Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Francis Spufford’s new book has been billed as a gutsy riposte to the new atheists. And it is. He tells us in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t like being patronised by nit-wits.  No one knows whether God exists – ‘not even Richard  (expletive deleted) Dawkins’. But this work is more than a two-finger salute the atheist bus. It is an equal challenge to the Christian community to gets its intellectual act together.

So, where does Spufford go? To a theology Library? To a desert monastery? To a great cathedral? To the vicar’s study? No, none of these. He goes to the coffee-shop. And there he writes a report from the inside of his head.

And riveting stuff it is too. The Bishop of Bradford likes it, telling his blog-readers that it is  ‘wonderful, funny, totally engaging and sweary… – the best book on Christian faith I have read for ages.’

I read the first chapter through at great speed when it was published in the Guardian’s Review section. On the front page too. This is where theology needs to be. And more of it needs to be in this tone of voice and about these issues. This is passionate theology. Theology with attitude, edge and bite. But also lived and lived-in theology.  Spufford does not tell us much about his personal experiences but there is a book called ‘Celebration’ by one Margaret Spufford which engages profoundly with the issues of first-hand suffering, pain and loss. The preface tells us that Francis read the draft.  That was back in the 1990s.  ‘Unapologetic’ may have been written in a coffee-shop but it has been made over many years. And there is nothing arm’s length, academic, pious or – apologetic – about it.

‘Unapologetic’ has been widely reviewed already and the religious press will catch up before long. So this is not a review.  Rather a coffee-time list of six things I really like about it.

  1. Its passion.  Spufford cares about this stuff.  He needs to get it straight and clear in his mind and on the page. There is too much nonsense spoken. Too many intellectual short-cuts are too commonly made. If this is a rant it is a rant which says, ‘come on everyone, take this stuff more seriously’.
  2. Its use of langauge. It’s both colloquial and intelligent. You feel that if you interrupted him writing and started a chat the idiom would remain much the same. Yes, it’s sweary and on the whole we try to do theology without swearing. But careful swearing, if I can put it that way, can be a way of pointing to the known inadequacy of my words in the face of what I am trying to communicate. There is self-exasperation in swearing, as well as indignation. It means ‘I need you to know that I know that I can’t think of anything better to say but that something more does need to be said – now.’ Every theologian should know self-exasperation – should be frustrated by how little they can put on the page.
  3. It is serious about sin. Not just moral infringement but original sin.  The church has more or less forgotten about sin – apart from when talking liturgy-speak in services. Most of us think of sin either in a camped-up or a dumbed-down way.  Spufford has none of it. Humans always make a mess of things. Get over your fantasy that maybe you are the one who might be without sin yourself. As Jesus put it – if you are without sin then by all means throw stones at those you judge, but do first have a peep inside yourself.
  4. It is realistic about Jesus. He calls him ‘Yeshua’ – that being his non-Latinised name. He probably did have bad teeth and all the other unsavoury characteristic of those who lived rough a long time ago.  There were obviously no Victorian stained-glass windows in Spufford’s coffee shop scriptorium. He gives us Jesus raw.
  5. This is going to sound pompous, but ‘Unaplogetic’ meets my own personal criterion for ‘proper theology’. That is, it is serious and articulate about grace.  Not in a preachy or monography way, but in a real way. Grace is what lies in and behind all forgiveness, healing and restoration. All ‘mending’, as he puts it.  We cannot fix ourselves. Yet there is grace. Or at least this is what we believe because we find ourselves less undermined by ourselves and by suffering than we could ever imagine, given our experience – when we are honest about it. And we believe it both because we know the story of Jesus and because, when you come to think of it, and many do think just this, while the story of God becoming human is unlikely to humanly minded people, and unpalatable to metaphysical purists, it is the only non-outraging way into the problem of suffering.
  6. And because it is serious about grace and real about sin is not an optimistic book but a book of hope. Hope against hope, perhaps, but real hope.  We are both more broken and more mended than we realise. And this is what makes emotional sense – by which he does not mean a less than fully rational sense but a more than merely cognitive sense.

So, get the book, get some coffee and start reading.

Read Full Post »

Start of the Gospel of St John in the St cuthb...

Start of the Gospel of St John in the St cuthbert or Stonyhurst Gospel. Northumbrian, c. 698 British Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Suddenly a Latin version of St John’s Gospel is in the headlines. And everyone is delighted.  The British Library has got the cash together so that the Cuthbert Gospel can be kept in public ownership. The Library have had it on loan since 1979 but now that it is theirs they can invest in its display and interpretation.  And it can come back to Durham for a while too.  Everyone is glad.

There is much to delight in here. It is a wonderful little book with its beautiful dark red cover, carefully tooled and coloured, the stunningly clear lettering and the marginal annotations showing which passages should be read at the various offices for the dead.   There are plenty of images on various websites and the whole thing has been digitized by the British Library and that too is on-line.

We should not be surprised by an old Bible book, perhaps. We all know the Bible is old. But this is the oldest intact European book. John’s Gospel bound in leather and placed in Cuthbert’s coffin on Lindisfarne and then taken on a journey with him – fleeing the Vikings – to his final, and its provisional, resting place in Durham.

Seeing the book on the TV yesterday, and in particular seeing it in the careful hands of Dr Claire Braey, brought it to life in a special way. The book is hand sized. It is meant to be held and opened. And it was placed at the head of Cuthbert by someones careful hands.  There is handiwork evident on every page.

Yes,  it is a book and a book is a lot of words  but this is more than a lot of words. It is more too, than the accumulated meaning of those words. Rich and deep and infinite as John’s Gospel is – this is somehow more.

And it is John’s gospel itself which can give us some clues to reading this book – that is, interpreting its existence and our wonder and delight in it. ‘In the beginning was the word’, wrote John. ‘and the word became flesh and dwelt among us.’  These are the words that were placed close to the head of the blessed father Cuthbert.  They speak of meaning not on pages but in flesh and in life.  As they carried his coffin on the famous journey his community would have known that the book of words which spoke of the meaning and love beyond words was also part of what they were shouldering.

John’s Gospel also famously speaks of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Cuthbert, like many biblical figures, was called to the service of God from keeping sheep. It is an image which speaks of the honour and primacy of care in Christian values. And what is care if it is not giving others respect and space, honour and time, kind attention and a loving interpretation of the meaning of things. John’s gospel is a careful book about care. And Cuthbert’s Gospel is a testimony (witness) to that kind of care.

True care is about the way we relate to others, but it is also about how we relate to things. We need to learn this every day as we discover more and more about the weakness not only of the flesh but of the ecosystem of our planet.  Cuthbert and his caring community have much to teach us about that too. At Durham Cathedral we speak of discovering our place in God’s creation.  It is indeed a work in progress. It needs our careful attention.

And finally an irony. It is John’s gospel which ends with a word about the limits of books.  The writer, realising that he has come to the end, admits that there is much more that Jesus did but that ‘if everyone of them that were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written’.

Every book is a testimony not only to writing but editing. There is always more that could be said. Always another chapter to be written. Readers face the same issue – there is always another book for the shelf or the suitcase.  Writing and reading imply editing and selection. Once upon a time the decision was made to place a certain book in Cuthbert’s coffin. Who made that decision? How was it made? Why? Whose hands placed it there?

And that suggests to me a kind of spiritual exercise, the ‘one book test’.  It is this: if you were going to have one book placed lovingly in your coffin… what would it be?

Feel  free to share your answer.

Read Full Post »

Here are seven simple ideas that might just help – whether you are alone, part of a church community which is marking the week together, or among people for whom nothing is holy.

Good Friday 2009

Good Friday 2009 (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

Shut down some sources of information. 

For much of our lives we are overwhelmed by messages and news. Screen some of them out for a week.  Give your mind chance to rest on things that last, things that really matter.

Listen to silence.

True silence is very hard to come by, but listening more intently for it will impact on you profoundly.

Look at darkness.

Don’t try to understand it. Just try to look deeply into that which has no colour, no meaning, no purpose, no life. Do not be afraid. Light will come.

Soak up the story.

Don’t take it apart. Don’t compare and contrast. Just read it, hear it, recite it, perform it or tell it.  Let the story do its good work.

Use your sense of smell.

It is strongly connected to memory but also to your soul. What does Good Friday smell like? What is the aroma of Easter Day?

Slow yourself down.

Holy Week happens in real time.  Synchronise your personal clock with God’s cosmic clock and slow to God’s more patient pace.

Behold the wood of the cross.

This is a phrase from the ancient liturgy of Good Friday. Prepare for it by noticing wood wherever you find it. Touch trees. Feel polished wood. Make a cross of wood or carry a holding cross.  Get close to wood and let the wood connect you with the saviour of the world.

May this holy week bring many blessings for a world in desperate need of reconciling love.

Read Full Post »