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An agnostic and acerbic pilgrim. . .

01 August 2014

. . . but perhaps not an ideal companion, says Lavinia Byrne


Holy Fire! Travels in the Holy Land

Jill Dudley

Orpington Press £7.99


Church Times Bookshop

£7.20 (Use code CT643)


JILL DUDLEY keeps her readers on their toes. In a series of sparkling and, at times, catty anecdotes, she exposes the shortcomings of her experiences and fellow travellers on a trip to the Holy Land. So we have the morose canon who leads the group; his wife with her bulk, her "dragon-like" expression, and sweet smiles; the dotty Irish girl with her Roman Catholic certainties; the WI matron; and even her own poor benighted husband, who suffers from simple unquestioning faith -oh, and lumbago.

I wonder how the other pilgrims might have described her, as they saw the sights at Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Caesarea, Masada, Jericho, and Qumran together. "A know-all" could be one answer. After all, she prepared for her trip by reading prodigiously. She quotes from sources as varied as The Iliad and The Golden Bough. There are 45 - mainly historical - titles in her bibliography, and she provides a 15-page glossary extending from Abraham to Zeus. All good stuff, indicating the author's desire to bring a fresh, agnostic perspective to her narrative.

But she sets herself a difficult task: how to appraise without poking fun? How to join in without patronising? To communicate without being in communion? Her answer is to employ a kind of wilful irony, but she reaches a seriously weak conclusion: that all religious ills could be cured by getting rid of the Bible.

Strangely, this book might have been saved had she engaged in some serious theological and biblical study. It is well intentioned, but I wanted something more forensic and dispassionate from our agnostic pilgrim.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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