I’d be curious to know what everyone’s been reading since March. I made a decision quite early on not to buy any new books during lockdown. Unable to browse local bookshops (at least without recourse to breaking and entering), I decided to forgo the alternative. Mr Bezos must’ve done quite well enough in lockdown without my helping.
Instead, I’ve forced myself to work through a Manhattan of books I’ve bought over the years, the purchase of which I’ve immediately regretted, or simply haven’t found time to read. It’s been… eclectic, shall we say. I dread to think what you’d make of my choices. And let’s be honest, you would judge me. We do judge each other on the books we come across when surreptitiously scanning shelves. I was having just this conversation with a friend the other day who expressed shock and deep concern when I admitted to loving Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. ‘Where do you draw the line,’ he asked, ‘Terry Pratchett?’
I’ve never read Terry Pratchett so I couldn’t answer, but I think I know what my friend is implying. As a genre, fantasy is a bit male, a bit silly, a bit disquieting in an adult reader. But it needn’t be.
The kingdom of God is a fantasy. (What did he just say?) No, please, let me explain…
He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it?’Luke 13:20
I’ll give you a picture of a real Kingdom: a King (and it seems pretty much always to be a man) leaves his white palace under guard. He makes laws and pronouncements, issues orders. Streets are cleared for him by his guards, his helicopters circle overhead. Those who don’t like the King are kettled and cleared from his path with tear gas and batons. The King stands in the middle of his city, surrounded by his troops and raises a holy book which he takes to be a symbol of power and authority. His power and authority. This, more or less, is what a Kingdom looks like.
Not a mustard seed, or yeast, or a pearl or a fishing net. We shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which Jesus sees his parables of the kingdom as funny. His disciples knew all too well the Trumpian definition of ‘Kingdom’; they had Herod, after all, and Rome. To hear of a kingdom that’s like a seed, or yeast or a fishing net is peculiar, fantastical, and funny.
But if I say the kingdom of God is a joke or a fantasy, do I mean it’s like Oz or Narnia or Middle Earth or Westeros in the Game of Thrones books? Precisely not. Fantasy is a vital part of how we come to understand reality, how we come to terms with reality (or how we refuse those terms), and how we recognise the call to change reality.
Stanley Cavell (1926-2018) is a rare thing: a likeable philosopher. One of the most appealing of contemporary thinkers, Cavell is a joy to read. A champion of what’s called Ordinary Language Philosophy, Cavell’s work is peppered with references to the fiction and films he enjoys. He has this to say about fantasy:
It is a poor idea of fantasy which takes it to be a world apart from reality, a world clearly showing its unreality. Fantasy is precisely what reality can be confused with. It is through fantasy that our conviction of the worth of reality is established; to forgo our fantasies would be to forgo our touch with the world.Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed
To say the kingdom of God is a fantasy is absolutely not to say it’s a fiction, or ‘apart from reality’. Quite the reverse. It’s to say, instead, that it requires us rigorously and prophetically to engage our imaginations, to hold the reality of our world with its tear gas and tyrants up to scrutiny and to say: it could be different. With God’s grace, we want more and more to confuse the kingdom of God with this world. Until there’s no discernible difference, and the confusion is complete. No border between the kingdom of heaven and here and now.
See, I am making all things new.Revelation 21:5
Above all, Jesus’ parables of the kingdom are calls to imagine. What is tiny now will be vast, capacious; what is mixed invisibly through us will rise around us and lift us; what was hidden will be revealed; what this kingdom is will require us to reimagine our world entirely, from scratch. The kingdom of God is an overturning; it’s not just another world: it is this world’s other.
As calls on us to imagine, Jesus’ parables are visionary, and radical. And they are anathema to the king in his palace who can call out his troops, enact his laws, press his buttons; but who can imagine nothing. He is executive but he cannot afford to be imaginative. And he cannot afford you to be imaginative either.
Jesus’ kingdom of God is a fantasy in the truest, deepest sense: a powerfully subversive call to turn away from a trick and towards the Truth. If it sounds like a joke – ask yourself why.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,Isaiah 11:6-9
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
God bless you all.
Edgar Bainton’s anthem And I saw a new heaven was published in 1928 during the composer’s last few years in England before he emigrated to Australia as director of the New South Wales Conservatory. His work has been almost completely neglected since his death in 1956. But this soaring anthem remains popular. Bainton’s particular brilliancy, I think, lay in his careful and sensitive approach to texts. His closest collaborations were with poets and librettists. The son of a congregational minister, Bainton’s understanding of and reverence for scripture lends his liturgical music a sympathy and profundity. Here the text is Revelation 21, and Bainton intuitively captures Cavell’s point about blending and confusing: God dwelling with his people:
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.Revelation 21:3 (KJV)
your kingdom is hidden, yet always available,
sudden, yet always present, among us and always beyond us,
given and endlessly withheld.
Afford us the grace to imagine a day when the earth will be full
of the knowledge of the Lord, your Son, our Saviour
who came to open the Kingdom to all and to reveal a new reality:
a holy mountain, a heavenly city,
for the old things will pass away, and all things be made new.
Make us new, Lord, in the Name of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.