Epiphany in a bookshop
Posted on 27 January 2012, 4:42
I was in Foyles (the bookshop equivalent of the Tower of Babel, so endless and towering is its collection of books) on Charing Cross Road the other day. I was looking for a good introduction to the Christian faith and was trying to steer clear of Mere Christianity.
No offence to CS Lewis, of course, but I find MC is dating quite badly. It’s sounding more and more like the voice of a great uncle who wears tweed suits and flannel underpants, smells of mothballs and tobacco and talks like a BBC newsreel. It’s not its own fault, poor thing – parts of the book date back to 1941. But surely someone’s written a classic intro to the faith which has the smell of today and can topple MC from its top spot on the Christian bookshelf?
Anyway, standing on the second floor, surrounded by enticing books on New York, Turkish cooking, hitchhiking in Patagonia, how the human eye works, London’s lost rivers, lives of Dickens – not to mention the miles of shelves devoted to novelists from Ackroyd to Zafón and back again, I noticed that the few shelves of the Christianity section have been shoved into an obscure corner, sandwiched between the paranormal and psychology.
As I struggled to find an alternative to CS Lewis, the weight of a million brilliant modern books pressed in on me and made me see in a new way how small, how pushed into a corner, how seemingly backward-looking and irrelevant my faith is.
I realised that if I wanted to buy a world class book, either because it was beautifully written, or groundbeaking in its ideas, or sharp in its take on life, or because it contained the best comedy or tragedy or sheer storytelling money could buy, then I would not find it here, in Kristianity Korner.
That in turn made me think how few of the people I really admire in mainstream culture – people who make me laugh, people who challenge me to think better, people who show me the world in a new way through books, films or TV programmes – how few of them have anything but scorn or apathy for religion.
Frank Skinner recently told Rowan Williams that many standup comics today, even if they have no particular gripe against God, will take a few minutes out of their set to say how hilariously awful religion is and how atheism is the answer. I’ve had to accept the marginalisation of my faith ever since I became a Christian, but somehow, standing there on the second floor of Foyles, it crashed in on me in a new way.
Christians who want to live their chosen faith wholeheartedly, but who want to live in our culture wholeheartedly too, have the Devil’s own choice if they think about it long enough. In my experience, we mostly duck the issue and get on with the practical business of standing by the faith choice we made a long time ago. But it’s painful whenever you do think about it, because the pressure of faith and the counter-pressure of culture act like a pair of pincers on the soul.
How do we respond to the spiritual pain of that? A widespread response among believers is to create bubbles within the culture where we can do our own little thing and pretend that nothing outside the bubble is truly important.
There are bubbles where Christians fantasise about revival or the second coming or the blessed return to Latin liturgy. There’s the bubble of church itself, of course, with its essentially medieval world of sermons, processions, reciting texts together in buildings with pointy windows, dressing up in clothes the Romans would feel at home in, and lighting candles in the age of the electric light.
It’s lovely, but it’s a lovely bubble, a little culture inside a bigger culture with less and less appeal to the world as it is out there. These rejections of the wider world are ways of turning aside the pain, of relieving the pressure which bears down so sharply on people of faith.
Another response is gradually losing your religion because it’s too hard to sustain, or because you finally need to call time on a faith which no longer has any immediate hold on your imagination. Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach, becomes a personal experience as the sea of faith makes its ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’.
I’ve always been something of a fan of the friction between faith and culture. I’ve believed it can be a creative, self-critical force, demanding the best from us in making the connection between God and the world of here and now. But I don’t see that friction producing bright sparks in huge quantities among Christians today. I don’t see much creative impact on the mainstream as I stand on the second floor of Foyles receiving my negative epiphany.
In the end, I ran out of time and bought Screwtape. At least it wasn’t Mere Christianity, but it was the very next book on the narrow shelf.
I too would thoroughly recommend Timothy Radcliffe’s books.
Peter Bolton, Tue 7 Feb, 15:31
Simon, thanks for that thoughtful piece. For a slightly different take on MC, focusing in particular on the fourth section, “Beyond Personality,” may I suggest Paul Fiddes’s chapter in *The Cambridge Companion to CS Lewis*, which I edited with Michael Ward. I also suspect that the best books by Christians and about Christianity in Foyle’s will not be found in the melancholy and shrinking section of “religious books,” but in the sections of contemporary poetry and philosophy.
Rob MacSwain, Sun 5 Feb, 00:42
How about ‘The Heart of Chrisitianity’ by Marcus Borg. Eminently readable.
Kennedy F, Sun 5 Feb, 00:35
And then there’s the matter of trying to find an introduction to Christianity for children (both small and older) that’s not overly literal, but a more progressive theology. And with good illustrations. Do we start with the more literal and then hope to shift the child to something more metaphorical?
Bob O'Dell, Sat 4 Feb, 22:35
You could do worse than Rowan Williams’ “Tokens of Trust”, actually – it’s a very good introduction to the Creed, and hence to Christian theology. Or if you want something more popular and more geared to the practice of faith, Timothy Radcliffe’s “What is the Point of Going To Church” is good (and quite funny in places).
But actually I remember being very impressed by Foyles religion corner. They had a very good selection of patristic and medieval theology, Tina Beatty’s brilliant feminist takes on Thomism and the Catholic faith (I recommend “Woman”). Yes, there was a lot of pietistic nonsense, but there are good books out there. Possibly the issues more with the marketing than the books themselves?
Johanna Kershaw, Sat 4 Feb, 20:46
I give “Need to know: Christianity” by Peter Graystone to adults preparing for confirmation or wanting to know more. It is well balanced in its approach, clear, but not over-simplified, covers the basics of Christian belief, the Bible, Church history etc. and you can dip into it or read it right through. It took me a long time to find it – all I could see were books slanted towards an evangelical perspective – but this is good. I think it is out of print, but Amazon have copies going dead cheap…
Anne, Sat 4 Feb, 20:06
The trouble with MC in my view is that Lewis was attempting non-denominational Christianity. This is laudable in a certain way (there are *some* things we agree on!) but it is fundamentally limiting. So much of the exciting stuff in Christianity – the stuff that makes it world-engaging and transformational – is also controversial.
I’m not sure what the answer is. Perhaps the problem is that books are not a great means of religious communication. As for the interaction between faith and culture, what we need is people: people who live modern lives that also demonstrate faith, and whom popular culture takes seriously. I’m not sure how to achieve this, either…
Sam Korn, Sat 4 Feb, 19:11
As a modern version of “Mere Christianity” NT Wright’s apologia “Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense” is supposed to be good.(Though I find his style a bit hectoring). Personally I prefer Rowan William’s “Tokens of Trust. An introduction to Christian belief.” It’s a thin book with nice pictures, but very condensed
I take your point about faith and culture though. Maybe the failure of modern society to take Christianity seriously will backfire one of these days? Who knows? (God maybe!) Until then I think we need to keep plugging away, staying in that hard place, asking the right sort of questions and avoiding trite answers and short term solutions.
Jon, Sat 4 Feb, 18:48
Simon - don’t worry too much. Some of those other books around you were also written by Christians, who felt they had things to say in stories, biography, travel and even cookery…
But yes: I started writing because the book I was reading didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. If you can’t find a replacement for Mere Christianity, why not write one?
Simon Morden, Sat 4 Feb, 18:22
Great piece Simon.
‘Keeping the rumour of God alive’ sounds like a pleasantly undemanding activity, but it’s actually a pretty hard call. Not least because it sometimes feels as if ‘The Church’ is completely bogged down in its irrelevance, and mistakes that for being culturally distinctive.
The call to follow Jesus necessarily takes us to the margins, the wilderness and the Cross. Lonely places where we may feel completely cut off from the mainstream. I often wish it didn’t!
Pam Smith, Sat 4 Feb, 15:53
Your writing style is a pleasure to read. Thanks.
My evangelical Christian background didn’t really even get into CS Lewis that much. When I think of a book which talks about the basics of faith I can only think of Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life (I think it was written in the 50s or 60s). There is probably more out there (I think David Pawson might have written one) but I find I am a reluctant searcher. I’m told there might be some more recent Bible Study material about the tenets of our faith which is easy to understand for those who don’t have much Christian background.
Maybe we have to get back to the basics of realising that we are the Bible (or the book about Christian doctrine) that people read and live our lives accordingly. A scary option for me to contemplate.
lorraine johnstone, Sun 29 Jan, 13:48
Hmmm, I hear a lot about Christianity failing to be relevant in the ‘real world’. Maybe it’s because it’s being searched for in a bookshop. When Jesus seems distant and we long for things to happen and to experience things – it’s time to get out of the bookshop and into the world. I see Jesus impacting real lives in real places. I don’t think any media – be it books, film or the internet – can show us Jesus and what faith in Him is all about. It can be found in those who are living that faith out and seeing him at work in and through their lives.
si johns, Sat 28 Jan, 04:56
CS Lewis: bleuuuugggghhhhh! I met his sort at Oxford and I’m afraid he arouses strong negative emotions in me! But you are right about the dearth of good books on what Christ really meant, and how it’s even more relevant today. I’m trying to interest a publisher in a book about what churches get wrong, but it’s written from the viewpoint of a frustrated non-churchgoer and I’m no theologian. The obvious answer to you as a liberal Christian theologian and an excellent writer on religion is – GET WRITING ;o)
MaryB, Fri 27 Jan, 15:33
I’ve been on the same quest on and off for years. No luck, really. On reading MC my thoughts could be summed up as ‘well if that’s it, forget it’.
Tony B, Fri 27 Jan, 13:17
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