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)

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.


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