Sufficient unto the day: Brexit and emotional health

Sermon On The Mountwith the Healing of the Leper Cosimo Rosselli, 1481
Sermon on the Mount with the Healing of the Leper, Cosimo Rosselli, 1481

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’

Matthew 6:25-34

It’s probably a measure of how sheltered and privileged a life I’ve led that it’s taken the Brexit vote to really bring home to me the value of what Jesus is saying in these famous words – particularly the final sentences, rendered in the Authorised Version as:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Is this really good advice? Can Jesus really be telling us not to buy insurance (as some Christians apply this) or not to save for a pension? After all, “take no thought for the morrow.”

I don’t interpret Jesus’ words that way, but that’s an argument for another day. However, I think at least a part of what Jesus is telling us here is about maintaining healthy patterns and habits of thought. I know I’m not the only one who has spent more time than is healthy in the last few days reading and arguing about the implications of Brexit and the likely consequences and outcomes. And one of the things that has become apparent to me is how easily my thoughts run away with themselves, as I go chasing off down some line of thought about all the dire possibilities of one or other of all the vast complexity of issues now to be addressed as we prepare to leave the European Union, and end up anxious, jittery, scared.

Who knows how all these matters will be resolved, but it’s probably unlikely that all the worst case scenarios my fertile imagination can come up with will come true. In the meantime, these are not healthy patterns of thought.

I dare say that in the days and weeks ahead there will be reports on the impact of the Brexit vote on people’s mental and emotional health. The shock and uncertainty and confusion is likely to be having a highly detrimental effect on some people, especially those who already suffer from mental health problems. But perhaps there is a specific danger for those of us, lacking experience (so far) of mental illness, who don’t realise the mental and emotional risks of obsessive concern over matters in which we feel powerless and confused.

So it’s at this point, as our mental terriers go chasing another Brexit rabbit down another rabbit hole, that we need to listen to Jesus’ words here: “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Worrying about tomorrow weakens our mental and emotional resilience to deal with what we have to do today – let alone the effects it has on our trust in God.

Yesterday I ended up having to turn off my phone and tablet during the afternoon to recover my emotional balance. In the evening I listened to classic disco music, processed holiday photos and started reading Three Men in a Boat (which I’ve never read, and which I discover – who knew? – is utterly hilarious). Whatever you need for your own #OperationHappyPlace, if you are distressed and anxious about the Brexit result, I commend a similar approach. Yes, engage with the news of what’s happening, but keep a watchful eye on your emotional state and your patterns of thought, and make sure you switch off and do something else when you need to (bearing in mind that, if you feel thirsty, that means you’re already dehydrated). Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Heaviness, weeping and joy

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Title page from Miles Coverdale’s Bible (1535)

Today’s appointed psalm in the lectionary was Psalm 30. This is one of my favourite psalms, especially the celebrated lines:

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

Lines that will be familiar to P.G. Wodehouse fans, for starters.

We were at the Savoy Chapel this morning (our middle son sings in the choir), where they sang the Prayer Book version, in which these lines are rendered by Miles Coverdale as follows:

Sing praises unto the Lord, O ye saints of his :
and give thanks unto him for a remembrance of his holiness.
For his wrath endureth but the twinkling of an eye, and in his pleasure is life :
heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

That word “heaviness” also appears later in the psalm, where the words translated in the NRSV (following the Authorised Version) as “you have turned my mourning into dancing” become:

Thou hast turned my heaviness into joy :
thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.

What I love about this word “heaviness”, as an alternative to “mourning” or “weeping”, is how specific it is in rendering a feeling we surely all know from time to time: that heaviness in the limbs that gives physical form to our sad, weary, despairing emotional state.

Above all, this precision of language creates a strong sense of connection with the translator: a translator who uses the word “heaviness” here is someone who is intimately familiar with this state of mind and body. And this should come as no surprise, given Miles Coverdale’s years in exile, and his proximity to early Reformation martyrs such as Robert Barnes and William Tyndale: enough to give anyone an abundance of “heaviness”; though Coverdale also clearly knew what it was to be “girded with gladness” by the grace and promise of God.

Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (2)

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Image: Unsplash (CC0)

In my previous post, we looked at how Luther applies the principles of promise, necessity and faith to the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer — where we exercise our faith in God’s promise to meet our dire need for the proclamation of the gospel, the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith, and protection from temptation and doubt. Now let’s turn to the second half of the prayer.

Give us this day our daily bread

What does this mean?
God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers; but we pray in this petition that he would lead us to know this, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

What is meant by daily bread?
Everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, property, fields, animals, money, goods, a believing spouse, believing children, believing servants, believing and faithful magistrates, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honour, good friends, faithful neighbours, and so on.

Once again, we see how our prayer is not needed to persuade a reluctant God, but is founded on an unconditional promise: “God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers.”

As for the “dire need” that is addressed here: well, it amounts to pretty much every need we have in our everyday lives; “everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body,” ranging from the basics of food, drink and shelter, to the need for “good government,” “peace,” and so on.

Many expositions of the Lord’s Prayer would put matters such as social justice (“good government”) and peace under the first half of the prayer: the coming of God’s kingdom, the doing of his will. However, there is something refreshing about Luther’s perspective here, particularly in a time where world events can otherwise lead us to despair. For those of us who feel that a President Trump or a vote for Brexit would be the opposite of “good government,” perhaps even (in our more despairing moments) the opposite of “peace,” it is healthy to be reminded that all these are matters of “daily bread,” not “the kingdom.”

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look upon our sins, or deny our prayers on account of them; for we are not worthy of any of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them. Instead we pray that he would grant all our petitions by grace; for we sin greatly every day, and all we deserve is punishment. In the same way, for our part, we will sincerely forgive those who sin against us, and readily do good to them.

Luther’s exposition of this petition is the first not to include an explicit statement of promise — but then, the promise on which the forgiveness of our sins is based has already been set out in the first half of Luther’s exposition.

Indeed, what we find in this petition is a personal appropriation of the promises of the first three petitions: that the promise of forgiveness held out in the proclamation of the Word, which we receive by the faith worked in us by the Holy Spirit, would be ours; and that we would lead a “godly” life as a result, at the heart of which is our imitation of God in extending to others the same forgiveness and goodness that he has shown to us.

And lead us not into temptation

What does this mean?
God tempts no one. However, we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and that, though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.

Again, the promise: “God tempts no one.” But again, the dire need: “that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us.” And again, the faith we exercise as we pray, confident in God’s promise that “though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.”

But deliver us from evil

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would deliver us from every evil of body and soul, property and honour; and that in the end, when our last hour comes, he would grant us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this vale of tears to himself into heaven.

Again, the promise is implicit here, this final petition being based on everything that has gone before, and with our every dire need encompassed in that single word “evil”. The need for salvation, for daily bread (in all its multiple aspects), for forgiveness, for preservation from temptation, and — finally — from the fear of death itself. In this final petition, our faith develops into hope as we look forward to “our last hour,” the promise of “a blessed end,” and the hope of being taken from “this vale of tears” to be with God forever. (Note that the Creed has already reminded us that our ultimate hope is not “going to heaven” but the resurrection of the dead.)

Amen 

What does this mean?
That I should be certain that these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them; for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way, and has promised that He will hear us. So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

The promise that has undergirded every word of our prayer has been the promise that “these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them”; a promise that addresses the direst need of all when we pray, our need to be heard, for us not to be talking into the air. So we make our final affirmation of faith in that promise by saying “Amen”: “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

 

Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (1)

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Photo: Greying_Geezer (CC BY-NC-SA)

In my previous post, we saw how Luther describes the five ingredients for “valid” prayer:

  • the promise of God;
  • our dire need;
  • faith;
  • earnestness;
  • praying in and through Christ.

It’s worth looking at how the first three of these, in particular, undergird Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism (the final two are more pervasive in nature). Let’s look at each petition, and see how Luther’s exposition can be related to God’s promise, our need, and our faith in the promise.

Hallowed by thy name 

What does this mean?
God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may become holy among us also.

How is God’s name kept holy?
When the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God lead holy lives in accordance with it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches and lives other than as taught in God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Preserve us from this, Heavenly Father!

This establishes the pattern found throughout Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. First, a clear declaration of God’s promise: “God’s name is certainly holy in itself.” As we saw in my previous post, it’s the assurance that our prayer is, in a sense, unnecessary — because God’s love and goodness towards is so unshakeable in any event — that gives us the confidence to pray in the first place: “that it may become holy among us also.”

So there is the dire need we face: the need for God’s name to “become holy among us also,” a need that is met “when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity.” Our greatest need, Jesus tells us in teaching us this prayer, is the Word of God; and not just the Word of God in the abstract, but the Word of God “taught”, the Word proclaimed in the life and ministry of the church. And to pray this petition is itself an act of faith in God’s promise that this Word will be taught and proclaimed among us.

Thy kingdom come 

What does this mean?
The kingdom of God comes by itself even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.

How does God’s kingdom come?
When our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and lead a godly life here in time and there in eternity.

It’s one thing for us to hear the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, taught and proclaimed, but to receive the benefits of that gospel we need faith — and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is in the coming of the Holy Spirit, working faith in us, that the kingdom of God comes to us, Luther tells us; echoing here, perhaps, Christ’s words in Luke 11:13.

In telling us to pray this petition, Christ assures us of the promise that “the kingdom of God comes by itself”. He also shows us our “dire need” for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us. After all, as Luther has told us in his exposition of the Creed, to confess my faith in the Holy Spirit is to admit that I am incapable of such faith under my own steam:

I believe that I cannot … believe.

So we pray, confident in the promise that as we hear Christ’s promise, the Holy Spirit is working in us the faith that enables us to pray at all.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

What does this mean?
The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.

How is God’s will done?
When God breaks and hinders every evil plan and intention which do not want to let us hallow the name of God or to let his kingdom come, such as the will of the devil, the world, and our flesh; and when he strengthens and keeps us steadfast in his Word and in faith until our end. This is his gracious and good will.

Again, Luther starts with the unconditional promise that is implied by Christ’s instruction to us to pray this petition: “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.” But our dire need is “that it may be done among us also.”

Above all, our need is for protection from the opposition that the proclamation of the Word of God (first petition) and the Holy Spirit’s working faith in us (second petition) arouse: every “evil plan and intention” of “the devil, the world, and our flesh”; the temptation and doubts of Anfechtung, which undermine our ability to keep us “steadfast in his Word.” Once again, Christ’s instruction to pray this petition gives us the confidence to do so in faith, assured of the promise that “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.”

So we reach the halfway point in Luther’s exposition. In my next post, we’ll look at his explanations for the final four petitions, but in the meantime, let’s review where we’ve got to so far.

To be honest, in the past I have found Luther’s exposition of these petitions somewhat narrow and repetitive in scope. Other, more modern, expositions of the Lord’s Prayer cover a seemingly wider vision for these petitions, including a lot of material — social and political transformation, the needs of those around us, and so on — which (as we’ll see) Luther compresses into the single petition “give us this day our daily bread.”

But I don’t think Luther’s intention here is to give an exhaustive explanation of what these petitions mean, but to focus our attention on what is of first importance in them, and in our lives as Christians. The dire needs we have that we can otherwise so easily overlook; the promises of God we can so easily take for granted: for the Word of God to be proclaimed, for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us, and for us to be protected from the assaults of “the devil, the world, and our flesh.” A prayer we need to repeat, for our own sake, morning, noon and night.

Prayer and the “happy exchange”

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Martin Luther praying for the life of Philip Melanchthon, by Gustav König (1897)

How should we pray? Not in the sense of “what words should we use?”, but in the sense of: “In what frame of mind should we pray? With what expectations? And how can I pray with confidence that God will actually listen?”

Martin Luther addressed this question in his sermon for Rogate Sunday on 13 May 1520, a sermon that is quoted by Oswald Bayer in the concluding chapter of his book Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (see previous post).

This sermon “documents in a pregnant way Luther’s reformational understanding of prayer,” Bayer writes, an understanding that is deeply trinitarian in nature. Luther identifies five characteristics of true prayer, saying: 

Every prayer consists of five [identifying characteristics]: otherwise the prayer is offered in vain.

  1. The promise of God (promissio)

This is “the foundation on which the entire prayer relies,” declares Luther:

if there were no promise, our prayer would be worthless; it would be unworthy of a favourable hearing, since it would rely on its own merit.

  1. Dire need (necessitas)

True prayer requires that we state “the specifics of the dire straits or else the substance of what is desired”: which in turn requires “gathering one’s thoughts” to focus on “the godly promise”:

Based on this, [self-]selected little prayers, rosaries, and the like are not priestly prayers, since they do not gather one’s thoughts, nor do they summarize the matter on the heart that seeks resolution.

Where does that leave a prayer such as the Jesus prayer, which I’ve written on before? Good question: but at the very least, Luther’s words are a warning that this type of spiritual discipline is no substitute for specific heartfelt prayer, a prayer that involves the conscious “gathering of one’s thoughts” to concentrate both on “the dire need that is identified” and on “the help that is expected” – that is, the “divine promise” (Bayer, p.352).

  1. Faith (fiducia)

In order to pray with confidence, we need the faith “by means of which I believe in the God who makes promises”. But prayer that is based on a confident trust in God’s goodness has a paradoxical element that Luther proceeds to tease out:

To be sure, God ensures that all things are guaranteed not because of you and your prayer, but because of his trustworthiness, by means of which he has promised that he will give it. Thus, only trust can expect that the faithfulness of God is at work to ensure it will happen.

In other words: we pray, trusting that God’s goodness will provide for us even if we don’t – because God is so completely trustworthy. It is, in a sense, the assurance that our prayer is unnecessary (in the sense of our not needing to alert God to what we need or persuade him to give it to us) that gives us the confidence to pray in the first place.

As Bayer observes (p.352), this is the faith that can say “amen” in the sense that Luther expounds it in the Small Catechism, where to say “amen” means:

That I should be certain that these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them; for he himself has commanded us to pray in this way, and has promised that he will hear us. So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

  1. Earnestness (desideratio)

Prayer should not be half-hearted or “vacillating”, Luther continues. We should pray as those who “urgently desire” what we are praying for, in contrast to those who pray:

as if on an adventure, where whatever happens happens, as if one throws something at a pear to knock it out of a tree

To pray in such a casual, “taking a punt” way is “a mockery of God, as if he were not willing to guarantee what he had promised” – one that may “provoke God instead, with evil results.”

  1. In the name of Jesus

This is undoubtedly the most important requirement for prayer, that it “takes place in the name of Jesus, by whose command [
] and by whose authority we can come confidently before the Father of all things.”

It is praying in the name of Jesus that gives us confidence that we will be heard:

Thus it cannot happen that the prayer goes without being heard: the Father has promised an answer through the Son, as through an instrument.

But what about our sins? Don’t they get in the way of effective prayer? If anything, Luther concludes, it’s the opposite: Christ’s prayer in heaven for our sins gives us confidence that our own prayers will continue to be heard:

And our sins hurt Christ; he prays concerning them in heaven, as if they were his own. Tell me now: What could cause a rejection here? The Son prays in heaven in my name; I pray on earth in his name.

All this is based on what Luther elsewhere refers to as the “happy exchange” that lies at the heart of the gospel, an exchange that he describes in a beautiful and delicately ironic statement in this sermon

Thus the righteousness of Christ is my own, my sins are Christ’s: this is admittedly an unequal exchange.

So our prayer is intimately connected with that “happy exchange”, an exchange which not only removes the barrier of sin between me and God, but also – to give me even greater confidence that I will be heard – gives me the positive holiness of Christ:

And both come to purity, connected together: my sins vanish in Christ and his holiness washes me clean, so that I become worthy of eternal life.

It is this exchange which also gives prayer its trinitarian character: “I come through him to the Father 
 at the same time [that] he is coming before the Father on my behalf” (Bayer, p.349), all this being enfolded in the work of the Holy Spirit, who “gives public witness to Christ’s own words in his testament” and “[frees] us from being under our own power” (Bayer, p.351).

So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

“Inherently full”

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This striking painting, by Michael Mathias Prechtl, is titled “Martin Luther: An Inherently Full Figure.” Painted in 1983, Oswald Bayer refers to it (and reproduces it) in the opening pages of his book, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation.

Bayer describes the painting in a footnote on page 2:

Prechtl adapts a picture of Luther as an old man, sketched in 1545 by the Reformer’s assistant, Johann Reifenstein. [
] His conceptualization of the aged Luther is overlaid by the ïŹgure of Luther from the central panel of the triptych at the altar of the city church at Weimar (by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1553). Prechtl takes Luther’s face from Reifenstein’s sketch; from Cranach’s portrait he takes the collar with conspicuous streak of cardinal red, the way the hands are positioned around the open Bible, and the ïŹgure of the Crucified that Cranach positioned separately from Luther but which is positioned “inside” the body of Luther by Prechtl, along with the stream of blood that spurts from the wound in the Lord’s side. Prechtl’s watercolor leaves the pages of the open Bible blank. ln Cranach’s portrait they have writing on them and can be read by anyone who looks at the scene depicted by the altar. Luther’s index ïŹnger points to Heb. 4:16 [
]: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness [= freedom. sincerity; Greek: Ï€Î±ÏÏÎ·ÏƒÎŻÎ±], so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

On page 6, Bayer adds:

As the artist makes it clear to see, the Crucified One does not simply remain merely a figure in the picture, but lets himself be heard; he has something to say: he comes in the Word of the Bible that is preached. The ray cast forth by his blood opens the meaning of Holy Scripture, opens the testament, as the message from the cross, which bequeaths to us eternal communion with God by means of forgiveness, in the midst of our hellish personal history and our world’s history.

Luther, as the servant of the divine Word, points to this message from the cross, promises the forgiveness of sins in the name of God, offers it, imparts it. The Bible is not somehow — bound up tightly — a closed document, not a weapon of fundamentalism, but it is open — opened by the One who alone can open it: opened by the Crucified One, who lives (Luke 24:30-32).

This is a vital element of Lutheran theology and practice: that it is not the Word of the Bible per se that is God’s Word to us, but the Word of the Bible that is preached, a living Word that proclaims Christ Crucified, in which the Crucified One is heard; a dynamic process in which, as the gospel is proclaimed in word and sacrament, Christ is revealed to us through the Word that Christ opens to us through that proclamation, by (since I haven’t forgotten that today is Pentecost!) the Holy Spirit working faith in us.

Shakespeare and the Bible: stimulating reading

wordsofpowerThe Bible and Shakespeare have each had quite the trajectory within our culture. There have been times when possession of an English Bible could get you burned at the stake, while Shakespeare spent his career working in a London theatrical scene which was reviled by the respectable as a danger to morality and social order; and yet “the Bible and Shakespeare” (especially when bracketed together in this way) have come to be regarded as the twin peaks of English literature.

It is this shared status, and what reading “the Bible and Shakespeare” can tell us about the relationships between texts and wider culture and society, that Jem Bloomfield discusses in his forthcoming book Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible. Jem’s book is due to be published by the Lutterworth Press on 26 May 2016, but I had the pleasure of getting to read a copy of the proofs.

It’s a short book – 156 pages including introduction but excluding bibliography and index – but packed with material that has made me think in new ways, not only about the Bible and Shakespeare, but also more widely about the nature of a “canon”, what makes a text “sacred”, different ways of reading familiar texts, the nature of performance and proclamation, how texts form communities and identities, and the complex ways in which texts are appropriated and quoted.

For example, in the introduction, Jem summarises the biblical critic John Barton’s discussion on what gives a text “scriptural status”, and how Shakespeare can function as “scripture”. Barton identifies four characteristics of “scripture”:

  • scripture is “a text that matters and which contains no trivialities, nothing ephemeral”;
  • scripture is assumed to have “contemporary relevance 
 to every generation, to all people at all times”;
  • scripture is assumed to be consistent, with great efforts made to smooth over any apparent inconsistencies within or between its component texts; and
  • scripture contains “an excess of meaning”, a “vision of the text as full of mysteries, with layers of meaning below the surface sense.”

Just reading that list can spark off multiple thoughts as to how much these criteria can be applied to Shakespeare. On the first, “it is not acceptable to think Shakespeare is deeply uninteresting,” observes Barton. As for the second, Jem discusses the National Theatre’s 2012 production of Timon of Athens, whose marketing materials pitched it as a parable for the financial crash; even though “the sight of an Athenian nobleman sitting in the wilderness railing about sexually transmitted diseases” is, on the face of it, less obviously relevant than other plays from the same period – plays which, however, lack the imprimatur of the Shakespeare brand.

In Jem’s chapter of the “canon”, he describes the complexities of establishing the canon of both the Bible and Shakespeare, each of which has been contested in various ways throughout history. One point that struck me is how familiarity makes canonicity self-reinforcing: “The Shepherd of Hermas” and “The London Prodigal” just sound wrong – because they are so much less familiar than the “canonical” works – which predisposes us to accept their exclusion from the canon. Similarly, we are less practised at harmonising canonical and non-canonical works than we are at harmonising apparent inconsistencies within the canon.

As Jem goes on to observe, it has (for both the Bible and Shakespeare) to to find a definition of canonicity that doesn’t exclude some books accepted as canonical. And even if there are good reasons in each case for accepting the consensus on which books are and are not “in”, studying the books which have been excluded can help us appreciate “the contingent status of the texts we are used to thinking of as secure.”

In his chapter on “ways of reading”, Jem describes the multiplicity of ways in which the Bible and Shakespeare have been interpreted. In each case, there is a widespread assumption that the “most vital” meaning of the text can only be found by digging below the surface: hence the fourfold medieval exegesis of Scripture, in which “literal” interpretations are joined by “allegorical”, “moral” and “anagogical” – leading to the different layers of meaning which, even today, can attach to the name “Jerusalem”. In more modern times, biblical critics have sought to establish criteria for establishing which reported words and actions of Jesus are “authentic”: criteria of “embarrassment”, “discontinuity”, “coherence”, “multiple attestation” and “the criterion of Jesus’ rejection and execution” (that is, the idea that if a supposed reconstruction of Jesus doesn’t look like someone who’d get nailed to a cross, UR DOING IT WRONG).

Similarly, the interpretation of Shakespeare has also been through different phases and fashions. “Character criticism”, in which characters are treated as if they were living individuals with lives before and (if they’re lucky) after the text, is now somewhat out of fashion (helped along by a celebrated essay whose title asked, waspishly, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?”). It was superseded first by the “New Criticism” which treated poetry as self-contained texts, and then by today’s dominant paradigm of “stage-centred criticism”, which holds that Shakespeare can only be properly interpreted by on-stage performance.

This leads on to Jem’s next chapter, in which he looks at the nature of performance. “Performance” often carried negative connotations: it is “not done” for the reading of a scriptural passage in church to come across as “a performance”, for example. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many people saw performance of Shakespeare as diminishing the genius of his poetry. However, in earlier times, silent reading of the Bible was regarded with some suspicion, with St Augustine finding it necessary to explain to his readers why St Ambrose’s practice of silent reading could be justified. Augustine was living in a culture on the cusp of moving from being an “oral” culture (in which the word is something proclaimed) to a “literary” culture (in which the word is something read). (As an aside, it’s worth noting that, for Luther, “the Word of God” always primarily meant the proclaimed Word rather than the written Word.)

In his chapter on “the people of the books”, Jem describes how the Bible and Shakespeare are each used to define communities or identities. He is sharp in observing how evangelicals use biblical citations (and even the word “Bible” itself, as in “Bible-based churches”) as a marker of identity. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare’s Globe are examples of “the complex system in which Shakespeare’s name and works produce cultural authority.”

In the final chapter, Jem analyses the ways in which the Bible and Shakespeare are appropriated for different purposes: from the use of the Bible as an (unread) prop in US presidential inaugurations, to MPs’ fondness for quoting Shakespeare – as opposed to, say, Doctor Who, as a means of “bolstering the speaker’s rhetorical self-presentation” and “discreetly presenting the credentials of a particular background, upbringing and social sphere.” 

I hope this summary has given a flavour of how thunderously successful Jem is in accomplishing his aim of stimulating his readers to engage in similar analyses in their own reading life – “recognising a quotation,looking sceptically at the mission statement of a college, asking themselves for what purpose a Bible verse is being used in a politician’s speech” – and helping us to appreciate how “the strangeness of the past” can aid “a recognition of the present’s own remarkable strangeness.”