Some interesting and challenging food for thought from Anglican Bishop NT Wright. If I recall correctly, I am pretty sure Canon J. John once spoke at my church in Melbourne, Australia years ago.
Thursday, 5 November 2015
It’s not a morality tale, I remind myself as I sip my long black coffee and tap out some new dialogue. I don’t want to write some thin, barely-disguised thesis on the merits of social order or religious structures, nor do I want to write a manifesto on rejecting the ruling polis through sheer hard work and dogged individual agency within a hostile system governed by two-dimensional bourgeoisie. I want to write a story that’s just that, a story – a series of events that occur to a group of connected individuals, and the exploration of the meaning they derive from these events. Even if they will respond and react differently to me, the author, if I were in the same setting.
Even though I’m writing about topics that interest me, topics like religion, politics, social power and control, these are not the central issues of my story. Under all that I want characters with their own interests and motivations that might sometimes align with the interests of socially constructed powers, and sometimes might not. The individuals in the story have varying levels of autonomy and agency that they can express within their social system.
For many years I was strongly encouraged (if not forced) only to read Christian books by Christian authors from the approved Christian bookstores. Strongly encouraged in the sense that I was often told, “read this, you’ll love it,” in a tone that suggested that I’d better love it or else. Forced in the sense that as a stay at home married parent and part-time university student with no personal income, I was never in a position to buy books for myself. When the religious powers that be threaten serious spiritual and membership consequences if they don’t get their tithes and offerings and gift offerings and building fund offerings and missions giving and Christian school fees from the struggling single income family who can barely afford to put food on the table, luxuries like books are few and far between. To get to the library meant driving, too, as the nearest library was well beyond walking distance for a mum with a toddler and baby in tow; and as we had only one car that the husband used to get to his job an hour away in the city, opportunities to visit the public library were rare. In fact, the only bookstore within walking distance was the one owned by my then-church. At the risk of this sounding like a petty first world problem well, maybe it is – but literacy and access to information and knowledge and ideas is surely something all people need. Books not war and all that. Books are more than just an escape or a diversion, they’re a means of growth. I often think that if I had spent as much time on real books as I did on facebook in the last decade, I’d probably be a lot wiser. And definitely a lot happier.
I think of the lyrics from the Rage Against the Machine song “Bulls on Parade,” that said,
“Weapons not food, not homes, not shoes
Not need, just feed the war cannibal animal
I walk the corner to the rubble that used to be a library
Line up to the mind cemetery now
What we don’t know keeps the contracts alive an moving
They don’t gotta burn the books they just remove ’em
While arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells…”
Of course, I’m not going to get all my politics from song lyrics – though I can probably point the finger squarely at Rage Against the Machine and blame them for setting the foundations that led me to quit studying Education and Journalism, where I would’ve at least been employable, to Sociology, an education of the mind at the intersection of politics and history and philosophy… and no career money in it whatsoever. (I joke, I joke…) But I agree with their notion that a place without books is a “mind cemetery.”
As for having no access to “secular” books and all their supposedly evil ideas from roughly the time of my conversion in 2002 through until I finally went back to university, it’s hard to explain to observers who thought I was just intensely enthusiastic about my faith that deep down I was hurting for the loss of my books. I mean, I was genuinely enthusiastic, but I also wasn’t allowed to be anything other than wildly enthusiastic. To be any less than excited about Jesus was to be lukewarm, and at risk of being spit out by God Himself. It says it right there in black-and-white, Revelation 3:16, which I note is a whole lot more scary than John 3:16’s reference to God’s love for the whole world. The observers – both family and friends – may not have realised the extent to which I was controlled within that system by a handful of laypeople who had significant influence over my husband and I: me as a vulnerable and newly enthusiastic Christian and him as someone thoroughly raised and indoctrinated in that system (my prior twenty years of involvement in the Catholic church as regular mass attender and church volunteer were off-handedly dismissed by them, of course, as though it were entirely irrelevant).
This control spread over every aspect of my life. I was made to throw out my “secular” books, my university materials pertaining to feminism (of course, as I did a degree in feminism that meant most of it), my “immodest” clothes, and my “satanic” music collection. I had to dress in a way more befitting a mother: my jewellery was gone, my earrings, my make up, and there was talk that I ought to cut off my long hair (it’s too vain and impractical). I drew the line at that one.
Eventually I fought back against this drive to strip me of my personality and my autonomy in Jesus’s name, but by then many of my favourite books and nearly my entire music collection was gone. When my life and interests were withheld by the small group of people who controlled my access to, and use of, money, I gave up. I gave up on writing, on playing music (I used to play multiple instruments), I gave up on drawing, too, because my drawings were not adequately spiritual for these individuals. Drawings of Unicorns don’t resonate with the spiritually minded (though in the past they were sometimes used as a symbol of the purity of Christ). I lost most of my friends as I went from a vaguely interesting, introverted yet quietly sociable, intellectual, widely-read, open minded and creative person to a robot void of all personality. “Less of me and more of Jesus,” as we were told, as if that were somehow a core tenet of Biblical faith. Sometimes I wonder how I could’ve so easily complied, but the heady combination of severe-yet-undiagnosed mental illness, my enthusiasm for the discovery of a newfound love for Jesus, and my desire to be accepted into the community of fellow believers, not to mention being a newlywed and trying to negotiate the complexities of a new relationship and fit in with the husband’s intensely-Christian friends and family – well, basically, I ceased to exist.
There is a point to this. I guess in some ways the books I was allowed to read in those days are representative of that whole era of my life. Now I really did enjoy discovering the Christian book world and I haven’t thrown it out completely, though the authors and books I choose to read today have changed. My enthusiasm was genuine and my feelings towards church were very real. I read different styles of Christian spirituality books. Ten years ago I was buying up on writers like Frank Peretti, whose Pentecostal novels really are quite good, as long as you exercise reasonable caution and don’t reconstruct your entire theology on his intriguing fictional ideas; and charismatic/Pentecostal (not certain of his denominational affiliation) writer John Bevere, hoping that his writings would help me escape eternal conscious torment in everlasting Hellfire. In contrast, last month I voluntarily swung by the Christian book store to buy the Anglican Bishop NT (Tom) Wright’s book Surprised by Hope as a gift, and a collection of writings by the 12th century Catholic mystic, philosopher and composer abbess Hildegard of Bingen. The books I read ten years ago have virtually nothing in common with the books I read today, except for a common lexicon of specific terms like “Jesus” and “prayer,” but even then what they mean by this sometimes seems worlds apart. The books I read today breathe life instead of fear into me. Though the books I was reading upheld the framework of a very specific variant of non-denominational Pentecostalism in which I found myself, it was likewise books that led the way out again. When I finally did start going to the library again, three wonderful books let the light shine in through the ontological cracks: The Inner Experience, a posthumously published text by Thomas Merton; The Dark Night of the Soul; and the writings of 14th Century English mystic and anchorite nun Julian of Norwich.
It was the morality tale novels I read back then – when my reading content was being scrutinised and policed by my self-appointed “superiors” within the church community – that have really turned me off the notion of a morality tale. While I read many of these stories, and there were some real gems of stories published by Christian writers, so don’t think I’m throwing them all out; there were some that really began to grate on me. Novels written as blatantly obvious Gospel allegories, for example, without the nuance and magic of CS Lewis’s Narnia. Or stories where the heroine is unwaveringly pure, wholeheartedly non-sexual (not even in a fleeting thought) and whose intention to marry is entirely about selflessly fulfilling the mandate that it is not good for man to be alone, and who somehow sails through the evil worldly world with its myriad conspiracies against Jesus without once having a bad thought… basically, a cardboard cut out of a human who moves through a comically evil society that looks like a set of stereotypes of left wing political beliefs. Or stories that uncritically romanticise certain Christian sects, as representative of some imagined “good old days.” Or stories that draw heavily from specific culture-and-time-bound theological practices and present them in such a way that they’re accepted as truthful representations of Christian eschatology (but I need not name names on this one).
Of course, I have nothing against stories with ethical concepts and philosophical ideas woven through the narrative. For example, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky left me a changed person: that novel, somehow, communicated to me a love for a faith fully expressed in love and peace. The character Alyosha, a novice in a Russian Orthodox monastery, had this enduring faith that navigated the chaos of his family’s very imperfect lives and left me wanting to know more of the God that inspired him to live a spiritually richer life than the one given to them by their deadbeat father. Yet it seemed to me that he treated his brothers with incredible patience and kindness, despite their diametrically opposed philosophies. In this story, while there were morals, of a sort, the depth of the characters’ personalities, the strength of their emotions, the complicated results of their actions, the pain they suffered and the occasional joys they experienced despite their sorrows – these were the things that kept me reading. Were there strongly Christian religious and spiritual themes woven through the story? Absolutely; but they were included in such a way that they seemed the natural outflow of the characters’ personalities and experiences. And the non-religious characters were not demonised or singled out as the “Other.” The complexity and paradox evident in real mortal lives was present in Dostoyevsky’s characters.
Another one is Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice, which I haven’t read in years (and certainly wasn’t allowed to in my ultra-Christian heydays) but which despite having a mostly “evil” set of protagonists – vampires and demons – ultimately presents them as complex individuals responding as best they can to the particular set of supernatural circumstances they encounter. I really appreciate Rice’s ability to write complex characters with a huge variety of motivations, interests and personality traits, all of them a mix of good and bad, so often relatable, and her refusal to reduce them to stereotypes. In the very wonderful The Wolves of Midwinter, which since I first read it last year is now one of my favourite Christmas stories, the priest Father Jim – the brother of the main character – is never presented as an anti-Catholic stereotype. Nor is he a two-dimensional character who only does priestly things as though he were a mass-saying robot. He is a very human character, one grappling with the stress of hearing confession from people who’ve experienced all kinds of horrors and from trying to do good in helping addicts in a corrupt society where powerful interests oppose his efforts. I love that even though Rice’s personal spiritual journey has led her out of the walls of organised religion, she never reduces her characters within religious contexts to moral examples, but allows them the freedom to have their own experiences and beliefs. In so many ways I wish I could emulate the writing of Anne Rice. Ever since I first picked up Interview with the Vampire as a teenager, her style and subject material has been a huge inspiration for me in my own writing journey.
When I write I hope that I resist the urge to limit my characters to mere moral examples in a world orchestrated to prove the point that the exact same worldview to which I ascribe happens to be the correct one. In the hilarious How Not To Write A Novel by Mittelmark and Newman, they make reference to stories that are written in such a way as they seem little more than the author’s own worldview communicated by proxy via their characters – they give the example of a very sympathetic male protagonist who despite his clear efforts to be an all-round wonderful human being, is confronted by the prejudiced, cruel and abhorrent behaviours of a group of feminist women living next door. The agenda in that kind of fiction is pretty clear. If I was writing agenda-laden stories, all my characters would be vegetarian intersectional ecofeminists with a penchant for heavy metal and a love/hate relationship with organised religion and who would find ways to insert references to Trinitarian Christian Universalism into conversations. Luckily for anyone who might read my stories, I try very consciously to not write blatantly autobiographical characters.
PS I must highlight, as always, that while it may often seem that I am attacking all of Christianity everywhere at everytime, that is absolutely not the case. I still seek to follow Jesus Christ, self-identify as a Christian, and I appreciate the humble, kind, God-loving friends I’ve made in my years of involvement in church and respect their faith and greatly appreciate the unsung heroes of Christendom who serve Jesus with honesty and integrity. The thing I am critiquing here is a very specific and statistically unusual yet very influential variant on Christian belief that has only existed within very recent history, within certain cultural contexts; and even then, I am not seeking to negate all that I have experienced within that system. I am merely attempting to process through a sometimes traumatic decade of my life in which this type of Christianity has played a very central role, and sort the good from the bad. I still believe in the teachings of Jesus, and that they are wonderful when shared by loving and gracious believers and when they are expressed as faithfully as possible to the original intent of His teachings, and I love the Bible and seek to read it in light of Jesus’s teachings. I do not think that being a Christian means we shouldn’t critique the socio-historical-political recently invented aspects of this religious system out of an understandable but false attempt to preserve the perception of unity. Every generation of the church needs to confront its damaging social structures and dysfunctional aspects as well as embracing its goodness – it doesn’t need to be a false dichotomy of “for or against.” Only then can we walk in integrity.
PPS I didn’t manage to work on my Nanowrimo yesterday. I made the mistake of saying, “Just a quick look at facebook won’t hurt.” Ten open browser tabs and a whole lot of fleeting annoyance at people’s opinions later, I really was my own worst enemy when it came to writing.
Current word count: 9,129 words.
Today’s writing soundtrack: 90125 by Yes.
Here are the books currently taking up space in my reading pile. The top three are from the library and I’m yet to make any real progress in them. On the bottom, I’m borrowing a friend’s copy of Surprised By Hope. I bought Human Universe by Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen just recently and so far it’s incredible. Tales from the Dead of Night: Thirteen Classic Ghost Stories, selected by Cecily Gayford, was my birthday present to myself last year and it is fantastic. It includes ghost stories by such authors as E. Nesbit, Ruth Rendell and Rudyard Kipling. This is my third time reading through the collection, many of which come from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. There is just something about the way late 19th Century writers composed their tales that really draws me in. Without having intended it, I have found that roughly half of my most-favourite books come from Europe in the 19th Century, usually Russia and England, but some from other countries, too.
Hence the fact I picked up the 1830s and 1840s short story collection by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (or, if you prefer the Ukrainian translation of his name, Mykola Vasyliovych Hohol). Now, I won’t enter into the debate of his ethnicity or nationality, as those discussions are beyond me. Because my husband is part-Ukrainian I find it interesting learning about Eastern Slavic history, and have found that these old Russian novels are a really interesting insight into the culture. I particularly love the writings of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov are novels that were life-changing for me.
So far I haven’t read much of Gogol’s works. I have read some of Dead Souls though I’m fairly certain I never finished that. I have also watched two different film adaptations of his story Viy (Вий), a somewhat terrifying horror story. The 1967 film is said to be quite faithful to the original story, which I haven’t yet read. I also saw the 2014 version at a Russian film festival held at ACMI in Melbourne, Australia. I must’ve been one of five non-Slavic people in the whole audience (the others being a handful of our Anglo-Celt and Anglo-Asian friends – I love our multicultural city!). The 2014 film had rather steam punk vibes about it, and plot-wise had some similarities with the 1967 film, but only loosely so, and was a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and English elements. It also, in my mind, inspired moustache goals that I have since insisted the Husband fulfil. He’s not convinced.
The other two books on the pile, The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the lost world of the Celts by Graham Robb is, as far as I can see, a history of Ancient Gaul and Druidry and the spread of Christianity through ancient Europe. Where Song Began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world by Tim Low is an evolutionary history of the unique and diverse birdlife of our continent. I look forward to delving into these books.
Cox, B. and Cohen, A. (2015). Human Universe. London: WilliamCollins.
Gayford, C. (2013). Tales from the dead of night: thirteen classic ghost stories. London: Profile Books.
Gogol, N. (translation from 2014). Petersburg tales. Richmond, UK: Alma Classics.
Low, T. (2014). Where song began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world. Melbourne, Australia: Penguin.
Robb, G. (2013). The discovery of Middle Earth: mapping the lost world of the Celts. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Wright, T. (2007). Surprised by hope. London: SPCK.
I came across this wonderful paragraph while reading Surprised By Hope, which has become one of my most-recommended books. This quote makes a lot more sense in the context of the whole book, but I love the way it captures the sense that nature is God’s good creation, here to be lovingly stewarded like a gardener, not exploited. Because when you operate out of a convinced belief that one day God will destroy it all, it’s hard to care about ecology or climate or extinction. I’m so grateful for theologians like NT Wright who critique that kind of belief.
“What we do in the Lord is ‘not in vain’; and that is the mandate we need for every act of justice and mercy, every programme of ecology, every effort to reflect God’s wise stewardly image into his creation. In the new creation the ancient human mandate to look after the garden is dramatically reaffirmed, as John hints in his resurrection story, where Mary supposes Jesus is the gardener. The resurrection of Jesus is the reaffirmation of the goodness of creation, and the gift of the Spirit is there to make us the fully human beings we were supposed to be, precisely so that we can fulfil that mandate at last.”
– NT Wright
Reference: Tom Wright (2007). Surprised By Hope. London: SPCK. Pp. 221-222.
I’m currently reading the N. T. Wright book Surprised by Hope (published under the name Tom Wright, 2007, published by SPCK, London). It’s one that was recommended to me several times over the years by various theologically-inclined friends. If you’re not familiar with Wright, you can track down a heap of his materials at an unofficial fan site, http://ntwrightpage.com/. He is a retired Anglican Bishop from the UK, theologian, prolific writer and scholar. In coming weeks I will add some NT Wright lecture videos to the series of spirituality videos I’ve been sharing on this blog.
I recently visited some friends who lent me their copy of Surprised by Hope (along with some other books from their collection). I am grateful to their entrusting me with their books. It is good to have friends who read – the sorts of friends where, when we visit each other’s houses, we’re scouring each other’s bookshelves looking to see what’s there.
I would love to share many, many quotes from Surprised by Hope. Though I’m only up to page 106 in a 338-page book, my notebook is filling up with my personal handwritten note-taking from this text. However, I will resist the urge and say that so far this book is excellent, thought-provoking, sociologically and historically fascinating, theologically challenging and definitely worth reading carefully and meditatively. When I read texts like this I find in myself a renewed excitement about the Gospel – the unique and strange “good news” of Jesus Christ. I realise just how small and limited my prior understanding was, too. The basic premise of the book, as I understand it, is a Biblical, theological and historical critique of the notion that Christianity is about getting people into the right Afterlife, and that this Afterlife is a disembodied spirit realm called “Heaven.” But when we delve a bit deeper into the Biblical texts we find that the ancient Judeo-Christian worldview in fact embraces physical matter as intrinsic to God’s Creation – matter is not some evil, weighty thing that we shed when we die: Resurrection speaks of literal, physical recreation, in a sense. For anyone interested in exploring these ideas, I’m finding this to be a really interesting, accessible read on the topic. I’ve come across this topic before – little hints and whispers that we (myself included) missed the mark when we emphasised saying a Jesus prayer and getting people in through the “narrow gate” into heaven, even if that meant that they had to be dragged in kicking and screaming, emotionally manipulated, cajoled, frightened or condemned into “accepting Jesus.” I haven’t yet read the whole book but it’s one that I’m not likely to put down.
I will share this quote I just read because I think it embodies a really valuable point as to why this issue matters in a practical, tangible sense. As a Christian deeply concerned about the environment, this following section of Surprised by Hope leaped out at me. It is from chapter 5, “Cosmic future: progress or despair?” in section 3, “Option 2: souls in transit.” It talks about the influence of Plato’s philosophy on western Christianity, through the platonic (and gnostic) concept of the material realm being lesser, or morally abhorrent, or philosophically problematic.
Quote from Wright, Surprised by Hope (2007: 102-103):
“A good many Christian hymns and poems wander off unthinkingly in the direction of gnosticism. The ‘just passing through’ spirituality … though of course it has some affinities with classical Christianity, encourages precisely a gnostic attitude: the created world is at best an irrelevance, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place, and we immortal souls, who existed originally in a different sphere, are looking forward to returning to it as soon as we are allowed to. There has been such a massive assumption made in western Christianity that the purpose of being a Christian is simply, or at least mainly, to ‘go to heaven when you die’, that texts which don’t say that, but which mention heaven, are read as if they did say it, and that texts which say the opposite, like Romans 8.18-25 and Revelation 21-22, are simply screened out as if they didn’t exist.
“The results are all around us in the western church and in the worldviews which western Christianity has generated. Secularists often criticize Christians for having contributed to ecological disaster, and there’s more than a grain of truth in the charge. I have heard it seriously argued in North America that since God intends to destroy the present space-time universe, and moreover since he intends to do so quite soon now, it doesn’t really matter whether we emit twice as many greenhouse gases as we do now, whether we destroy the rainforests and the Arctic tundra, whether we fill our skies with acid rain. That is a peculiarly modern form of Christian would-be negativity about the world, and of course its skin-deep ‘spiritual’ viewpoint is entirely in thrall to the heart-deep materialism of the business interests that will be served, in however short a term, by such hazardous practices.” (End quote.)
Here in Australia, in the particular churches that are heavily influenced by American ideas (Pentecostalism is my main experience of an Americanised and politicised Christianity), I have also been told – by people who meant it – that I was wasting my time studying environmentalism at university because apart from the underlying view that a house wife and mother ought to be nothing much else, and certainly not academically inclined, there is an inherent assumption that God Himself hates the world He created. “God’s going to burn the world anyway,” I was informed in one conversation several years ago, “so what’s the point of looking after it? The fires on this Earth will become the fires of Hell.”
This was in response, I recall, to my saying that the relatively tough water restrictions imposed on city dwellers at the time were not so terrible, that they were normal behaviours for thoughtful farmers who know that water is a limited resource, and that I believed that in the grand scheme of a world where people die of literal thirst and hunger every single day, a lawn wasn’t really that important that it needed watering more than people needed water to drink (not to mention that in Australia there are, in fact, drought-resistant varieties of lawn grass). Let’s just ponder the intensity of that for a moment. I said something to the effect of, “Hey, the water reservoirs are getting quite low so asking people to limit their showers to four minutes and not water their lawns is not a bad thing – it means there’ll be drinking water, which humans need to live,” and in a short mental leap my Pentecostal acquaintance had taken it to the level of, “I should be allowed to water my lawn because everything else is going to burn in Hell anyway.” By that logic, his lawn was going to Hell, too, so really – why bother with a garden in the first place? What if God hates your garden, wasting your time on nonsense like flowers when it’s all just temporary and fleeting? Perhaps he would’ve been better off standing on a street corner and sweltering through the drought with a “turn or burn” placard. But see, that’s not an intrinsic, inherent part of Christian thought – that’s a set of cultural and philosophical beliefs that have stood largely uncontested, it would seem.
The particular perspectives on environmentalism that most resonate with me tend to point to the fact that nature exists for its own purposes, and that we ought to treat it with care for its own sake. However, if there is a spiritual level that needs to be added to the argument, it’s that loving the environment can be a form of loving one’s neighbour. Who is my neighbour? Perhaps my neighbour is the Arctic indigenous people group whose ancient ways of living in connection with the ecology of their lands are under threat as the climate changes and their once-predictable hunting routes melt away, sometimes with tragic consequences. (1) Perhaps my neighbour is the farmer who cannot grow their crops without the use of potentially dangerous chemical fertilisers, to try to keep unhealthy land producing food (2) in a culture where around 20% of our grocery purchases are thrown in the bin (3). Whoever it is, there are people whose lives and livelihood are adversely affected by environmental degradation and climate change. The Christian notion that God is going to one day, presumably soon (they’ve been saying “soon” for around 2,000 years now), annihilate the world he “so loved” (John 3:16) can not only result in an apathetic approach to the suffering of others, it might actually not be true to the views of historical Christianity but rather an outcome of the influence of pagan Ancient Greek thinking on western culture. And if that’s a possibility, we Christians owe it to ourselves as believers, and owe it to our cultures where we form the religious majority, to seriously consider whether we’re called to treat the world with indifference, as a temporary resource to be used up, or whether we’re called to live a fully embodied, Christ-likeness in this time and space; not disparaging our bodies, our world, and its creatures, but embracing the material universe that our scriptures say God called “good” (Genesis 1).
Edit: for further reading, this article at the Christianity Today website is a useful overview of Wright’s teachings: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/april/surprised-by-n-t-wright.html