God's Funeral Paperback – 2 Mar 2000
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Wilson's rare combination of extraordinary scholarship with an almost pathological sense of mischief makes him the most entertaining writer we have (MAIL ON SUNDAY)
Excellent...Wilson has so clear a grasp of opposing principles and personalities that he is able effortlessly to make them live again (Peter Ackroyd The Times)
Wilson's extraordinary arc of knowledge and astonishing range of reading enables him to work highly effectively...his narrative is a model of scholarship and restraint (Anthony Howard Suday Times)
An illuminating analysis of Victorian religious doubt (DAILY TELEGRAPH)
An impressive sweep...Wilson asks us virtually to relive the ebbing of faith as it afflicted our ancestors (John Casey Evening Standard)
* An original and engaging analysis of the decline of religion in the nineteenth century.See all Product description
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So I was just a bit disappointed with God's Funeral. He deals with difficult theological and philosophical issues, ones that I dwell on daily, so I was a highly motivated reader. Yet he left me little wiser in general terms. I would have liked a whole section on 'definitions' - that would have been a great help but he, for me, he still needed to write less like a theologian and more like a human being struggling with the big issues. It was the case through most of the book but particularly so in the penultimate chapter on William James which I eventually skipped. But then, in the last chapter, the magic worked. We were bang on the same wavelength and all was worthwhile.
Yet most of the book was devoted to the lives of the nineteenth century philosophers and here he was as enjoyable as ever. As has become evident since this book was published, this century is Wilson's forte. This is where he revelled and I relished.
Could this be the forerunner of more recent and popular books on related themes such as The God Delusion of Richard Dawkins, or God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens? Yes, but this book is not as hostile to religion as the famous atheists. Wilson retains a whimsical love of Christianity despite realising that none of its central dogmas can possibly be true. So, from the common Anglican perspective of solemn disbelief in orthodox dogma, Wilson enjoys exploring how thinkers, and especially 19th C literary ones, started to question Christianity.
Wilson is especially fond of Hardy and Tennyson but pours scorn on the third rate poetasting of Matthew Arnold. This is perhaps a good thing as Arnold's 'Dover Beach', somehow still a favourite in anthologies, has probably been taken too seriously in recent times. For instance, while telling us that love in a determined and material universe is without meaning and is clearly an illusion, Arnold also apostrophises it:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light.
And, as Wilson reminds us albeit in a somewhat heavy-handed manner, Arnold's 'tide of faith' is an unhappy trope. If, as Arnold seems to be saying, science has forced faith into an irreversible retreat, tides turn.
But, unmindful of Wilson's reminders in 1999 that this poem is not really worth taking too seriously, Ian McEwan introduces it in the harrowing climactic scene of his 2005 novel about a neurosurgeon, A scene of working class violence morphs into a middle class poetry reading in a neurosurgeon's front room. Saturday, in which a chap with a psychotic condition shows up at the surgeon's London home and is prevented from committing atrocities to the surgeon's daughter by - by what? - by a poetry reading. Surely not that? Yes. And, even more astonishing, the poem which calms the savage mind of the would-be maniac is none other than Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach'. The almost assailant is soothed by the poem. He finds it 'beautiful'. What's going on?
Now Wilson and McEwan might seem superficially similar in their attitudes towards religion. Like Hitchens and Dawkins, both writers may be associated (for a certain time at least in Wilson's more wavering case) with the flourishing genre of atheism literature around the time of the 1999 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York by religious fundamentalists. However, Wilson's book predates that terrible event and also McEwan's novel. And while McEwan implies that 'Dover Beach is a poem not only of beauty but of transcendent truth and extraordinary insight, Wilson suggests that it's a bit silly. And while Wilson's close-reading of poetry is not always of the subtlest or profound, it should be praised for suggesting - especially in its last chapters- that the 'tide of faith' may, in ways Arnold does not perhaps intend, operate in a cycle and not in a line. And it is for this reason that God's Funeral presents more complex and more convincing picture than the similarly popularist but monolithically anti-religious writings of Dawkins and Hitchens.
This more or less is the theme from which A. N. Wilson weaves a fabric from many individual Victorian intellectual lives. It is a theme, or some variant thereof, with which many of us in the 21st century can readily identify with. Indeed the surprising thing is how little things have moved on.
The material from which this fabric is woven is diverse, colourful and enlightening. I most readily identify with those such as William Kingdon Clifford and 'his sense that it [Christianity] was not merely mistaken but wicked, evil,....'. But the real joy in the book is the variety - such as the Catholic Modernists, Thomas Hardy or Thomas Carlyle. I was particularly struck by the tragedy of Herbert Spencer who epitomized an optimistic Victorian style of atheism, yet whose life and philosophy at the end was shown to be vacuous. I was personally struck by how Karl Marx was carousing in the Manchester on the profits off the backs of its slum dwellers - a generation or two before my ancestors were dying off from pthysis in those same slums.
This is a broad and rich book - one I shall certainly be rereading once I am a little better read than I am now.