I’m sad to hear that Rowan Williams is resigning. He’s not been everyone’s cup of tea as Archbishop, but he’s my kind of prelate. Thoughtful, humane, sonorous, and kindly. He could talk about biblical texts as though they had something to say about human experience, and about Dickens or Dostoevsky as though what they say about human experience has deep moral resonance. His contributions to public debates, unlike those of many other religious leaders, have been subtle and ruminative but nonetheless morally resolute. Moreover he has intervened reluctantly on questions of private morality, and unhesitatingly on questions of public morality. He has had far more to say about war, injustice, poverty, and oppression than about sex. Unfortunately, members of his flock have decided that sex is the defining moral issue of our time. So after ten years in a tough job, he’s going to the greener pastures of a Cambridge College. Many will say he’s better off back in his academic box, but I think he’s a great loss to public discourse and to a much wider communion than his own. They’ll say the Anglican communion is more deeply divided now than it was a decade ago, but who do they suppose could unite it? In a time when there seems less room for complexity, less oxygen for nuance and balance, his loss feels like a victory for the one-dimensioned over the many. As the darkness deepens, his going feels like one more light going out.
Considerably before there was dada, surrealism, magic realism, or animation, there was Dickens, who foreshadowed them all. He was born two hundred years ago last month into a world that he would later give his name to. His childhood was what can only be described as Dickensian - financially precarious, socially liminal, involving stints in a blacking factory. He grew up, somewhat embittered, to skewer a succession of fat, juicy Victorianisms on the spit of his genius, and roast them to a delicious crispness. He’s praised and censured for how much larger his imaginary world is than life, but it’s this largeness, more than anything else, that makes him great.
What first grabbed me about Dickens was his sheer energy. His narratives rush at and past you. His prose feels like some winged creature swooping and wheeling, circling upwards then suddenly diving, pecking savagely at the nasty characters, tenderly enfolding the sweet ones in soft feathers. His language is elastic, inventive, rhythmic, even onomatapoeic; jazz is latent in it. There are jokes, or at least barbs, embedded in the very syntax. Perhaps my favourite sentence in all of Dickens (it’s the one Miriam Margulyes ends her show with) is the names of the birds that, in Bleak House, Miss Flite keeps caged: “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.” This sentence runs the reeling gamut of Dickens’ portraiture. Here, and everywhere, he seems to skitter along the edge of the fantastic, the unbelievable. But this, after all, is his most consistent comment: life is unbelievable.
In his speech at the official wreath-laying in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, the Archbishop used words like ‘exuberance’ and ‘excess’ to describe the essence of Dickens. What appeals is the exaggeration and caricature, but more because they reach for something truthful than because they go beyond it: “The truth is extreme, the truth is excessive. The truth about human beings is more grotesque and bizarre than we can imagine. And Dickens' generous embrace of human beings does not arise out of a chilly sense of what is due to them, but out of a celebratory feeling that there is always more to be discovered.”
This is a thought GK Chesterton took up in his marvellous biography of Dickens, published in 1906. He answers the critics who found Dickens’ works unlike life. “Dickens is ‘like life’ in the truer sense, in the sense that he is akin to the living principle in us and in the universe; he is like life, at least in this detail, that he is alive. His art is like life, because, like life, it cares for nothing outside itself, and goes on its way rejoicing. Both produce monsters with a kind of carelessness... Art indeed copies life in not copying life, for life copies nothing. Dickens's art is like life because, like life, it is irresponsible, because, like life, it is incredible.”
It's easy to be disheartened by the religious right, especially since they seem to get so much air time, and especially now that Michele Bachmann is a surprising frontrunner in the 2012 GOP field, bringing the extreme and the mainstream ever closer. Unlike Bush, whom Alan Wolfe calls ‘capable of finding God on his side no matter which side he was on,' the new breed seem less supple, with their sights on full blown theocracy. Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast employs the useful term ‘Christianist' to distinguish these advocates of a Christian jihad from followers of Christ. While Christianists are befouling and befuddling the air waves, I would rather find refreshment in other channels than give their nonsense the credit of rational attention. Instead, I'll be looking for thoughtful and literate commentary from people like Rowan Williams, who gave this lovely explanation of grace in a recent address to a conference on Christianity and literature:
“If the text of a native language is to be in some sense hospitable ... it must be a text with a shadow or margin, conscious of a strangeness that surrounds it and is not captured by it, a strangeness that interprets it or at least offers the possibility of a meaning to be uncovered, on the far side of questioning. And the paradoxical conclusion is that the person who 'inhabits' with integrity the place where they find themselves, in such a way as to make it possible for others to inhabit it in peaceable company with them is always the person who is aware of the possibility of an alien yet recognizable judgement being passed, aware of the stranger already sensed in the self's territory. To be, in the Augustinian phrase, a question to oneself is what makes it possible to be oneself without anxiety and so with the possibility of welcome for the other.”
Or from novelist Tobias Wolff, a Catholic, who described his own sense of grace at work:
“The things that touch me are not sectarian. What are they, then? Gracious, I guess. I respond to something gracious in the writer. That doesn’t mean nice, or kind, or consoling, though it can have that effect. It has to do with a certain courage and verve and even sense of play in facing things as they are ... To the extent that I can feel the presence of grace—the operation of some kind of grace in the world—I often feel it in music ... where the words God or revolution or even soul are not to be heard. And what does music accomplish, after all? Can it be said to offer a plan for improving us, can it be said to give us new political visions, can it be said to make an argument for this or that faith? No. It is a good purely in itself, and that is a sufficient justification for its existence.”
Noted atheist Philip Pullman has written a book called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. It’s a fable based on the premise that Mary had twins: Jesus, a respected moral teacher, and Christ, a traitor who invents a spurious religion around the death of his brother. No doubt it will invite a tiresome downpour of righteous wrath, and an equally tiresome uproar of atheist enthusiasm. Amid the clash, I hope the gentle voice of the Archbishop of Canterbury will be heard. His review is careful, thoughtful, and gracious. It pays Pullman the compliment of serious attention, without yielding any of the ground claimed by Christians who take the gospel seriously. Moreover by taking the book seriously as thought-provoking fiction, it avoids the righteous error of being provoked by fiction into serious dispute.