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The End of the Church? Conversations with the work of David Jasper, edited by Bridget Nichols and Nicholas Taylor

12 May 2023

George Pattison looks at responses to a theologian’s concerns

ALTHOUGH some readers might assume that The End of the Church? is a Festschrift in honour of David Jasper, the editors couldn’t be clearer that, right from the beginning, “this was not a festschrift.” Instead, they emphasise the collection’s subtitle, Conversations with David Jasper. In other words, the primary aim is to acknowledge and honour Jasper’s distinctive contribution to contemporary theology by taking forward issues and questions that were (and are) central to his own theological journey.

Reflecting Jasper’s own many-faceted theological engagement, The End of the Church? extends beyond the obvious focus on theology and literature to the visual arts, the Bible, liturgy, and the fate of the Church in Britain today. From the commissioning activities of Walter Hussey (Michael Fuller), through artists as varied as El Greco, Henri Matisse (Donald Orr), and Anselm Kiefer (Heather Walton), the essays continue through writers ranging from the anonymous author of The Dream of the Rood (Jeremy Smith), through Milton (Tibor Fabiny) and Proust (Vasiliki Kolocotroni), to Muriel Spark (also Kolloctroni), Seamus Heaney (Alison Jack), Salman Rushdie (Lori A. Kanitz), and Kazuo Ishiguro (John Reuben Davies).

The genesis of the thematisation of theology and literature in 19th-century writers such as George Macdonald and Jasper’s own part in the development of that theme are addressed in essays by Trevor Hart and Ann Loades, while Hannah Altorf’s sermon by Redel, daughter of Moses, gives us a vivid and memorable example of creative literary theologising in practice.

The implications of the questions raised by Jasper’s work for the Church and for the institutions of higher education in which his career has largely been based are brought out in essays by Elizabeth Jay and Margaret Masson. Jay’s essay offers a sharp challenge to those who continue to make the Church their spiritual home: it is striking that the title of her essay, “The End of the Church”, is not followed by the question mark of the book’s title.

Reading Jay’s essay, I suddenly realise that we could read this collection from opposite ends. Jasper’s theological beginnings were in a time still overshadowed by the traumas of the Second World War and the Holocaust, and the challenge was how to speak meaningfully about those events. This is crucial if “literature and theology” is not to be misconceived as a niche exercise in aestheticism rather than the attempt to engage literature in truthfully confronting the darkest side of the human experience, which Christianity refers to as sin.

Here, Heather Walton finds a parallel to Jasper’s theological journey in Kiefer, an artist whose early life reveals a hard-won progression from the wasteland that Germany literally was in 1945, the year of his birth, to the resurrection themes of his later work. The story here is urgent and compelling.

Starting from the other end, however, life in the Church and theology, too (increasingly marginalised in higher education), seem to totter on the brink of entire irrelevance to the post-religious generations. Will the Church settle for a more or less comfortable managed decline, or will it find the courage to go into the desert of the post-religious world, where, with grace, it may find a new beginning? Will theology withdraw into self-preoccupation, or will it be able to give some new insight to a world potentially entering a new time of troubles?

For those who see these as serious questions, both Jasper’s work and the essays collected here provide essential reading.

The Revd Professor George Pattison holds the 1640 Chair of Divinity in the University of Glasgow.

The End of the Church? Conversations with the work of David Jasper
Bridget Nichols and Nicholas Taylor, editors
Sacristy Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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