Lord Harries’ new book examines literature greats from a Christian perspective
A Chat With
One of the best-known bishops in England is undoubtedly Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford and now Lord Harries of Pentregarth. He is one of the few bishops, apart from Archbishops, to be honoured with a life peerage. But apart from his faith and his campaigning on human rights issues, one of his other great passions is literature. Indeed, as one of only two ordained Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature, his latest book brings those two passions together.
He has been a lover of books since an early age, and he says that he is particularly interested in books that ‘show some kind of wrestling with the Christian faith and that has always been so ever since I first read Dostoyevsky many, many, many years ago’.
And his latest work explores that sense of wrestling with the faith. One of the 20 writers he examines is Samuel Beckett.
He said: “A friend of mine called Francis Warren — a very distinguished poet and English scholar who knew Beckett well as a young man — said to me once that Beckett is a Christ-haunted man, a secular mystic. That of course is where the title comes from — ‘Haunted by Christ’ — and in my chapter on Beckett I show that he had a kind of godless mysticism. It is not the Christian faith but it’s very interesting because for him it’s not just straightforward atheism.”
His book covers novelists, playwrights and poets, some Christian but most not. He says: “For them, the pull of religion has been fundamental; in their work, we can best see what it is to believe or to protest against belief.”
Another person who rejected the Christian faith but who was hugely attracted to it was Stevie Smith. “She loved the Christian faith — she was bowled over and was in love with it but she felt there was a moral necessity to reject it because of the teaching about Hell. So one of the themes that’s in this book.”
This theme is taken up with his views on TS Eliot. “He actually thought it’s very important to believe in Hell, I mean he knew Hell in his own life and he thought it was a reality.
“The other non-believer whom I consider in the chapter with CS Lewis is Philip Pullman. Now this is another interesting form of scepticism because he has a moral objection to the Christian faith and he disliked CS Lewis’s writings on moral grounds.”
He compares both in this new book and concludes that they are both ‘wonderful storytellers,’ even if they have very different views of what it is to be a mature human being.
Lord Harries believes that Christians need to take Pullman seriously and reflect on his criticism of the faith. Pullman has argued that‘if there is a God and he is as the Christians described him then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against’.
“But Philip Pullman also said that all novels — all writing — should have what he called a moral clout. He is a profoundly moral writer and that’s an important thing for Christians to reckon with, but I make it clear this book is not just about Christians, it’s about modern writers who wrestle with the Christian faith.”
He writes about Stevie Smith, who described herself as a ‘lapsed atheist’. She wrote: “There is a God in whom I do not believe/Yet to this God my love stretches.”
Another who wrestled with the faith was TS Eliot. “I have a chapter on Eliot in which I pose three questions: what had he converted from; why did he convert and what did he convert to (and what difference did it make).
“There’s fascinating material in his letters over that period of his conversion and we can see what it was that changed, why he changed and what difference it made to his life.”
Another writer he examines is Japan’s Shusaku Endo.
“Writing is as a Japanese Christian, he’s very much on the outside. I think that in our present very secular society at the moment all Christians are on the outside actually in terms of the prevailing zeitgeist.
“The prevailing intellectual zeitgeist dominated by the media — of course it’s a very secular media, so I think anyone who takes the Christian faith seriously does in a sense feel like an outsider.”
Lord Harries points out that the dominant image in Endo’s novels is Japan as a marsh — everything loses its distinctive nature and gets dissolved. “So we try to say there’s something distinctive about Christ and somehow it all gets submerged in this swamp. That’s a very interesting different challenge looking at another culture like that.”
But Lord Harries is as interested in modern British culture as he is in the works of his literary subjects.
“This is one of the great challenges of our culture at the moment. I suppose as a writer from a Christian point of view what I’d like to do is prise people’s minds open to see the possibility of Christianity. And then to open up their imagination to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
“It’s a question of opening people’s minds and imagination and I think the importance of novels and poetry is actually they can do that in a way that so much Christian communication can’t do.”
One who did that well, he believes, is Emily Dickinson, who is usually regarded as America’s best poet.
“Now Emily Dickinson had an extraordinary intense experience of God. It was very deep, it was totally overwhelmed her. Butshe had an ambivalent relationship with her local church.
“It didn’t seem to be to her serious, as this sort of experience she had and that’s all in her poetry.”
Another writer he examines is Edwin Muir, who was brought up in a strict Scottish Protestant environment. “He lost his faith totally when he moved to Glasgow — not only faith in any kind of God but faith in human beings as well.
“It was the a devastating movement for him when he was on a tram one day. He looked at his fellow passengers and he just saw them as animals on the way to the slaughterhouse. It absolutely devastated him and his life is a pilgrimage, first of all trying to recover the sense of the immortal in human beings.
“Then when he was in Rome and he saw the little plaques on the walls of Mary and Jesus and suddenly began to discover a more sacramental form of Christianity in consort with the service of the word that he had heard as a child. He began to discover this is the word made flesh actually here amongst us, so that was a very interesting pilgrimage.”
Lord Harries also looks at Muir’s perspectives on suffering, contrasting life in Eden with life in the present. Although there is a great deal of anguish in his writings, Muir “reveals these wonderful things that we prize so much, like faith and hope and pity and love. Indeed these are questions that certainly any thoughtful human being ought to be asking.”
And because of that, Lord Harries believes this new book will be of quite wide interest because of the bringing together of religion and literature.
“For many people today literature is where they look for the meaning of life.
“I’m hoping that through this book we can begin to discover what the Christian faith is about and what is at stake.”
He points to a novel by Shizuko Endo. “The Christian mission to Japan in the 17th century is virtually totally obliterated but there’s one strange figure who was ministering to the Indians who retains a Christian faith and believes that Jesus is still with him through thick and through thin.
“There is a haunting line where the Samurais go back to Japan to face their death.They know Christ will be with you all the time but I think that those novels bring out that the Christian faith isn’t about success in an ordinary kind of sense.”
A contemporary writer, Marilynne Robinson, has also had an impact on Lord Harries.
“She is a Protestant and her plea is that we have forgotten the great Reformation teachers. She thinks that modern evangelicalism is so thin and empty and she thinks that modern liberal Christianity has simply sold out on some of the major things.
“She wants to get back to the great classical reformers, particularly Calvin. She is a great champion of Calvin but also of Tyndale and others.
“She points out that they were wonderfully scholarly people and that the caricature of them as narrow-minded Puritans is a lot of nonsense. They had a very rich appreciation of life in its all its aspects. It is salutary for an Anglican like me who’s slightly distanced myself from Calvin to be given this perspective.
“So I have huge respect for her showing me things that I shouldn’t have neglected over the years.So Marilynne Robinson is a very important of example of a novelist writing from a very distinct and reformed Christian point of view.”
And he is grateful for the contributions of Christian writers. “I think we learn more from Christian writers because they are putting forward a vision of human existence. Whether people go along with it or not, at least there is something there for people to wrestle with.”
But he can only go so far with non-Christian writers.
“I think we have to show that Jesus can’t be accounted for in terms of biography and history as a straightforward man. He is making some very difficult challenges to people. The message that the kingdom of God is here and now. Here in his person, in his message, in his teaching, in his miracles. He can’t simply be put in the category of a man.
“There is something very different about him and for me it’s always been this sort of full-blooded Christian faith that has gripped me. In Jesus we have the glory of God revealed in human terms.”
But Lord Harries has admitted his love for the works of Dostoyevsky. What does he think of the Russian’s comment that “even if someone were to prove to me that the truth lay outside Christ, I should choose to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”
Here, he refers back to the writings of Rowan Williams, himself a scholar of the Russian’s writings.
“He brings out that, by that, he didn’t mean a kind of intellectual truth. He’s not saying if you believe it to be totally intellectual false you should discount it.
“I think what Rowan is saying is that even if the way of Christ proves inimical to what the world counts as success he would want to follow Christ even if it led to nowhere. It certainly is a very powerful quote and Dostoevsky was indeed a person who was haunted by Jesus.
“Jesus is absolutely at the centre of his approach to and his understanding of Christianity, which comes across in all his great novels.”