To hear Nick Barley, Director of Edinburgh International Book Festival, talking at the Programme Launch back in July you’d think he was on some kind of mission to save the world – with books. Cut to August, and James Runcie introduces a keynote speaker by saying that a book festival has a ‘moral purpose; a conscience.’ Cue Richard Holloway, who gives a speech that verges on evangelical – not a word usually associated with the former Bishop of Edinburgh.
Those familiar with Richard Holloway know what to expect from such an event. Passion, insight, anger, humour, the occasional emotional outburst and a few swears thrown in. But there is something different about this talk and ensuing discussion; something beyond the usual candid vulnerability.
The theme for this year’s Book Festival is ‘we need new stories.’ In his many books, Holloway uses story-telling to great effect – whether from his own or other’s experience. Now in his mid-eighties, despite having published a memoir and, more recently, a book about approaching death, Waiting for the Last Bus, it seems there are plenty more stories left for him to tell.
Yet the question he seems to be asking is, can stories make sense of a meaningless universe? Or a world where children suffer? Holloway’s own story has been one of struggling with faith and doubt. Stepping down from his Bishopric in 2000 was no simple act of retiring: he was at odds with the Church’s position on so-called morality, and his faith in God seemed shattered. As he put it in his talk, “I do not accept the God that is presented by the Christian Church.”
However, his next sentence sums up his current position: “but [I] find myself ‘coming home’ again.” So he admits he is still a Christian, “just not a very believing one.” Where, then, do the stories fit into this seemingly paradoxical agnosticism? First off, they do not fit into the expression ‘mansplaining’ – a tendency towards over-confidence and cluelessness that is rife among males and Christianity. Descarte’s ‘I think therefore I am’ has now become ‘I say it, therefore it’s true.’
The second point is that we all have stories. But are they the truth? And what if these differing narratives lead to conflict and division? Stories to avoid, then, are those that cause hurt, violence, disagreement, conflict. Those situations in history are most often among neighbours, where minor differences can lead to major persecutions, whether Holocaust or Windrush scenarios.
It seems that Holloway is talking about tolerance and reconciliation; about getting things in proportion. As he says, we need “an equilibrium of mutual dissatisfaction.” That, however, is something men find so hard, especially those who wear the ‘hat of authority.’ (He was talking about his own ‘hat’ – the mitre – which he ‘threw away.’)
In a festival full of ‘authors’ the term ‘authority’ has a particular ring about it. Besides truthfulness and tolerance, there is a third factor in ‘story,’ which is interpretation. This is where things come unstuck, especially when referring to Biblical ‘authority.’
Jesus, of course, was a great storyteller, but Holloway’s suggestion that parables are good “if people read them right” only works for some.
The story of the Good Samaritan talks about the way Churches still argue about silly things. These prevent the unconditional love and forgiveness that allowed the father to forgive the Prodigal son before he’d even uttered a confession. That is easy to get, but the more mythical Biblical stories are harder to hold as ‘truths’ – such as the creation or resurrection narratives.
At this point, I want Richard Holloway to say more than his usual, ‘if it works for you, fine’ response. But he continues to take a gentle middle path by saying “holding stories true is fine as long as it doesn’t make it cruel.” The audience seems to like this approach, and applaud his (almost) concluding comment, “Live your story, believe it, but don’t make me believe it.”
I’m left thinking that Holloway has softened in his older years, and returned to the comforts of Church and Religion. However, something leaves – for me, at least – a glimpse of ambiguity in his position. By suggesting that “great artists represent the human condition,” even if people don’t read religious texts as fiction, the fact is that this is a Book Festival, not a church.
This is Holloway’s new congregation. While the empty cathedrals across the land may speak most about unconditional love, the greater truths are to be found in books; in Art. And as we know, Art is a lie…
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme click here.