People rarely queue around the block to buy a book. And when was the last time a prime minister had to ask the publisher for a copy as none was otherwise available? Philosopher, writer and former priest Mark Vernon tells the story of Honest To God.
It happened 50 years ago, in the spring of 1963. A book called Honest to God appeared on the shelves and caused a storm.
Before long, a million copies were sold in 17 languages. The author was a Church of England clergyman, John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich in south London.
I remember that time, and I remember buying and reading the book.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
What can I say about a book that I read 50 years ago, and really have no desire to reread? It was the publishing sensation of its time, I suppose, and perhaps for the first time in decades got many people in the secular West buying and reading books about theology.
I bought the book for my mother, who had expressed an interest in reading it, and I read it too, mainly to see what the fuss was about. But I was disappointed. John A.T. Robinson seemed to be urging me to stop believing things about God I had never believed in the first place, and to replace them with things I had heard from people I regarded as religious quacks, and rejected.
Nevertheless the book did influence me quite strongly. It helped to being into focus things that I didn’t like in Western bourgeois theology, and to look for African threology and liberation theology instead. But that’s more about me than about the book, so it’s better said on my blog than on GoodReads.
My friend Tony McGregor recently drew attention to something he had written on The most influential books I’ve ever read and why?, and so I thought it might be interesting to reflect on the most influential books I read in 1963, and why.
I had just been at a conference of the Anglican Students Federation with Tony McGregor (and recently met him again for the first time since then, 50 years later). There was a bit of discussion of Honest to God at the conference, but two other books were also mentioned, so I read them first: The primal vision by John V. Taylor, and Images of God by A.C. Bridge. I also thought they were both much better than Honest to God.
I’ve already written something about The primal vision and Honest to God in a blog post on Christianity, paganism and literature, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of it here.
In Honest to God Robinson said, as one of the more famous reviews of his book headlined it, “Our image of God must go”. Robinson’s idea of “our” image of God was of an old man sitting on a cloud somewhere up in the sky. I’m not sure who had that image of God, or how many there were who held it, but I certainly didn’t.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote a short story, The hammer of God, where someone had been murdered by a hammer thrown from a church tower. And one of the point that Chesterton made was related to the architecture. The murderer was putting himself in the place of God, looking down on men, and seeing them as insignificant, and being in a position to pass judgement on them. But the place for human beings was not up in the tower, looking down, but rather in the nave of the church, looking up; looking to God in humility, rather than looking down on men, with pride.
So the point is not the physical location of God, but the spiritual location of man, which Bishop John Robinson seems to have misinterpreted. But the spire, pointing beyond the church itself, can make it seem that God is otherwhere than here.
Orthodox Church architecture speaks of something different. There are no spires, bur rather domes. Unlike the spire pointing to a heaven up in the sky far away and beyond, the dome encloses the space, and speaks of heaven on earth. This is also reflected in an Orthodox greeting:
“Christ is in our midst”
“He is and ever shall be.”
Bishop John Robinson undertook to interpret three German theologians to an English audience: Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I knew little of the works of Bultmann and Tillich, but I had read quite a lot of Bonhoeffer’s writings, and I thought that Robinson had grossly misinterpreted them. It looked to me like an English armchair theologian sitting in comfort and bowdlerising the teaching of Bonhoeffer, who had lived and worked in a crisis situation in Nazi Germany.
Bultmann believed that Christian teaching needed to be demythologised, but John V. Taylor in The primal vision showed that Western Christianity was too demythologised already, and needed to be remythologised by African thinking. Taylor began one of his chapters with a quote from Nicolas Berdyaev that has stuck with me ever since:
Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept. It is high time that we stopped identifying myth with invention, with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything, in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality… The creation of myths among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real indeed than that of abstract concepts and rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language memory and creative energy of the people… it brings two worlds together symbolically.
I was also influenced by a film, and the novel on which it was based, Sammy going south, which I reviewed at Sammy going south: book review | Notes from underground. It was about a ten-year-old English boy, Sammy Hartland, whose parents were killed in the Anglo-French bombing of Suez in 1956. His parents had told him of an aunt in Durban somewhere to the south, so he set out to walk to Durban to find her.
The South African Sunday Express, in its review, accused the film of pandering to currently fashionable views (what is now called political correctness), of showing white people as duplicitous villains and black people as kind to wandering orphans like Sammy. That wasn’t quite accurate, as there was also a white hunter who treated him well, but generally it was black people who treated Sammy as a person, and the white people he encountered who treated him as an object of exploitation and self-gratification.
This theme seemed to complement that of The primal vision, which espoused the African view that “a person is a person because of people” rather than the Western view of seeing people as “human resources” or “labour units” and generally as objects to be manipulated.
What Bishop John Robinson proposed to put in place of the outmoded image of God that he rejected reminded me of nothing so much as the theology of Nicol Campbell, who published a sentimental monthly booklet called The path of truth, which was lapped up by middle class white widows and divorcees living in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. My mother took it for a while, but soon saw through it, especially after overhearing Nicol Campbell at a gathering speaking to an old school friend whom he had not seen for a long time, and as they exchanged “What are you doing now?” information Nicol Campbell said to his friend that there was money in religion, and he was making it hand over fist. That was well over 50 years ago, but there is money to be made from it still, as the undiminished flood of self-help and “inspirational” books from self-styled “life coaches” attests.
A couple of years later I met John Robinson. I went to England to study, and scarpered from South Africa at a few hours’ notice one step ahead of the security police. After a rather exhausting 48-hour journey I arrived at the home of Canon Eric James, who had offered to shelter me. Bishop John Robinson was having dinner with him, and we exchanged a few words. He was known as a theological liberal, and I was there at that time because I was a political liberal, and our conversation showed me quite clearly that theological liberalism went hand in hand with political conservatism, because it was based on the fundamental idea that the church must adapt its theology to fit in with the status quo in the world. And, as G.K. Chresterton once put it, as long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will always remain exactly the same.