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A Prelude to Ditchkins?,
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This review is from: God's Funeral (Paperback)
A.N. Wilson started training as a priest but realised before his time at St Stephen's House was done, that Anglican priesthood was not for him. A graduate in English of New College Oxford (where he taught for a while despite only getting a 2nd), he speaks with a very posh accent but writes easily consumable prose for the non-specialist reader nonetheless. The style is occasionally clunky and cliched but a passionate interest in his subject is beyond doubt.
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.
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Initial post: 1 Jul 2013, 11:40:05 BST
[Deleted by the author on 6 Aug 2014, 20:17:22 BST]
Posted on 6 Aug 2014, 20:14:53 BST
<Arnold's 'tide of faith' is an unhappy trope>
There is a tide in the affairs of men? Wilson is way too literal, and uncharacteristically snarky without cause in this case
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