Thoughts and Prayers

by Jonathan Pye.

On 1st October 2017, 59 people were killed and 500 wounded when a gunman opened fire on a crowd attending a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Although reported as the largest mass shooting by a lone gunman in US history, it was also simply the latest in a long litany of fatal shootings in that country that over just the last 20 years has included places like Columbine High School, Virginia Tech., Sandy Hook, Fort Hood and Orlando.  The assailant was neither young, nor black, poor nor radicalised. He was a 64 year old accountant, living in a retirement complex. It remains unknown why this seemingly unremarkable man amassed an armoury or used it to such deadly effect. In the days that followed we heard, time and again, from elected officials the usual familiar clichés in the face of such tragic and large-scale killings.

Two days after the shooting Kirsten Powers wrote in an article in the Washington Post – “Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ is starting to sound so profane”. Although herself, ‘a person who prays and who has been prayed for and knows its power’ she wrote:

It’s become a sort of twisted American ritual: A lone white male shooter opens fire on a crowd of people. Americans cry out for someone to do something and are met with shoulder shrugs, mumblings about ‘the price of freedom’ and assurances that the people elected to protect them are sending their “thoughts and prayers.” Politicians have managed to make a once benign, if not comforting, phrase sound almost profane.[i]

What she objects to particularly is the way in which civic and national leaders ‘spiritualise’ the problem by praying for victims rather than offering any practical response or effective action.

Her colleague, Colby Itkowitz, writing after the 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando described this as ‘a too easy, even insincere, display of empathy in absence of real action…’[ii] While both would agree that prayer can be efficacious both as an expression of empathy for the victims and a way of finding meaning in the face of brutality, nonetheless both would contend that ‘thoughts and prayers’ alone can simply be an evasion of the responsibility to act in the face of wrongdoing. Without action, prayer becomes merely a self-directed act – it makes the pray-er feel better, rather than being something that seeks to help those who are prayed for or to change the way things are. Such observations are charged with both psychological and theological insight.

In his book, Zero Degrees of Empathy[iii] Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology in the University of Cambridge, seeks to understand why some people act in ways that demonstrate great cruelty while others are completely self-sacrificing (the kind of contrasting behaviour that we observe in the difference between the shooter and those who covered the bodies of friends or relatives with their own bodies to prevent them from being injured). Baron-Cohen asks whether rather than thinking in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ we ought rather to consider everyone as lying somewhere along an ‘empathy spectrum’.

Without minimising the effects of either ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, I would resist Baron-Cohen’s too deterministic thesis that our position on that spectrum is largely determined by both our genes and our environment because it leaves little place for moral responsibility. This is why President Trump’s description of the gunman, Stephen Paddock, as ‘pure evil’ leaves me so uncomfortable. By describing someone as personifying ‘evil’ we render that person ‘other’, unlike ‘us’, and so places a distance between us. As a theologian, I agree with Baron-Cohen’s psychological insight that we are all capable of acts of great cruelty and great compassion and so I would argue that we share a moral obligation to go beyond ‘thoughts and prayers’ and to act in ways that promote the common good. While we may never fully prevent the killer’s actions, we may nonetheless, act positively to change a culture in which violence is endemic and the means to enact it are so readily available[iv] Theologically, this reflects a proper understanding of Augustine’s theory of ‘original sin’, not that we inherit the sinfulness of our parents but that by participation in a common humanity we all bear some measure of responsibility for what happens around us. This why Augustine could say, ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters, Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are’ because in Miroslav Volf’s words, ‘Theology is not only about understanding the world; it is about mending the world.’[v]

 

[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/10/03/why-thoughts-and-prayers-is-starting-to-sound-so-profane/?utm_term=.f2faad895eb8

[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/06/14/when-people-prayfororlando-is-it-empathetic-or-selfish/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.32c0573154c4

[iii] Baron-Cohen, S. (2011) Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness. London: Penguin.

[iv] Extending this argument to include consideration of the increasing use of motor vehicles etc., deliberately to effect mass casualties or deaths lies beyond the immediate cope of this short article.

[v] Volf, M. (2011) A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Brazos Press.  

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The Future of God

by Tom Greggs.

This last week was my birthday—another year old but no sense at all of being any wiser! Inevitably, for me at least, birthdays involve some reflection on the past—not only the past year but also further back, thinking about where one has come from and where one has got to, and what one has achieved and what one has failed to achieve.

Thinking about God within the life of the church can be a little like reflecting on the past from the standpoint of an anniversary or birthday. Within the church calendar, we mark specific events of God which we commemorate each year. We remember Christ’s birth at Christmas, the temptation of Christ during Lent, the events surrounding Jesus’ death in Holy Week, the resurrection of Christ at Easter, and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, as well as many other events marked within the rhythm of the church year. And in the weekly life of the church, we give praise to God and thank God for all God has done, and we celebrate communion to commemorate the body of Christ broken for us and the blood of Christ shed for us—the inestimable grace of God. We also proudly look backwards and commemorate the great moments of God’s favour within the life of our denomination or within the life of our individual congregations. Looking back in thankfulness to seek and gain encouragement is a significant part of what we do in the life of the church.

Our God is certainly forever the God of our past. In the story of Moses and the burning bush, in which God reveals God’s holy name to Moses as Moses is called to lead the people out from slavery, God reminds Moses of God’s identity in relation to the past, in relation to God’s faithfulness to Moses’ ancestors. God says in Exodus 3:6: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And we, I am sure, would want to add: and of Sarah, Rebekkah and Rachel! There is assurance in being reminded of the faithfulness of God to all generations.

But God is also for all eternity the God of our future. At this moment in the story of the Hebrews and their liberation, God reveals God’s own name to Moses, a name which is so holy it is not even spoken by Jewish people today:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14)

This name is usually translated in English (as in the above) following the Vulgate’s (the Latin translation) rendering ego sum qui sum (I am who I am). However, that translation does not capture the vitality, dynamism and depth of the Hebrew phrase. That phrase does mean “I am who I am”, but the Hebrew name equally could be rendered: “I will be who I will be” or “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.”[1] Indeed, given that God is poised at this point of the story to do a new thing with the Hebrew people, this future and causative rendering might be more fitting than the rather philosophical sounding and detached “I am who I am” (though that sense is also certainly included). But what is more, this future orientated understanding of the name is one which does not cease when God has accomplished God’s new work. The name God names Godself with is the name God has for all eternity. God says: “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations” (Exodus 3:15b); the Hebrew here emphasizes the ongoing nature of this title which God has forever and ever.[2] God will for all eternity be who God will be. God is always the God of the future.

When we think of our faith, when we think of the wonderful acts of God throughout history, let us not imagine that God is somehow a museum piece who needs dusting off and dragging into the present—that this is some part of our past but not our present or our future. God is always the God of our future, the One with whom we need to catch up, and even when we do catch up with God, like the pillar of cloud and of fire of God later in Exodus, God allows us to rest with God for just a while but then is once more quickly leading us on to the future God has in store. In our church lives, let us not only commemorate the wonderful acts of God in the past, but anticipate in these commemorations not only the never ending future of God but the God who in every present is always our future.

 

[1] See H. C. Brichto, The Names of God (Oxford: OUP, 1998) p.24; B. W. Anderson, The Living World of the Old Testament 4th Edition (London: Longman, 1993) pp.62f.

[2] The Greek Patristic idea (particularly associated with the Cappadocians) of epektasis captures this never-ending aspect of God’s futurity: even in eternal life we shall journey for all eternity ever deeper into the boundless future infinity of God.

‘Things can only get better – or can they?’

by Michaela Youngson.

The strains of the D-Ream song, “Things can only get better” run like an ear-worm in my head as another ‘Breaking News’ banner flashes across the screen of my lap top. Another day, another half million refugees fleeing persecution. Another day, another hurricane devastating lives in the Caribbean. Another day, another location in London is the scene of a fearful attack on ordinary people going about their business.

I was born in the sixties and am part of the generation that really did, until relatively recently, think that things can only get better. The Berlin Wall came down, the Apartheid regime was dismantled, women gained rights over their own bodies and possessions and we marched together to call for debts to be wiped clean for the most impoverished countries on earth. Anti-racism in the UK and the Civil Rights movement in the USA brought about change and I believed there was a broad consensus about what made for just and peaceful society – good seemed to be ‘winning’. That optimistic view of a trajectory of progress has taken quite a beating in the last few years. As the ‘War on Terror’ continues to unfold in wave after wave of unforeseen circumstances and new fascist movements gain prominence even in ‘mainstream’ politics, it is easy to despair.

I put this point to Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, when he spoke to the Methodist Summer School earlier this year, asking how my generation are to make sense of this shift of perspective and how are we to live with the sense of dislocation and disappointment that we are left with. He made some helpful responses to my meandering thoughts, the first being “God is still God” and secondly, “What makes us think that any of this is about ‘winning’?”. I’ve reflected since on these thoughts.

God is still God.
I’m reminded of the wonderful poetry in Isaiah 40. 21-24:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

The Creator is not diminished, God is not mocked (Gal:6.7), by the human tendency to grasp for power. The ‘princes and rulers of the earth’ are brought to nothing in the face of the divine imperative for love. They may have their day but that day is brief, the signs that they ever existed will be wiped away. We might see this as a reason to give up, leaving it to God to make things right whilst we live in a fatalistic bubble, disconnected from the struggles for justice in the world. Yet, on the contrary, a belief that in the end God’s way of love, justice and peace will be manifest, even if we do not live to see it, should spur us on to every effort in changing the world. Faithfulness calls us to participate in God’s plan for creation, to join in with God’s desire for a world where love is manifest. Remembering that God is still God, is a liberating state of mind that reminds us we have nothing to lose – even when the world seems to be going to ‘hell in a handcart’.

What makes us think that any of this is about winning?

The group, ‘club’, ideology I subscribe to is shaped by my faith, my context, my upbringing and the people I choose to spend time with. This is borne out on my social media pages, where I rarely find my views of politics or faith challenged – it is easy to fall into the trap of imagining that mine is the only ‘right-minded’ perspective and that if everyone else thought about things the way I do there would be no problems in the world. It’s only a small step from this perspective to one where I want to change people to see things my way, to win them over – or more dangerously to ‘win’ in politics, commerce, faith etc, rather than to serve God and love my neighbour.

Living faithfully in God’s world involves far more compromise than most of us are comfortable with – the God who ‘stretched out the heavens like a curtain’, made a tent big enough for all to live in – if you’ve ever been camping in a group you will know that the exercise involves co-operation and compromise if all are not to suffer!

I continue to reflect on this response. How do we make sense of events in the world in a way that acknowledges God’s continuing engagement in creation? How can Christians work for change in the world in a way that makes space for the opinions and ideologies of others and when is it fitting to challenge ‘the other’? What are the ‘wins’ we should be putting our efforts into?

Creative, Innovative and Risk-Taking Peacemakers

by Christopher Collins.

The world seemed to collectively hold its breath over the summer as the intensifying war-mongering rhetoric between President Trump and Kim Jong-un reached ever new heightened levels. North Korea have been publicly intensifying their nuclear weapon capability both in range and load. With every new threat from Kim Jong-un, Trump responded with promises of “fire and fury”. At times, it seemed almost inevitable that a nuclear strike was a distinct possibility.

Yet while North Korea perfected its arsenal, many nations were busy negotiating the UN Nuclear Ban Treaty. In so doing, a paradox was exposed. While 122 countries (notably excluding the UK and USA) were dreaming of a nuclear free future, other nations were busy preparing for war. The USA cited the development of North Korea’s capability as a reason to maintain its own deterrent.[1]

At the centre of the paradox we are confronted with a profound question: “where is God in the midst of this?”

There are several ways of viewing war and preparations for war from a Christian perspective. The most popular are the “just war theory” and “pacifism”.

Just war theory suggests that war is necessary in certain circumstances in order to protect our own lives and the lives of others. The concept, which first developed before the Christian era, has evolved under the influence of Christian theologians into a set of criteria to ensure that any war is justifiable. These include, amongst others, the requirement that all other means have been exhausted in resolving conflict and that the harm done is proportionate to the aim. Furthermore, any conflict must be able to discriminate combatants from non-combatants and the means proportionate to the ultimate goal.

When nuclear capability is compared in the light of this theory we find difficulty. The harm done is always certain to be out of proportion with the aim, it is impossible to discriminate the target because of the widespread and long-lasting impacts of nuclear exposure. Rachel Lampard, writing in the Methodist Recorder earlier this year, reminded us that the impact of nuclear weapons in terms of human, environmental and agricultural costs span our time and space[2] with costs not yet imaginable with a unaccountable magnitude.

And so Pacifism, an opinion described by many as a “minority report”. Often citing a basis in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, pacifists take seriously Jesus’ command to resist the evildoer, to turn the other cheek, give more than is demanded and to love their enemies. Although it sounds passive, pacifism is active non-violence. While it sounds the easy option, it never really is – we only have to look at the treatment of conscientious objectors during conscription and national service to see the huge and humiliating personal cost for their devotion to the peaceful cause.

Many would argue that the basis of pacifist belief is fine for a personal ethic but cannot be extrapolated to international relations. Indeed it can seem naïve and implausible when considered in the face of the sovereignty of the nation state and its right to defend its borders and interests. Even more so, then, when considering the nuclear threat and its unthinkable cost, the pacifist view seems untenable.

But is it really so untenable and implausible? Walter Wink, in his book Jesus and Non-Violence: A Third Way, describes Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount about resisting the evildoer, turning the other cheek, giving more than is demanded and to loving enemies, not as a fixed manifesto of good behaviour but rather a set of examples of how playful subversion of the cultural expectations can defuse a potentially exponential cycle of violence and injustice begetting violence and injustice until all human dignity and the integrity of creation is destroyed.

One notable example of such subversion is Article 9 in the Constitution of Japan adopted in May 1947 which commits Japan to “renouncing war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” In the face of a brutal war and untold terrors, it would have been conceivable for Japan to retaliate, if it had the means. Instead, a nation metaphorically turned the other cheek and took a risk for the sake of peace, reducing their own sovereign right to make room for peace to be established.

Another notable example was the creation of the European Union in which each member nation softening its own sovereignty to find a common good.

For many, though not all, it is disappointing that Japan seems to be weakening its “pacifist clause” while the UK voted to leave European Union prompting fears of its eventual breakup and a return to hardened national sovereignty.

So I wonder if we could take Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount as an encouragement to playfully subvert our own cultural expectations of responding to violent threat in creative and peace-building ways that do not resort to fire and fury.

And ok, we might not be able to change the Trump-Jong-un situation ourselves, but we can creatively and imaginatively implore our government and all the world’s leaders to be creative, innovative and risk taking peacemakers in the world for the sake of the God-given dignity and integrity of all peoples and the whole of God’s creation.

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/07/treaty-banning-nuclear-weapons-approved-un [Accessed 15 September 2017]

[2] http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/peacemakers-nuclear-age/ [Accessed 15 September 2017]

Icons – pointing to what?

by Gareth Powell.

The death of a 36-year-old mother of two in a road traffic accident and the temporary silencing of the chimes of a clock, both having attached to them the language of iconic.  One, twenty years after the event, continues to see the person described as an icon, with photographic images venerated. The second, an inanimate object but one that marks time, marks occasions and is considered a landmark.  At various points in the life of the late Diana, Princess of Wales commentators use the language of icon more because of perception than because of human dignity and the langue is simply applied to Big Ben as the most photographed building in London.

Contemporary icons seem to have about them little by way of a common thread.  They are defined by a plethora of commentators, and are a long way from icons in the Christian tradition and those that caused such controversy at the second Council of Nicaea.   In the great sweep of the Christian Church icons are very much more than items of religious art, rather icons express central doctrines of the faith.  They are more than visual aids, they are created (written) with great devotion and are only understood fully within the context of worship.  Icons give a visual expression to the surrounding cloud of witnesses, and of course to Christ. They present the believer with a visual embrace in the economy of God.  Moreover, they offer windows on the divine.

So, our use of the word now offers us a challenge.  What are modern day icons a window onto? In a Christian tradition that has not paid very great attention to the visual, what sort of icons do we need so that we may see God; see the holiness of the created order and all in such a way as to transform?

When compared with the great icons of the Eastern Church Big Ben seems a small, modern image.  Innocent enough.  On the other hand, a 36 year old mother of two killed in a road accident has about it much more than worship at a shrine of flowers. There was a human soul at the heart of that accident and two grieving sons, still.

The language and definition of icons has developed and it is unlikely that the more overtly ‘religious’ use of the term will in any way be narrowly defined again.  It may be then that we need to rediscover (reclaim?) the language, and our task is to work harder at offering a critique of icons that can all too easily point to a shallow understanding of human worth and dignity.  There is nothing wrong with iconic buildings, but when the icon prevents an encounter with what holds human life and death, we have to reassess our priorities.  The Eastern Icons were about encounter.

In some traditions icons are treated with great respect and care, reverence even.  From time to time our cultural icons are similarity treated.  The reasons for this may be ambiguous and from time to time a challenge of such an icon is necessary in order to break the myth and let what really matters take center stage.   If we want an icon to point us to something different we have to work at understanding the breadth of the world.  The icons of the present moment may in fact be nothing more than memorable events, noteworthy points in discourse, significant markers in a given discipline, or popular people.  The language of icons however has a deeper definition.  John of Damascus reminds us that the icon is a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to the victory of the saints and the disgrace of the demons.[1]

The same could be the case for our definition and contribution to public discourse.  The purpose of the image in iconography is to give a sense of direction.  ‘In being offered a sense of direction we are, in turn, brought into a new place and a new perception.’ [2]  When applying the language of icon there is a theological task to offer some views on how we interpret the world and see that which is ultimately of value as part of God’s creation.

 

[1] Ware, Timothy, The Orthodox Church 1963 p42

[2] Williams, Rowan  Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement  2000 p184

Uncertainty in theology

by Frances Young

I guess we’re not very good at confessing uncertainty, but I was challenged to address the theme at a Science and Faith weekend.

I began with the recently circulating film, Silence – a dramatic realisation of a novel I’d read years before, by a Japanese Christian author who imaginately retells a true story.[1]

It’s 1643 and two Portuguese Jesuits set out for Japan, a place where Christians are savagely persecuted, to search for their former teacher and mentor who had disappeared. There were rumours he’d apostatized. The priests are hidden by Christian peasants and watch their sufferings; the main character is betrayed, imprisoned, and prepares to die as martyr.

The ‘Silence’ is the silence of God. Desperate prayers are repeated:  ‘Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent?’ (p. 153) “… you never break the silence,” he says. “You should not be silent for ever”.’ (p. 172) ‘The sea was silent as if exhausted, and God, too, continued to be silent.’ (p.  210)

The novel thus captures that sense of God’s absence which has been the 20th century experience. ‘If I were God, I wouldn’t let my children do to each other what they do,’ said a Professor of Jewish descent. Uncertainty is everywhere.

That God is Creator and sustainer of all that exists is fundamental to Christian theology, but the kind of creationism some defend is not, nor indeed the claims of intelligent design as usually enunciated. God is not to be conceived as a craftsman, needing some kind of material to make things out of. God created everything other than God out of nothing. And for anything other than God to exist the infinite God has to withdraw (Simone Weil wrote, ‘Creation is an act of abandonment’). The absolute otherness of God is fundamental, and the reason why there are no knock-down philosophical proofs. It is also the reason for the apparent absence of God.

Religious language must always be a sign, a symbol, a metaphor – that’s why the name of God is unutterable in the Jewish tradition. Religious epistemology involves profound agnosticism, but it is an agnosticism with a particular stance – neither indifference, nor intellectual superiority. Rather a profound intellectual humility before the known unknown.  Without doubt,  every concept of God, every linguistic description, becomes an idol, a projection, a reduction of God to a mere item in the universe.

Thus, uncertainty lies at heart of Christian theology.

Human nature craves certainty, control and closure.  That’s why it’s so easy for religion to breed dogmatism,  intolerance, etc., and it’s why fundamentalism resorts to literalism. The need for control is precisely why it’s necessary to establish the principle of uncertainty at the heart of theology.

Let’s go back to Silence.  The book/film is not  only a profound commentary on the absence of God, but also on the nature of love.

He had not been able to save the Christian [peasants]… His pity for them had been overwhelming; but pity was not action. It was not love. Pity, like passion, was no more than a kind of instinct. (p. 219)

Cross-examined and held in solitary confinement,  he identifies with Christ:’ My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Yet gradually he becomes more and more uncertain. The Inquisitor says, ‘you came to this country to lay down your life for them. But in fact they are laying down their lives for you.’ (p. 220) His old teacher challenges him: ‘You are preoccupied with your own salvation. If you say you will apostatize … they will be saved from suffering…  Is your way of acting love? A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here … certainly Christ would have apostatized for them… For love Christ would have apostatized.’ (pp. 168-9). So he apostatizes and lives uncertainly with the terrible guilt of betrayal.

You can never be certain – all you can do is let go of the need for control, and TRUST. For trust in a moral and spiritual reality vastly bigger than yourself, beyond yourself, a reality capable of creation and re-creation, of blessing beyond anything we can ask or think – that’s what faith is.

 

[1] Shusaku Endo, Silence (Japanese, 1967; Penguin, 1988).

 

Gilead

by Martin Turner.

My friend the late Rev’d Geoff Cornell was a great reader of fiction, using modern narratives to enhance and apply to his always interesting preaching. For reasons that were never totally clear to either of us we had been invited to join a black minister’s group on a trip to Ghana, it was a long plane journey but I noticed Geoff was totally wrapped up in a book so I asked him what it was. He told me he was reading it for the second time and that it was one of the most thought provoking works of fiction he had ever read – so I thought that if it was that special for Geoff it must be outstanding and when I returned to the UK ordered a copy.

The Book was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson,  I want to focus this week’s reflection upon this most remarkable book and it’s two sequels, “Home” and “Lila”.  It may well be that you feel that this slot is for theological reflection and not a book review, but this is a book which can offer far more theological insight than any poor thoughts of mine!

Marilynne Robinson is an American author who has written just four novels, however her output in non-fiction, essays and reviews is prolific and she has won numerous awards and honorary doctorates.  Robinson was 37 when her first book, Housekeeping, was published in 1980, it was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize two years later.  There was then a twenty four year wait for Gilead to be published and this won the Pulitzer a year later.  Four years later Home, which won the Orange prize,  was published, then after six years Lila. The fascinating thing about these last three being that they tell the same story with the same characters, but each with the narration from a different character’s point of view.

The books are profoundly Christian; Robinson is a Congregationalist, she sometimes preaches and theologically she has been greatly influenced by John Calvin. She is also profoundly American, capturing all that rural mid American life is about from her home in Iowa.

I remember Donald English speaking about the Starbridge novels by Susan Howatch and saying that there were more theological truths in them than in many specifically Christian books, but that unlike Christian books people – mostly non Christians – read them!  Gilead, my main focus, is such a book – I was especially struck by a review where the author ended with the comment that he almost wished he was a believer.

Gilead is the story of an elderly Congregational minister called John Ames who has spend all his life serving the small community of Gilead. Ames’ young wife died in childbirth, as did the child, thus for many years he has led a solitary existence, sustained by a deep friendship with the local Presbyterian minister Boughton. Boughton has a son, Jack, who Ames distrusts deeply – Jack’s return home is a tragic version of the prodigal son, told in the second book Home. Then into Ames’ life there come a most unlikely character, Lila, an illiterate drifter very much younger than him with who he falls in love, marries and has a child – her version of events is told in the third novel, Lila. Thus Ames has a small son, but is elderly with a failing heart.  Gilead is the journal he writes so that when his son grows older he will know something of the life, history and thoughts of his father long gone.  So these are books where not a lot happens, the pace is slow, the events largely ordinary, but in them very deepest issues of life are explored and touched – never before have I burst into tears whilst reading a book, but I did in reading Gilead!

So why should you read Gilead?  For ministers the reflection upon what he has achieved across the years is sobering – I was especially moved as he wonders what to do with his sermons – I have several hundred neatly boxed and filed and wonder what my own children will do with them one day! There is also deep theological reflection, where he wrestles with his Calvinist theology, a challenge for we Arminians. This theological debate comes especially into focus in the third book where Lila wonders how God will deal with the woman who has mothered her and yet is clearly not a believer.

This is a book about friendship, about how difficult family life can be, about faith, about facing death. No review of mine (or the many other reviews on line, especially Rowan Williams’) can do it justice. It is a marmite book, it will either bore you or stir you as none other – try reading it!