Christmas present books for your Christian friend – 2
One or two more ideas…
The Blood of the Martyrs by Naomi Mitchison.(Canongate Classics)
Naomi Mitchison was a socialist and feminist, and not a Christian. She wrote historical novels, largely set in the ancient world, of which the most famous is “The Corn King and the Spring Queen.” In 1939 (consider that date) she wrote a novel about the persecution of the early church under Nero.
The book concentrates on one little “house church”, and on the introduction to it of an exiled British prince. Beric’s parents were defeated by the Romans, but he has been brought up kindly by a Roman senator, who doesn’t know that the criminal infection of Christianity has taken root in his house. The strange ways of the Christians are introduced to us through Beric’s eyes, once a nasty shock has shown him his lack of actual status and security. Although there are roles (largely sympathetic) in the novel for St Luke and St Paul, the theology is not what most of us would call “sound”. Jesus is revered and worshipped, but his resurrection is not emphasised, and the aim of the Christians is to bring the Kingdom to this world, rather than waiting for the next. It is arguably a religion of ethics.
But what ethics. The slaves and poor freedmen and -women live at the whim – kind, callous or cruel – of the powerful. They have nothing except their kindness for each other, and their determination to live the Way of forgiveness and love if it kills them. This means rescuing a criminal left to die, and then (“regretfully, but it had to be done”) giving him your only spare sandals, a home, and a job. It means being beaten for your faith, and then mocked by your colleagues, and then risking more beating by creeping around the house to comfort the other Christians. It may well mean cheerfully dying a gruesome death, not in order to win heaven, but simply to witness to the new way of living, a way that surely everyone will want when they understand it.
This is the book to read when you want to be spurred into loving other people, and taking the demands of your faith seriously. I have recommended it to several people, and none of them like it as much as I do! It is sometimes called “simplistic”, perhaps comparing it with Mitchison’s other works (although the plain prose style is typical of her.)
I dare say it may be simplistic. Arguably, so is the Sermon on the Mount.
I was initially planning to move on to plugging The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis (Collins). However my friend Clint has eloquently and emphatically done this for me in the Comment section. It is of course true that provided one remembers that it is possible to disagree with him, one can’t go wrong with CS Lewis.
(THANK YOU FOR YOUR COMMENT. It is always good to see words coming back out of the void!)
But anyway, having been forced to rethink quickly, I shall briefly mention two books.
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden (Pan) is a lengthy novel describing life in a house (monastery not convent) of enclosed nuns during the middle of the twentieth century. The vividly-characterised nuns are seen largely through the eyes of a former civil servant who joins the community in her fifties, after a successful career and a private tragedy. The Vatican Council (leading to Mass in English!) occurs towards the end. It has its implausibilities, but it is a moving novel based in a world alien to most of us, successfully conveying the power of a life devoted to prayer, worship and the community life.
Finally, a shorter and darker, but very entertaining tale. The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (Penguin) is less famous than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but has a more obviously Christian theme – why did the immoral and free-thinking Nicholas Farringdon become a Catholic and ultimately a missionary-martyr? What is his connection with the assorted young women who lived in a London hostel, “long ago, in 1945, [when] all the nice people were poor”?
The opening paragraphs are some of my favourites in literature. (“All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.”) A curious thing about Muriel Spark is that her unique prose style is infectious – I find myself thinking in Sparkese after reading her. This is a novel partly about unobtrusive evil, but also camaraderie, making the best of a drab life, and the changing times at the end of the war.
Any more suggestions, anyone? What books would you like to see under your tree?
Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Blogger