“JOHN’s Gospel has been with me most of lockdown,” Sir David Suchet says. “I don’t make any apology for it.” On Easter Day, a virtual audience around the world watched him read the whole of it in the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey. The recording has since been viewed more than 74,000 times.
He has engaged with scripture in detail over the years, recording the entire Bible for Hodder & Stoughton’s NIV Audio Bible — which necessitated many hours of reading to bring to life more than three-quarters of a million words.
Turning his attention to John, which, he says, lends itself to a more personal interpretation, he says, “I continually read it and re-read. It is the most intimate of all the Gospels. And it’s suitable to be read to one person. I don’t think this this is a Gospel to be read to millions all in one go.”
He finds a musical resonance to John’s Gospel, too. “John’s Gospel is Bach,” he says. “It’s all counterpoint: you’ve got the top line, but you’ve got other meanings and references that just go down, down, down, down, down, down, down.
“I hope with my tone to convey a little of all the other layers that John is writing about. I wish I had the ability to have four different voices, all sounding at the same time. There are great depths and great mysticism in the Bible.”
He is passionate about the benefits of hearing scripture read aloud. “My message to everybody is to read it out loud, quietly to yourself. Never, never, never, never read the word silently. . . Let it go in into your body, absorb it. And let it come out, so you continue this wonderful, wonderful relationship you can have with God and his Word.
“I always read any passage of Bible out loud, because I can hear it at the same time. And that’s actually a great, a great source of nourishment,” he notes.
HE ATTRIBUTES his own conversion to Christianity to reading a hotel Bible in 1986. In it, he “found a way of being or philosophy of life that I wanted”. John’s Gospel was central to his understanding of that: “When I got to the very end, I thought: this is it — this is my message that I’ve devoted my life since then.”
But he has also described himself in the past as a reluctant convert, “dragged kicking and screaming into the Kingdom”. Does he still have doubts and questions? “Oh, all the time!” he exclaims. “For example, when I watch nature programmes, and I see live animals killing and eating live animals. I see the beauty of nature, but also the cruelty of nature and the pain of nature.
“And I look at the cruelty in the world and the suffering in the world, and the wars, and what we’re doing to our world, [it] creates doubt, saying, ‘What are you doing? Why can’t you intervene?’”
“But I have learned enough [to know] that that is not the way. He will, but in his time. But, when I look at the world around me, and the suffering and the cruelty and the pain, I, like all the prophets in the Old Testament, in the Psalms, hold up my hands and shout, ‘Where are you? Where are you?’
“But he is here, and I will not let that put me off. I’ve got to hang on. I’ve got to hang on to what I read here,” he says, touching the Bible next to him.
DURING the pandemic, the embrace of technology by churches has been important to him. “I do a lot of Bible reading from my own church online; so I was able to do that for them all through that. But it’s also given me a chance to move on, to expand myself and to open myself up to other churches.
“I’ve logged on to the Western Orthodox. I’ve logged on to Eastern Orthodox. I’m able to go to many different places, many different denominations, because they’re all tied to the same thing. And it’s been absolutely wonderful.
“I have enormous hope that the Christian family around the world can actually say hello to each other, and we cease to be just little pockets of Christianity. But, because it is a worldwide religion, we can join hands to what we’re doing now.
“Stay up one night and say hello to church in Australia; and stay up one night and say hello to a different denomination in South Africa, Canada, America. And we can all hold hands globally, and be part of one glorious Christianity.”
Alongside these global opportunities, he has found a silent companionship with God rewarding — part of what he calls “a developing relationship . . . and that is not shouting, talking all the time and not giving him a chance.
“Sitting still, not saying a word. And being with it as a friend, just sharing time together. And sometimes with the person you really love, and very intimate, with the best time to sitting together.”
He is aware of the difficulties that many find with the idea of silent prayer: “People say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that. My head is too busy.’ It’s not, actually. It’s just sitting down, having a cup of coffee, and closing the doors again. It’s no more than that. He wants to be as accessible to you as he can be.
“I have a little prayer that is totally impractical,” he says. “It is the homeless brought into churches, off the streets at night. Somehow. There’s so much real estate that religion wants to protect: our churches. But I’m sure if Jesus was walking around, he’d be the first to unlock the door of a church.”
As he walked around London during lockdown, his attention was drawn to “thousands of churches in London. In the City of London, there’s one on every corner.”
He is convinced that generous hospitality is required. “Open your doors, because Christ doesn’t want them shut. They’re homes, the house of God, and I’m sure that God would open his doors for the poor, the lonely, the sick, the tired.”
His more ambitious prayer is for a global online gathering of Christians. “I would love to see the leadership of all Christians and denominations coming together worldwide, in a worldwide day of prayer.
“We’ve had a prayer day of reflection in this country on the anniversary of lockdown. I would like all Christian communities and all other faiths to come together with those with faith and those with religion, and throw ourselves open to God, and pray for healing and peace in the world. That would be a groundbreaking thing, wouldn’t it? And I think it’s time.”
HE EXPRESSES concern over divisions that he has observed among Christians, and a lack of unity which has wider repercussions: “My wish is — especially in a multicultural society — for tolerance: greater tolerance, and unity within ourselves.”
He has approached this, in part, by expanding his knowledge of other faiths, “trying to be broad-minded in reading and studying other holy texts, reading the Qur’an”.
In his 2018 podcast Questions of Faith, he met and interviewed a range of people from the other Abrahamic faiths, including a terrorist. He describes it as his “tumble-dryer Christian experience”.
He continues: “I was going in there believing that everything was right with me and wrong with the terrorist, and coming out really seriously questioning myself and having to look through the world through their eyes. That’s what we must do all the time, and we must get rid of extremism. We must.”
He was struck, though, by the passions that he encountered. “When you meet people who have this zealotry about them: yes, it leads to terrible things — I’m not sympathising in any way with terrorism: I’m actually condemning it — but they have a fire.
“And they have a passion that, I think, we have lost in areas of our worship, in areas of our faith. We don’t talk about it. People say ‘My religion is private.’
“Actually, religion in the way it was started was never private. It was always done in groups and in secret for fear of the others, even after Jesus’s crucifixion. And when he appeared his disciples, they were they were all behind the closed doors that were locked for fear of persecution.”
He recognises the challenge and risk of biblical warnings about lukewarm Christians. “I don’t want lukewarm. You’re either hot or you’re cold. And what I met in those extremists, and in those terrorists, was boiling hot.
“And I had to recognise that they really, really did believe that they were doing it in the name of God.”
He describes the difficulty of taking his own spiritual temperature: “I get frustrated, like all people, because I go into areas of not wanting to do anything. We Christians call it the dark desert experience, that you just feel separated from God; but out of that comes good, good things.
“Sometimes, I feel cold; sometimes, I feel lukewarm. Sometimes, I feel hot and passionate. But I never forget in my heart, [and] although I may cry out like the psalmist — and I have cried out in my early days, my goodness me — I will pray for God to do whatever he wants for me, because I’m completely helpless and angry and frustrated. I’m a passionate man. I’m not all head. I’m very gut-driven.”