I wanted to write a detached, cool-headed evaluation of this book and even had thought of some suitably ironic ways of describing it: ‘ostrich prose’, for example (covering a lot of ground with great enthusiasm but never quite taking off).
Unfortunately, I can’t do it. I shamelessly and unapologetically absolutely loved this book. I have to confess some shared interests. Alister McGrath is a former professor at my old college. He’s a scientist and atheist who turned to Christ. In some of his other writings, he has discovered the loveable pinata-like qualities of Professor Dawkins. So I was predisposed to like this book and therefore quite determined not to.
I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece or not but I found it an entirely satisfying retelling and re-evaluation of the man that I will treasure for a long time. They even got A N Wilson, big-beast among Lewis biographers and newly -returned-to-the-faith-Christian, to say something mildly pleasant about McGrath’s work. So, perhaps, it must be good. It’s not just me. Generally I prefer reading Lewis to reading books about Lewis but this is the business.
I only re-read one book every year (apart from the Bible). I have an audio version of A Christmas Carol and I listen to it every Christmas season without fail. It’s huge fun and it’s about repentance. What more could you want?
It’s also interesting for two other reasons:
It’s nearly perfect. For me A Christmas Carol is the textbook for popular storytelling. Everything opened up at the beginning is resolved at the end. Everything is vivid and passionate. The dramatic tension never stops, building like a symphony through scene after perfect scene to the final explosion and the shattering and remaking of Scrooge.
It shows how a novelist can change culture. All of us in the West draw on this text when we think about Christmas. Dickens edited the world by scribbling stories. He’s a reminder of why people should write; in a story-dominated world, culture is jerked and pulled across the stage by the story-tellers. If you want Christmas to be about something other than snow and the wretched jingle of sleighbells-something like a gleeful, subversive transformation of an old sinner–write a book.
My novel Paradise isn’t about Christmas. But it is subversive and is supposed to be funny. A recent Amazon review from someone who described herself as an “extremely liberal atheist” was kind enough to say “Truly excellent! … I can’t wait to read his next work.” Which was nice. Courtesy of internet bookshops, I’ve been able to make Paradise a free download. Happy Christmas.
A smoothie: there it is in front of you, but you have no idea what’s in it. Somebody has to tell you what the ingredients are. Reality is like that.
The first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis are called the “Primaeval Prologue,” and they are rather different from the rest of the book.
Once you get to the safe waters of Genesis 12, you know you are being helicoptered into the Middle Bronze Age and the scenery is familiar enough from all other kinds of historical documents that have been dug up over the centuries. Genesis 12 and onwards is Bronze Age literature with Bronze Age conventions, and it’s not much of a stretch to see it as broadly historical.
Genesis 1-11 is different. It talks about Creation, the Garden of Evil, the Flood, the Tower of Babel. It’s hard to shoehorn that into what we currently think we know of pre-history: human evolution, the development of languages, the way the world seems always to have known suffering, rather than having a time of perfection that was upended by human sin.
Not only that, but the stories in the Primaeval Prologue themselves seem to be … well different. Adam, for example, is not so much a name as the word for ‘mankind’. Then you have talking snakes and metaphorical trees. And people who live 900 years. It’s as if the Bible is trying to tell us something. What’s it saying? Perhaps it’s saying the Prologue is much more about reality than it is about history. It’s really, as my Old Testament lecturer told me, about ‘who we are and what we are to do.’
Reality is presented to us like a smoothie, already whizzed to a mush. The Primaeval Prologue tells us the ingredients: it’s a reverse-engineered smoothie. Here are these ingredients:
God made everything, and he made it good
People have chosen independence over trust and we are all caught up in this and it’s caused a lot of problems.
Disaster and recovery is an engine of history — the Flood is the archetype.
People coming together, achieving something, thinking they don’t need God, then toppling over, is another engine of history, true of corporations and countries — the Tower of Babel is the archetype.
Creation, fall, death, loss, coming together, falling short, falling apart are the ingredients of the smoothie called ‘reality’. They are history’s heartbeat: God’s creation and recreation; human rebellion; networks re-forming; on and on.
This is a much more fun text, much more profound, and much more useful than if it were merely history.
Bonus material — another way of saying that same thing that physicists might like: the Primaeval Prologue as a Fourier transform
Suppose you were able to express reality as a single complicated waveform. Call that trace ‘reality’. It would be quite a scribble.
Physicists know a beautiful piece of maths (called a Fourier analysis) that says every single possible scribble, however complicated, can be expressed as a sum (or in the limit an integral) of a bunch of beautiful, regular sine waves. If you find enough different sine waves and put them together carefully enough, you can reproduce any scribble, any signature, anything that can be drawn without a pencil leaving the paper.
So the complex scribble (or waveform) is ‘reality.’ The writer of the Primaeval Prologue did a Fourier analysis of it. And the stories in Genesis 1-11 are the resultant sine waves, simple things that everyone can understand. Sum them together, and you explain who we are and what we are to do.
Here’s a link that explains the Fourier Transform. Unbelievably, it uses the same metaphor of a smoothie as I used earlier on. Equally unbelievably, it demonstrates how to transform a sketch of Homer Simpson in a series of sine waves.
You can read much more about this sort of thing in my book More than Bananas, How the Christian faith works for me and the whole world, which is free on Kindle.
Imagine rowing a boat on your own across a lake. The fears and joys are yours alone.
We are always alone. People may sit by our fireplaces–as it were–over many wonderful evenings and years. They may hug us and hold us, accepting each other as completely as two humans can.
But no-one knows us quite fully or quite truthfully. There are always veils. We are not entirely as we present ourselves, even to those we love the most.
Thanks to faith in Christ, though, I’ve discovered I’m never alone.
When I’m rowing alone across a lake, also known as living, Christ knows with me all the terror and the joy. Other loves may kindly watch, from the shore or other boats. Other loves may cheer and blow kisses. But he knows it all and we share it together.
The only way we can know about God is if he tells us. We can’t leave the Universe, look at him, and come back, because we remain part of the Universe. Where we go, it goes. But God is outside the Universe.
So we won’t know anything about God without a revelation from God.
That means listening to someone who thinks they have a revelation from God.
And that is, as I said in the title, like offering our email addresses to spammers. The world is full of people who think God is speaking to them. A lot of them are kooks.
What do we do?
As I wrote in my book More than Bananas, I think the only tool in our box is our total human response. So this must involve:
What the community around us thinks
What the community who believe in revelation is like
A certain element of risk
(Note: More than Bananas is currently available as a free download as a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to my other writing.)
a writer who travels to wild places and talks to people. Eliza Griswold (what a wonderful name, like something out of Dickens or Harry Potter) explores in her book the peoples of latitude ten degrees north of the equator.
She concentrates on the human geography, the conflict between the desert and the sown, the aristocratic nomad and the dirt-digging farmer, and — her real purpose — between Islam and Christianity.
She’s either fearless, or crazy, in her pursuit of former terrorists and other dodgy characters, as well as of the people who are perhaps just the collateral damage in this turbulent region– the two Muslims who were to be caned for suspected adultery, who just wanted to marry so they would not be shamed, for example.
She meets plenty of missionaries and zealots on both sides. On the way she is led to Christ by Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, an experience that was evidently more satisfying to him than it was to her.
Halfway round the world she meets a former mujahideen trying a new career selling beauty products. And on and on.
Eliza Griswold resists cynicism, stereotyping and the urge to fit what she is seeing into some coherent analysis. She’s very likeable. The daughter of a radical, liberal bishop, her very puzzled poking around in this confusion is to me almost a vital sign of a living faith.
I loved the contrast (in a rare personal aside) between her own nail-chewed hands and the worthily worn ones of her professional-Christian mother. Hers is a ‘doubt’ that is the penumbra of bright belief.
I have one little caveat which is that her library-work isn’t always quite as excellent as her reportage. Her footnotes sometimes lead us to other popular accounts, not authoritative sources. There’s the odd place where she’s surely oversimplifying, for example: ‘Under the Roman Empire, the practice of Christianity was punishable by death until 313, when the Roman emperor Constantine officially legalized it.’ (p 78). Rome’s persecution was patchy and sporadic.
After reading this book I’ve learnt more, and understood less, about the people at the join between Islam and Christianity , an area mightily unwritten about and largely unknown to the Western world.
It’s a novel first, a science-fiction novel second: in other words, it has rich characters, a compelling plot, and leaves you with much to think about. The SF element is done seamlessly well with good hard science and coherent thinking about another world and how it might work.
The plot is all about a Jesuit mission to another culture, what happened there, and how it affected the hero, a Jesuit priest and translator.
I suspect Mary Doria Russell gave her story an SF context only because on earth, most of the strange tribes have already been encountered, if not by Jesuits then by their Protestant missionary cousins.
Underlying the whole tale all are deep questions about God, about faith, redemption, surrender and devotion.
It really is a wonderful book, and shows perhaps how hollow much of the rest of the SF universe really is. (Not that that stops me enjoying it: it’s just that this book is so much richer.)
It rightly won prizes. This is the only SF book I would recommend my wife should ever read. It’s a wonderful novel, not to be missed.
Not found in common books of liturgy, I reproduce it here with thanks to the peerless Neal Stephenson who puts the prayer into the mouth of Samuel Pepys. (Lithotomy is of course the removal of a gallstone.)
‘Lord of the Universe, Your humble servants Samuel Pepys and Daniel Waterhouse pray that you shall bless and keep the soul of the late Bishop of Chester, John Wilkins, who, wanting no further purification in the Kidney of the World, went to your keeping twenty years since. And we give praise and thanks to You for having given us the rational faculties by which the procedure of lithotomy was invented, enabling us, who are further from perfection, to endure longer in this world, urinating freely as the occasion warrants. Let our urine-streams, gleaming and scintillating in the sun’s radiance as they pursue their parabolic trajectories earthward, be as an outward and visible sign of Your Grace, even as the knobbly stones hidden in our coat pockets remind us that we are all earth, and we are all sinners. Do you have anything to add, Mr Waterhouse?’
“I believe in the grace of God. For me, that is where all these questions end”
and then this:
“then there he would be, fresh from the gallows, shocked at the kindness all around him.”
I can’t remember the last time I cried while reading a book. I could feel the sobbing welling up inside. It was doubly embarrassing because I was lying next to a pool in the Cote d’Azur on a brilliant blue day, and my wife was reading Bill Bryson.
Perhaps it was post-traumatic stress speaking after my coma and paralysis three years ago. The book I was reading had the weight of an old hymn, suffering graced in music.
Or perhaps it was because God was beautiful and humans, like mathematics, need infinity to make the sums come out right.
Either way, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is extraordinary.
Paradox can be a happy place, and leaving it for a simpler place just leads to trouble, I think.
Paradoxes are like the edges of our known world. We sail out to them. But however far we continue to sail, we realise we aren’t getting any further.
Is it true that in all the big questions, if you keep asking long enough, you reach paradox? Suffering and a God of love. Free choice and fate. Healing and sickness. Success and failure. Knowing things and not knowing things. Death and life or judgement and mercy. How can they both exist together? What happens at the place they meet?
This is the place of paradox, where we stand in the cross-winds. Or perhaps the cross-hairs. Or perhaps just in the shadow of the cross itself, where Christ resolved paradoxes by becoming one.
I think the place of paradox is a bleak, empty place, or a full, contented one, depending on whether we stand and complain, or fall and worship.
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