The age of miracles is over; the prophets no longer speak. There are no more rocks that burst forth streams of living water or children raised from the dead. Our young men do not see visions and the old do not dream dreams. That, at least, is the standard line.
As a teenager, I was exceptionally taken by a book written by Malcolm Muggeridge, A Third Testament. In it, he explored the spiritual journeys of St Augustine, William Blake, Blaise Pascal, Leo Tolstoy, Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It not only gave me certain coordinates that have defined my life ever since, it suggested – slyly, coyly, wilily – that revelation continues. Not perhaps through pillars of fire and smoke, not even through those who spoke truth to the oppressed and to power, but through writing. Not even through an idea of Him writing (I doubt He has either a quill or an iPad) but through us reading.
When I was a rather ineffective twenty-year-odd atheist, the idea of the Bible as literature seemed obvious. Of course, you could compare the epic of Gilgamesh and bits of Genesis and Exodus. Of course, there were parallels to be drawn between Seneca and St Paul. Of course, the weird metaphysics of The Book Of Revelation or Plotinus, had coincidental coincidences. It was child’s play to say that Osiris and Baldur were variations of the Christ-myth. Heck, even the Chinese cosmology had a flood myth. There were saviour myths among the Sioux, who’d never been to Palestine. But when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.
The greatest joy of my middle age is that I have returned to Muggeridge’s insight. Don’t read the Bible just as literature – although it is – but discern how the literary is still a kindly light that leads us on through the encircling gloom.
Literature and literary criticism took me away from the Church as a teenager, and literature and literary criticism brought me back to it later. I profoundly disapprove of ‘age appropriate’ books or the policing of reading, but far too many things were put into my hands when I was not mature enough to understand them. One of them being, of course, the Bible itself. On account of a certain sanctimonious diligence I decided as a teenager to read the Bible in its entirety. There is a reason why churches use lectionaries: there are bits that you do not want to hear on a Sunday morning. It would be a brave preacher who took on parts of the book of Joshua, or Judges, or even parts of Acts of the Apostles. As much as I deplored the murders, genocides and rapes, I also realised that certain sections were incompatible. How could Moses be the author of the Pentateuch given it describes his own death? Why are the genealogies of Jesus different in the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke? You can’t have ‘if you are not with me, you are against me’ in one account and ‘if you are not against me, you are with me’ in another.
Writers from the philosopher Thomas Hobbes to the ‘New Criticism’ of nineteenth century historians like David Strauss and Ernest Renan had grasped these problems. So indeed had the early Church Fathers, though I did not know that yet. Muggeridge’s book was inspirational, but it was a bit like putting a sharp chisel in the hands of a clumsy child. I had read some Blake at school – ‘Tyger, Tyger’, ‘Oh Rose Thou Art Sick’ – and decided to take out the Complete Blake from the local public library. I can still summon up the frisson of reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Worse, I devoured the Prophetic Books and somewhere, in an attic, still lingers my riddling out of his pantheon; how Ahania is an emanation of Urizen, and Los is also Urthona and linked to Palambron, being her child by Enitharmon. It was so much more exciting than boring old stories about Moses in the basket, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and the Road to Damascus. Moreover, it was a little bit like Dungeons & Dragons.
Nietzsche was the other viral-like enthusiasm. It felt thrillingly blasphemous to tell the other unpopular children at school that a great German philosopher I was reading had told me (personally, it seemed) that God was dead. I did not get the rest of that sentence – ‘and we have killed him’ – till much later. Nor did I realise how easy it is to be unpopular among the unpopular. Worst of all I developed my first crush, on a French teaching assistant. I even took her to see Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Cats. She introduced me to Camus and Sartre, and there seemed an invincible heroism in their defiance that the universe had any meaning other than that we give it. She told me, once, and almost seductively, ‘we are just animals, really’. I tried to argue back – argument was always my first line of defence – and tried not to think I would probably remember her perfume years after she would have forgotten my name.
So I became a pretty listless atheist, almost by default. It seemed logical that Matthew Arnold had advanced the idea of literature as a secular religion just at the time the traditional pillars of religion were crumbling. I studied literature with the same intensity as I had once read the Bible. But that infernal itch of God never left me, and it was only much later that the scratch became inevitable.
What changed? I sometimes imagine time-travelling back to my twenty-something self and giving him a bit of a talking-to. ‘Yes, yes, you adore Joyce and Woolf and Beckett and Proust and Gombrowicz and like sitting in the quad ostentatiously reading Derrida: but a time will come; not now, not yet, when an obese, slightly reactionary, Catholic convert will mean more to you than them’. That author was G.K. Chesterton. There was one of those coincidences in life that strike me as both banal and inexplicable. I had been reviewing a book on Modernism – by whom, I forget – and it was pointed out that Chesterton alone had, before the Second World War, denounced both Hitler and Hirohito as the twin enemies of humanity. Odd, I thought. The next day I was lounging around to get a train and realised I had nothing to read. In a charity shop I found a volume of his essays and his work Orthodoxy. The time between Edinburgh and London never went more quickly.
First and foremost he was funny. Funnier, I would say, than even P.G. Wodehouse. But he was also heretical, and any received opinion got short shrift from him, from prohibition to scientific advance to, well, anything. His autobiography made me sceptical about my own scepticism, with its cadenza of an opening: ‘Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of the opinion I was born on the 29th of May, 1874’. The more I read of this jovial and sarcastic, this paradoxical and sincere author, the less I trusted in my own righteousness. Church, I argued against myself, was just a social convention, a moment of quiet and a deference to the texts that made me who I am.
For nearly all of my professional life – thus far – I have been a literary reviewer. It requires a certain expertise (I have read a book a day since I was about twelve) and a certain arrogance (which I have in abundance). But it is a very ironic job. Having been steeped in – even constructed by – reading the canon, the classics, the ‘ones who have stood the test of time’, you end up on the cusp of the contemporary. It is never what is best, but what is new and next. Knowing the difference between Henry James, M.R. James and E.L. James is important, but, to quote a hackneyed poem ‘there is no time to stop and stare’.
I decided I would go back to church and that I would go back and reread things. The first book I chose was the legendary anthology edited by Helen Gardner, The Metaphysical Poets. I had not read the works of John Donne, or George Herbert, or Henry Vaughan in the best part of twenty years. A few phrases would still rattle around my skull, but the discipline of reading one, slowly, each day, was revelatory. We change over time, but books do not. I had a deeper, more profound engagement with these works than I had had as a callow youth. There were many others. Middlemarch, which I read years before I had the emotional experience to understand its nuance. I went back to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and found reading to be a kind of patience. I could not read one, then skip to the next, but had to reread it and re-reread it. I started to go back through the whole of Shakespeare – a writer who had seemed to me fairly uninterested in religion, with the possible exception of Measure for Measure – and found time and again insight and epiphany and challenge. Rereading became an act of reading reverentially. In the same way as I would study my Bible passages, and discover thoughts that a teenager would simply dismiss, this form of patient reading was more than just rewarding. I was no longer sprinting to devour as much as possible, I was trying to plumb the depths.
But it was not just a way of reading, it was a why of reading. I once could have pirouetted with the best of them on – say – why Dickinson’s use of the dash is both hesitation and breathless, or why the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins related to early verse forms in poetry. But increasingly, it was the moral insight that intrigued me. I had spent so long looking at aesthetic forms and historical contexts and textual variations I had forgotten the most important thing: what am I learning here? This was a human who had needed and desired to say something about the world, and her place in the world, and what the world inflicts on us.
I do not now shy away from saying I read morally. Even bad books – and I have read more than my fair share – have lessons, if only the ugliness of what humans are capable of doing. I gradually realised that it wasn’t just great religious masterpieces, such as Paradise Lost (and the underestimated Paradise Regained) or Dante’s Commedia or Tolstoy’s Resurrection, but almost every book had a glint of the untold truth and the corrosive lie. My Mum has instilled or installed in me a mantra: ‘Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?’ That is the rule I try, and frequently fail, to impose on myself when discussing literature.
I felt a lightness when I realised that all the works I admire most, in all the arts – from Bach to Messiaen, from Poussin to Rothko, from Marilynne Robinson to Chris Adrian – are all fundamentally religious in that they can reveal truths Scripture already indicated. To read with an awareness of complexity and ambiguity, of shudder and empathy, of joy and grief, of, above all, ‘that there is a world elsewhere’ has made me, I hope, a better reader and a better person.