Life: a matter of improvisation

10 July 2015

Mark Oakley enjoys a theologian who is in touch with poetry

The Drama of Living: Becoming wise in the Spirit David F. Ford Canterbury Press £12.99 (978-1-84825-538-8) Church Times Bookshop £11.70

 

"If PROSE is a river," commented the Irish poet Michael Longley, "poetry is a fountain." Poetry certainly proved an imaginative source for David Ford in his book The Shape of Living, and is very much in play in this sequel.

Ford is a theologian of intertextuality, an insatiable host to conversations between scripts and people; and in The Drama of Living he does not disappoint. Here he brings together the mysterious Gospel of St John, the poetry of Michael O’Siadhail, and life as we live it today — including our habits, loving, and ways we cope with time.

The poetry he finds in all three comes from closer attentiveness and a willingness not to condemn the unfamiliar, but learn from it and befriend the one who offers it. Ford is a theologian of re-reading, whether that be of scripture, poems, ourselves, or each other. We re-read to discover the grace and hope between the lines.

Central to this book is Ford’s current work on John’s Gospel. Not only is it dramatic, but, he argues, it daringly improvises on its own sources and then encourages "further improvisation by readers as part of being led into all the truth". The drama of being alive as a Christian is not merely to repeat the script of Jesus that John has shaped, but to extemporise on it in the Spirit with imagination, prayer, witness, and action. John is making sure that Christians know that they are committed by their faith in Christ to being led further into truth and to doing yet greater things. To be a follower of Jesus is to be a person of commas, not full stops.

Ford has been friends with O’Siadhail for more than 40 years, and this makes him a sensitive reader of his poems, which are this book’s dance partner to theological imagination. When the former Irish President Mary McAleese spoke at the launch of O’Siadhail’s Collected Poems in Dublin, she said: "I know from over 40 years of drawing breath and oxygen from his poetry what I find there that heals and helps, what amuses and bemuses, what probes and reveals, tells and outs, vindicates and raises the heart; for this is a poet who makes himself brilliantly, lucidly vulnerable at times, and subjects our weird old world, with its wonders and its monstrosities, to the damning power of a loving heart turned livid betimes by the legacy of hardened hearts, turned liquid by the power of love to renew itself; a loving heart in perpetual search of meaning and comprehension, probing death, time, relationships, self, and other. I love the dimensions that are spiritual, religious, metaphysical, eschatological, and, above all, pastoral."

It strikes me that this could also be a summary of Ford’s theology in The Drama of Living. With many others, I remain grateful for that increasingly rare Anglican approach that not only is unafraid to reason and unashamed to adore, but unapologetic in exploring human complexity with a graceful gratitude.

 

The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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