Haunted by Christ by Richard Harries
Short essays offering a brief introduction to 20 writers followed by analysis of faith themes that have gripped them
Haunted by Christ: modern writers and the struggle for faith
By Richard Harries
ISBN 978 0 281 07933 9
Reviewed by Stephen Copson
Richard Harries will be known to many as formerly Bishop of Oxford and someone with a broad range of interest in theology, medicine, literature and, from his seat in the House of Lords, human rights. He is a contributor to Radio 4.
In this latest work, he selects a slate of 20 significant authors of his choosing who addressed matters of faith in their writings. By “modern”, he includes writers spanning Dostoevsky to Marianne Robinson. He looks at each author through the lens of one or more of their writings to set down how they presented key issues
The advance copy that I received carried what I assume was a working title “Why are we here” on the front cover, followed by the subtitle, and the published title as above on the spine. (Presumably “Haunted by Christ” was the more arresting). But taken together, they neatly capture the three main types of writers presented: those who broadly write from within the Christian tradition even if not always uncritical (C.S.Lewis, Elizabeth Jennings and T.S.Eliot); those who write from Dover Beach in the ebb tide of traditional belief (R.S.Thomas, Marianne Robinson and Flannery O’Connor) and those outside the tradition yet who are still “haunted by Christ” - or at least pursue themes traditionally associated with faith (Samuel Beckett, Stevie Smith and Philip Pullman).
These short essays offer a brief introduction to the writer followed by analysis of faith themes that have gripped them. Lord Harris is a perceptive commentator, illustrating his points from the texts. It is good to be reminded that theologians, historians and pastoral commentators do not have a monopoly on the search for meaning in a sometimes apparently random existence, exploring the seriousness and joy of the human condition. If there are no surprises in the choice of subjects, nonetheless it is good to revisit authors or maybe find them for the first time. These are writers who have wrestled with the contours of the human condition: of sin and grace, of temptation and redemption, of holiness in the everyday and the exceptional - even if they did not always use accepted religious terminology.
As ever in any collection it is invidious to identify one essay against another, but I found the explorations of less anticipated gems like Stevie Smith, Shusaku Endo and William Golding caught my attention. A book to dip into rather than read in one sitting, Lord Harries brings a thoughtful appreciation to his subjects.
All bar two of the authors are dead. This volume to me cries out for a successor (maybe it has already been commissioned) that will move from modern to contemporary writers, where the influence of faith has further receded in Western civilisation and yet still finds those who wrestle with the great themes of faith in their own context by story or poetry. Maybe Benjamin Zephaniah, Margaret Atwood or J.K.Rowling, Regent’s alumnus Michael Symonds Roberts, or perhaps the late Dennis Potter would be candidates. Contemporary songwriters might also be thought worthy of inclusion in such a volume, or maybe deserve one by themselves – although probably not by Lord Harries.
Stephen Copson is a regional minister with the Central Baptist Association