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…)