My newest book will be coming soon. It’s the shortest of all the books I’ve written, but it has taken me much longer than the others to complete. In a way it’s been a work in progress for a lifetime. Well, without further comment, here is the draft of my introductory chapter as a taster for the whole thing which is set to appear in the new few weeks:
Among the many books within arm’s reach as I sit down to write, two in particular have engaged my attention over extended periods and set me some interesting puzzles. One is my own debut novel, Bunderlin, which occupied me for about three years from start until publication and drew upon some of my experience and reading over many years before the story ever began to form in my imagination. The other is the Bible. What follows now is, in one way, a personal account of the relationship between those two apparently quite different literary interests.
The Bible has been present in my life for almost as long as I can remember, sometimes prominently, sometimes hardly at all but simply hovering in the background. It began some time during the years immediately following the end of World War Two. My mother had begun to take an interest in the Jehovah’s Witnesses long before I can remember and was, I think, fully convinced by their teachings from her first contact with them but it was not until I was about eight or so and my sister a little older that her interest in the Witnesses became more serious. Every Thursday afternoon, almost as soon as we were home from school, “Uncle” Bob Anderson would arrive to conduct a “home Bible study” with us using the Witnesses’ basic doctrinal textbook, Let God be True.My sister and I had strict instructions that we were not to breathe a word of this to our father who, we were told, did not approve of “Uncle” Bob.
What captured my imagination at that early stage of my introduction to the Bible was the Witnesses’ belief that the book of Daniel contained the key to understanding the when and how of the fulfilment of Bible prophecy. Could it really be true that an ancient Babylonian king’s dream pinpointed the precise time, many centuries later, when all was to be fulfilled? And that we were already in the final years before God would step in to put right all that had gone wrong since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were expelled from Eden? And that it would all happen long before I would finish school? Heady stuff for a kid to grow up with – especially since it would involve the slaughter of everyone except the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Everything was so clear and obvious, at least to an eight-year-old kid, and I was hooked. But it was not to last and some twelve years later, after failing to curb my tendency to indulge in bouts of thinking and questioning for the sheer pleasure and intellectual satisfaction of it, the Bible and the whole doctrinal edifice of the Watchtower and Jehovah’s Witnesses began to fall apart for me.
The patriarchal narratives in Genesis were the first to go. I guess I had been having all sorts of unacknowledged doubts for a while when, after an evening meeting in which those stories of the patriarchs’ encounters with God had figured prominently, a friend asked me, “Do you actually believe any of this?” Immediately and apparently out of the blue I replied, “No.” I walked away from my involvement with Jehovah’s Witnesses that same evening and was “disfellowshipped” three months later because I would not agree to remain silent if anyone were to ask me about my disagreements with Witness doctrine.
Following my departure from the Witnesses I dabbled around in religious groups across a broad spectrum of Christian belief from unitarians to evangelicals but never felt at home anywhere. There were other interests to pursue. I wrote my first novel, a naive historical adventure set in Cheshire and Lancashire during the English civil war. Unaccountably, it never found a publisher. I tried a second novel set a couple of decades before the civil war and heavily indebted to the writings of the Jesuit historian Philip Caraman. It was much better than my first attempt at historical fiction but still too amateurish to catch a publisher’s attention.
Taking a short break from writing, I enrolled for various courses in Manchester University’s Extra-mural Department, got hooked on study and went to Lancaster University to read Philosophy and Linguitics. Following graduation I returned to fiction and wrote a third novel, a quasi-philosophical flight of fancy. It had no more success than my previous attempts although it did elicit some encouraging comments from publishers who nevertheless turned it down. I was getting there; my goal was in sight and before long I would have a book in print.
Before I could embark upon yet another novel, however, I discovered that I couldn’t leave religion alone and it was to be many years before I would return to fiction. What happened was something which I could very easily spin as an experience of God or the Holy Spirit or Jesus speaking to me. Which is how some of my evangelical and fundamentalist friends did, indeed, understand it when I told my story. It went like this: one Tuesday evening when I was living in Horwich on the edge of the West Pennine Moors, I went into neighbouring Bolton for the evening. Nothing unusual there – I would often go into town for a few glasses of beer. On this occasion, I went first into the Clarence, a pub on Bradshawgate, and ordered a half pint of bitter. (Only a half pint – this was early in the evening and I always started slowly and moderately.) Having bought the drink I stepped back a little from the bar and took a sip. And then the thought came into my head: “I should enter the ministry.” My immediate reply to myself was, “But that’s crazy, I’m not a Christian.” The thought stayed with me throughout the evening. I could visualise myself in the role of a minister and it felt good. But I wasn’t a Christian.
That crazy notion was still hovering around when I woke the following morning. It wasn’t going to leave me alone. On my way home from work I called in at the central library in Bolton and took out John McQuarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology. I cannot now say that I remember very much of McQuarrie’s book except that I enjoyed reading it and although I wasn’t sure that I could agree with everything he wrote, I was sure that I could enjoy engaging with the ideas raised there. My only firm decision at that point was that I would continue reading, but I would not attend any church unless I became fairly sure that I was going to continue with this idea to re-engage with Christianity. And all the time that crazy notion I had found in a glass of beer in the Clarence stayed with me. I should enter the ministry.
After a few weeks of reading theology and the New Testament, I began to attend services at St John’s Methodist Church in Horwich. From the start I felt at home there – I can recall saying that I felt I was back where I belonged. I could not, of course, share with anyone at that very early stage the mad idea I had found in the Clarence. But nor could I keep quiet about it for long. After a few months I told the minister, Robert Saunders. I was not entirely sure how he might respond though I did know him well enough by this stage to recognise a friendly and gracious guy who would not fall about laughing at this odd character who had wandered into his church after six years of secularity and wanted to become a minister.
The first step in the long and rigorous process to acceptance as candidate for ordination in the Methodist Church is to become an accredited lay preacher. Looking back, I think that is a very positive thing because it involves not only training in the basics of speaking in public but also a study of the literature of the Bible. At that very early stage I might have considered myself somewhat ahead of the average beginner in both those areas. I was already a fairly experienced speaker but I also thought I was quite well informed in biblical studies. As I embarked upon the course of study leading to accreditation as a lay preacher, however, I quickly discovered that my understanding of the Bible, far removed from my JW roots though it had become, was nevertheless still grounded in nineteenth century conservatism. I could quite comfortably take my place in conversations in philosophy and linguistics, the disciples of my first degree, but when it came to biblical studies I quickly realised that I was a novice with lots to learn.
In due course the church accepted me as a candidate for the ministry and sent me off to Cambridge where I read for a degree in Biblical studies and built upon the studies I began as a lay preacher before being ordained. During my first ministerial appointment in County Durham I picked up my much earlier interest in the supposed end-times calendars hidden in the Bible, with part-time post-graduate research in the University of Durham under the expert and encouraging guidance of church historian Dr Sheridan Gilley. My Mlitt dissertation led in due course to my first published book, Counting the Days to Armageddon, a history of the prophetic speculations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I thought I had left novel writing behind with this apparent break-through into the world of academic writing and publishing – but I hadn’t. The stories of people who had struggled to disentangle themselves from involvement with the Jehovah’s Witnesses captured my imagination and the novel was the perfect vehicle for those stories. So I temporarily shelved my plans to continue as a writer of theology and religious history and set to work upon yet another novel – the story of a young woman growing up in an authoritarian and fundamentalist religion like the Witnesses and having all her talents and hopes squashed until at last she is able at last to break free.
It fared no better than my much earlier attempts and I quickly recognised that it was too much suffused with the academic approach to writing which I had mastered with my post-graduate dissertation and Counting the Days to Armageddon. So I put it to one side and began another very different sort of novel.
This time I really had left religious writing behind – or so it appeared. Bunderlin is the story of an eccentric guy inspired in part by a friend I had known many years before in Manchester. The really fascinating thing about creating the character of Peter Bunderlin was how I could see that a few different influences came together to make up the character and, especially, how none of those triggering, and real, people actually remained anywhere in the make-up of Peter Bunderlin himself. The experience of creating his character shed some interesting light upon how, in a different endeavour, I might seek to understand something of the relationship between the Jesus of the Gospels and his possible real-life antecedents. So, no, I hadn’t really left religious writing behind.
Bunderlin found a publisher and confirmed my belief in myself as a novelist. I cracked on with another, wrote three chapters and then stalled. My main character, spurred on by a tenacious young woman who had breezed into his world, was trying to discover what had happened to… Well, to whom? I wasn’t sure. And then the answer came to me – this was a natural setting in which to embed the central story of my most recently shelved novel.
I learned a thing or two about re-purposing earlier stories while writing Leaving Gilead. It isn’t the same thing as editing because it involves lots more than simply improving the language and the pace and so on. When new characters wander in and out of old stories they change things, sometimes in unexpected ways, and old characters take on new names and different occupations. The new present changes what happened in the old past. And if you don’t get all the necessary adjustments right you can end up with a story that offers clues, giveaways, all over the place about what the earlier story might have been. You have to become alert to how all this happens so that you can spot it and put it right before any sharp-eyed reader pounces upon it. And when you have acquired the skill to do that you might notice the same kind of thing going on in other stories.
I soon found myself looking once more at some of the ancient Biblical narratives and wondering why nobody seemed to have noticed before things which now began to appear obvious, at least to me. I find it illuminating always to bear in mind that the story on the page is almost certainly a late creation drawing upon earlier now-forgotten stories. Long before the development of writing systems and materials people must surely already have been telling stories – to inform, or to mislead, or simply to entertain. So I maintain that the earliest literary endeavours drew upon a well-established habit of storytelling. And if this is the case then the most ancient written stories to which we can have access, very likely represent a late stage in the development of storytelling. There may very well be clues lurking in the ancient texts which could suggest how we might reconstruct at least a portion of the earlier stories.
What follows in this slim volume is an account of my search for a believable Jesus who could figure in the sort of narrative which I enjoy writing and reading. I will not describe it as a search for the historical Jesus; to couch it in such terms would appear to claim a place alongside some of the pioneers of modern critical thought – or else to rehash some of the not always successful speculations of the early years of biblical scholarship. It is simply a search for a novelist’s Jesus. I should point out, however, that the novelist I have in mind – myself – is not one who indulges in the (perfectly legitimate) building of fantasy worlds or the creation of the magical characters who flit between those worlds and our own. I describe myself as a feet-on-the-ground storyteller whose constant mantra is, could this actually happen?