. It is intriguing, funny and enlightening, with some pertinent comments and observations that speak into contemporary discussions of Israel, Judaism and Jewishness. I would be interested to hear a response to the book from someone who intuits (because inhabits) the Jewish cultural worldview being explored. The key line is that the authors, both atheists, see the vitality of a “textline” over a “bloodline”.

So, it might seem odd to link that to a very different book: Mount Sinai: A History of Travellers and Pilgrims. Written by George Manginis, it is a detailed account of what most people know as Mount Sinai. In fact, he describes it early on as a “biography” of Moses' Mountain, deriving this from archaeological interpretation, historical analysis, art historical appreciation and textual criticism.

He might have added “fashion history” to the list. The fascinating and vivid account of life in this place includes almost passing reference to the transience of some resident communities. Referring to some time around 300AD he quotes:

And they [the savage nation of Vlemmyes], hoping to find riches, came to plunder the monks; since they found nothing but woven mats and the saints themselves wearing animal hair garments, they were outraged and slaughtered them, even though they did no harm.

When you stand back and survey the great sweep of the entire history of the known universe (for starters), how do you count the significance of some men who (a) chose to live as monks in a desert, (b) had a basic line in clothing, and (c) met a grisly death for no apparent reason other than that they disappointed their killers?

This is a pertinent question in a world in which we have become used to hearing stories of whole communities being summarily wiped out by people who fundamentally dislike them. It focuses Primo Levi's post-Auschwitz question about what is a human being? Is a life valuable when lived in obscurity (as most are) and ended in cheap violence? The Christian answer is clear, but this is a contested matter in a world in which ethics too often are discussed in purely utilitarian terms.

Anyway, that's a digression. The biography of Mount Sinai allows stories to be told by people who have been there. These are people who have travelled, lived, sojourned, invaded, worshipped, hidden and traded in a place thought of by many as holy. They bring their diverse motives and conflicted contributions to a place that, if the stones could speak, would tell much about what human beings are really like. Holiness does not dwell in splendid isolation from the real world, but somehow flickers a fragile flame amid the usual stuff, business and horrors of the world we all know.

I have not been to Sinai, and I know little of the development of the area. Its history is not one with which I am very familiar (where is Tom Holland when you need him?). But, this book, bringing together the several disciplines that tell its story, is rich in detail, agile in narrative, and evocative in mood. It makes me want to go there. As the book concludes:

What makes Jabal Musa interesting for the scholar, fascinating for the visitor, and hallowed for the believer is the layering of worship; the stratigraphy of devotion. The place continues to inspire awe, to be seen as a refuge and to attract pilgrims. The immutability of its rituals is the measure of its importance… Modernity denies or ignores tradition. For some, Jabal Musa is just a mountaintop. For most, it remains a holy place.

 

This morning I read Alan Johnson's moving memoir This Boy and it nearly brought me to tears. Without a shred of self-pity, the former Labour minister simply gives an account of his childhood. Dreadful poverty, but powerful women.

This evening I read a book of sermons edited by the late John Hughes of Jesus College, Cambridge. Entitled The Unknown God, the sermons formed a series responding to the so-called New Atheists. It is funny as well as incisive, bringing together such minds as Terry Eagleton, David Bentley Hart, Tim Jenkins, Alister McGrath and John Cornwell.

The thing about sermons is that they are concise. They focus in a way that a ten or twelve minute time limit necessitates, but manage to be dialectical in nature as well as limited in reach. The only pity is that no New Atheist was invited to preach a response to these responses. (The charge that New Atheists don't preach is, of course, nonsense; assertion rather than engaged and informed argument is the nature of the approach.) but, it would have been interesting to hear someone respond within the constraints of a sermon preached.

The connection between Johnson's book and the sermons (in my reading of both books in a single day) is that Johnson's poor childhood took place as the consumerist post-war generation was growing with an assumption that religion was on the way out. David Bentley Hart observes:

Late modern industrial societies, whose economies are primarily consumerist, are already effectively atheist, insofar as the principal business of economic life in them has become the fabrication of an ever greater number of the traditional prohibitions upon the gratification of those desires. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest good is private choice… What once had to masquerade, even to itself, as a deep moral conviction and intense intellectual passion can now openly disport itself as the conventional and rather boring metaphysical rationality of a society shaped by the mechanisms and logic of the market. (p.89f)

It is the juxtaposition of a memoir that reflects on the mid-20th century development of the consumer society (finding a way out of poverty) with a questioning of the contemporary “radical” scientism that shapes or colludes with it that is interesting here. But, it is further interesting to pursue the accompanying category errors that lead to such confusions – such as that identified between 'faith' and 'belief' by Terry Eagleton.

You have to read the book to see what I mean.

 

Yesterday I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I grabbed it as we were leaving the house at 4am on Friday, an afterthought of nostalgia.

The copy I have still contained within it the notes I made in November 1976 when studying the text in my first term at university on a course called 'European Literature and Thought'. My handwriting has not improved.

Conrad's character sails into the heart of darkness – the Belgian Congo as it was only being discovered, but already being exploited – and encounters the darkness of the human heart. And, meeting Kurtz, he observes:

Everything belonged to him – but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. (p.70)

That's always the big question, isn't it? Not what I have grasped, but what has grasped me. Not what I think I have possessed, but what has possessed me.

And it doesn't only apply to the dark stuff. It is the same with grace and love and mercy and generosity. Is my grasp of them more or less important than their grasp of me? Or us?

It was this ultimate clarity that caused Kurtz to utter his final words: “The horror! The horror!” But, it doesn't have to end like that.

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today I read John Williams's novel Stoner. Highly hyped, it is the sort of thing I would usually avoid. But, it is beautiful and sad and true. Here we encounter a life lived in relative obscurity, but it is a life ordinarily lived. And, again, it speaks of loss and love and a beautifully expressed account of an inability to articulate what matters when it really matters. Life disappoints, relationships imprison and illusions are maintained.

It doesn't have to be this way; but, it often is. And anyone who engages in pastoral ministry knows it all too well.

(I don't just read miserable books on holiday. Next up is Alan Johnson's This Boy. Please tell me it is cheerful…)

 

I had hoped to finish Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer before coming to Basel to begin my study leave proper. I failed. But, I finished it last night.

I have read a lot about Bonhoeffer over the years and never cease to be amazed at how he is appropriated (and interpreted) in support of all sorts of theologies. Schlingensiepen's book is good, but occasionally veers onto the edges of hagiography, interpreting gaps in documentation with the most positive conjecture (“He must have had a conversation about…”).

However, what still stands out from any reading of Bonhoeffer is his lifelong insistence that there are no eternally valid ethical principles, and that Christians “in every historical situation [must] listen anew to God's commandments and … follow Christ.” (p.251) This enabled him to hold together two ethical stances that appear to be contradictory: (a) for the Resistance to kill Hitler whilst (b) rejecting euthanasia on the basis of the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill'. Schlingensiepen summarises: “Only a Christian who understands that he or she is free can make the right ethical decisions.”

It looks easy when put like that. But, the story of Bonhoeffer wrestling with the demands of commands (obedience) and decision (freedom) is a painful one to read. He didn't 'do his ethics' abstractly, sitting in a university library or a bishop's study (though he did study in studies and libraries…); he worked out his ethics on the ground, in the furnace of costly choice and agonising personal cost.

He was able to do this because of a fundamental vision: Jesus Christ stands before God (and Pontius Pilate) as “the obedient one and as the free one”, recognising that even the Gestapo can't bind the prisoner who is free to choose and who knows where power really lies.

I am now moving on to Tom Wright's Virtue Reborn for a more recent 'take' on ethics and character. But, the question that still haunts me about Bonhoeffer is how his theology might have developed further if he had not been executed at the age of 39. We round him off as if his theology was complete, but I would love to know how he would now be regarded if he had lived and developed and moved on.

 

Just a question, but if every country in Europe did what the Swiss have done today – voting in a referendum to limit immigration into their land – what would be the economic and social cost (a) to the countries that need immigration, (b) to the countries that lose their best people to affluent Europe, and (c) to the people who need to emigrate from where they are in order to survive or thrive?

I have just arrived in Germany for a couple of days with friends before moving on to a theological conference near Frankfurt. Before leaving Bradford I finished reading Lucy Hughes-Hallett's award-winning The Pike, and have started on Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What both books evoke is the unnerving question about how possible it is to project ourselves forward in time in order to be able to look back on the impact our current choices, decisions or neglects will have on what is to come.

Silly, I know. But, this 'prophetic' attempt at imagination is vital. Hindsight, as we know, is a wonderful thing; but, is it possible to use appropriate foresight and consider where our priorities today might lead us tomorrow?

Gabriele d'Annunzio (of whom I had never heard before reading The Pike) was the sort of bloke who would have been sneered at by Brits like me. A swaggering Italian poser poet who seduced not only huge numbers of women, but also a whole nation – Italy – into the fascism that would lead to catastrophe, he comes over as a violence-loving nightmare on just about every front. The question that hangs over just about every page is: how did he ever get away with it? Or, as his biographer puts it:

Killing and being killed, pouring out the blood of myriads of young men, only by doing these things could a race demonstrate its right to respect. What d'Annunzio was saying is appalling: what is worse is how few people there were to disagree. (p.364)

Incidentally, the failure of other political parties and groups to coalesce in order to stop fascism in the early 1920s leads Hughes-Hallett to observe:

Keeping their principles unsullied, they open the door to fascist dictatorship.

In other words, a preoccupation with the purity of one's principles (or brand?) leads to the vacuum that the nasties will quickly fill. I think Jesus said something similar about clearing a demon out of a room only to find later that seven have moved in…

This is not trivial. Again, without knowing what might lie ahead – resistance, imprisonment and execution – Dietrich Bonhoeffer realised as a teenager that ethics must be practical and the idolatry of 'purity' questioned. In Paris in 1929 this Protestant saw who attended a solemn high mass at the Sacré Coeur and wrote subsequently:

The people in the church were almost exclusively from Montmartre, prostitutes and their men went to mass, submitted to all the ceremonies; it was an enormously impressive picture, and once again one could see quite clearly how close, precisely through their fate and guilt, these most heavily burdened people are to the heart of the Gospel… It's much easier for me to imagine a praying murderer, a praying prostitute, than a vain person praying. Nothing is so at odds with prayer as vanity. (p.40)

It is the last sentence that is unnerving. This is a young man, pushing the dominant theologies of his time – particularly that of Karl Barth – and beginning to shape the convictions and character that would ultimately lead him to resist Hitler, join in a murder conspiracy, and die alone on the gallows. Not much place for vanity.

My reading of the Gospels suggests that Jesus drove a coach and horses through obsessions with 'purity' and a consequent distancing of oneself from people or principles that might sully. He looked beyond the immediate reality – that the person with no moral leg to stand on cannot 'belong' and should not contaminate the rest of us – to the possibility of how people might become if exposed to the transforming power of love. And, yes, he probably knew that those who didn't like this would finally nail him. But, fear of being contaminated was rejected in favour of a desire to contaminate the world with goodness and grace.

Few resisted d'Annunzio and the glamour of his violent rhetoric and exploitation of other people. Bonhoeffer knew that even if no one else did, he would have to decide for himself and tell/live the truth… whatever the cost.

So, where might our decisions today (Syria, immigration, etc.) lead us tomorrow? That's the question hanging over my reading of d'Annunzio yesterday and Bonhoeffer today. And how do we know when we have been seduced by mere vanity?

 

The second book I have just read (see here for the first) from the imaginative Princeton University Press series Lives of Great Religious Books is John J. Collins’ The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography. Great stuff, again.

I have waited for a straightforward book about the Scrolls that not only introduced the contents and told the story, but opened up their implications and described the – often bizarre – academic controversies that have arisen around them. This book does it.

I haven’t the time or ability to deal with detailed academic scrutiny, important though that clearly is. I need something that gives me the big picture.

Towards the end of the book Collins concludes:

Despite sensationalist claims, [the Scrolls] are not Christian, and do not witness directly to Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. Nonetheless, they illuminate the context in which Jesus lived, and in which earliest Christianity took shape. (P.240)

Other works that do a similar job are (depending on whether you like film or book) Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilaean.

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