Friday, 5 June 2009

On Richard Bauckham's books

by Kim Fabricius (a letter responding to an interview with Richard Bauckham in the last issue of the United Reformed Church magazine, Reform)

Sir:
Did anyone notice the bookshelves in the photo of New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham in the June Reform? Novels. Lots of novels. Quality novels. Even without a magnifying glass I could make out the fiction of Franz Kafka, Graham Greene, John Fowles, Ian McEwan, Jim Crace, and others.

There is a lesson here. Fiction is as intrinsic to continuing ministerial education as theology. And that’s because there is no greater theological resource for moral and spiritual formation than a great novel, with its enchantment of the everyday, whether tragic or comic; its discernment of the sacred in the secular; its disinterested rather than pragmatic take on human existence; its purposive narrative structure and focus on character, virtuous and vicious. You might say that if literature without theology is empty, theology without literature is blind.

That’s why, in my book (so to speak!), Reformed ministers who haven't read, as set texts, say Moby-Dick and The Brothers Karamazov, are as suspect as those who haven’t studied Calvin and Barth. That’s also why it should come as no surprise that the most recent book by Rowan Williams, Britain’s greatest living theologian, is entitled Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (2008). Among contemporary novels, forget about The Shack – it’s awful – but you must read, for the sheer grace and truth of it, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004). In fact, ministers who don’t or won't read it should be shot.

Ben’s note: Congratulations to Marilynne Robinson, who was yesterday awarded the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction (h/t Tom and Sean). If you’re lucky enough to be in Princeton this year, I believe Robinson will also be visiting the Center of Theological Inquiry to run a special workshop for Christian writers. A couple of years back I also posted a review of Robinson's Gilead – it’s far and away one of the greatest contemporary American novels.

31 Comments:

Terry Wright said...

I must confess that I read about 600 pages or so of The Brothers Karamazov and gave up. Sorry.

saint egregious said...

Gilead??? Overreated.
Brothers Karamazov? Also overreated.
Burp.
Excuse me.
I just ate at the Chicken Shit, er I mean The (Chicken) Shack.
Ate too fast and left me hungry in an hour.

Anonymous said...

While I enjoy Brothers Karamazov and some other texts from the accepted literary canon, I don't think we can completely discount the simplcity of books like the Shack.

Sometimes this blog comes off as a bit highbrow. If God can work through the weak, he can work through shoddy writing, poor character development and so forth. Not that we should accept it completely, but maybe we should refrain from excoriating the author at every turn. After all, he TRIED to write a novel at least. Thats more than I can say I've ever done.

rob said...

I loved Gilead - has anyone read Home?

roger flyer said...

St E-
Did I influence you to your latest incendiary bout?

Do you really think the ideas in Ivan's Grand Inquisitor are overrated?

I'd like a list of theologians who has posed more profound questions than some of Dostoevsky's?

kim fabricius said...

Hi Anonymous,

Simplicity is good, simplicity is excellent. As William Sloane Coffin said: "Say things as simply as possible" - but then added, "but no simpler." I like Hemingway as well as Faulkner (Hemingway jeered at Faulkner's "ten-dollar words"; Faulkner sneered that Hemingway was afraid to send his readers to the dictionary). But crap literature is crap literature, whether simple or complex - and The Shack is a crap novel. Of course I quite personally know that God can work through crap, but I wouldn't go out of my way to step in it, particularly on a hot day.

And, yes, Rob, Home is a beautiful work. Another fine contemporary novelist Salley Vickers, after comparing Robinson to Austen, spoke of it as "this utterly absorbing, precisely observed, marvellous novel," the heart of which "is the fumbling inadequacy of love."

philbaiden said...

Phew, I've read Gilead. Do I keep my ordination?

kim fabricius said...

Sure, philbaiden. Even if you hadn't read Gilead, I wouldn't have you defrocked. Only shot.

dan said...

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why so many people have latched onto Gilead. Really, does one just need to mention Barth to be the darling author of theobloggers??

Forget Robinson. Of recent American authors, I'll take Stegner, Duncan, McCarthy, Updike, Vonnegut, or even Morrison, DeLillo or Bukowski(!), before I go with Robinson again.

Bob said...

I’m sorry Kim and others,
Reading Barth and fiction puts me to sleep. I have a Masters degree so I can read. Barth goes on and on. I not sure of the correlation of reading fiction and becoming a good pastor or theologian. When I read fiction it feels like I’m passively avoiding life.
Anyway I’ll wait until Gilead is made into a movie.

saint egregious said...

Roger, I have feasted and feasted and overfeasted on Brothers Karamazov for many years. It is my go to pitch, my bread and butter, beans and rice, ribs and chicken for my soul! My all time favorite novel, especially the scenes with Ilyusha, Kolya and the dog-god.


Sorry that didn't come through.

kim fabricius said...

Dan, I suspect that the judges for the Pulitzer Prize (Gilead), and now the Orange Prize (Home) don't know their Barth from their Tillich. And Robinson's excellent first novel Housekeeping doesn't mention Barth at all. The three novels - particularly the two recent ones - are just brilliant literature.

And Bob, if you don't read novels, I'll grant you a stay of execution - as long as you read some good biography.

Erin said...

I hope sci-fi counts, too? A little Simmons, or at least Vonnegut? I do confess a particular weakness for Bukowski. The last good novel I read was Lem's Cyberiad. I hope that counts.

dan said...

Hi Kim,

I find that the Pulitzer can be a little hit and miss (as far as my own tastes are concerned). I connect quite strongly with the writings of some winners (Steinbeck, Sinclair, Stegner, Toole, McCarthy...) but not at all with the writings of some others (Faulkner, Proulx, Robinson, and even Hemingway a lot of the time).

Be that as it may, I find that I was a little incoherent in my last remark. My question isn't so much about why so many people are reading Robinson (any book that wins a Pulitzer will be widely read... and, as you say, will at least be well-crafted). My question is more around the fact that Gilead seems to be drawing a lot of attention from theology readers and bloggers who, for the most part, appear to have little interest in reading Pulitzer prize winning books, or even literature in general (a point I think you would agree with, otherwise your letter posted above would be a little redundant). So, why is it that this book (unlike a good many others) is connecting with theology readers and bloggers?

rasselas said...

Amen! try some Henryk Sienkiewicz (Kuniczak translations) especially his Polish Trilogy - tremendous!

I wouldn't recommend "The Brothers..." without first reading all of Dostoevsky major works

"The Shack is crap" exactly :)

Erin said...

One of my favorite novels was screwed by the Pulitzer: Henderson the Rain King. It is delightful and Bellow prefaced it with an article, "The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story," in the NY Times.

kim fabricius said...

Ah - now I take your point, Dan. It is certainly regrettable if Christians only read novels that have got priests in them (like Gilead and The Brothers Karamazov - and even Moby-Dick has Father Mapple!), or even narrowly "religious" characters or plots. Check out the authors I mentioned from Bauckham's bookshelves: only Greene stands out as a "Christian" novelist. So yes, Erin, sci-fi counts too!

To shift art forms, the BBC has recently begun to screen The Wire in the UK. I've just seen the first two series. Each episode opens with the gospel/blues-inspired "Way Down in the Hole", and in the second series some scenes with a priest help to get the plot moving, but that's it as far as anything explicitly "religious" goes. Yet The Wire is as powerful a morally driven programme as I've ever seen on TV. In fact I'd go so far as to call it wisdom literature. The key to great fiction is not religion but life.

Josh said...

I recommend Shusaku Endo's collection of short stories "Stained Glass Elegies." I have to admit that I haven't even read his novels yet (one's waiting on my bookshelf). But when I read S.G.E. I was suddenly struck by how great a resource fiction can be.

Daniel said...

Dear Ben (and everyone else) a good friend just sent me "The Shack." "Brilliant, changed his life," he says, etc.etc. i am visiting him in a month or so. Being pathetically impressionable and weak-minded youall have made it impossible for me to read it now. What do i say when he asks me? he is already e-mailing me to ask if i have started it yet. i read the cover and put it in the someday pile. I'm sure you (especially pastors) have been thru this with books and movies, what's the best way to handle this (without shooting Ben) and without outright lying, without hurting feelings, help me Ben, i may have 15 hr flight to Israel sitting next to this person. Spineless and flummoxed on whidbey Island, daniel

(ps, i got caught trying to pretend i had read Anna Karenina once and it cost me a lot future dinner invites with the local literati whose approval i crave, it's a small group here, and its either them or the gun-club survivalists for company)

Anonymous said...

I'm just surprised no one's mentioned Mann's Joseph & his Brothers, far more thought and genius than old D's Karamazov, who let's face it tends to paint caricatures rather than people, unless one grants that the Slav is racially prone to the excesses he describes -a distinct possibility- but why does anyone think literature improves people, if anything it makes all experience something to analyse rather than soiled with.

Ben Myers said...

Anon asks " but why does anyone think literature improves people?" I agree, if you're simply questioning the Victorian notion that reading "great literature" forms the basis of a sound and sober moral development. (Personally, I can't imagine a worse reason to read a novel than to "become a better person".)

But Kim isn't defending this specious idea of moral formation: his point is that literature is important for "ministerial education", since it's an indispensable "theological resource" for the Christian imagination. This has nothing to do with a novel's ability to cultivate refined moral sensibilities, but rather with the importance of imagination in theology and preaching.

Ben Myers said...

Daniel: I sympathise with your plight, and I surely hope to God you won't be driven into the open arms of the local gun club! We had a little discussion of The Shack recently, which might be helpful.

But seriously, are you really staring down the barrel of a 15-hour flight beside this person? If so, I don't know what you're waiting for. If I were in your shoes, I would pursue one of the two following courses of action as quickly as possible: (a) Hurry up and read the damn thing, regardless of how much it might hurt; or (b) Go and give this friend one of your own favourite books, tell him "OMG, brilliant, changed my life, you have to read it so we can talk about it on our flight!"— that way, at least you won't be the only one feeling guilty at 32,000 feet; with any luck, he'll be feeling so guilty about not-having-read-the-book that he'll forget to mention The Shack. Or, better still, he'll pretend to be too tired to talk on the plane, so you can enjoy your flight in peace.

As everyone knows, when flying there's only thing worse than sitting next to a talkative passenger: namely, sitting next to a passenger who is both talkative and religious.

bruce hamill said...

Brillian Ben... So when are you going into the ministry?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Bruce: if you mean ordination, then no, it's not on my radar. But why? Do you just want me to be included in Kim's lineup of clergy-who-deserve-to-be-shot?

Daniel said...

Ben, its a brilliant idea to counter-attack with another book!, now what to send....wait a minute...could his sending me 'The Shack' be payback for me sending him my "Origin of the Other" by Levinas? I sent it to him after all things 'Other' were banned here.
obliged, daniel

oh, and what book would youall send as a counter-counter-strike?

Anonymous said...

Ben-
I like the ministry you're in now.

roger flyer said...

bob-
i know what you mean.

Tim Webb said...

Okay, I was trained in engineering before receiving my M.Div, and I've just about come to the point where I'm doubting that someone with an engineering background should even enter the ministry at all (meaning, I have very little training in the arts). Can someone point me to a list of literature, along the lines of what Kim is suggesting, that a moron like me should start getting acquainted with? Thanks, Tim

kim fabricius said...

Hi Tim,

Go to the sidebar, find "Popular Posts", and click on "Essential culture for theologians". There you will find some "essential" novels to read - along with 35 helpful comments and supplementary suggestions - but much, much more in the arts as well.

Btw, I came within a hair's breath of studying science at university - my high school chemistry teacher was miffed that I majored in English instead - and I try to keep up to speed with what's going on in physics, cosmology, biology, etc. Ministers who read only novels - and poetry, of course - they too should be shot. Left brain without right brain, right brain without left brain - soon you've got no brain at all.

Daniel said...

to Tim Webb: might i suggest you look into a great org. callled "Engineers Without Borders" EWB. There should be a chapter somewhere near you. I belong to a Seattle chapter, they do good work around the world. best, daniel #3.
oh, and i would start your theo ed. with a thorough grounding in Levinas and the "Ot...er."

roger flyer said...

Kim-
It reminds me of one of my 1/2 written country songs. I should finish for St. E.

I was living in my right mind
Then I was left behind
'Cuz my damn left brain
Couldn't understand real love...

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