Ink and Spirit
Literature and Spirituality

  • Title: Ink and Spirit. Literature and Spirituality
  • Authors: Ronald Blythe, Penelope Lively, Richard Marsh, David Scott and A.N. Wilson
  • Introduced and Edited by: Stephen Platten
  • Publisher: Canterbury Press
  • Reviewer: M A Sherif

    This slim volume of five essays is a reminder of the serious side to cool Britannia. All is not Big Brother, Damien Hirst and the Body Zone. 'Ink and Spirit' is reflection on the relationship between the world of literature - prose and poetry - and the Church's religious traditions. There are references to Islam in the contribution from a well-known scourge of the Anglican establishment - A. N. Wilson - but it is a double-edged complement, presented more in bitterness and sorrow at the failure of the Church rather than with a sense of renaissance and affirmation.

    In her essay, Penelope Lively, a Booker prize and Carnegie Medal winner who was born in Egypt, observes that "as we all know the novel as a fictional form was born in the eighteenth century". Moreover, the hallmark of serious fiction in her view is the: "using fiction as a means of exploring and developing personal preoccupations, of trying to provide explanations and interpretations of human conduct, and to reflect upon the human condition". Her examples are the "majestic discussion of the nature of evil by Dosteyevsky or William Golding". These remarks at first glance suggest a very euro-centric view of the world of literature. However it is quite difficult to point to Muslims exercising their imagination and creativity through the medium of the novel - one could discount the Arabian Nights as fables rather than serious fiction. Tariq Ali may be an exception for his so-called Islamic quartet (so far Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, The Book of Saladin, and The Stone Woman have been published) but he too is commercially driven and cannot resist weaving in the salacious tale - for example illicit love in Saladin's 'harem'. Tariq Ali cannot be considered a Muslim novelist because he remains at heart a left-wing ideologue. His sympathies were firmly with the Serbs in Kosovo during the NATO bombing, and he denies religion: "To look for solutions in Christianity or, for that matter, any other religion is both foolish and short-sighted, for as the good Victorian, John Stuart Mill once wrote, 'no belief which is contrary to the truth can be really useful...' ", see Tariq Ali's review of Leo McKinstry's 'Turning the Tide',

    A.N Wilson believes that there is something in the Muslim intellectual psyche that has closed the door to novel-writing. "Islam, the only viable religion of the future, has other excellent things to give to the human race - these have included mathematics, and many good jokes. But there is no tradition of great Islamic novels. That is why Rushdie is a boring novelist and Proust so eternally fascinating. The novel - the great expression of the idea that there here are different persons, millions of them, flitting about the planet being different from one another - derives directly from the Christian fiction of a soul." This is a challenge that needs to be taken up by Muslim intellectuals. A. N. Wilson was raised as an Anglican, aspired to be a priest till he was in his late-twenties, then converted briefly to Roman Catholicism. He cannot accept the miracle of the virgin birth, and has written biographies of Jesus and Paul - he believes the latter was the inventor of Christianity.

    His essay in 'Ink and Spirit' has this observation on the future of religion in an age of materialism:

    "When all the mythologies of religion have been discarded and when all the false theories of Christianity have been exposed by patient and honest scholars, men and women of a reflective turn of mind will still remain convinced that there is underlying the universe a deep moral purpose. Lose this sense of seriousness and life becomes ultimately unendurable….there is a religion that satisfies this deep human need for a moral code without a mythology. It is not Christianity. As the third millennium of Christ's supposed Incarnation begins, fewer and fewer practising Christians really believe that God is three and God is one.

    What would be the point of trying to persuade themselves or others of the truth of statements that are quite meaningless? They go to church to continue to express their membership of particular communities of faith, not because they really believe as their ancestors believed. Even the Pope has told us lately that the stories of heaven and hell are just picture-language. Of course but it would have been a help if the popes of history had said that before exploiting the lives of millions of hapless, simple people with their threats of hell and their blackmailing hint that unbaptized babies were forever in limbo separated from their mothers. In a different vigorous tradition there is no need to trim and change the tradition in this manner. The mullahs and imams of Islam preach the same undiluted message which was first given to the world by the Holy Prophet in the sixth and seventh centuries. While the West tries to dub the followers of Islam fundamentalist lunatics, increasing numbers of men and women turn to the Koran and find in this book what a sizeable proportion of the human race has always craved: a moral and an intellectual acknowledgement of the lordship of God without the encumbrance of Christian mythological baggage in which almost no one really believes. That is why Christianity will decline in the next millennium, and the religious hunger of the human heart will be answered by the Crescent, not by the Cross".

    'Ink and Spirit' is worth reading not just for A.N. Wilson's essay (extracts including the above have appeared in The Guardian 25 November 2000) but for the fine writing of the other contributors. The book is based on a series of lectures jointly sponsored by Norwich Cathedral and the University of East Anglia. It illustrates the continuing class-divide in Britain: in the past there was the aristocratic landed gentry and the rest - the plebes. Today there is an intellectual elite who engage in spirited and stimulating debate with each other, while the majority make-do with 'dumbed down' child-like programmes on TV and radio. As ever, the class divides are so entrenched, that one could spend one's whole life in one or other camp, without realising that there is another world beyond.