Edinburgh International Book Festival
New York Times Main Theatre, Charlotte Square
13:30 (14 August only)
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5 stars)
This was, as I had hoped and expected, yet another deeply challenging and thought-provoking hour in the company of Richard Holloway at the Book Festival this year as he talked to us about the stories we tell ourselves and questioned whether they are ones we should be holding on to or letting go of.
James Runcie had introduced the session by remarking that with the loss of so many ecclesiastical spaces, we are also losing the spaces in which debate and the exchange of ideas can take place, leaving us without places in which to be challenged and to learn. Book festivals, he suggested, are among the secular spaces which replace the sacred ones, and Edinburgh’s has the particular function of being a conscience prodding us to examine our thoughts, actions and reactions.
We tell ourselves stories to try to make sense of the world in which we live, to try to grasp the mysteries of existence, of suffering, of death: what do we do when the stories can’t help us understand the incredible cruelties of which humans are capable to each other and in particular to the weak and helpless? What do we do when the stories contradict each other? Do we live with the contradiction, or get rid of the inconvenient story?
I loved Richard’s description of the historically male-dominated religious certainties which were promulgated as “mansplaining”: a man explaining to a woman ‘something she can’t possibly understand’ – which is both condescending and clueless – as men try to find an explanation for everything, instead of accepting that there is room for mystery, for uncertainty, and some things don’t necessarily have a logical explanation, and that’s okay. The need for certainty leads people to think that the story they tell themselves is the truth, and that anyone else’s story which differs in any way from this is wrong and untrue, rather than realising that they too are simply telling a story. Poets and artists depict reality, he said: it’s philosophers and scientists who try to explain everything and persist in saying that they have found the truth.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with telling stories to make sense of life – it’s what those stories make you do that is important. As soon as one starts saying that my story is right and you have to believe it or terrible things will happen to you, you get things like the Holocaust, the persecution of Irish Catholics in Scotland at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, the current mistreatment of the Windrush generation, and all the other situations we are seeing all around the globe as people believe it’s okay to do harm to people who look just a little bit different, or do things differently or think differently from me.
So much of religion – of Christian religion at least – has operated in this way, controlling people by imposing one story that excludes all other stories. Men took to mansplaining, a hierarchy and civil service grew up, and Jesus’ original subversive ‘world turned upside down’ idea became Establishment and persecution and the antithesis of the lovingkindness he preached.
There is another way to tell the story, says Richard, and he quoted from the gospel of Thomas, one of the writings of the early followers of Jesus that didn’t make it into the Christian new testament. It tells people not to sit around waiting for the apocalypse – the wonderful new world of peace and justice which Jesus told them would come: that’s not how it will come. It’s already here and people simply don’t see it! [Remarkably like the message preached by George Fox and the early Quakers, really!]
The same is true today – we need to stop sitting around waiting for pie in the sky when we die but join the underground resistance movement and work with courage and compassion against injustice. That movement may never win, but it will never be defeated if we join in with love and laughter and withstand cruelty. This is the story Richard Holloway tries to live by – just think how different our world could be if more people joined him!
There was a lot more that was fascinating and inspiring in this hour of talk, conversation with James Runcie and answers to questions from the floor. Richard’s ultimate message is hold your belief – as long as it doesn’t make you cruel and LIVE your story, believe it – but don’t make me believe it. Amen to that!