Whit by Iain Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the first non-SciFi novel by Iain Banks that I’ve read and I found it totally engaging. It’s the story of Isis Whit, the Elect of God in a small and highly quirky religious cult in Stirlingshire. Over the course of the novel her privileged position and life within the community begins to disintegrate leaving her questioning both her faith and her community. As with all previous Iain Banks novels that I’ve read it is a great read and I found myself drawn into this imagined world which despite its bizarre nature has the ring of authenticity to it.
Clearly for me as a Christian minister not only was this a fascinating story, but a critique of faith and religious communities asking questions of the effect of human corruptness and self-centeredness, deliberate or unintentional, upon them. How much of what we do and hold dear is of human original? Banks doesn’t totally dismiss faith or the spiritual life and amongst all the politicking and strife remains the hint of Isis’ Gift, a mystery which he deliberately leaves unanswered, was it real or delusion?
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On Wednesday there was the second part of a debate between the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg MP and the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage MEP over whether or not Britain should stay in the EU ahead of the election of members of the European Parliament on the 22nd May. Of course this isn’t the only vote taking place this year, the other being the Scottish Independence Referendum in September. Of course, it’s not my place to tell you how to vote when and if you are eligible to, although inevitably from time to time my political leanings will show. But as a Christian I do believe it is important to be involved in politics because Jesus’ teachings are political in nature. Now I’m not saying he spoke about policies and legislation all the time, and the merits of different ways of governing and philosophies such as democracy, capitalism, communism, monarchy etc. but he did have a lot to say about power and wealth and most importantly our relationships with each other – and at the end of the day that is what politics is all about.
Reflecting on Jesus’ teaching and politics, one story out of all of them comes to mind, the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37. In a discussion about the command to love our neighbours as ourselves, Jesus is asked how we know who our neighbours are. He answers with a story, the sorry tale of a man on the road to Jericho who is mugged and left for dead. Three men see him lying there. The first two are fellow-Jews; a priest and Levite. They hurry past, afraid of being mugged themselves or somehow becoming unclean. The third is a Samaritan. To say the Samaritans and the Jews did not get on would be an understatement and yet it is the Samaritan who stops and cares for him. Jesus ends with a question leading to a deeper and more important answer than the one the man sought, who was the neighbour to the man? The answer given was the man who showed mercy. Jesus’ follow-up instruction was simple and yet demanding, ‘Go and do likewise.’
I can’t help but wonder if Jesus is being subversive here, trying to change the nature of our relationships and our politics, moving us away from the question of how can I secure the best outcome for myself or for my people or for our country, to how can I secure the best for others, especially those less privileged or more vulnerable than myself? This doesn’t directly give us the answer of who or what to vote for when elections come, but cuts to the heart of the questions we need to be considering as we weigh up our options on the ballot paper, and indeed in our daily dealings with those around us in office, church and family politics.
Church Newsletter article, 6th April 2014
Church newsletter article, 05.02.12
Is it possible to enjoy the benefits of religion with out having to believe in God? Is it possible to take from the many world religions those bits that good and leave out God? I was listening to Richard Bacon’s Radio Five show during the week and caught parts of an interview between him and Alain de Botton who has sought to achieve just that with his new book ‘Religion for Atheists’. It was a fascinating discussion and got me thinking a lot about what we gain from our faith.
His plan is to try and tread a middle path never embracing God nor throwing aside religion completely. Rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we live and arrange our societies, looking to religion for helpful insights into how to build a sense of community, make our relationships last, get more out of art, and overcome envy and inadequacy. For example he looked at the way religion brings together disparate groups of people, those who would not normally have anything to do with each other, and asked how does it achieve this. One of the key areas he homed in on was Communion; the importance of giving people a chance to seek forgiveness, to accept those who have wronged us and to share a meal together, forging friendship.
The interview reminded me that it is easy to forget the value of what we have in our life together. Here was a non-believer admiring areas of our life that maybe we forget that are so valuable because we are so used to having them. I will probably get a copy of his book to reflect more about what our religion gives us in a way that we don’t normally think about.
I fear, however, that Botton completely missed the point. Ed West wrote in his article on the book in the Guardian this week, ‘…religion for atheists will always be something of an alcohol-free lager; sure, it doesn’t have the bad and mad side effects, but it just isn’t the same.’ Similarly, David Blunkett once said that he’d like to bottle whatever it was that gave Church schools their success. You see, it’s not our rituals and practises that make a difference, valuable as they are; it’s that which drives them, that which they point towards – a relationship with the living God. Taking him out of the equation is like having an award winning Formula One car with all the fuel drained out. It might look good but it just won’t work.