At the Bloxham Festival for Faith and Literature, February 19-21, the shortlist of six books for the Michael Ramsey Prize 2016 was announced. Two books each were introduced by three members of the shortlisting panel: it was made clear that they were not campaigning for these books, but were commenting on them.
David Warbrick, Vicar of All Saints, King’s Heath, Birmingham, presented
- John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (SCM Press, 2012)
- Benigno P. Beltran, Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain: Hope for a Planet in Peril (Orbis, 2012)
Catherine Ogle, Dean of Birmingham, presented in absentia (since she was marooned on the Island of Madeira with a delayed flight; her text was read out by Courtland Fransella, Lambeth Awards Officer):
- Stephen Cherry, Healing Agony: Re-imagining Forgiveness (Continuum, 2012)
- Anne Richards, Children in the Bible (SPCK, 2013)
I was asked to present:
- Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (Faber and Faber, 2012)
- Frances Young, God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity (Cambridge, 2013)
Alison Barr, senior commissioning editor of SPCK, gave an overview of the prize and the books. The following is a development of my comments at the Bloxham Festival on the two books by Frances and Francis.
- Unapologetic by Francis Spufford
This book could win a prize for the longest subtitle, yet the publishers, Faber and Faber, managed to squeeze it onto the spine of the book. Spufford explains that he wrote the book “to try to extricate for people, from the misleading ruins of half memory, what Christianity feels like from the inside” (p. 22).
(a) What kind of a book is this?
Unapologetically, it is a popular defense of the Christian faith from emotional sense and a presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ in the face of New Atheism.
I am reminded of the famous quip of Sidney Smith, the great clerical wit. He saw two people having a row across two tall buildings in a narrow street in Edinburgh. “They’ll never agree,” he said. “They’re arguing from different premises.”
Francis Spufford does not row: he dialogues with the reader. He has an ironic, light touch with profound insight. He feels and thinks — and feels things first, which chimes with our “late-modern” culture:
It is feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas. (p. 19)
Spufford lectures in writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He was Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 1997, and has edited two literary anthologies and a collection of essays about the history of technology. He wrote almost the whole of the book in a Costa Café on Sidney Street in Cambridge. He states in his one page of witty notes at the end:
I have checked facts and quotations. I haven’t done any research for this book. It is, designedly, just a report from inside of my head, drawing on what is already in there. (p. 224)
In style it is colloquial, conversational, rollicking, swashbuckling, refreshing, sometimes stream of consciousness, and often concisely allusive:
The score of [God’s] interventions at history’s dark points is resoundingly low. Number of cattle-trucks halted on their way to the gas chamber by a fiery angel: zero. Number of smirking conquistadors, Khmer Rouge executioners, Hutu militiamen to be gently restrained by an unseen force: zero. We do our violence unimpeded. We suffer it unprotected. (p. 91)
To use two denigrated words, which when combined provide profound interaction: this is very fine “theological journalism.”
(b) Why should I read it?
Well, it is very funny, as well as being thought provoking. His long second paragraph is breathless and lasts for two pages (pp. 1-2), which later leads into the insight:
Believers are the people touting a solution without a problem, and an embarrassing solution too, a really damp-palmed, wide-smiling, can’t-dance solution. In an anorak. (p. 5)
That final short sentence, of three words, is the ultimate devastation. Concerning knowledge of the human species to be gleaned from adverts, he writes:
Clearly, there are exceptions, … but the centre of gravity of the human race, our default condition, is to be young, buff and available. (p. 9)
He is ironically iconoclastic about John Lennon’s “Imagine”:
Imagine there’s no heaven. Imagine there’s no hell. Imagine all the people, living life in — hello? Excuse me? I don’t know about you, but in my experience peace is not the default state of human beings, any more than having an apartment the size of Joey and Chandler’s is. … As for the inner version, I’m not at peace all that often, and I doubt you are. I’m absolutely bloody certain that John Lennon wasn’t. (pp. 12-13)
Spufford is originally colloquial in his definition of original sin: “the human propensity to f— things up” which he shortens into the helpful initialism HPtFtU:
The HPtFtU is bad news, and like all bad news is not very welcome, especially if you let yourself take seriously the implication that we actually want the destructive things we do, that they are not just the accident that keeps happening to poor little us, but part of our nature. (p. 30)
He has concise and profound footnotes on several key traditional subjects of apologetics: Bertrand Russell (pp. 68-69); evolution and the response of the Church of England (at the end of which he suggests “If you’re glad Darwin’s on a £10 note, hug an Anglican” [p. 102]); miracles (p. 165); slavery (p. 169). Included in the footnotes are some less traditional subjects such as the assets and other aspects of the Church of England (pp. 183-84), to which he refers later:
My own church is spared a lot of the temptations to power, thanks to its ramshackle state. (See the footnote in the previous chapter for a brisk survey of its ramshackle-itude.)
The final sentence of the book, on the “Notes” page, reads:
I don’t need to point out that I am not any kind of spokesman for the Church of England, do I? (p. 219)
He recounts two movingly mystical moments in his life, without using the word mystical. The first was after a crisis in the night of a relationship: he went to a café, and the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major was put on the cassette player by a person serving. He describes it and then comments:
I had heard it lots of times, but this time it felt to me like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmaroles in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness. … The novelist Richard Powers has written that the Clarinet Concerto sounds the way mercy would sound, and that’s exactly how I experienced it in 1997. (p. 16)
The second key moment, narrated for several pages, was when he was sitting in a parish church, attentively silent and listening to various sounds:
Not seeing, I feel the close grain of the hardwood I’m sitting on, the gritty solidity of the stone pillar my arm touches. I feel their real weight, I sense the labour that made them, I know their separateness from me. … But now it gets indescribable. Now I register something that precedes all this manifold immensity that is not-me and yet is real; something makes itself felt from beyond or behind or beneath it all. (pp. 59, 61)
The chapter on Yeshua is very refreshing and his short mimicry of the Jesus of the Gnostic gospels is wittily sarcastic:
The Jesus of these documents says, “Advance, Blue Adept, to the 17th Jade Portal of Amazingness, and give the secret signal with your thumbs.” (p. 156)
The footnote to that sentence adds, “In effect. Believe me, I have done you a favour by condensing a vast amount of Gnostic wibble into this convenient joke.” (p. 156)
(c) Why has it been shortlisted?
It ticks all the boxes of deepening our “thinking, acting and witnessing.” There are points of limpid clarity:
Into this setting comes Yeshua, with the love song to all that is ringing continually in him, and he says: don’t be careful. … God doesn’t want your careful virtue. He wants your reckless generosity. (pp. 115-16)
In outlining why he is a Christian, Spufford writes succinctly:
Christianity was the religion of my childhood. It’s the ancient religion, for something like forty generations, of the place I come from. It’s the matrix of my culture. But it’s also something I came back to, freely, as an adult, after twenty-odd years of atheism, because piece by piece I have found that it answers my need, and corresponds to emotional reality for me. I also find that the elaborated structure of meaning it builds, the story it tells, explains that reality more justly, more profoundly, more scrupulously and plausibly than any of the alternatives. (Am I sure I’m right? Of course not. Don’t you get bored with asking that question?) (p. 75)
(d) Would it make sense for it to win the prize?
Yes. In the past Spufford has been a prize-winning author, and this book is sharp, agile, moving, and perceptive. He even quips about bishops: “we think it is perfectly normal for middle aged men to wear purple dresses” (p. 2).
- God’s Presence by Frances Young
Frances Young was previously professor of theology and pro vice chancellor at the University of Birmingham. Amongst her many previous books are The Making of the Creeds (SCM Press, 1991 and 2013), and she was co-editor of The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature (2004).
(a) What kind of a book is this?
This is moving ancient wisdom, applied to today, by a preacher, poet, and leading scholar of early Christianity. This book of systematic theology developed out of her acclaimed 2011 Bampton Lectures and is part of the Cambridge University Press series, Current Issues in Theology.
Her sermons and poems interweave with insights from art as she applies the wisdom of the fathers and mothers of early Christianity to issues of today. They speak across the centuries. There are chapters on creation, anthropology, Incarnation, Christology, soteriology, the Holy Spirit, church (including a discussion on Mary), and the Trinity. In the final chapter, she charts her movement from writing two chapters in The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick in 1977, as a young theologian, to her full Trinitarian belief.
(b) Why should I read it?
Your mind will be stretched and your heart warmed. You will discover the extraordinary relevance of the early Church to today’s discussions. For example, Young’s son, Arthur, was born with brain damage and with a small head. She comments on the significance of the L’Arche Community, founded by Jean Vanier:
L’Arche reminds us of the limits of human capacity to put things right. It obliges us to confront the vulnerability of human creatureliness and the false ideology of trying to turn this life into a perfect paradise. (p. 142)
The drawing on the front cover of the book is by Silvia Dimitrova and depicts the loving friendship of Jesus for Lazarus, understood as a person with learning difficulties. The chariot of Lazarus doubles as a wheelchair.
Young relates a key moment of revelation:
After years of struggling with the theodicy questions raised by the birth of Arthur, release came in grasping the same point in a radical way — God’s existence no longer depended on my capacity to believe it! The moment remains vivid; I remember precisely what chair I was sitting in, that I was sitting on the edge of it, ready to get up and go and do something in the kitchen, when a “loud thought” came into my head: “It doesn’t make any difference to me whether you believe in me or not.” I had a sense of being stunned, or being put in my place. Nothing dramatic happened, but since that moment I have not seriously doubted God’s reality. God confronted me as utter otherness. (p. 385)
She draws on John Chrysostom to show that the key to wisdom is humility:
For Chrysostom and his contemporaries, to receive the knowledge of God required the humbling experience of having all categories of thought exploded, because the divine is infinite, invisible, immortal, incomprehensible — beyond speech or thought, beyond human language or conception. (p. 253)
In her section on “Eve, Mary, and Feminism,” she writes: “It is time to declare my position as a patristic scholar who happens to be a woman” (p. 233). She outlines several reasons, carefully and profoundly, why she has not found the “feminist rejection of the fathers satisfactory” (p. 234).
She includes several poems in the book. One of the most moving is “Breakthrough,” which begins:
The womb of the earth is as good as dead
like the barren womb of Sarah
and the barren womb of Hannah
and Elizabeth’s aged womb.
Each one stretched forth her hand
to touch the hem of his garment
like the one with the flow of blood. (p. 257)
She links African instituted churches with the events in the early Church:
Pentecostal traditions have spawned new religious movements, such as the Zionists in South Africa or the Kimbanguists of Central Africa, which are often treated as syncretistic: the assimilation of features from tribal traditional religion has triggered charges of heresy, resembling the way in which the Montanists were accused of being influenced by Phrygian paganism. (p. 281)
She answers the “modern” questions raised by John Hick and the other authors of The Myth of God Incarnate (including her own writings as a young theologian in Birmingham) concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ, by linking the development of two key concepts in Athanasius’s debate with Arius.
First was the extraordinary “otherness” of God, who is described especially by words of negation (i.e., by what he is not; this is apophasis or apophatic theology). Then came the doctrine of “creation out of nothing”: there is an infinite gap between creation and the Creator, not a hierarchical gradation.
In the pre-Nicene period there was little appreciation of the implications of that radicalized apophatic theology, let alone its consequences when brought into relation with the doctrine of creation out of nothing. To take both seriously would mean the dissolution of the hierarchical model, and the recognition of the absolute gulf between the ultimate divine nature and created orders of being, including angels. …
These issues could be clarified by the prolonged debates generated by the controversy labelled Arian. Those arguments exposed the hierarchical model’s incompatibility with the radicalized otherness of God and the notion of creation out of nothing. (p. 386)
She points out that post-Nicene theology had to be innovative, using newly coined words: homoousios (Christ is “of one nature” with God) rather than homoiousios (Christ is “of a similar nature” to God):
So the questions were posed in a new way, and it was only by embracing novelty that theological thought could do justice to tradition in a new situation. (p. 387)
I remember being struck by this insight, of orthodoxy having to present itself authentically by using innovative words, on first reading Rowan Williams’s major work Arius: Heresy and Tradition (1987). In reading Young, it struck me that this, in effect, is the essence of the missiological concept of “inculturation.” The following section is headed “Defending the Chalcedonian Definition,” and she later proceeds to “Knowing the Unknowable as Trinity.”
Earlier in the book, she discusses “Myth and Reality.” This section lays the foundation for her discussion of the modern Arianism of Hick and her earlier self:
This is part universal story, part particular story: on the one hand, Jesus Christ focusses the story, deepens it and sharpens it, but on the other, it is the story of “everyman,” and a story that rings true to life. So it is both “myth” in the technical sense of a transcendent, symbolic, unverifiable story that gives meaning to existence, and history in the sense that the “myth” has intersected with the actual existence of a certain person on this earth at a particular time in a particular place. (p. 222-223)
The experience of C.S. Lewis, moving from “theism,” belief in God, to the full Christian belief of the Incarnation during his discussions with J.R.R. Tolkien, seems to me to resonate with this understanding of “myth became fact”:
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.
(c) Why has it been shortlisted?
It is the mature fruit of the academic and pastoral career of a leading woman theologian, and it crosses boundaries in search of integration. In her own words of introduction:
This is a stab at a systematic theology which has contemporary coherence, but is informed not by the usual dialogue with today’s philosophers and theologians, but rather with engagement with the theology of the early church fathers who laid down parameters of Christian theology and enshrined key concepts in the creeds. (p. 1)
(d) Would it make sense for it to win the prize?
Here are combined “thinking, acting and witnessing.” Here, theology, history, and spirituality co-inhere. This book is thoroughly nourishing. Young outlines her intellectual journey in three points (p. 405):
- the move from struggling with theodicy to seeing that, through Arthur, I have privileged access to the deepest truths of Christianity
- the discernment of God’s reality in the living faith and worship of ordinary people in diverse congregations and communities, in ecumenical communion with those who are “other,” and particular surprise encounters with life-changing implications
- professional engagement with the theology of the fathers
Young echoes the thought of her beloved Gregory of Nazianzus, who “expected the mind of theologian to be stripped of pretentiousness” (p. 393). Her book is extraordinary in style, depth, coherence, lucidity, humility, and fecundity.
So, two books by Francis and Frances. I found them, respectively, popular and profound and profound and popular. They are very different in “register” and “tone” but similar in combining mystical experience with lucid presentation. Thankfully, others will be judging not just between these two, but between all the six books shortlisted. The list of judges for the Michael Ramsey Prize 2016 was also announced at the Festival:
- Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
- Professor Rosalind Searle, director at the Centre for Trust, Peace & Social Relations
- Sally Magnusson, broadcaster and writer
- Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion
- Dr. Anna Rowlands, lecturer in Catholic studies in the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University
They will announce the winner of the prize at the Greenbelt Festival, Boughton, near Kettering, on Sunday, Aug. 28. It would be good to pray for them: a firm foundation for that would be to buy and read for yourself one or two of these extraordinary books.
 C.S. Lewis, “Myth became Fact,” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. by Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1970).