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My Palace of Books



Rod Garner


Canon Dr Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer and theologian. His most recent book, Outsiders: Marching to a Different Drum is published by Liverpool Hope University Press.

<strong>My Palace of Books</strong>


I needed no persuasion from the Editor to undertake this particular assignment. Novels and novelists have been my companions and ‘conversation partners’ throughout my preaching ministry. I got the reading bug (drug?) in my early twenties and the addiction, thankfully, still remains strong. As a child and adolescent, the local library quickly became my second shrine. My English teachers loved their subject and communicated it with passion. Dickens and Bunyan came my way, setting me on an absorbing pilgrimage that eventually led me to the international novelists who now grace my study shelves. Their physical presence remains a source of abiding gratitude and pleasure.

More than reassuring and tangible traces of my past, they open my mind and imagination to this ambiguous world defined by time and transience, love and death, suffering and ‘moments of being’ that point to transcendence and the sheer mystery of things. My inner life has been enriched and deepened by the writings of Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, Emile Zola and Albert Camus, Tolstoy and Solzenhitsyn. The full list is longer than the impressive roll call of the heroes of faith in Hebrews, Chapter 11. Great novelists represent for me a kind of ‘second canon’ – a repository of wisdom offering a broad, imaginative space in which new thoughts become possible and foolish ones are laid to rest. They rarely disappoint and bring gifts in their train: moral, philosophical, and theological insight concerning what it might mean to be properly human, hopeful, kind, and wise.

Unlike the fashionable contemporary narrative that yammers on about being our best selves as the most urgent priority, serious novelists tackle bigger questions without succumbing to easy or facile answers. Often, they achieve this through intelligence, wit, compassion, and humour as they consider the human condition in all its ‘glory, jest, and riddle.’ A world without Willa Cather, Zadie Smith, Iris Murdoch, Jeanette Winterson and Marilynne Robinson would be so much poorer and uninteresting. Preachers from every tradition would be denied precious resources that bring to light new and sometimes dazzling perspectives on worlds that once appeared all too familiar.

Marilynne Robinson is of particular interest here. A distinguished American author with a series of acclaimed novels that deal sensitively yet forensically with religious preoccupations, her new book, Reading Genesis explores what this dominant scripture has to say to a secular and restless culture at a time when ‘the natural order and the social order are fraying together.’ Early reviews have been positive, praising not only the luminosity of her insights in an age of deep pessimism but also the way in which she has produced ‘a powerful meditation on hope at a time when that virtue is generally in short supply.’ In her hands, Genesis is more than a collection of stories about deeply flawed and rebellious human creatures who repeatedly stray from the narrow path. It is, like the book of Job, ‘a theodicy, a meditation on the problem of evil’ as it seeks to reconcile what Sartre called ‘the human stain’ with God’s goodness, and the original goodness of the creation. Robinson makes no concessions to dull or lazy minds in any of her books. She is a theologian as well as a novelist. Her latest offering calls for hard thought but the rewards for the engaged reader are considerable.

From a quite different perspective, and from an early age, the English novelist, Jeanette Winterson, found in the Bible, the texts, words, and images that would later feed her extraordinary imagination and creative word-play as a writer. Best known for her semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, written at the age of 24, that recounts her strict Pentecostal childhood in a Lancashire town full of chimneys, back-to-back houses, and outside toilets, Winterson takes the reader on a mystery tour informed at every turn by what she has read and remembered in both Testaments. She recounts the burning bush and the ‘still, small voice’ in a way that is neither formulaic nor theoretical and casts the scriptures in the guise of poetic utterances rather than the strenuous moral commands, mortal threats or perpetual struggle against the Evil One, so loved and feared by her ever-brooding mother. Winterson is more concerned to evoke the beauty of the New Jerusalem that closes the book of Revelation than concentrate overmuch on ‘Thou shall not.’ Nevertheless, she remembers the names of the Old Testament books and they serve as the chapter titles of her celebrated novel.

Relinquishing the evangelical certainties of her childhood, she continues to think of language as something holy. Despite growing doubts and questions, she remains a born preacher. Words raise her up, serve as her rod and staff, her resting place and shield, and an entry point to a realm of unsurpassed beauty. Stories intoxicate her: they provide ‘a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained… a way of keeping it all alive, not boxing it into time. Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently.’ Winterson is a writer for readers who are comfortable with paradox and enthusiastic concerning the power and legitimacy of curiosity in the pursuit of truth. Preachers in other words or, to be more specific, the more inspirational of the breed! She recognises that the curious are inevitably exposed to some danger – ‘you might never come home, like all the men who now live with mermaids at the bottom of the sea or the people who found Atlantis.’ You might never come home…intimations here of a much earlier Jewish preacher and prophet who confronted an unpredictable sea and bid those who would follow him to leave everything for the sake of an enigmatic kingdom yet unborn.

My early encounter with Winterson’s writing remains vivid and clear. This is also the case with other writers beyond the fold of Christianity who have left their mark on my life. Iris Murdoch, for example, in no way a conventional believer, who taught me that ‘prayer is a form of loving attention.’ The French existentialist, Albert Camus’ who held me from the second page of The Plague. Often in the face of the appalling pain of others or the routine cruelty of the world, I’ve fallen back on his wisdom: ‘We learn in a time of pestilence and there is more to admire than to despise in man.’ Similarly, the novels of Thomas Hardy have never allowed me to forget the shadow and dark that attend all human lives or the beauty of nature, the unutterable power of love, and the duty to notice the simplest things that can dissipate unbidden gloom.

The human, along with life in all its baffling contradictions, forms an integral and essential part of the preacher’s remit. Both represent the crowded canvas on which we paint our picture of the gospel as we have received it and seek to embrace it more fully. Novels exist to break the ice in our heads that stifles thought and dulls imagination. This remains the task and privilege of all aspiring preachers, particularly of course, in relation to the scriptures.

To the unconvinced and dissenting or those who have yet to discover the illumination and pleasure of novels, let me by way of conclusion and support bring on Karl Barth, the most venerated of Biblical scholars. It was his custom to surprise students as they dutifully assembled for his morning lectures on major Christian thinkers, Barth did not disappoint but he went deeper. In a phrase that I still find haunting, students were introduced to ‘the strange new world of the Bible,’ the civilising texts of European culture, and, invariably, the music of Mozart that, for Barth, bore unmistakeably the imprint of the maker of all things. In his magisterial Church Dogmatics, Barth went even further: ‘God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub or a dead dog.’ He insisted that it is precisely through an alien ideology, the pathos of a lifeless animal, the beauty of music and a flower, or as I have argued here, the grace of a novelist’s words, that truth is sometimes revealed. Each can represent what Barth described memorably as ‘secular parables of the kingdom’ – stories, sights, images, even conflicting beliefs that can clarify and extend the boundaries of our vision. Novels exist to do this: to bring us sanity and strength in a floating world, and a point of balance when we might otherwise feel overwhelmed.

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