Richard Holloway, 'Stories We Tell Ourselves', Canongate Books, (2020) - a review by Ben Whitney
in many churches it is considered too risky to encourage people to think about what they believe
‘Christianity’ is clearly a spectrum, and we might always be better to speak of ‘Christianities’. On a scale from literalist/evangelical to radical/humanist, the former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church is just slightly more orthodox than I am, but not much! He is ‘a Christian without God’, as he says at the end of this thrilling book. But he has not yet ‘returned the ticket’. Mine is sitting on the mantelpiece and might yet end up in the fire! Apart from his earliest work, which he now recants, anything by Holloway is always well worth a read and I still return to ‘Doubts and Loves’ (2001) on a regular basis. It’s a brilliant exploration of how to hold onto some kind of faith when so much makes me want to abandon it entirely.
His ‘mission’ is to make the Jesus story believable in the modern world. It is an urgent task, far more important than fancy flow diagrams and lists of allegedly innovative strategies. Dare I say, even more important than the endless sexuality debate. It’s the message, not the medium, which needs to be addressed.
Just before the first lockdown, over dinner with some friends, (remember them?), we got to talking about the gospels. Almost in passing I mentioned that they were of course written after Paul's letters, not before. They are looking back, reflecting the believers' contexts 50 or more years later, not just verbatim reports of what Jesus actually said, written down at the time. My friend put down his knife and fork and said, 'In over 60 years of going to Church and having an active faith, no-one has ever told me that before. Why not?'
The answer to his question seems to be that in many churches it is considered too risky to encourage people to think about what they believe and where it comes from. You don’t get that on an Alpha course. It's 'what the Bible says' and that's the end of it, with maybe a little bit of context here and there, but rarely much attention given to what kind of material it is. Even academically-trained scholars still blandly state ‘Jesus says’ or draw attention to some point that only works in the Greek, which Jesus did not speak. It’s a story, for which the authors deserve the credit. This kind of sloppiness with the facts is a conspiracy that has to be broken.
Richard Holloway has spent years on a journey to dissect and explain, but without rancour or cynicism. Of course it risks the reader losing a simple trust in what she has always thought was true. Of course it can be considered controversial by some. But there will be nothing of Christianity left in our culture in future except the literal fundamentalist fringe unless we change our perspective on what we mean by 'truth'. Even what we may mean by ‘God’ if we still use the word at all.
Holloway has the happy knack of saying what I am already half-thinking, but so much better, clearer and with so much more kindness and depth. As always, he draws on a range of sources to help us to see that 'religious' insights do not come from some 'Other' who has told us what to think and believe, but from us. They are our insights, but we have to be prepared to change them, not regard them as set in stone, texts, authorities or creeds.
There is no 'given' meaning to it all. Throughout human history we have told ourselves stories to try and make some sense of our lives. Science, philosophy, mysticism, drama, poetry, literature and film can all inform our thinking. Christianity cannot exist in a vacuum as if its claims trump all others because we have had nothing to do with creating them. So what is the story of Jesus all about today? Mere repetition of the way it was defined 1700 years ago, which is when most of its doctrines date from despite the alleged authority of ‘scripture’? Or a new story for our time, with new truths to help us live well now? And in what sense do our own contemporary stories contain 'truths' (plural) that can guide us in his Way?
If you don't want to stay where you are, or where you have always been, I cannot commend this book too highly. I look forward to resuming my conversation with my friend in future, though he might have a few other steps to take before this approach will appeal to him. But I am sure there will be many like me who will find it immensely stimulating.
Ben Whitney: Convenor East Shropshire PCN