“A thought provoking read for believers of any denomination and atheists of none” – Stories We Tell Ourselves by Richard Holloway

Well, this is a turn up for the books, I must say. Author Richard Holloway was Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. What is he doing writing a book about the difficulty of believing in God? Is this the most contradictory book of all time, or are we at last witnessing the Great Questioning of Faith, which seems to have taken an eternity to be given a proper airing by one of its own? Hard not to raise your arms up and cry Halleluiah to that.

The objective of this fascinating and deeply humane book is to answer the question, what story does the author want to live by, and what stories have we, as a Christian society in particular, really lived by? Is it the story of the Church or another, more sinister and convoluted story, and if so, what has it done for us?

Humanity has always used the vehicle of story to try to make sense of the world. We have done this extremely successfully, too. So successfully in fact that we have, as Mr Holloway explains, stuck with some stories to the point of doing ourselves harm. You may agree or disagree with the views put forward in this book, but some things are hard to disagree with, such as the harm caused by religious story telling as it comes to us through Scripture. I use the word ‘story telling’ here because the author (surprisingly) does the same. It takes courage to come out and call Scripture story. Even today we are not really supposed to say it. Divine power lingers, and it is, at times, devilishly hard to shake off. Perhaps we don’t even want to shake it off. Prize-winning author and daring Bishop, Richard Holloway does not even try to be religiously correct. Instead, he takes the arguments to pieces, no holes barred, and tries to shed some light on what we are to do with our two thousand years of Christianity.

Much of the danger arising from religious doctrine, explains Holloway, comes from the domination of Christianity by one gender only. ‘Mansplaining’ thus has become the foundations of religious instruction through the ages. It is a great word, described here as, ‘the experience of listening to a man condescendingly explaining something to [a woman] he thinks she cannot possibly understand’. It is a combination of ‘overconfidence and cluelessness’. Lovely. But let’s remember that the Church did, finally, after two thousand years agree to let women be ordained. Was that not progress?

Of course it was. The trouble is, by then it was a bit late to stuff a cloth in the gaping hole of sexual inequality. The Book of Genesis had already plunged its knife into the rib of humanity and drawn out a woman fashioned from a bit of male bone. The Fall of Man (women were already rotten) had been set in motion right from the early days. As Mr Holloway neatly remarks, ‘What did the author or the authors of this story think they were doing when they composed it?’ Whatever they were thinking, it certainly has not been helpful. Here is the author’s damning conclusion, ‘…an influential generation of Christian leaders infused their own obsession with sex and consequent hatred of women into an old myth, and sent it into history to spread its stain’. This is almost as good as the French President apologising to Africa. Better, actually.

But it’s on the matter of punishment and guilt that Holloway really waxes lyrical. Moving on from Adam and Eve, chastisement is the obvious sequel. In the Old Testament God appeared to positively relish punishment, so who forgives whom? The problem raged on into medieval times and it is still alive and well. ‘Offend a peasant, no problem, easily dealt with. Offend a baron, more difficult, but do-able. Dishonour the monarch, and you’re in real trouble…Offend God? You are absolutely done for.’ These benchmarks of sin are ingrained in our culture and have been used in ways more dreadful than many of us like to admit.  

Fortunately, but also with blessed lucidity, Mr Holloway provides an explanation – a thing that no Church representative has probably ever done – which is that, ‘…all our God theories are projections of our own cultures and their compulsions and cruelties’. This might sound a bit as though God is being ‘let off the hook’, but it is probably, at the end of the day, spot on.

Any Cop?: If you’ve always felt a bit guilty about not being very God-fearing, buy this book. But seriously, a thought provoking read for believers of any denomination and atheists of none.



Lucille Turner

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