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About this episode:
We live in a post-Christian culture. Secularists have welcomed the fading of the West’s Christian identity, but what is it being replaced with?
In this live conversation, social commentator Douglas Murray will share his own story of losing faith, while longing for the Christian story to be true. Tom Wright will engage Murray on whether Christianity still makes best sense of the world in a post-Christian age, and how we should address the growing meaning and identity crisis in the West.
NT (Tom) Wright is senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall at the University of Oxford and one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars. He is the author of numerous books including ‘Broken Signposts: How Christianity makes sense of the world’.
Douglas Murray is associate editor of The Spectator magazine and a leading political commentator. He is the author of books including ‘The Madness of Crowds: Gender, race and identity’ and has described himself as a ‘Christian atheist’.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: Atheism or Christianity? Which makes best sense of who we are?
- Episode 2: God, AI and the future of humanity: Is technology the key to immortality?
- Episode 4: The fine tuning of the Universe: Was the cosmos made for us?
- Episode 5: The Origins of Life: Do we need a new theory for how life began?
- Episode 6: Judaism and Christianity: How do we recover the Jewishness of Jesus?
JB: Justin Brierley
NT: NT Wright
DM: Douglas Murray
JB: Well hello, and welcome along to a very special edition of The Big Conversation from Unbelievable? I’m Justin Brierley and I’m excited to bring you a conversation this evening between NT Wright and Douglas Murray.
The Big Conversation is a video discussion series from Unbelievable brought to you by Premier in partnership with the John Templeton Foundation. Now we would love to know what you make of tonight’s conversation. So if you can please do click through to the survey link in the info with the video today. And we’ll make sure to release the thoughts you’ve had on that in a future show. For more updates, bonus content and more Big Conversation shows, do make sure to sign up at thebigconversation.show. We’ve got some wonderful conversations already in this third season of the show. And if you want to continue the conversation, why not join us this weekend at our online Unbelievable? conference. It’s Saturday, the 15th of May, and one of our guests NT Wright will be speaking and dialoguing actually with other guests including historian Tom Holland. You can find out more at unbelievable.live All the links that I’ve mentioned in the video info with today’s show.
And today on the programme. We’re talking about identity, myth and miracles and asking, can we find a story to live by in a post-Christian world? We do live in a post-Christian culture and many secularists have welcomed the fading of the West Christian identity. But the question is, what is it being replaced by? And how should we address what many believe is a growing meaning and identity crisis in the west? We’re going to be asking, ‘Can Christianity still make sense of the modern world’ and to help us do that NT Wright is a senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall at the University of Oxford. He’s the former Bishop of Durham, and the author of numerous books, including his latest Broken Signposts: How Christianity Makes Sense of the World. Our other guest is Douglas Murray, he’s Associate Editor of the Spectator magazine, and author of books including The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity.
And during the course of the conversation, we’re going to be making time for your questions as well. So we’ll have some of those towards the end of today’s show. If you’ve got a question, whether you’re watching via our YouTube channel, or on one of the many Facebook pages who were sharing tonight’s video, then do feel free to put a question in the chat, in the comments. And we’ve got a team who are going to be looking out for those and sending them through. And we hope to be able to ask as many of those as we can towards the end of the programme today.
Well, thank you so much, Douglas, and Tom, for joining me on the show today. I think this is the first time we’ve had you both together for a conversation now I’m sure you’re aware of each other a little. Douglas, have you bumped into Tom’s work before before coming on the show tonight?
DM: I certainly have and read parts of it over the years. And as you have recently been reading the recommendation of many people, his excellent biography of Paul, which I’ve been immersed in. So yes, very much so.
JB: Fantastic. And Tom, you actually have both sort of had a little bit of a to and fro in the pages of the Spectator actually, in as much as I know that you recently responded to a an article by Douglas?
NT: Yes, yes. I’ve read Douglas in the Spectator frequently. And I’ve now read his book, The Madness of Crowds as well with great enjoyment and a rather scary interest because it’s quite a dystopian vision. But the article in the Spectator did to me what articles sometimes do, which made me pace around the house for half a day thinking, I really have to write something about this, thinking you haven’t got time, don’t do it. And eventually, the worm in my head turned into rather quick prose. I was thinking of an article, but it turned into a letter, but I hope it was stimulating anyway.
JB: Well, I certainly did find it stimulating, and we’ll maybe come to that issue in a moment’s time. But before we get to that, Douglas, how are you? How have you been coping with with the past COVID year how have things been?
DM: Like everyone you know, it’s a bleak time in lots of ways and has has things that are salvageable in it. I’ve had far more time to read than I normally do. I’ve very much enjoyed that. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of thinking a lot of writing. I said at the beginning of the pandemic, and in a way, those of us who are writers rather well set up for it. To be a writer is to be able to deal with solitude and that indeed you must have solitude so we’re rather practiced at it but nevertheless, I’m nothing can prepare you for something as strange as the era we’ve been through and I suppose not meaning to leap straight in. But I do think that certainly my readings back over history and plagues in history seem to bear out one of the things I feel at the moment which is that they have a disorientating effect on the civilizations across which they they roam. All sorts of strange things come out of the woodwork; strange beliefs, strange fears, things you didn’t know were there. And I think that’s very much the case, in our society and across the world in the last year as much as it has been in history.
NT: And as Justin, Justin knows, I wrote a little book last year called God and the Pandemic. The publishers put a subtitle something like ‘the Coronavirus and its aftermath’ hoping that the pandemic would be over in a month or two, but that the book would still sell. And now it’s a bit well, we’re still waiting for the aftermath, a year later. But that was really in response precisely to what Douglas has just said that, particularly in America, but also in other parts of the world, the sudden arrival of this pandemic and all that it’s meant, has produced all sorts of apocalyptic speculations. And is this a sign of the end of the world? And or ‘Does this mean that God is punishing us for some specific wrongdoing?’ or whatever. And it came as a shock to many people, that there have been pandemics and plagues and so on, over history, reasonably frequently. And it’s just that in the last century, we in the West have been protected from major disease like this. So we were kind of unprepared, I see it as like a sort of wartime conditions, in that everything is different, and we just have to get through it. And when we look back, there will be all sorts of things where we say, ‘Ah, what a pity that had to happen’, or this, this came about, or whatever. So I think there’s a lot of navigation and negotiation still to be done.
JB: It does present an interesting context within which to be having today’s conversation, we’re asking, Can we find a story to live by in a post-Christian world? And I wonder if we could start with your own story, Douglas. For those who perhaps haven’t come across you before or don’t know this particular aspect of your life? You did make claim to a faith yourself at one time. So tell us a little bit about that. And what what happened along the way?
DM: Well, I have not like most people from Britain, I’m not that comfortable about speaking about myself. I know, we live in an era where everyone volunteers up their personal story first, I tend to always wanted to last if at all. Yes, I mean, it’s not a it’s not a secret that having been said, I was born and brought up a Christian, a believing Christian for most of my life, including through my adult life. And I’m now in, I suppose the self confessedly conflicted, complex situation of being, among other things a uncomfortable agnostic, who recognises the values and the virtues that the Christian faith has brought.
I think I sort of laid out how I think our civilization, our culture has got to the stage that it is at the moment, and its current uncomfortable relationship with faith. I tried to lay that out in the strange death of Europe. I still believe what I wrote there was it was accurate as a diagnosis of the era. But it’s, it’s and it’s a very uncomfortable, as I say, position that somebody is in because I say, you know, there has been a period of rejection of faith, particularly from what in our lifetimes has been known as the new atheist movement, which made claims that were self confessedly wrong. That, for instance, I think he’s a late friend of both Tom Wrights and mine, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said, you know that the claim that, for instance, morality was obvious was obviously wrong. The claim that basic ethics that were that we might share are self evident, is self evidently not the case. We don’t have to be an ethicist to know that, you just need to travel. You need to read, look, and listen to know that’s the case. So there has in my view, I think we spoke about this before, Justin that there has, in my view been an interesting mood in recent years, which I think Tom Holland, you mentioned earlier, it’s certainly an example of. People saying actually, if we go back and look at this, what we have and what we like does have roots in this, in the Christian story. Now that the following question from there, I suppose, is, what do we do about it? And I think that a great, great failing of our time has been the tendency to talk past each other on this. The religious tend to say, well, it’s easy, you just have to believe if you if you recognise these virtues and values then believe and doesn’t take into account the fact that for very many people today it is harder than that, for all sorts of reasons we could go into.
But I would just make one other observation which is even outside of faith. I have an added discomfort which is the discomfort of a non-believer who is disappointed by the behaviour of the believing church. Now many people think that’s paradoxical, but it isn’t at all. I not only was brought up in but but afterwards sought the church as it was, as it has been in England, and it’s jewels and gems of King James Bible, Book of Common Prayer, and much more. It’s been my experience as it has been for many other people brought up in recent decades and last century and more that one has observed the church giving up its jewels and becoming something else. And actually, that irritation I feel from the outside albeit from the outside at the moment. That irritation I feel about the church hasn’t gone away, even whilst being outside it, a fear, it comes back to that article that provoked. Tom Wright’s, excellent letter. My fear is, constantly the church is not doing what so many of us on the outside would like it to do; which is to be preaching its Gospel, to be asserting its truths and its claims. And so when one sees it, falling into all of the latest tropes, one just thinks, well, that’s another thing gone, it’s just like absolutely everything else in the in the era, everything in this boring monotone, ill-thought out and shallow, dialectic. And I. So as I say, I’m disappointed non-adherent.
JB: I don’t know if Tom you can help it anyway, here. But what I mean, perhaps you could, firstly, some thoughts on what Douglas has shared there about his own his own journey, but also obviously, his disappointment in a way as what he sees the church has become today
NT: Yes I very much understand that. I remember the late great Bishop Stephen Neal, who I knew maybe 30 years ago, he died at a great age around then, saying that every time he went to a modern Anglican service, he came away with this deep sense of loss, because he had grown up like Douglas with King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer, and just felt that the contemporary liturgies just didn’t cut it. And I get that too, I grew up similarly, with very traditional words, etc.
I suppose for me, that still remains, I have been able, in many contexts to go on using traditional liturgies as well as modern ones. But for me, the essence of it isn’t so much the words and the culture and so on. And obviously, that’s a very English, British, actually English thing, the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. And I’ve been privileged to know Christians from many, many different backgrounds, many different parts of the world. And particularly when I was Bishop of Durham, I was able to see we had what 250 parishes in the diocese very wide range from traditional to modern, to this to that. But I was able to see the church at work, the church being the church on the street, the church being the one group to whom the local council could turn to find out what on earth was going on that terrible sinker stage, or whatever it was. And to see the church actually caring for people, being the family, for the family-less, etc. Not all churches do that. But that gave me this wonderful sense that all the theory that I as a theologian knew ought to be happening was happening on the street in some of the places that never hit the news, and never the newspapers and never get quoted on the radio or whatever. But there are many, many, many ordinary Christians not that there are ordinary Christians, but you know what I mean. Who are simply doing Christianity at ground level. And that’s the thing that is so exciting. And I think when you see that you look across at the new atheists, and it’s rather like people who like Douglas and me love classical music, and overhearing a conversation between people who are tone deaf, you just think, well, it’s a great shame for you that you don’t get it. Because actually, this world of music is so rich and amazing. And that’s how I feel about the new atheists. It’s, it’s too bad.
And yes, there are arguments, but actually, the arguments aren’t necessarily the crucial thing. What matters is something else, which many, many people still have, and we talk about post-Christian Britain or Europe, but actually, there are many new Christian movements, confusing, often, and often getting muddled and so on, as we all do, but there’s a great deal to be encouraged by as well as, as Douglas knows I share his frustration when it appears that the church is simply jumping on the latest trendy bandwagon. I mean, one quick example and then I’ll shut up. About 10 years ago when the debate on women bishops has really getting going. David Cameron in the House of Commons said rather disdainfully about the Church of England. “Yes, it’s time they got on with it, they should get with the programme.” And I wrote a cross article to The Times to say, “No, we are, I hope going to have women bishops, not because it’s the programme that our society is moving in some sort of spurious progressive idea, but because right from the beginning, the first person who Jesus told to go and tell other people that He’d been raised from the dead, was a woman, that the foundation of the Apostolic ministry comes with Mary Magdalene, on the day, on Easter Day. And from there, it’s all downhill. And so I totally agree the church shouldn’t just be jumping on the agenda, it should be exploring more what is in its own textbook.
JB: Just before we get to that that Spectator article that Tom responded to, Douglas, just staying with the new atheism for a moment, because in a sense, arguably, that has been part of the story of how we have, you know, ended up in a in a in an increasingly post-Christian West. But, I know that you were friends with one of the great new atheist Christopher Hitchens. So did you disagree with him? When you were, you know, having lunch as friends and that sort of thing? What was your relationship with the new atheist? Did you outgrow them? I don’t know.
DM: I think I’m friends with all of them, some still. I remember, I, clearly I knew, Christopher, around the time that I started to lose my own faith. And I had been asked actually it was at the Spectator. We always have a Christmas sort of poll of writers, politicians and others and asked him a question that year, it must be about 2008 that year, the question was, “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” And I think it was the last time, I said, certainly in print and maybe the first too I said, ‘Yes, of course’. And I remember I saw Christopher in Washington, a little while later, we’d known each other for some years, he’d reviewed a number of my books. And he raised this over drink in his apartment, he said, I saw your answer in the Spectator. Thinking, oh, gosh, he said he could have knocked me over with a feather. And he said something like, I didn’t know you were that way. You know, it was very shocked, very very shocked. We agreed not to discuss it at the following lunch.
Yes, I mean, I’ve, I’ve spent my life surrounded by people who have strong opinions, and that includes very religious people of many faiths and, many secularists and atheists. I think there has been, I just alluded to earlier, there’s been, I think, a fruitful dialogue in recent years, actually, on this. I would just throw one thing in, if I may, which is that one of the things Tom just said, leads to something I find very interesting, which is a retreat that can happen in faith, from faithful assertions, ethical claims and much more into effectively a social action group. Now, I know that’s not what you were referring to. But I’m very interested in the way that this has happened. I’ve seen it in America, I’ve seen it in Jewish communities a lot as well. There’s actually a term I would I would muck it up if I tried to do it in Hebrew now. But there’s a there’s a, there’s a term for effectively, ‘the doing of good works’. And you can see some effectively basically, non believing, or no longer believing, sort of Jewish communities falling into this say, Well, actually, our Judaism will be doing good works, doing charity and soup kitchens and, and much more. And I find that very interesting. I find it noble and much more, but I don’t think of it as religion. I don’t see it as as that.
NT: But that is the problem with our word religion and religious isn’t it? That the modern, as in post 18th century view of religion, is precisely something that is divorced from the rest of ordinary life. And that’s been reinforced by I think, an over or misinterpretation of the idea of justification by faith, apart from works as though Okay, if we believe in faith and that sort of religion, you shouldn’t be bothered about all that other stuff at all. Whereas in the New Testament, it’s very clear, Paul says on two or three occasions, if you’re in this game, be zealous for good works, and he doesn’t mean moral good works to earn your salvation or anything like that. It’s that from the very start, the church was designed to be an outward facing, what’s going on in this community and how can we help, kind of movement and they found that that was shocking to many people because there weren’t too many other people in the ancient world who lived like that. Who were looking out for the poor, not only their own poor but other people’s as well.
Paul says, while we have time do good to all people, especially those the household of faith. But there’s a sense that following from Jesus Himself, there is that agenda that we are about God’s plan to put the world, right. And we’re not, we can’t do it all ourselves, because it’s a much bigger thing than that. But we can be people who are bringing about signs of God’s restorative justice in the world. And of course, from the outside that can look like just people running soup kitchens. Well, I’d rather people ran soup kitchens than didn’t run soup kitchens, and I’m sure Douglas will agree. But it’s actually about a vision of the whole of life. And if we think if, that’s why I worried about this word, religion and religious, it didn’t mean in the first century, what it means now either. So I would rather talk about God, the Creator, and God, the reconciler and Redeemer of creation, focused, of course, on Jesus, but with then the followers of Jesus commissioned to do those things which say to the world, ‘there is a different way to be human, and following Jesus is the key to it’.
DM: You’re slightly unusual or becoming slightly unusual in this regard, in that you’re a theologian, a bishop, and a very prominent face in the faith, who does say these things. And this seems to me to be uncommon at the moment, and I, that what one hears from prominent bishops, archbishops, even, is an attempt to slip into the the rhetoric of the era, and indeed, slip into the ethics and the ethical claims of the error without making those foundational assertions that as I say, I think that many people are hungry for.
JB: Is this where the the issue of the article, let’s go to that and you know, name the elephant in the room. But you, Douglas published an article which was highly critical of the Church of England’s current approach to anti-racism and so on, Tom and feeling that they were essentially bowing to a certain woke ideology, essentially and not sort of doing what they should do as the church. So what was your response to that? And and how much truth is there in Douglass’s concerns about the direction
NT: Right, having since read Douglas’s book, The Madness of Crowds, I see more clearly than I did at the time, where the energy for Douglas’s article was coming from because clearly, Douglas has mapped out in as I said, before, rather disturbing way. The large movements often rooted in various forms of early 20th century Marxism connected with Foucault and people like that, that have then generated some of these great movements. And then to see the church getting on board with that you think, hang on what’s going on? My initial response was, this is actually a problem that Jesus Himself faced. He says, at one point, that the kingdom of God is breaking in violently, but the men of violence are trying to get in on the act. In other words, there were other people saying it’s time for the kingdom of God, at the same time, as Jesus was, did that mean that Jesus should give up talking about the kingdom of God? No, it meant he had to go on explaining what he reckoned it did mean, as opposed to what the other people were saying. And so there is bound to be a confusing convergence between a genuine Jesus-following desire to see for instance, social justice. It’s written right across the New Testament, that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female, that God made all humans of a single stock, and so on. This this is basic and how that got forgotten in the last few hundred years is a shameful story in the Western church. So that the I think the church needs to reclaim what was always part of its heritage of view of the renewal of the whole human race and a new sort of family in which identity, that’s one of our strap lines for tonight. Identity…[lost connection]
JB: We’ve had a little pause on Tom’s video there, hoping it’ll come back in just a moments time, we are live on our live stream tonight. But the point being that the Tom was making there Douglas that we are looking, you know, the Bible has always had in Christianity, specifically this idea of an identity. Sorry I think Tom’s back,Tom Joyner finish your point, you just got interrupted by the internet for a moment.
NT: Sorry, I wasn’t sure where we were we broke off.
JB: It was just you were saying that in the Bible it’s always been about the neither Jew nor Greek, male or female. Slave nor free, one identity.
NT: And about the points from Acts 17, where Paul says on the Areopagus, hey, God made all people from the same stuff, from the same stock, we belong together. And rather than, of course, then we get into the trap, which Douglas has written about as well, of the modern idea that we’re all identical, including there being no difference between male and female, etc, versus the postmodern idea, which collapses into dozens of different competing identities, each trying to claim the high ground of the victim, etc, etc. And again, I think that Douglas and I are on the same page on this one.
But then my point would be that the church in being true to itself, and not simply relying on contemporary, rather shallow, ethical Maxim’s, but being true to its original gospel, actually has the makings of doing what at its best some of the woke ideologies are seeking to do, which is a genuine passion for justice. And forget the fact that the Marxists have come in on the act. Of course they have, because if the church misses out half of its agenda, it shouldn’t be surprised if other people come rushing in from the side to fill it in. So that’s where the issue I think, has to lie. But I was grateful for what Douglas said, because seems to me if an elderly theologian has anything to offer to the world, it may be the reminder of some of the deeper richer stuff which is out there, which is in the Bible, for goodness sake, and which can refresh and renew a vision of what we all should be about.
JB: Go ahead, Douglas.
DM: Yes, I think this is very important. It gets to another point, I’ve written about a fair amount in recent years, which is I think, you know, Justin I think maybe when we spoke before we spoke about this. Sometimes people claim that the sort of public ethics of the time are sort of non existent it is not quite true they’re, they’re trying to dig down in quite a forceful way at the moment, what I was writing about in that article was just one example of that.
But as I think I said, you when we spoke before, what I think of as being the most striking failure of the time, is the failure to embed any ethic that does not rely on the Christian ethic, in regards to the equality of everyone in the eyes of God. Our age, is struggling very badly, with an attempt to replace that ethic or find another way to do it. And there are various ways in which it’s tried to do that; human rights ideology is one way, fairly developed, but I think not successful. And another is effectively the landing on equity as the answer, when it can’t be the answer. But I see what I see what people are struggling to do, which is to try to maintain and hold on to this exceptionally important gift of the Christian inheritance. Without the idea of equality in the eyes of God, and the value of every individual in the eyes of God, you are left with these attempts to assert that for instance, every one is the same. Or can be and it’s clear that we can’t be and that we aren’t, that’s one of the great things if you take if you take away the worry about the the loss of the foundation, then it’s fine. We can live with it.
NT: I very much see Douglas’s point, from where I sit, the only way really to get this sorted is to use a trite phrase to go back to Jesus, because in the Jesus of the Gospels, as opposed to the Jesus of popular, much popular imagination, you find a rigorous re-inhabiting of the entire Jewish tradition, and a redirection of this vision of what would it look like if God was in charge? That’s the question of the kingdom of God. Just supposing God was in charge? How would it look? Well, it might look like a man who had two sons and one did this and one did that, what it might look like and then he heals somebody in the crowd, whatever it is, it’s a renewal of human beings, not in order to be identikit, oh we’re all equal now, but in order to be certainly equally valued, and equally, though uniquely in themselves part of an ongoing programme that God has launched, not human beings at this point. And so when I then come forward into the 20th and 21st centuries with that, I find myself saying; When I was young, we watched traditional morality go out of the window, it was sex in the 60s, it was money in the 80s. You know, we don’t need to obey the old rules. We’re going to do it differently. We’re the modern world now. And then what’s happened is the invention of, and I think Douglas and I agree on this, the invention of Neo moralisms, which is what the woke ideology is really all about. And it reminds me sometimes of, I think it was Caligula, the Roman Emperor, or it might have been Nero, I’m getting this wrong, it’s late at night. Who put new laws up so high that nobody could read them, and then blamed or punished people for not obeying these new laws that he’d just invented? And that’s, that’s very much what’s going on at the moment. It’s, you know, society can’t live without morality. But if you’ve banished all the older moralities, you’ve got to invent some more from the ground up. And we’re doing this on a very, very basic, very flimsy basis it seem
DM: It also goes back to what you what you mentioned, the David Cameron comment, which is; what exactly is the project? Because there’s an added cruelty isn’t there to as it were, writing the laws in a place where they cannot be read, there’s an added cruelty, if you haven’t even finished writing them yet. And you tell people to get with them?
NT: Quite quite.
DM: One of the questions underneath, our era is what exactly are the laws? What are the rules here? The Christian ethic has a set of rules. It’s, they can be debated around endlessly as everyone 00:41:19 knows, but there are foundations to them you cannot deny, They’re not wholly abstract.
00:41:28 Interruption and unclear what is said
NT: The Christian morality, it seems to me is to do with the goodness of creation, but the need for recreation for redemption, and recreation, but a recreation, which doesn’t say, forget the old ways, we’ll do it totally differently. I mean, which is what we’ve got in a lot of society at the moment. So just don’t worry about what everyone used to think we’re going to do it totally differently, we’re going to change the meaning of words, as well as as well as the meaning of behaviour, but rather to say no, and try seeing the world from the perspective of a good and wise creator, who is revealed in a thousand ways, whether it’s music, or beauty, or whatever it is, as well as the structures of reality. But this world is out of joint, and the great Jewish vision. And again, I knew and I’m grieving about Jonathan Sacks, bless him, he saw this so clearly, the great Jewish vision of God’s passion for the world, to restore the world, and the vocation of the people of God to be somehow modelling that, and showing it forth and saying, this is a self-evidently good way to be human. And so it isn’t just thinking through ethical theory, it’s about how the community actually lives. And for me, again, this is all about following and worshipping Jesus. And I know that’s that was folly to the Greeks and scandalous to the Jews in the first century and it still is today. But if you put that as the coping stone in the middle, everything else will actually fall in place.
JB: Well coming back to you then Douglas, given that you to some extent, you’re both in agreement on the fact that to lose the Christian story, and the moral underpinnings that it’s given culture leaves everyone scrambling to kind of essentially invent their own morality, and everyone gets very confused and angry with each other in the process. I mean, where do we go from here? I suppose is the question. And is there a way back even, to you know, what now, is the genies sort of out of the bottle, though? Isn’t it? I mean, can we go back to that, once Christian age where apparently everyone was more or less agreed on things?
DM: Yes, I say that in the Strange Death of Europe, you can’t, you can’t wish things you know, and wish them unknown, or wish them unlearned. And this is something I think is very important in all dialogue between believers and non believers. I just wanted to say, I wouldn’t like it to be, anyone to take away from this that, but I simply think that the church has a PR problem. It isn’t just that I think that the presentation is wrong, or there’s a mistake in for instance, falling into the religion of anti-racism or anything else.
It’s that I do believe that doing that means that the church fails to tell its own story. We had an article in the Spectator I think last week from my friend, former Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, he made a very powerful point about the figures in the church, for instance, who were profoundly anti-slavery. And not just, you know, Wilberforce, Charlemagne, and others who, you know, Saints in the seventh century, Christian saints in the seventh century, who were martyred and objected to the slavery in their own time? There is what I’m trying to say is that it’s not just it was a PR misunderstanding, it seems to me within the church, and it’s missing a trick. It is that this is not a fair summary of the Christian story. It isn’t a fair summary of the story of the church. And what it is, is the adoption of a facile, and profoundly hostile analysis of the church, which sees the church, for instance, as being a white enterprise when it clearly isn’t.
I’ve, like Tom Wright, seen congregations across the world, I’ve been at services throughout the Middle East, across Africa, beleaguered communities sometimes. Show absolutely extraordinary and inspiring levels of faith. And I don’t recognise the negative interpretation of the church, which I see from some people trying to force a different ethic on the church today. But as I say, it’s not just in the history of the church, but in the story that the church has to tell about itself today that I think that there is an error being made. Because, for instance, to go back to something which Tom Wright, knows I wrote, wrote about it, in the madness of crowds, if you look at the great error of the ideology, which is trying to embed today, it is that it has spent no time bothering itself over the question of forgiveness. Now, it’s not just that I think that the church is missing a PR trick in not addressing this. I think that the church does everybody in society, the most enormous disservice if it doesn’t say, “This is what our faith is built upon. We have been thinking about this and trying to practice it at least for millennia. So at least give us your ear for a moment.”
NT: That’s, that’s really important. I was talking to a good friend, just this morning on email, who has been writing a short article about woke-ness. and he wanted me to comment, and I said, the one thing you need to point out is that all the woke morality is simply about you guys are wrong, and you guys are wrong, and you’re full of hate, and you’re this and you’re that, and there is no sense that if you repent, we’ll forgive you. You just have to grovel. And it’s a morality of, I hate to use the word Pharisaism, because actually, that’s a slur on the first century Pharisees, but that’s what in the popular discourse, it’s about. It’s about we’ve got this right. And we’re making up new laws as we go along, as Douglas has said, and you lot are wrong, and you’re staying wrong. And we’re glad you’re wrong. And we’re going to rub your noses in the dirt. And it seems to me that’s rather like certain revolutions, I mean, revolutions that eat their own children, where somebody I mean, the French Revolution, notoriously ended up decapitating quite a lot of people who had been among the leaders of the early movement. And
JB: It strikes me that in everything you’ve said, there, that in a sense, though just even if we are in a quote, unquote, ‘post-Christian world’, we’re not in a less-religious world in the sense that these ideologies become quite religious, but not in a very grace-filled kind of religion. And you’ve spoken about that yourself, Douglas, that there’s that kind of aspect to the way people then grasp certain identities and certain causes and ideologies. And that becomes their sort of, their identity, their religion. And and I suppose this is the problem, isn’t it? We are meaning seeking story driven creatures. And if it’s not going to be the story of Christianity, it’s going to be another story. And the question is, can we live together with these very different stories, which often bump up against each other?
DM: Yes. Okay. I think this is this is true, I’ve often thought I’d hesitate to say this in front of such a distinguished theologian, but I’ve often thought that one of the interesting points about what Jesus teaches is that much of it, as Tom right well knows, much of it you can find in some of the contemporary Greek thought, some of the thought is around the Roman world. But nothing, nothing prepares for the demand to love your enemy. It seems to be so completely revolutionary, and so completely counterintuitive, that it has, and I think we recognise I think we recognise in our era as well, with awe when we see this being practised. That’s why I come back to is that it’s not just missing, missing a trick, it’s missing an opportunity to display your faith. When people see actual forgiveness, it is, I think, among the most humbling, most moving things you can ever witness as a human being.
There is an example a couple of years ago when at a church in South America there was a very unusual, but appalling crime when a young, white, crazed white supremacist of some kind of walked into a church and shot some of the worshippers. And the next day there was an interview with, it a black congregation, and the next day, there was an interview with one of the families and the mother of somebody, who’d just lost her son, said that she forgave the killer of her son.
I thought this a couple of years ago, I was doing a tour with someone who became a friend; Cornel West, Professor Cornel West of Harvard, who, by his own definition is a revolutionary, Christian socialist. So we have a lot to disagree about. I was very struck Cornell always refers to people as Brother. brother, this brother that some people think it’s an annoying tick of his, I rather like it. But I was actually bowled over one day when he referred to this shooting. And he said, that brother who went into that church and shot up that congregation. And I was so, so moved, and so amazed that, that he would refer even to this person who had done this unforgivable thing by any analysis, an unforgivable thing, would still refer to this man as his brother. And it seems to me this is an example of living and displaying a Christian ethic, which, if it was just seen a bit more, would have a profound impression in the world.
NT: I totally agree with Douglas there. And again, I want to stress that the problem with that is that you can’t just do it by you and me saying, and anyone else who’s listening, by the way, you should be going out and getting on with it, though we all should. And it is difficult, but yes. But it can only ultimately become instantiated in the community and in the settled habits of somebody’s life, when you have at the heart of the faith, the story of Jesus going to the cross to defeat the powers of evil. Because without that, then forgiveness is a lovely idea for other people to practice, but too hard for me as it were. But if Jesus has actually dealt with evil in his death, whatever that means, and you have to have lots of discussions about how that plays out, of course, then who am I to go on actually holding it against this person or that person. And that’s why forgiveness then has as its positive side, reconciliation.
Forgiveness shouldn’t just leave you with, as it were a zero bank balance it ought then to open the way for reconciliation. That’s, of course, what Archbishop Desmond Tutu has done so spectacularly and I know South Africa is still a very difficult and dangerous place. But when I was young, we were all talking about the coming bloodbath in South Africa. And the fact that there wasn’t a bloodbath, and that there was a peaceful transition of power was largely due to the fact that Tutu, and a lot of others, were going and praying with leading politicians, reading the Bible with them. And then when the transition happened, having that amazing commission of truth, and reconciliation, with white thugs and black thugs, confessing their sins, seeking reconciliation. That should still be sending a shockwave around the world, both in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East, heaven help us what’s going on at the moment, and so on, and so on.
This is the only way to live, ultimately, but you can only even glimpse a chance of doing it if you’ve got Jesus himself in the middle. I’m sorry to sound like a cracked record. But perhaps you would expect a theologian to always come back to Jesus.
DM: But if it comes back to the point, it’s the most important thing to do as a theologian and as a Christian, and it is, as I say, it is an enormous relief to hear it.
JB: I mean, you say it’s an enormous relief there Douglas. In a sense for you, obviously, you came to the point where you couldn’t believe that this story was literally true, but you miss it. You even described yourself as a Christian atheist.
I mean, the culture at large has probably a lot of other Douglas Murray’s out there, people perhaps for whom Christianity has never figured in their life. But if Christianity is the story that did work, and the stories that we’re now telling, aren’t working and putting us out of joint. Can you see any way in which the Christian story, even as a non Christian, could could start to make inroads again. Is it simply about the church standing up again and being a bit more confident?
DM: I’m not sure it’s only its confidence. I’ve said for many years that I see an enormous opportunity for people of faith to be speaking into a perhaps a more receptive crowd than before. I do see that I do think, perhaps rather hackneyed reference to Matthew Arnold. But I do we think that the interesting thing about the sea of faith is there’s no reason why it can’t come back in. Sea doesn’t only withdraw. You know, it’s a point of tides.
But for that to happen, what would be on offer would have to be radically different from everything else in the society that’s on offer. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been very interested, I can’t remember if we talked about this with Justin before, I’ve been very interested in recent years watching contemporaries of mine who have seen through, looked at, stared at, the same some of the same problems that I have, and have come to conclusions of their own in a religious sense.
I’ve been very struck, for instance by, not a large number of people, a relatively small number of people, but people I think of as being very intelligent, thinking people, who have, for instance, converted to Catholicism. And I see, I can think of one person who’s an Anglican, one person who was born and brought up a Muslim and somebody else I know who was an atheist. And I don’t think this is typical, by any means. I’m not trying to say that. I’m just saying that among people I know who are very thoughtful who have thought about these things and have come from a wide range of different directions. They have they have gone towards that and what has struck me most as they have gone to the most traditional for of that faith. I’m talking about people who’ve gone into Tridentine mass, attending Catholicism. They don’t go to the the weaker forms of it, because they want to drink as directly from the well as they can.
DM: And that seems, that seems to me to be as I say, why it saddens me to put it no stronger. That a religion with this inheritance, with all of this to offer, would offer the most watered down version of itself to the extent that it is a version that is indistinguishable from everything else on offer in society.
NT: Yes, I very much understand that. I think at the same time, there is a sense which is deeply rooted in Jesus Himself, going and eating with sinners, doing things that nobody was expecting a Messiah, a prophet to do, breaking the social taboos in order to be on all fours with the people who really needed him. There was the shock that went through the system with that, but that’s happened again and again, throughout Christian history that Christianity is a missionary religion. And missionaries find that they do their work better when they’re actually on all fours with the people that they’re trying to get to know. Not as it were saying “Here is this amazing, unattainable ideal, and I’m up there somewhere. And maybe you could find your way up if you’re lucky.” Because that’s how it sometimes comes across to people. And so there’s this tension the whole time between that wonderful rich thing, as you say, drinking from the well itself, which of course, for me is what I think both reading the Bible, saying my prayers, going to ordinary worship services. That’s what it’s all about, it’s absolutely central. But there is a to and fro. And again, it’s because of a belief in the goodness of God’s creation, that actually these people out there are created by God. God loves them. And I am called to love them as well and to get alongside them and not, as it would appear to some, hold myself away from them by going to something so recondite that the average mortal would never even have the slightest idea what it was all about. There is, I think that tension is always going to be there.
DM: If I may say so just very quickly on this, and I completely agree. But a very interesting thing that’s happening at the moment is the abstract not getting involved in the nitty gritty of your era, is actually what is happening. mistakenly. We ran a piece, just this week, I don’t want to keep plugging The Spectator. But we ran a piece in the new edition out this week by a very intelligent young clergymen. Talking about just saying the latest. Again, I don’t want to don’t spend the whole time bashing with Church of England. But he said the latest thing this week is an edict on church memorials. And there is going to be an expectation that memorials in churches across England and connected with for instance, the most obvious one is slavery, will have to be reconsidered. And this clergyman just said, and I was so moved by it, he said “I have four churches that I oversee, if I am to spend my time going through this, he said, first of all, no one has ever complained about a memorial, ever to me. So if I’m to spend my time doing this, I will not be able to spend my time ministering to the people in my parishes. It is a straightforward as that as I say. What strikes me is that there is a drive for what is mistakenly thought to be a drive that will satisfy and impress people in the era, when in fact, it will take the church precisely away from its activities. It seems to me an example of a massive misunderstanding of where the church’s priorities ought to be in order to impress the rest of the country.
JB: It’s a fascinating conversation. Time is slipping by so fast, though. And I did promise those who are watching on YouTube and Facebook, some opportunity to ask questions, we had a lot of them coming in, keep them coming. By the way, if you’d like to ask a question, you can do so in the chat on wherever you’re watching on Facebook, or on YouTube. And just before we come to some of these questions, just a reminder that if you’d like to take part in our survey, tell us what you thought of today’s show. You can find the link in the info with today’s video, we’d love you to click through to that. Tell us what you think of today’s programme. You can find more from The Big Conversation by going to thebigconversation.show.
If you sign up, you’ll get updates, bonus content and more videos from this series and previous ones. And if you want to continue the conversation NT Wright one of our guests today, will be speaking at Unbelievable? The Conference this Saturday, the 15th of May. It’s all online, you can attend from anywhere in the world. Unbelievable.live. Our theme is ‘How to Tell the Greatest Story Ever Told’. Very much linked to what we’ve been talking today about how do we rediscover the story that has shaped previous generations? Can that story be told afresh for a new generation? In a world where many people don’t know what their story is anymore. Let’s put this first question to you. First of all, Douglas. And I’ll invite you both to be brief if you can, because there’s a lot of questions we’d like to get through. So maybe just a couple of couple of minutes each on each of these. But Dylan asks “Douglas and NT Wright, agree on the importance of the Christian story. But does it matter if it’s not true?” Douglas, how about you start with this one?
DM: Well, obviously it matters. It matters a huge amount. There is a complex corner, which I’m obviously at, which is whether you can, whether it is possible, and I’m not dogmatic on this question. But whether it is possible to keep what you need without holding on to the idea of it being true. Now, of course, what we mean by true in this context is very complex so let’s just park that for the moment.
I think there is an enormous temptation, which sits, at the moment it’s many people have written about it. I mean, the person I think most clearly is Schopenhauer in the dialoging on religion, who writes in a fascinating way about the possibility that it is where the philosophy for the masses. I think this is a temptation to follow this idea. I also think, obviously, for any believer, it’s a great error, because it’s the whole thing is a form of shadow play. And I think myself that the answer isn’t clear. How could it be perhaps? But the question that I think it was the German Jewish Bokinfoder who put the dilemma out, I first came across this in the writings of Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict, Bokinfoder’s dilemma is can we maintain an ethical and more structure without the roots that gave it birth and many people think that the conclusion is already in on that. And that the answer is no. I don’t know. Because I think that we’re currently living through an attempt of that experiment. It’s like the question of you know exactly where the fire stops and where the heat begins. And when you know, where you’re living in the embers and whether you know whether you can get them going again. It’s exceptionally hard to know because you’re living through it.
NT: You would expect me probably to quote Saint Paul. ‘If the Messiah is not raised, your faith is futile and we are still in our sins”. You know, it’s pretty basic, that there is stuff that happened that was unexpected, that was dramatic, that you couldn’t actually have made up. Anyone 30 years, 60 years later than Jesus wouldn’t have made it up like that we know a lot about the sorts of stories that they lived on. And this kind of breaks the boundaries. That doesn’t in itself mean that it’s true. But it does mean that if you put that in the middle, you can see how everything else makes the sense it makes, around it.
I mean, I just thinking as Douglas was talking, saying, could we have all the benefits as it were, without it being true? It’s rather like saying, all the things that I most value about having been married for nearly 50 years now, supposing my wife didn’t exist, but I could still have a lovely home and well cooked meals, etc, etc. Would that be all right? And the answer is, of course not. Because it’s all about her and being with her and together with her. Christianity is all about Jesus, it isn’t Jesus, so that we can have something else a nice system of how to live. It’s we have Jesus, and because we have Jesus, then all the other things make sense. So if you take Jesus away, and that means Jesus being crucified and raised from the dead, then I’m sorry, it’s just not going to work. Theologians and others have tried to do without the resurrection in the last century. And their systems basically fail, in my view. And the churches that follow those I think, have often proved that point as well. So yeah, nice try no cigar, would be my sense.
JB: But this is the bit where where you end up feeling embarrassed in front of Christopher Hitchens, isn’t it? If if you’re required to believe in these these things like miracles, and specifically the the core miracle at the heart of Christianity. And, you know, well, here’s another question and see what you think of this Douglas, and Sonia asks when it comes to Douglas losing his faith? Was it those intellectual difficulties in miracles, the virgin birth or something else? And I suppose I could ask about the resurrection as well. I mean, Tom obviously feels, if Christianity is ultimately going to be helpful, it’s helpful on the basis that something really happened, that changes the world, changes people, and then works out from there. What’s your take on that if if you’re not really sure that you can go down that resurrection route?
DM: Well, let me just argue something slightly counter to what I just said, but doesn’t completely counter it, but it might compliment it. I remember some years ago, reading a very interesting book by George Steiner, in which he relayed a conversation, he said was one of the most important conversations he had in his life, which was actually in South Africa, which Tom just referred to. I hope I don’t get this wrong. It’s in one of his later books where Steiner says, late one night over dinner, he’s talking with some activists who happen to be black activists, and I suppose it must still be in apartheid time. And one of them says to him ,Steiner, who is obviously Jewish, but you don’t understand we don’t have a book. And Steiner said it was one of the most flooring and distressing things he had ever heard. We don’t have a book that obviously these people were not Christian. But they what they noticed was, they did not have a thing to draw upon in the same way that for instance, Steiner, although he wasn’t exactly a believing Jew, I think he had the Torah. There’s a similar point made by Allan Bloom in one of his books in the 1980s. I can’t remember which one. Where he says, he says, if you if you’re not going to have the Bible, you would need to have a book of equivalent seriousness, to base it all on. And I’ve always thought this is a very important challenge. Because there are books that people might put forward to try to base it on, but they are never of equivalent seriousness. And it’s, it’s actually quite hard to think of a book of equivalent seriousness to the Bible. But I do think this is a challenge. What would you base it all on?
NT: Exactly. And, and it’s fascinating, because AC Grayling, maybe 10 years ago produced that thing called The Good Book, which was his attempt to do a sort of secular Bible, and it fell flat on its face. It was a very, it was a very shallow and rather distressing production. But the Christian the point of the Christian Bible, is yes, it’s a book which does this that and the other it’s a great story. But the Christian Bible, the climax of the story is of course, Jesus. The four gospels bring the story of Israel to an unexpected and very shocking climax. As a result of which all sorts of other things happen. So it isn’t that the Bible is just full of abstract teachings and ethics, etc. And oh, yeah, we’ve got this book, which tells us what to do. It’s a story. And you’re invited to get on board with the story, and to be part of the onward movement that takes it forward from there. And in a sense, the Jewish Bible does the same thing but in a much more wistful way, because it’s telling a story. But the story, sort of well, does it peter out, or is that does it turn into something abstract? That’s a question which Jews wrestle with to this day, but the Christian Bible has that climax on Jesus. And if you take that away, well, it’s a lovely idea but why should we credit it?
JB: Yeah I mean Douglas just coming back on that. And there’s a question that ties into this a bit from Alex, who asks you, “Douglas, would you consider yourself a moral realist?” I suppose the question I want to ask along with that is, do you consider there is a story that we’re supposed to be living by? Is there something that transcends us? Is there a purpose? Is there a morality? Is there a something to which we are beholden? Because in a sense, that idea has gone away in a postmodern world in a new atheist world, you know, life is whatever you make it, there really is no overarching purpose, no meta narrative. Christianity obviously gave people that and continues to give many people that a story, as Tom says, to live into, but we don’t seem to have those kinds of stories anymore.
So where do you find yourself? And are you worried at the lack of this kind of a story now?
DM: Well, I’ve said before, I can’t remember where. We’re clearly, as I think has been mentioned this evening, we’re meaning seeking beings. We are storytelling beings. That having been agreed the question then is; are we just meaning seeking beings? Or are we meaning seeking beings and there’s meaning. Now I happen to fall, incline more to the latter position I don’t know exactly what it is. But my inclination goes that way. And it’s partly because I think, that I don’t want to get too abstract here, but there are things that you can you can read even in non religious texts, which strike you as true.
I was reading Brothers Karamazov recently. And of course, Dostoevsky is seeped in Christian religion. But there are two moments, at least in that book where you gasp because what Dostoevsky is doing, is suddenly taking the story into an entirely other realm. You’ll know if you read it that there’s a moment when you realise that one of the characters believes he is being visited by the devil. And the moment in which he says his brother, “how did you know he visits me?” is unbelievably powerful. It knocked me over when I read it, because Dostoevsky is doing something that seems to me is accurate in our understanding of our lives, which is that we go through them, we act in them as if that is all. And we stumble at strange moments on things that suggests to us that it’s not all.
And this is an intimation I say that I mean, this is why he aesthetics is important to me, it’s my music is important to me, why poetry and art is important to me, because I don’t think it’s doing something just on its own. I think it’s giving us a sign of something. I think that it’s what’s so extraordinarily important about music, is that music tells us something that exists in the language we cannot completely speak. But which we know is inviting us towards something which we understand to be true. I could go on all day about this. But yeah, I could go on all day about this but that’s my short.
JB: It sounds very similar to what you’ve been talking about in your latest book, Broken Signpost Tom that all of these things that speak somehow to our soul are a, as you say, broken signposts towards something beyond them.
NT: Yes, that that the language of beauty, and for me, music particularly, is enormously powerful. And it’s pointing towards something but then the music stops or the sunset fades, or the beautiful friend is killed in a car crash or whatever. And it looks as though then we’re back with Jean Paul Sartre saying life is just a sick joke. And that’s where so much of our culture has been. Yeah, yeah, it was nice stuff, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. And for me, it’s only again, cracked record coming up, it’s only when you put the story of Jesus in the middle of that and discover that Jesus and His crucifixion are the kind of ultimate broken signpost because that’s where we see justice denied, beauty trampled on, freedom, obliterated, et cetera. All those things which were our great dreams, which we have lost are actually true of the story of Jesus going to the cross. And I would urge anyone to re-read the story of Jesus going to the cross, thinking of it like that, not just then this happened, then that happened. But those great things that we love, love, beauty, freedom, spirituality, all of these great ennobling things. They’re all there in that story. And Jesus Himself as God incarnate, comes to the place where our dreams let us down, in order to be there with us and then to do the new creation thing out the other side. That’s a summary of a much more complicated argument, but that’s where it’s going.
DM: By the way so there’s one other points that’s worth throwing out there, which is that, where there is another signpost as it were, which is that it is it is actually exceptionally hard to live as a Nihilist.
NT: A nihilist, yes
DM: It’s a very interesting, nihilism is spoken about a lot. People quite often describe particular ages as being nihilistic. But in fact, it is very rare to come across an actual nihilist. Almost nobody lives in that state. I can think of, in the modern era, I can think of probably only one person who pretty much approximates it, which is Mikhail Welbeck, the French novelist who certainly writes as a nihilist, but even he, you get the sense, and sorry Justin if I’ve said this before, I can’t remember, you get the sense, is not completely capable of living as a nihilist either. If I’m able to give a quick example, there’s an extraordinarily disturbing, sorry I know we said we do two minutes with each question.
JB: That’s fine. It’s fine. Go ahead. Go ahead.
DM: It’s an extraordinary moment, in a book by one of the surviving journalists from the Charlie Hebdo offices, who wrote a book called Disturbance a couple years ago, very, very upsetting book. But he described bumping into Mikhail Welbeck at a party after some time after the massacre. And he recognised him and Mikhail Welbeck had never met him and they’ve both got bodyguards at this party. And Welbeck sees the still very visibly wounded journalist come in and, they stand opposite each other for a moment in this terrible amount of recognition and Mikhail Welbeck quotes, I believe the Gospel of St. Matthew, he says in French to the journalist, he says, “men of violence take it by force”, and then leaves. It suggests to me that in Welbeck’s head it isn’t entirely nihilism either.
NT: That even then, and who knows where that came, from a bit of memory of French Catholicism or whatever. Phrases that did actually give meaning? Yeah, that’s it. That’s the Jesus phrase.
It’s like my favourite novel by the Jewish novelist Chaim Potok is My Name is Asher Lev, where the young rabbinic student who discovers he’s got an amazing gift for painting, which is not something that his rabbinic community wants to know about at all, is trying to find models for the pain of being a Jew in the modern world. And he travels from New York to Europe, and he goes around the galleries, and he comes back and he paints crucifixions. And obviously, there’s a lot of kind of Chagall and so on in the background of that. But part of the grasp of that is a sense of, even in an ultra orthodox community, where the idea of a cross on the corner, outside a church in a street somewhere would mean those are the people who think that we’re God killers, or whatever. So there’s a real fear. Nevertheless, nothing but the crucifixion would do to express what he needed to express. And it’s almost as though it’s now woven in not just to culture, but the way that the human race is, that the very moment when it tries to get away from all that traditional Christianity stuff, the best model with which to do it turns out to be something pretty central to what the Christian gospel is all about.
JB: I’ve got an interesting question here from Carla. We’ll start with you, Tom. As she asked this, specifically, of you. In a postmodern world are you concerned that our use of the word story has a worldview confusion with myth instead of truth? In post modernism, everything is story/myth. Do we need to distinct Christian truth from story/myth. What do you say?
NT: Yeah, this is obviously a much more complicated thing that we’ve got time to address because there’s at least four or five different senses of the word myth, which have been out there. In the popular discourse, it just means a story about something which we know didn’t happen, that’s a very low grade meaning of myth. So we can we can park that. But I would say it’s one of the strengths of post modernity that it has highlighted the ineradicable nature of story within human life. There was a kind of a modernist rationalism, which imagined, you could reduce everything to propositions, and that stories were just kids stuff to entertain the masses, while the real philosophers got on with the hard edge propositions. And I think we now all know, and this is one of the say one of the good things about post modernity, that yes, we live on stories. But the fact that it is a story then does raise the question, but did it happen? It’s the question which comes up in a court of law the whole time, it’s no good standing there as a witness and saying, “Let me tell you a story once upon a time dum dum dum dum…”, because the judge wants to know, the jury wants to know, but did it happen? And you can rank stories according to the apparent intention of the storyteller? Is this a story which was designed to, take Jesus parables? It makes no sense to say, of the parable of the prodigal son “Ah but what was the father’s name? or What did the mother say when they came back? Or Which bit of the farm did he then own?”
That misses the point as a matter of genre, but if you take Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, actually, it would miss the point of those stories to say, “Oh, they were just spinning these fantasy narratives, like sort of pilgrims progress or something out of thin air”. No, they, Luke is very particular about this, let me give you the dates. It was in the reign of so and so and so and so was the high priest and this, that and the other. This is stuff that happened. And the point is, the happened-ness of it has changed the world. And back to something Douglas said half an hour ago, we have sold ourselves short in western Christianity, because we don’t know the true story of church history, and all the great stuff that has happened. And we have believed the Enlightenment lie, that Christianity was just part of the problem rather than part of the solution all along.
That’s a whole other topic. But so I want to say yes, beware of story collapsing into myth, know what the different kinds of stories are and how they work.
JB: I mean, we don’t have time to pursue it, Douglas today, but maybe another conversation to have at some point would be the fact that I think part of your de-conversion, for want of a better word was to do with coming to doubt the reliability of the Bible, and whether it was actually based on historical facts and obviously that the miraculous nature of it as well. But do you feel like if you could be shown, sort of the factuality of it, as well as the way it makes sense of our culture and everything else, that that would, I guess, be the missing piece for you, that would take you back? In some sense. Maybe even to convert you to a new kind of faith.
DM: It’s too complex to see what the missing piece would be or could be, and it would be presumptuous of me to try to explain it or suggests it let alone know it actually. I would just duck that by making an observation on one thing that just came up which is, of all the different understandings of myth, even the least deep understanding of myth. It still irritates me when you hear the phrase, ‘only a myth’.
DM: It is an extraordinarily facile phrase which is in far too common a use. The metamorphoses of it, or not history, they’re not only a story.
NT: But this was the point that grasped CS Lewis wasn’t it? That he had thought that all this stuff was just myth, and then he turned a corner and realised ‘Oh, my goodness, looks like this great myth actually happened once’. Yeah, is a dying rising corn King or whatever it was.
JB: And, and, and made that discovery in the in the company of a great storyteller himself. JRR Tolkien,
NT: Tolkien. Yes.
JB: And in that sense, there is this idea that these great myth stories, you know, they are, you know, Lord of the Rings is is arguably drenched in a kind of christological overtones and that these are the stories that seem to compel us and grab us and so on. And in that sense, as time is drawing to a close Douglas I suppose, you know, you’ve been so very gracious because a lot of these have been very personal sort of questions about faith and that kind of thing. But do you do you wish for it to be true? Do you wish that there was as Lewis said, “this is the true myth”? Is that something that you could see making sense of the world if there was really a true story that everything sort of came?
DM: Of course, of course. I don’t really understand people who don’t wish it to be true. I don’t really understand those people. I have known some we mentioned one earlier who, who don’t wish it, didn’t wish it to be true. No, of course I do. I suppose one thing that I’ve always found extremely powerful in that regard is whenever I’ve been in the Holy Land, Israel, and surrounding area. I never forget the one of the first times I was there, I think during the 2006 conflict in Lebanon, and I was speaking to I happened to stop one day, and there was a church that’s being built. It’s quite unusual for me to need a new church in that neck of the woods. But one was being built for various reasons. And I asked the person who was in charge that day, I said, by the way, what’s the name of the church? And he said, it’s the Church of the Transfiguration. I said, beautiful, well, how did you decide to do that? And he said, “well, here we name churches after the near site. And the Transfiguration happened there.” And he pointed a mountain beside us. And you know, I mean, wherever in the world are brought up, the question is, it makes an enormous impact on when you see the, the physical sites. I’ve travelled around a lot, and I don’t think for me anything quite equals that in terms of making an impact on me. I think you know, we aren’t transparent to ourselves, and I’m not transparent myself. I have no idea how to answer that question.
JB: Well, you’ve answered a great many questions, very helpfully. And, as honestly, as you can. Douglas, thank you very much for the time this evening. Thanks for the questions that have come in as well on Facebook and YouTube as well. Any any final thoughts, Tom, that you’d like to leave us with as we close out our discussion?
NT: I was fascinated by what Douglas just said about the Transfiguration. I have been on one or two mountains, which claim to be the site of the Transfiguration Mount Hermon, Mount Tabor, etc. For me, one of the most moving moments in my life was on Good Friday 1989, when for the first time I went into the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and spent most of the day there, just contemplating, this is where it happened. And when you’re actually there, it doesn’t seem odd that the the hopes and fears of all the years or if you like, the pain, and tears of all the years should be focused on one place. And I intuited that, I felt it, and I thought it theologically, and in a sense, that was, you know, didn’t teach me anything I didn’t sort of vaguely know already. But the concreteness of it is so striking there. It’s not just an idea in people’s heads going around the world. This is stuff that actually happened as a result of which the world is a different place. The world is claimed by God in His Kingdom as a result of those facts.
JB: As we close it reminds me of something you said the last time you came on the show, Douglas that you had an experience of Galilee where it made you feel something happened here, was the way you put it.
DM: Yeah, I think that’s right. Yes, I think it’s very hard to come away from there without thinking about it.
JB: Thank you so much for tonight’s conversation. It’s been a real joy and a pleasure. I wish we could have gone on longer, but our time is over. Perhaps we can do it again at some point in the future. But for now, thank you very much, Douglas Murray and NT Wright for being my guest on tonight’s Big Conversation.
By the way, we’d love you to tell us what you thought of tonight’s show. We’ve got a survey, which you can find in the info with today’s video, just click on it. It’s multichoice very quick. And we’d love to hear what you made of the show.
Do make sure to follow the big conversation at thebigconversation.show sign up there for bonus content updates. And of course, all the rest of the shows that are coming as well in this season. And if you want more from NT, right, and indeed, he’ll be in dialogue on these kinds of issues with Tom Holland among other people, then do get along to our Unbelievable conference this Saturday, the 15th of May, you don’t have to leave your home though, to do that unbelievable.live. It’s all online. And it’s going to be a wonderful day of thinking through some of these big ideas, that’s unbelievable.live. And all of the links are in the show notes today.
For now. All that remains for me to say is thank you, Douglas. And thank you, Tom, and hope we’ll see each other again at some point.
NT: Thank you very much.
DM: Thank you very much.