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Leader comment: Blessed are the scribes; for they shall read God

by
03 March 2023

THE value of literature was once more apparent at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, in Winchester, last weekend. This is not because it is pleasurable, though it is, or illustrative of other lives, which it is; or because it engages emotions often poorly exercised in daily life, which it does. It is because writers are at one and the same time careful, playful, experimental, puzzling, and exploratory when it comes to language. Supremely — and this was expressed repeatedly at the festival — they are aware of the vast and echoing space between the truths that they reach for and the inadequacy of the words at their disposal. And yet they believe, too, that a word has the ability to encapsulate all that needs to be said on a particular occasion: sometimes the word on its own, but usually through allusion and association. It is this search for the right form of words which gives writers of literature, particularly of fiction and poetry, the boldness that they need to pursue that search for truth without looking over their shoulder at how their work might be received.

This boldness and irresponsibility is vital when it comes to the Bible. Were the Bible a book of instructions, a simple and unambiguous setting down of divine law, humanity’s response could match it in simplicity. But the Bible’s covers, whether tattered cardboard or zipped and leathered, contain exactly those forms of language — careful, playful, experimental, puzzling, exploratory — that exist in other forms of writing. To miss this is to miss the richness of the biblical text and the multiple truths that it seeks to express. What a festival it would be to get the three Isaiahs together — or have St Paul on the stage with those who wrote under his name! Thus writers and poets are precisely the right people to lead others in the lifelong task of familiarisation and understanding of biblical texts, because they are the same sort of people as those who wrote it.

Church leaders, not so much. The contrast with the writers’ irresponsibility can be heard in the speeches of bishops crushed by the constant calculation of how their words might be perceived. People in positions of power have staff who school them against spontaneity and boldness of language until silence seems the easiest option. And there are rewards for such silence: the gratitude and approval of episcopal colleagues (“Thank you for not making waves”), a manageable in-tray, not having to deal with expressions of offence on social media. But such silence means that wrongs go unrighted, errors go uncorrected, and public discourse is dominated by people who have worked out precisely what they want their words, and often the Bible’s words, to mean. God’s word needs to be approached with freedom, and perhaps that comes only with powerlessness. And who has less power than a writer?

See photos from the Festival of Faith and Literature here

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