"For Jesus was a storyteller too…" A Festival Sermon by Francesca Kay

A sermon given by our guest speaker, novelist Francesca Kay, on the 16th October 2016

For Jesus was a storyteller too…

As the service booklet says, I am going to talk about Jesus and the art of fiction.  But before I say anything else, I should like to make it clear that by claiming Jesus for the company of story-tellers, I am neither being reductive about the purpose and the power of his parables, nor ascribing a divine capacity to any earthly writer. Even Shakespeare wasn’t a god. But when Adrian very kindly invited me to talk to you this morning – an invitation that I must admit to finding rather daunting as it included the words sermon and preach – I could only imagine that he did so because I am a story-teller. Certainly, I have no other claim on your attention. I’m not a theologian or a scholar; I’m a novelist. Therefore, I began to wonder what a novelist could possibly hope to say that might have any consequence at all in the context of this beautiful church and the service this morning. And it seemed to me that there was something – if only in a very minor key – about the effect of fiction.  Something that connects the novelist’s craft – which includes the telling of stories – to ways of thinking about spiritual and existential questions.

We have just listened to the opening of the Gospel of St John. How extraordinary those words are – how familiar, how beautiful, how absolutely strange. We hear them read at Easter, and at Christmas as the culmination of the Nine Lessons, in churches, colleges and schools, we quite possibly know them off by heart. And yet, can anybody parse them, successfully subject them to close textual analysis, define exactly what they mean?

In the beginning was the Word. Logos. Why word? This is not the time, and I am not the person, to go into the multitudinous doctrinal and philological discussions of the term. Logos. Both the inward thought and the outward form in which the inward thought is spoken.  But then, flesh. That is easier to comprehend, on one level at least. Incarnate. Living flesh, warm and vulnerable, prey to hurt and damage. A beating heart, lungsful of breath. “Thou hast bound bones & veins in me, fastened me flesh”, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in The Wreck of the Deutschland. He was writing of a human creature formed by God. But the incarnate Word, which was once a tiny, helpless baby, was also bone and vein and brain and blood.

In the Burrell collection in Glasgow, there’s a small wooden cradle that contains a doll-like figure of an infant. It’s exquisite, intricately carved and gilded, made in the Netherlands in the early C15th, probably for a nun. Child dolls as aids to devotion were common throughout Europe; prayer manuals instructed their owners to care for them as if they were the Christ child himself: “Gaze on his face with devotion and reverently kiss him and delight in him.” Seen from a modern perspective, that childless woman in her cell nursing a wooden doll might seem pathetic. But I don’t think she would have seen herself as an object of pathos at all. That doll wasn’t a substitute for a real baby, it was a means to identify with and intensely to imagine the humanity of god. In other words, it was there to inspire both awe and pathos.  Pathos – something that evokes a sense of pity, from the Greek words for suffering and grief. At one end of the Burrell crib, the Virgin Mary is shown sorrowing over the body of the dead Christ; a stark reminder of that infant’s inevitable end.  In becoming flesh, the Word was bound to die. Images of the dead Christ, the suffering Christ, were aids to prayer too. Christ’s passion.

To return to the word pathos for a word for a moment, and its derivatives: sympathy and empathy – feeling with and for another. Recent neurological studies have suggested that reading literary fiction – as opposed to other kinds – makes people more empathic, it expands their circles of sympathy. (This is a theory which writers of literary fiction are usually happy to endorse!) Stephen Pinker, the cognitive scientist, describes an experiment which included an interview with a heroin addict who the listeners had been told was either a real person or an actor.  When the listeners were asked to take the addict’s point of view, they became more sympathetic to addicts in general, even when they believed the speaker was fictitious. In part that is because the addict in the experiment was individuated. Here is George Eliot: “Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity”.  We know that to be true. The photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the two-year-old whose body was found washed up on a Turkish beach just over a year ago, did more to change attitudes to migrants – at least for a little while –    than hundreds of photograph of nameless and undifferentiated people.  Individuated reality is often more powerful than art – the listeners to that addict were even more sympathetic  when they believed her to be real – but art can sneak up on us, catch at the heartstrings and break through the walls that we, inundated as we are by images of actual suffering,  erect around ourselves.  Eliot again: “… a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”  

So, to return also to suffering and grief. It’s the age-old question, the theodicean question, the question that resounds through the millennia and is asked again and again, often in tones of anguish: if God is good, why is there so much suffering in this world?  

It’s a question that will continue to be asked forever, because it cannot have a conclusive answer, even though many profound and holy thinkers have worked towards supplying one.

I wrote a novel, The Translation of the Bones, in which that question was asked. Please don’t think that I was arrogant or stupid enough to imagine that I had found an answer.  No, all that I was doing was trying to find a way to explore this central question of human experience. “Why?” a character in the novel asks, and an old priest replies that if he knew the answer, he’d be a saint for sure. “That cry – your cry – goes up to heaven every single second of each day. And has done since the dawn of time, and will do until doomsday.”

The novel is centred round a parish church in Battersea, in the two weeks before Easter – Passiontide, in other words.  One of the protagonists is a youngish priest, Fr Diamond, rather cerebral, rather lonely, who is struggling with aspects of his faith.

“Once, he would have held on to the promise of Easter as a traveller on a winter’s night might fix his gaze on a lamp burning in a distant window, the light promised to an exile on return. The glory and the triumph of the Resurrection would have shone out like a fire on which his Lenten sacrifices would be burned, together with the petty deprivations, the insults, the disappointments, the trials of the flesh of forty days. All these would be last year’s ashes, consumed by the conquering flame. But this year he could feel no sense of hope. The whole of life seemed as thin and dull as his Lenten diet: black coffee, unbuttered toast, pieces of fish that he unhatched from plastic casings, like mutant embryos entangled in their cauls.”

It’s not the divine that he is struggling with, as much as the human factor.  Before he was a priest he was a mathematician; logic and pure reasoning appeal to him.  He knows that nothing human is foreign to God: “The sores of lepers, the stumps of amputees – God saw them, loved them and would not hesitate to stroke them with His hands. When Lazarus stumbled out into the daylight from the darkness of his tomb, putrid and stinking to high heaven, having lain for four days dead, Jesus clasped him to His breast. But it was all very well for God. And for those saints on earth who tended suppurating wounds and wiped the black froth from the mouths of the plague-ridden without flinching. Such mortals had the protection of their certain faith. Human though they were, they were also touched by the divine. For ordinary men and women it was natural to shrink away from the impure. Homo sum, and for that very reason I am nauseated by decaying flesh.”

Another character is Felix, ten years old, beloved younger son of Stella. And Felix dies, a death beside an altar that has deliberate connotations of sacrifice. Actually, he dies saving the life of another child. There is no consolation in his death, especially not for Stella. “The funeral of a child is a funeral of hope, Father Diamond thinks. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower, a woodland flower in a world of dew.”  (There are echoes here of our first reading: “all people are like grass…”)

No consolation then, but that it is not to say it has no purpose. The other child lives. And Fr Diamond, witness to the death, necessarily connected by it to several other people, is somehow brought closer to an understanding of the human; he is made compassionate, you could say.  Passion – from the Latin word for suffering – as pathos is from the Greek.  The child’s death has stripped the self-protective coverings from his soul.  

Am I trying to say that another person’s grief can make its witness kinder and more loving? Perhaps. The Word was made flesh, and that flesh died an agonising death upon a cross.  If one can think of Logos as a call to reason, pathos is a call to feeling.  If seeing or reading of other people’s experience arouses compassion in the widest sense – that is, feeling with, fellow-feeling, feeling for the fragile, the innocent, the broken-winged and the easily bruised – might that help towards the faintest glimmer of understanding why the Word became flesh and dwelt among us? Perhaps, perhaps….

And finally, why on earth did I write about such things in the form of fiction? In doing so, I raised quite a lot of hackles. “We don’t do God”, the political spin doctor famously said, and that equally applies to most of the literati.  “You do not need to share the belief of Kay’s characters, to be deeply affected by their stories”, critics reassured their readers.  Which is perhaps the point.  Writing about faith wasn’t exactly a sound commercial move but so what? Sometimes writers need to talk about the things that matter.  God matters. Talking about God is really difficult – how can a human being find words for the unnameable, the immanent, the things which passeth all understanding?  We can only hope to do so through the use of metaphor.  We can’t say what God is, we can only say what God might be like – as if, as if. Fiction, poetry, scripture all depend on metaphor. Jesus was a story-teller too. Parables are metaphors. So indeed is language. In the beginning was the metaphor. And out of the darkness that did not comprehend it, the Word himself spoke metaphorically: I am the light of the world, I am the way, the truth and the life.


Francesca Kay