Saturday, October 15, 2005


Fairly recently I mentioned (and quoted) a thoughtful article by Giles Fraser which contributes constructively to the conversation opened up by Salman Rushdie about how religion gets ‘reformed’ or ‘enlightened’. Theo Hobson then added an important qualification, viz. Elsewhere the Reformation may have produced ‘theocratic fascism’, but in England it enabled the emergence of the first truly modern culture. Our tradition of political and intellectual freedom is rooted in our distinctive version of the Reformation. Today like never before we must show how our secularism comes out of our distinctive religious tradition. Our history is not irrelevant to hopes of an Islamic reformation.

But Giles’ central point still stands – which is that, as Milan Kundera also illustrates, literary imagination is a practice and a perspective which depends inherently upon the fecundity rather than the fixity of the word. Part of the vocation of the writer is to preserve this freedom. And it is with this consciousness of narrativity and intertextuality that thoughtful Christians, in dialogue with a diverse interpretative community, find their formative texts to be revelatory ... in a way which constantly thwarts those who want to ‘close the book’ (in this case the Bible) to buttress their knock-down, bullying arguments.

I remarked at the time that Giles’ piece had been misleadingly headlined by The Guardian’s features section (‘Rushdie should swap his crusading for novel writing’). And, sure enough, some duly read it as what one weblog characterised as a ‘sneaky and disguised’ attack on Rushdie, and what Jonathan Heawood of the Fabian Society – in a depressing example of satire defeating thought – laughingly called 'an Anglican fatawa’. On the contrary: Fraser was clearly affirming the central importance of what Rushdie is really effective at (in Midnight’s Children, Shalimar the Clown and elsewhere), as distinct from his recognisably less useful programmatic views on religion. The latter are made entirely understandable by the appalling threats against him, but this does not, of itself, make them adequate.

Six years ago I wrote a short response in The Guardian to an article on religion by a literary critic and novelist. It elaborates a similar point about emancipating narrative, so forgive me if I quote it here, with one editorial clarification: James Wood's brilliant article on how fiction killed faith (Beyond Belief, January 1) is mistaken in only one respect. The 'victim' is not free faith but authoritarian doctrine, and the 'perpetrator' is not the novelist but organised religion itself. Christian theologians have argued for many years that the core of Scripture is liberating narrative not totalitarian religion. [But] many churches eschew serious theological thought, and many theologians [therefore] take refuge in secularity. Meanwhile, faith of all sorts not only persists today, it flourishes. However, divorced from both spiritually nourishing narrative and intellectually cleansing critical thought it is often ugly and diseased.

Incidentally, and with reference to fictive realism, Theo Hobson’s piece on The Sound of Music (‘Hegel with Songs’) is also definitely worth reading.

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