To my immense joy, two of my former pupils bought me a book by Eugene Peterson entitled ‘The Pastor’ as a leaving present. (In fairness, I was inundated with presents which was truly very touching, with pupils, staff and parents being incredibly generous and very thoughtful in the things they bought. I’m awkward to buy for since I don’t eat chocolates and don’t much like wine, either, the staple diet for teachers’ presents!) In the book, which describes his life as a pastor, Peterson describes his childhood and how each of life’s experiences became a training ground for his adult calling. He talks about his mother’s influence on him as she taught him Bible stories and songs and how that taught him ‘the way we learn something is more influential than the something that we learn. No content comes into our lives free-floating: it is always embedded in a form of some kind. For the basic and integrative realities of God and faith, the forms must also be basic and integrative. If they are not, the truths themselves will be peripheral and unassimilated.” (Eugene Peterson, ‘The Pastor’, P 33)
Story and song… the staple ‘forms’ in which Bible truths are assimilated. I am a huge fan of the power of story. I have always loved reading and am an avid fiction fan. Stories were one of the primary methods that Jesus used to teach Biblical truth. The parables were not deep theological studies; they were stories which used everyday happenings to illustrate a deeper truth. Stories engage our imaginations and help us to enter into both familiar and unfamiliar worlds. We immerse ourselves in emotions, events and experiences when we read fiction which opens up the world and allows us to participate in something far bigger than anything we could experience on our own. “A good novelist enables us to feel someone else’s life and care about it,” Neil Hudson said.
As one of my other leaving presents, I received some vouchers to spend at W.H. Smith’s and I eagerly bought a number of books there. One of these books was ‘Just One Evil Act’ by Elizabeth George, an author I really admire because she writes detective fiction which is actually far more about life choices and character than it is simply about crime. Her novels are elegantly written, delving into a number of worlds (the lead detective is from the English aristocracy, his detective sergeant is from a much lower social class and is hopelessly inept when it comes to fashion or love, her neighbour draws us into the world of Islam and microbiology and key friends draw us into the world of forensic science, photography and the agonies of childlessness), with intricately plotted storylines and a whole host of believable characters. The real reason I love this series, however, is because the novels are about much more than the crimes. They dig deep into the human heart, looking at questions of motivation, what drives us to act as we do, and they explore both the duplicity of the heart and the way justice and mercy live side by side in the real world.
In this latest novel, the key theme is how ‘just one evil act’ leads to many others; how action always begins with a simple choice, but how that choice rarely seems simple to us. Sir Walter Scott wrote ‘oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive’ and this theme of mixed motivation – often good motivation – leading to wrong choices and therefore to evil actions is superbly explored through the storyline. The book begins with a quotation from ‘The Merchant of Venice’:
“The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt
But, season’d with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?”
I was reminded very much of the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-27 TNIV) as I read the novel. Here, one moment of lustful thought led David to one sinful act, but that act then led to many other sinful acts: first of all, the actual adultery, but then the manipulation of both Bathsheba and Uriah (and Joab, to some extent) and the conniving to murder. Perhaps we should not be surprised that it took a simple story from Nathan to pierce David’s heart, for he apparently had no trouble living with himself despite his sinful choices. It was only when an innocent, innocuous story pierced through his complacency that he came to see his actions as God saw them and could therefore be led to repentance.
The novel shows us that every choice matters. There is no such thing as a choice made in a moral vacuum, for we do not live in a moral vacuum. Once more, the plot is not the whole story and it is this potential to keep digging into character, motivation and language which keeps me fascinated by story.
(Now just don’t get me started on song…!)