Sunday 18 July 2010

Maggi Dawn, Writing on the Wall

Maggi Dawn, The Writing on the Wall: High Art, Popular Culture and the Bible (Hodder & Stoughton 2010), 272 pp.

A review by Kim Fabricius

James Smart once spoke of “the strange silence of the Bible in the church”. Forty years later – cause and effect? – the smart will speak of the all-too-familiar silence of the Bible in society. The unchurched don’t know their Palm Sunday ass from their elbow, and a vox pop opining that Easter celebrates the near-death experience of a bunny wouldn’t surprise me in the least. It gets worse. Students who arrive at university to read English are often surprised to learn that Paradise Lost isn’t a study of the environmental depredation of Tahiti.

Okay, I exaggerate. But not much. Biblical illiteracy in the UK is pandemic in popular and high culture alike. Enter Maggi Dawn, Cambridge college chaplain and star blog babe, to give us an education in this fabulous and fluent book, which takes what used to be well-known Bible stories, re-narrates them, and then shows what the arts have made of them down the ages.

Maggi takes nothing for granted, so the texts she explores, with a teacher’s eye for the panoramic picture, are printed in full – and, yes, she even explains what Palm Sunday and Easter are! So this is a book for the beginner. But the cognoscenti too will learn a lot from it, while preachers and Bible study leaders will find it a valuable resource for illustration and illumination.

There are scores of references. The main art-form on which Maggi draws is painting, so it’s a shame that there are no reproductions, but this lacuna is no doubt for reasons of cost. Poetry and classical music are also well represented; however fiction less so, which surprises me. As Ben and I well know from our Culture for Theologians series, you can always count on a smartass to point out your omissions, so I cannot resist mentioning a few deserving-a-mention contemporary novels: Timothy Findley’s postmodern fantasy about the Noah family, Not Wanted on the Voyage; Joseph Heller’s wry take on David, God Knows; and Jim Crace’s disturbing retelling of Christ in the wilderness, Quarantine. (By the way, does anyone know James Morrow’s hilarious satire on the death of God, Towing Jehovah?) And Maggi misses a trick when, discussing Caravaggio’s two versions of Supper at Emmaus, she doesn’t link them with a contemporary novel in which the National Gallery version plays a crucial role, Salley Vickers’ The Other Side of You (though in discussing the Magi, she does mention Miss Garnet’s Angel). Still, my smartassery aside, Maggi should count herself lucky that she doesn’t get a Theology Fail for her typically English – and dare I say womanly? – neglect of Moby-Dick!

Of course I’m talking high culture here. The thing is, so is Maggi, mainly. Which in a book addressed to Jack and Jill is the single criticism of the book I would make. The important exception is modern popular music, where the talented Maggi is really in her element. The dearth of films is especially puzzling, but perhaps the explanation lies in the numerous books already out there on reel issues. And anticipating that the learned might knock the book’s theological oversimplifications, I would simply insist on its single and important objective: namely, to get the unwitting to see how steeped in the Bible is Western culture, and to encourage them to return to the source which, far from being a stagnant pool, is an ever-rich reservoir. And once there, who knows, they may find that from the pages of this reportedly boring collection of books, the living God still speaks and excites.

The jacket of Writing on the Wall – an allusion, of course, to the ominous scene in Daniel 5 – depicts the title, in a clever double-entendre, as part of a street-scene of graffiti. Which prompts me to reiterate some “theological graffiti” I wrote for F&T last month –

Maggi Dawn,
This isn’t a come-on,
But at her winsome blog I’ve lingered,
Musing if she’s rosy-fingered –

and, mindful of another Homeric epithet, the “wine-dark sea”, to conclude by inviting you to open a bottle of South African Shiraz and enjoy this winsome book.


Steven Demmler said...

Thanks for the review. As it happens a few of my friends in ministry have been seeking a work just like this!

Jim said...

i hate you kim. or more precisely, i hate, loath, and despise the fact that you don't blog regularly. i never tire of reading what you have to say and i tell you, in the name of the lord, that you are ordered hereby and forthwith to set up a blog of your own and write on it daily.

phil_style said...

South African Shiraz? . . I can hear the howls of displeasure rising from the Hunter Valley

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