Books


Coming to Headingley for the third day of the third Ashes Test match was as much an act of hope (if you are English, that is) as optimism. A clear determination to enjoy the game, regardless of the outcome – a heavy and embarrassing defeat for England a couple of days short of the five-day limit or a miracle – was what characterised historian Tom Holland‘s Twitterfeed all day yesterday.

This attitude is one that runs through his writings and is best exemplified in his new book Dominion, to be published in a week or two. I have been reading a proof copy.

Holland tackles a huge task: not to describe the theology of Western Christianity since year zero, but to describe with breathtaking clarity and zest how the development of theology (and the people shaped by theology – i.e. everyone) has shaped the way western people see the world, understand history, assume morality and regard the rule of law and human rights. The ambition is great and he pulls it off. Like his other books, in my experience, it is very hard to put down once started as the narrative drives the reader on for more.

Yet, it isn’t just the content of the book that thrills (not a word I use often). The writing never fails to add colour to the description of ideas and movements. One example regarding Gerrard Winstanley in 1649 (page 350):

His foes might dismiss Winstanley as a dreamer; but he was not the only one.The occupation of St George’s Hill was a declaration of hope: that others some day would join the Diggers, and the world would be as one.”

He got John Lennon into a line on a seventeenth century dissenter and it is perfect.

Tom Holland doesn’t need me to review or commend him, but he is unique in his ability to bring history alive, particularly in its sweep and not just its detail. It is the big narrative that occupies the direction of this book. His contention that Christianity has shaped much of what is assumed in western culture and might not survive when Christianity’s roots are severed from the tree (human rights did not descend from nowhere and should not be assumed to be universally held or eternally guaranteed) is one with which I have a huge sympathy (predictably?). However, setting out a narrative rationale in the way Tom Holland does it in Dominion offers a basis for arguing the point and a provocation for those who see history differently. He seems to be asking that prejudices against religion or theology be suspended and the mind opened to what history itself might suggest to us.

I hope and expect that this book will prove to be the opening bat on a fertile wicket and I look forward to the game, which, judging by the plethora of reviews already ahead of publication, should itself prove to be thoroughly stimulating.

Today my new book is published by SPCK. Titled Freedom is Coming, it offers readings for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany based on Isaiah 40-55.

It is intended to make further sense of what Christmas is about and where Christian hope actually lies in a complex world.

Having the gift of space to read and think, it must not be wasted. While in Sudan last week I read Lindsey Hilsum’s biography of murdered journalist Marie Colvin, In Extremis, and Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Red-haired Woman. Now in Jena, Germany, I am reading Francis Spufford’s True Stories and Other Essays. This morning I took a look around the bookshop and read Mark Twain’s The Awful German Languagewhich had me laughing from the first to the last page.

Jena is where Hegel taught and where Schiller met Goethe. On the hills above the town Napoleon had his own encounter with German determination. On 14 October 1806 at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt Napoleon defeated the Prussian armies, subjugating the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire for the next six years. There were 50,000 casualties, the soil rich with the blood of now-forgotten humanity.

I mention this because I am reading Spufford’s excellent essays in a particular place and at a particular time – a place with its own history and memory and a time in which the shape of Europe is once again the object of struggle, albeit not military. I read and enjoyed Golden Hill (just after finishing Robert Harris’s Conclave – both having a similar twist in the tale), but have not yet read his other novels. In his essays he addresses one of these, Red Plenty, and describes the attempt to recreate for a distant generation a sense of the possibility that the USSR held out during the 1960s and ’70s.

This isn’t some naïve approval of Soviet statism or nostalgic reference to planned economies, but, rather, an exercise in trying to enable a new generation to inhabit a world that is now long gone. Most people now simply recall the collapse of the Soviet experiment – with few tears shed – and cannot imagine what it was to live through it without the benefit of hindsight. These essays need to be read in order to do justice to his case (and I now need to read the novel itself).

This has caught my own attention because it recalled for me an experience I had some years ago when I had been asked by a media production company to write an obituary for Pope John Paul II that could be broadcast in the event of his death. With a limited word-count I wanted to capture his part in the destruction of Soviet Communism, but in an evocative word or two. I chose to speak of ‘Politbüro’, but was told by the producer that this sounded ‘political’. I clarified that it is political, and that that is the point. Subsequent discussion led to a sort of enlightenment moment for me: the producer was in her mid-twenties, was born around the time of the fall of the (Berlin) Wall, and had no lived experience of the Cold War or a divided Europe. She had grown in the unipolar world of capitalist free-market monopoly. I, on the other hand, had grown up with the threat of nuclear cataclysm, had known people whose family was separated by the borders of East and West Europe, and had then worked at GCHQ as a professional linguist at the fag end of the Cold War (the first half of the 1980s).

Lucy (for that was her name) couldn’t intuit what I felt in my bones. She couldn’t imagine the world I had thought solid and permanent. I couldn’t explain or describe to her what it felt likeat the time to live in this world, not knowing what was to happen in 1989. A new generation of producers and gatekeepers was growing up who had no experience of what for me had been formative, integral and essential. (I kept the word in my script.)

This is what Spufford addresses in his novel and explains in his essays. We are all time-bound. I can try to explain or describe the thought world I inhabit, but, shaped as it is by my actual history and my personal limited visions and experiences, I have now to allow others to inhabit their world and bring to their conversation (and judgements) the assumed permanences of their perspective, knowing that they are provisional, limited and partial.

It reinforces the need to listen carefully in any dialogue, to interpret wisely, and to learn again to look – with humility – through the eyes of the other at why the world is the way it is and what can and cannot be taken for granted as common.

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.