Hallo again to all.
Simon Jenkins (founder and editor of Ship of Fools) wrote a few days ago of his visit to Foyle's bookshop in search of an unembarrassing introduction to Christianity.* It was a dispiriting quest. '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 groundbreaking 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', which was 'sandwiched between the paranormal and psychology'.
In the brick-and-mortar bookshops that remain, we've likely all encountered this pigeonholing of Christian books. And when one does come upon them, the selection is grimacingly awful. (In the States, they tend to the trite and the Right.) Occasionally worthy reads are tucked in amidst the fluff, but the lack of anything smart, sassy, and just plain engaging to 'an intelligent layperson' who wants an introduction to Christianity is glaringly obvious.
There are indeed compelling living Christian writers; some of them are even Anglican and are as diverse as Desmond Tutu and John Polkinghorne. But writing for (say) a sceptical but benevolent agnostic is far different. And apparently so different and difficult that such books have disappeared. Here is a snapshot of the difficulty: An SSE** book would need, it seems to us, to do two things:
1) Make the case for a creator of the universe and
2) make the case for the particular expression of that creator's love through Jesus Christ.
All within, say, 200 pages.
So many forces in our overscheduled, overspent, underemployed, and often graceless world are arrayed against even trying to develop such a book. The caricatures of Christians — hypocritical, narrow-minded, unintelligent people who believe in, as a favourite expression in English newspaper comments has it, 'sky pixies' — are routine and predictable on the telly, on the web, and just about everywhere. Any book attempting to tackle the question of The Meaning of It All is can't expect a reader with a neutral frame of mind. There is no tabula rasa anymore.
All of us who are trying, day in and day, to be quiet, consistent, devoted and devout Christians must cringe in sheer outraged disbelief at the portrayal of our faith. Whilst explicit expressions of Christianity are ridiculed, whilst church attendance continues in its downward spiral, there are undoubtedly many underground Christians — perhaps our own sons and daughters or grandchildren — who, raised in the Church, no longer attend services, even if they continue to believe. Their Christianity has turned inward and become implicit rather than explicit. Underground Christians may find it easier to express their faith through all manner of charitable support for poor, the homeless, the sick — and leave it there.
Does that matter? We'll consider the question later. For the moment, we'll return to our benevolent agnostic. He's wandered into Kristianity Korner and is idly glancing at the shelves. What could possibly catch his eye and be worth his time? Is such a book possible? If so, what would it be?
Here's one approach. Imagine a sort of fascinating and gorgeously designed book that's structured like the catechism — a series of questions and answers — whose questions are provocative and relevant and whose 'answers', if they can be called that, are short passages drawn from the best creative minds, living and dead. (It would be weighted towards the living.) The 'answers' would build on Christianity implicit in literature and film, graphic novels and music lyrics.
Such a book would need to avoid the obvious and the twee. It would generally shun theologians and the professionally religious. It would need to be stunning, more of a coffee-table book in its look, but with a Kindle edition. It would need a title that would captivate. It would need to be so engaging and subtle in its approach and purpose that a reader would be gently exposed to ideas and questions that, in any traditional form, would have been a tedious turn-off. It would — as hard as this would be — avoid talking to readers as if they were potential Anglicans. The book's purpose would be to crumble quietly some of the walls built in so many minds about Christianity.***
But we'll throw the question out to you. What might sort of book do you imagine might work as an introduction to Christianity? How would it be structured? Who would write it and in what way? And would it be able to tackle the frighteningly difficult assignment of catching the eye and engaging the mind of our genial agnostic? Is there one out there already that we've missed? Tell us what you think.
Meanwhile, we'll take heart in the old cliché that Christianity is best caught, not taught. We'll remember that most people begin their discovery (or their rediscovery)of religion with an invitation to attend a church service with a friend. And we'll note that there are some good websites, such as rejesus.co.uk, that address the intelligent inquirer. (Don't know it? Be sure to have a look.) But we'll still lament the pathetic emptiness of Kristianity Korner and remember that Simon Jenkins walked out of Foyle's with a copy of The Screwtape Letters, the best he could do.
See you next week.
This web site is independent. It is not official in any way. Our editorial staff is private and unaffiliated. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org about information on this page. ©2012 Society of Archbishop Justus. Please address all spam to email@example.com