ABOUT 95 years ago, one of my personal heroes, the novelist, poet, and theologian Charles Williams, was asked by a friend to articulate what it meant to live the Christian life. What, he was asked, is one supposed to do? He apparently responded in six words: “Love, laugh, pray, and be intelligent.”
I suppose that love and prayer should be obvious components of any Christian life, and intelligence is a desirable one; but what about laughter? In an age of pandemic and gloom, what place has laughter in living the Christian life? Perhaps this book goes some way to explaining.
Keith Ward has had a long and distinguished career as a theologian and philosopher, culminating in his appointment as Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford in 1991, a post from which he retired in 2004. He describes himself as a “born-again” Christian: he can give a precise reference to the time when he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord, after which nothing would be the same again.
But this conversion did not wipe away the past so much as transfigure it: he did not stop being a sinner, but, rather, he became aware that he was a forgiven one. What transformed him was his awareness of God’s love and grace shown in Christ.
I come from a generation of theology students for whom it was all too easy to sneer cynically at this kind of “conversion”. Nevertheless, that really is not possible here. Ward has a rare theological intelligence, and has used it all his life. Yet this has in no way negated that original experience of conversion. Rather, it has enriched and expanded it.
In a way his Confessions are a distillation of this process. The book is basically a study of the Nicene Creed (the one that we all use on Sundays at the eucharist). Ward goes through it clause by clause, teasing out all sorts of meanings and putting flesh on the bones of something that we can all too easily recite in church without thinking.
What could so easily be rather dry and worthy is given lightness here. This is where the laughter comes in. The cover of the book claims that it is an attempt to do theology entirely in jokes. I am not sure that this is true. There is, however, in the text a lightness and humour that disguise complex and profound stuff.
Theology (like fundamentalism) has suffered for so long from a deadening seriousness and verbosity that have served only to put people off a serious consideration of Christian faith and life. Perhaps we need to remember that it is actually a sin to make the life of faith drab, and that dullness crushes hope.
When Dante wrote his great vision of the afterlife, he originally just called it the Commedia. When asked why, he apparently replied: “Because it begins in sorrow and it ends in happiness.” In our own time, Ward here reminds us of the constant interplay in Christianity between tragedy and comedy, and in that interplay it is comedy that calls the tune in the end.
The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.
Confessions of a Recovering Fundamentalist
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