Sunday, 22 May 2016

Is the Bible a Romantic Comedy? A Sermon for a Book Festival

It is a great joy to be with you here this evening at the close of the Book Festival.  I do hope that you’ve enjoyed the Festival and that it’s inspired you to get stuck into a good book. It’s entirely fitting that the Book Festival should end with a Festival Evensong, a service which is itself a great work of literature, arguably the most enduring and most beloved service in the Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer is steeped in the language of the Bible, that greatest of all Christian literature and the reason for which Christians are counted, along with Muslims and Jews, as ‘people of the book.’ So I’m very glad that you have chosen to end the Book Festival with a celebration of this book of books, this wellspring of western literature. I’m not just saying this because I’m a vicar; when I arrived, aged 18, for my university interview to read English Literature, I asked my interviewer, an academic with no obvious signs of religious affiliation, what I should read over the summer as I prepared to spend three years puzzling over Pinter, discussing Dickens, analysing Atwood and, of course, studying Shakespeare. Rather than being handed a long reading list, as I expected, I was given instead a one-word answer: Bible. Read the Bible, preferably the King James Version, and you’ll be well set up for a degree in English Literature. Oh, that’s all right, I replied, the good Christian that I was, I’ve read that one already. The academic was, of course, spot on; western literature from Beowulf to Brideshead, from Caedmon’s Hymn to Harry Potter, is obscure without some basic Bible knowledge.   

So what of the Bible itself? What is this complex and curious collection of writings that has bewildered and blessed its readers down the ages, almost in identical proportions? The great north African Christian saint, St Augustine of Hippo, beautifully described the writings of the Bible as ‘our letters from home.’ Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, said this: “I believe that the existence of the Bible is the greatest benefit to the human race. Any attempt to belittle it, I believe, is a crime against humanity.” Yet Harper Lee strikes a well-tuned note of caution in ‘To Kill A Mocking-Bird’; ‘Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another).’ I’m sure we can all think of aspects of the Bible, and applications of the Bible, that have caused great harm, and perpetuated more than a few of their own crimes against humanity down the ages. How we read the Bible, faithfully and honestly, as Christians is, I believe, not only a matter of intellectual integrity but also of confidence in our faith.

This question of how we best read the Bible has been answered in many different ways through time and across cultures; the post-Enlightenment German liberal protestant answer, and the one which has come to dominate academic biblical theology, is to encourage us not to think of the Bible as one book, and not even to think of the books of the Bible as books, but rather to think of the Bible as a conglomeration of various strands of tradition that have been kept together even when they seem not to interweave ideally, or at all. If you’re not sure what this might mean in practice, it means asking whether the animals went in two by two – hurrah – or seven by seven, and not expecting to find a definitive answer to this question. There’s a lot of merit to this approach, and it does help to dilute the difficult bits.  

However, more recent biblical theology has gone back to the ancient Christian practice of reading the Bible as one big story – one meta-narrative – and asking what that big story is about. If the Bible does hold together as one big story, it’s a story with many plot twists, many wrong turns, high and low characters, moments of farcical humour and heart-rending tragedy; there are cliff-hangers, dramatic irony, a shadowy backstory of Canaanite polytheism, and many shorter stories within this big story. We might think, for example, of the story of Joseph with his coat of many colours, dumped in a ditch by his brothers only to become right hand man to Pharaoh, or we might think of Samson and his strength-inducing hair, or of the boy David slaying the giant Goliath with a single pebble.  We might have our own favourite Bible stories from childhood days; mine is, without doubt, the story of the Exodus, which I still rank as one of the most exciting in all literature. The big story of the Bible is told in poetry, in drama, in prose; it is enacted in laws, it is celebrated in song and bewailed in lament, and of course it reaches its dramatic climax in the story of Jesus himself, the man on the cross, ‘the spectacle of too much weight for me’ as the renaissance poet John Donne puts it.   

So is it possible to read into the complex, and let’s be honest, contradictory stories of the Bible one big story, or does doing so distort all its stories beyond recognition? Well, I think that it is not only possible to do so, but that the Bible itself invites such a reading. After all, the Bible writers quote each other freely and, one might be inclined to add, with more than a little literary license. The New Testament writers saw Jesus as the character whom all the stories of the Hebrew Bible foreshadowed, as the one whose entrance onto the stage throws all of the previous drama into a bigger, and brighter, relief than any of the actors could have foreseen. Jesus himself is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of the great story of God’s love for the world, and in him, says the writer of the letter to the Colossians, all things hold together. In him, the story makes sense; in him, all our stories make sense.

What kind of story is this grand metanarrative, of which Jesus is the hero and protagonist? If I were to suggest that the big story of the Bible could be best understood as a romantic comedy, you well might think that I am stretching things somewhat. However, stick with me for a moment. If we think in terms of Shakespearean comedy and tragedy, you might well know that the basic difference between a tragedy and a comedy is that in tragedy, everyone ends up dead, and in comedy, everyone ends up married. So ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ ends with Benedick saying ‘When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married’ and taking Beatrice as his wife to the merry sound of music, whereas the ‘Scottish play’ Macbeth is a barren bloodbath as Lady Macbeth scrubs her hands in futile, endless horror at her own brutality. There is something of the inevitable, of the fatal flaw, in tragedy; something in Hamlet that tortures the young Danish student-prince to his own self-destruction; something in King Lear that cannot trust in his daughters’ love even when he has no logical reason to doubt them, a mistrust that corrodes and ultimately kills them all.

However, in comedy, events occur, sometimes cataclysmic event like shipwrecks and near-death, but characters act, sometimes without each others’ knowledge, towards a resolution of problems and the reconciliation of estranged friends and relatives. The characters’ actions are creative, daring, unpredictable and even fun as they believe in themselves, and in the forces shaping their lives, sufficiently to guide them to the point at which all that is wrong is put right, all that is lost is restored, and all who are alone are paired off in joyful matrimony. In comedy, the ending is always better than the beginning, the resolution always more complete than the presenting problems. In comedy, things that were taken for granted at the start are treasured at the end. T. S. Eliot put it beautifully in his famous poem ‘Little Gidding’. He says this:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 

Comedy is about circling back through complex and seemingly chaotic events to the point at which the play started, and knowing for the first time the wondrous goodness of that place.

This, I would say, is the grand vision of the Bible’s big story. God creates the world, and sees that it is good. Events occur; cataclysmic events and the near-death of God’s people. Yet the characters act, creatively and unpredictably and daringly; Moses stretches forth his staff and parts the red sea, David picks up his sling, Esther saves her people from annihilation – and God himself, the central character, all the time, is acting through his people, even when their own actions are less than heroic – maybe especially at those times. Through this activity, the voice of the beloved – the voice of the God who acts out of love – calls out, over and over again, to his people, wooing them as patiently and as gently as a Shakespearean gentleman. That voice of love cries out from the cross, and tenderly names Mary on Easter morning. Like a good comedy, the Bible’s big story ends with a big wedding as the new Jerusalem comes down as a bride adorned for her husband, and all that is wrong is put right, all tears are wiped away and all sorrows flee in the light of the everlasting radiance of God’s eternal love. The romantic comedy of the Bible – the big story of a divine love powerful enough and patient enough to redeem all – is a story of hope, a story which gives profound perspective and meaning to the stories in which we live, our own personal autobiographies. Billy Graham, the great American evangelist, said this: ‘I have read the last page of the Bible. It’s going to turn out all right.’ May we all be people who, having read the last page of the Bible this evening, know deeply that it is, indeed, going to turn out all right. Amen.