I wonder whether the bishop is partly modelled on Walter Hussey, who commissioned outstanding modern art and music for St. Matthew’s Northampton and later, when he was dean, at Chichester Cathedral.
There are some interesting theological issues, made simply by being part of a narrative rather than in a text book, for people to get their heads around: is art sacramental? Do Christians take seriously ‘the word made flesh?’ (This has all been fought out, literally, in the past, between the iconoclasts and the iconodules.) Who created Hell – God, or a god made in humanity’s own image? How can people have already been in Hell? Does Hell diminish God’s love? Liberals don’t like the idea of God being vengeful but should there be some final justice? As myth, is Genesis harmful in placing humanity at the pinnacle of creation? Whatever happens is God’s will?
There is good food for thought about the presenting issue that is rending the Anglican Communion asunder: the ‘issue’ of human sexuality, which is a phrase to obscure the fact that the only issue is homosexuality and that this is about people, not merely an ‘issue’. The novel earths this issue in flesh and blood people whose lives are deeply affected by such a debate. Does God punish people by AIDS? Should gays seek to change their orientation? Should gay marriage be allowed or is marriage ‘a reactionary and oppressive institution?’ Was Jesus less than fully human if he didn’t have a sex life?
For those unaccustomed to inter faith dialogue, there are some thought-provoking insights into Islam and Judaism: Is the Qur’an better, with Adam made from the dust of many lands? Is Judaism, as seen by the popular mind, an ‘escape into a world of “thou shalt nots”’? Or is the Jewish attitude towards the Torah one in which people can find’ freedom in a world of constraints? Does the Hebrew alphabet have radiance? Does the study of ‘comparative religion’ lead to the loss of conviction? Do Eastern religions involve more spirituality than ‘Western’ religions? Are the Bible and Qur’an man-made rules? Regardless of the official teaching of religious leaders, what do adherents realty believe? How widespread among Jews (and Christians) is belief in reincarnation? What is the right attitude towards Holy Writ, given that both Jews and Christians have always held that there are different levels of interpretation? ‘We debate laws rather than them falling out of the sky. The law is an absolute good?
Some people come to God through the heads, others through the heart. What implications does this have for religion?
Fundamentalism is portrayed well, though I think the author overdoes it in the case of the Church of England. As one of the characters says, the job of the C. of E. is ‘to constrain emotion not to ferment it’ (Alpha Course take note). After all, how common are ‘6 dayers’? (This is not America, yet.) Is fundamentalism increasing? What is the difference between ‘taking faith seriously’ and ‘not taking it simplistically?’
The implications for belief as played out in ethical decision-making are displayed with emotion and intellect: What sort of God would be offended at Edwin’s wish to be smothered with pillow? Might not the commandment to honour father and mother be fulfilled by honouring a father’s wishes for euthanasia? The faith of some people leads them to serve in the armed forces. The faith of others leads them to oppose war. Is one more true to faith than the other? Are newspapers a modern form of Inquisition/Confessional and public penance?
However, both groups wondered whether the author was trying to tick boxes regarding topics likely to interest readers: the role of women, fundamentalism, pro-life/pro-choice, sexual orientation, asylum seekers.
Some thought that the characters were cartoon-like, apart from Rafiq, who seems to be true to himself but whose character is never developed. Iris Murdoch dealt with these sorts of issues better. Some thought that the style was too ‘flowery’ and remarked on the sheer implausibility of several of the episodes, for example that only two men would be sharing cells in a category B prison. Many thought that there was an imbalance in the portrayal of Muslims and Jews: that Muslims came across as barbaric whereas that Jews were treated uncritically by comparison.
Many enjoyed the first section but got bogged down after that. ‘It started well, with a man stripping off.! ‘I’m glad I read it but I wouldn’t read any more of his books.’
“But you must still know to respect other people’s faith.’
‘Why? We don’t respect any other delusion. We lock up people who believe they’re Christ, yet we’re supposed to humour those who believe in him.’
‘By definition, faith is irrational: a belief you hold against the normal rules of evidence.’
‘In which case I believe in Jedi”
“All religions are beautiful in the story, as you say. It’s when they’re put into practice that they grow ugly.”
“For myself I couldn’t care less, but I have a lover. Not a partner, Susannah, or a friend or a significant euphemism, but the love of my life. And he believes. And I’ve watched him tie himself in knots, as he struggles to find a place for himself in texts that were written thousands of years ago, with the deliberate aim of excluding him.”