Truth and a story to die for

Telling the Story
December 12, 1997

Andrew Walker is concerned with telling two stories. One is the Christian gospel, "the one short tale we feel to be true". The other is the story of how that tale itself was first created and handed on, then lost and forgotten, and now is to be recovered.

Readers familiar with the author and his "gospel and culture" circle will anticipate the assault in part one on both the Enlightenment and "the timidity of the modern Churches" that too easily caved in to its untested presuppositions: Kant's division of physics from metaphysics was disastrous for the Christian story, since it cut off the historical Jesus from the eternal Son of God, and in consequence "the whole mythical and epic dimensions of the story were lost".

To these philosophical woes, Walker adds sociological ones. The invention of printing may have helped the gospel by putting Bibles into the hands of ploughboys, but it also did it great harm: it destroyed the "oral" culture in which the story had thrived, and with it an essential community life, and it began the privatising of religion. He sees the dawning of the electronic age as another ambiguous shift: it will not herald a return to the middle ages, but, by enhancing images and spoken words at the expense of printed text, it may recover some characteristics of the pre-literary cultures that bore and nurtured the Christian story.

The second half of the book turns to the transition from modernity to postmodernity. Here Walker admits to a difficulty. By abandoning the Enlightenment metanarrative, postmodernists have opened the way for Christians to return with their story to their pre-Kantian homeland. But what it gives with one hand the postmodern world takes away with the other, for it will allow no privileged discourses, no absolute truth claims. And for Walker it is essential the Christian story should be proclaimed as true throughout the world.

This turns out to be the crux of the book, though I suspect unintentionally. Suddenly the author is no longer securely attacking external targets but seems to have come up against a question challenging his own faith: what does it mean to say that the Christian story is "true"? All his religious instincts lead him to oppose both the rationalism of the modernists and the postmodern formula, "our story is true only for us". Yet each appears to hold the only decisive argument against the other. He returns to the dilemma in his epilogue, "A story to die for", which comes over as a desperate and moving attempt to do justice to his conflicting insights.

First he asserts that no one in their right mind would die for the Christian story unless it were true, but at once adds that Christianity's truth need not "demonise other world religions" and certainly does not entail fundamentalism. (This eliminates two possible interpretations of "Christianity is true".) Then he writes: "To talk of truth is to come clean and admit to its givenness - the belief in revelation over and against the whispers of reason." That seems more decisive, but is largely negated by the immediate admission that Christians come to believe in the truth of the gospel on a variety of grounds, including intellectual ones. Then comes his definitive statement on the matter: "To say that the gospel is 'the one short tale we feel to be true' is another way of talking about something to which we will commit ourselves ... something - or to be more exact, someone - for whom we would be prepared to die." We have come full circle: we are willing die for it only if it is true; the test of its truth is our willingness to die for it. He then identifies this commitment as a response to the call to take up our cross, which "is more than a pious invitation to selflessness or ego loss: it is an appeal to our idealism, our best nature, our love for all human kind".

These last words are unexpectedly reminiscent of some I have written myself, which in turn owe much to Don Cupitt. And curiously, he is the one person the author singles out for criticism in his epilogue, asserting that "no one would die for one of Don Cupitt's stories". This illustrates how theological divisions are much less clear-cut than we tend to think, and it is the chief lesson I have learned from Telling the Story. Walker may find it a dubious compliment, but having opened his book aware of a vague hostility to its author, I closed it feeling very close to him in spirit.

The Rev Anthony Freeman is managing editor, The Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Telling the Story: Gospel, Mission and Culture

Author - Andrew Walker
ISBN - 0 281 04726 X
Publisher - SPCK
Price - £14.99
Pages - 239

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