A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I first became aware of Stephen Cottrell as a writer (rather than as the Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford) late last year, when I reviewed his Advent book, Walking Backwards to Christmas, for The Tablet. Walking Backwards is a stunning book: a collection of short, punchy narratives around the Nativity, from the prophetess Anna in the temple all the way back to Moses and the burning bush. It is always compelling, often disturbing and sometimes, intensely, distressing. (“For there is another child,” says Rachel, whose baby boy lies cradled in the hands of a murderous soldier. “And I have heard of this other child. He is danger and threat to my child. … A new king born in Bethlehem, just as the prophets had said. And Herod’s pride erupted. His anger kindled. And when he cries little children die in the streets.”)
The book troubled me to such an extent that I go around recommending it to everyone. I can do that because it is quite simply a beautiful piece of art. It takes some skill to tell such an old story and make it shocking. You don’t need faith to appreciate that. But for those who do have faith…well, if the events around the Nativity aren’t troubling in a whole range of ways, if it’s all cotton-wool sheep and small children with wonky wings, isn’t something missing?
So when Lent came round — and I tend to need help with Lent, as I inevitably do it very badly — it was only natural to reach for Cottrell’s earlier book, The Nail. The shape of the thing is roughly the same: a set of first-person accounts from different perspectives, this time about the Crucifixion. But the feel is quite different.
The Nail was over twenty years in the forging. It began life in 1987 as an experimental Good Friday group meditation and was performed in improvised form in a variety of settings down the years. It was only in 2008 that Cottrell wrote any of it down. The result is something much more open-ended and loose than the tight and polished stories of Walking Backwards, with a Gospel passage and a psalm at the beginning of each story and a specially composed prayer at the end. Once all the stories are told (seven in all: Peter, the Roman centurion, Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, Mary Magdalene and Pilate’s wife), we have something like a homily from Cottrell about the meaning of the Passion. Finally, there’s a set of instructions for those who want to make use of the book in their own parish. Participation is clearly implied. Walking Backwards compels; The Nail invites.
Accordingly, I find myself reading it differently. I finished Walking Backwards in one sitting and the effect was rather like a blunt object to the head. I knew I’d been hit, but it took a little time to work out exactly how and why. This is a far more peaceful process, and I suspect my reading is more or less in line with the author’s intentions. I think about the passages and make use of the prayers; I read the story and try to inhabit the speaker’s perspective myself. Then I put the book down for a while and pick it up when I feel like working on it again.
It’s a curious reversal, actually. The Advent book showed me another side of a story I had always found comfortable — rather too comfortable. The Lent book gives me a degree of intellectual and emotional distance from a story I find viscerally upsetting, and allows me to approach it. There’s no wild rhetoric in the narratives of The Nail, perhaps because the events under discussion make it unnecessary. There’s no great poetry — the psalms provide that. What we see in these narratives is people explaining themselves, defending themselves, laying out their part in the story as they might in court. The reader sits in the congregation and tries to understand.
So I don’t go around recommending this one to non-religious friends. It’s about praxis. Unless you subscribe to the basic theology at the back of it, it won’t be a meaningful exercise; because that’s what it really is, a set of exercises. But if you do subscribe to that theology, and you’re looking for something special to do in Lent (or at any other time, really), this just might be it.
SPCK, 128 pp., ISBN 9780281071470