This week I was asked to read a first book and to give some reaction to the idea of adapting it as a drama. I like this task – it gives me the opportunity to speak to a fellow writer, returning to my old life where stories are sparked and spun and made if not quite beautiful, at least interesting. The book I read this week should have been gripping. It’s about a successful woman’s terrible life-changing dilemma, a story of institutional prejudice and injustice. But there are just three dramatic sock-you-in-gut scenes. The rest is anti-dramatic. The writer, I think traumatised by the events, can’t step outside herself to find insight, or to give the other characters depth. It’s a book that shouts for help from the bottom of a deep ravine where the sun never illuminates the scene, a book that shouts about self and injustice, but never dares to look at the wounds, or to learn anything from them. The villains are wholly villainous, and the writer is virtuous.
I spent a few hours speed-reading it, and then twice as long wondering what the kindest and most constructive reaction would be. I gave a pretty safe and cowardly first response. Woke up this morning to an email asking if I would endorse the book. Damn! Too safe and cowardly. Now how do I decline without hurting an already hurting individual? Well, I’ve tried. And as I write this blog I am concerned about how this would-be writer is reacting. Drama is a construct and even the best stories in the world may not always lend themselves to it. It’s horrible when you have to tell someone that, and in a way I hope that this writer doesn’t believe me, that they keep on, keeping on. But it’s a hard slog for even the most gifted, and I tried to tell her that without squashing her dreams.
That’s the first ‘tale’ in this blog.
Here’s the second tale: this week a trio of us have been reading the Gospel of Mark and meeting (zoom) to discuss what we’ve learned or wondered. The words of Jesus “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners” are so very familiar that I almost didn’t think about them but the study guide we’re following asked “Why did Jesus reach out to the outcasts and not the leaders?” and I became very very excited! The question was all wrong! The supposition was totally skew-whiff! It assumed something that isn’t stated in the Bible. Jesus did not reach out only to outcasts or sinners. He never says that! He never does! He actually started his preaching ministry among the leaders, in the temple, he went to rich men’s homes, he reached out to everyone, because that’s who he is, he is Love. Here’s how I see that incident in the second chapter of Mark now. Feel free to disagree and throw rotten tomatoes, I don’t mind: Mark 2, just my interpretation
Jesus has just begun his ministry, already he’s the talk of the town, wherever he goes crowds flock to hear him, to catch a glimpse of him, this strange young man who comes with such authority out of a carpenter’s home in a poor village. A cousin of the ‘madman’ John who preached repentance, and ate locusts and wore the skins of unclean animals.
The houses he went to were besieged by Israel’s version of paparazzi, people who heard and saw and hurried off to tell others about everything he said and did. A roof was demolished to lower a paralysed man into the room where Jesus was speaking, the road outside mobbed, people straining to hear, asking each other what he said, Chinese whispers…. and there, among the followers, were the church leaders, ‘thinking to themselves’. I love that detail, the rabbis sitting there, silent, thinking their own thoughts. Did Jesus see a look of disdain, did he catch a shared nod of “Ahah! Now we have him!” passing between the teachers of the day? It would have been impossible for these scheming men not to reveal themselves, if I was there, or you were there, we would know exactly why they were hanging around. I’m sure they were transparent.
Jesus heals the man. That’s his answer to their contempt and doubt. He has authority to forgive sins and he heals the man. Unapologetic, uncompromising, simple. The God of no compromise.
And then, walking on, pursued still by this mob, Jesus sees a tax collector. A man not much worse than a thief, someone who took what little they had from his own people and gave it to his masters, the occupying force. And Jesus went to his house, and had dinner with him. Had dinner with him! Can you imagine the disdain of the rabbis? They asked his disciples “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Maybe they thought that the disciples would be indiscreet and give them the excuse they needed to denounce Jesus to the authorities. But Jesus knew what was going on, and he said to them “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
I think that when he looked at these scheming rabbis his heart went out to them. Pity for them in their blindness. I think that maybe as he said the word ‘righteous’ they squirmed under his scrutiny, I think that he was not calling them ‘righteous’ but rather acknowledging that they called themselves righteous. He wasn’t saying that because they were righteous he would not reach out to them. We know that even when we’re in our deepest sin Jesus loves us. Why wouldn’t he also love these men? When he said that he came to call not the righteous but sinners he was giving to those who would hear an invitation to acknowledge the truth about themselves. We are all sinners, thus he came to call us all. The tax collector, the Apostles, the mob, the rabbis, the women, the children, the thief on the cross, the rich young man, the Centurion, the woman with a haemorrhage, Pilate, you, me, all. No one was excluded. Not even me.
And here’s where – in my head at least – the two tales meet up, the new story that someone wants to turn into a drama, and the ancient history that is already the greatest drama ever played out;
When we had that Bible study, I found myself saying something that was a new thought to me. Does that happen to you sometimes? As you develop a conversation you find a new thought, like a small gift dropped onto your lap? (that’s one of the drawbacks of being single, you rarely have a conversation long enough to discover new thoughts) We were talking about the love of Jesus and I said that we love what we’ve created – even when it’s something as banal as a character written by a hack like me, the creator loves what he or she creates. One of my ‘zoom’ friends asked if I really did love all the characters I write, and as I answered that yes I did. I might heartily condemn their actions, but the job of a dramatist is to explore, understand, to forgive and yes, to condemn too. Condemn the action, not the soul. Love the sinner, hate the sin. I’ve created some terrible ‘bad’ people in my time, but if I didn’t try to understand them, if I had held myself apart from them, they would have been cardboard cut-outs strutting across the set, monsters.
Somehow the experience of reviewing that new book this week, and then reading the Gospel of Mark, has given me a new thought;
We are, each one of us, the spoken words of Jesus, his creative act. Just as he created his apostles, so he created the rabbis who persecuted him. Created in love. I never set out to write badly, a painter doesn’t dream of churning out rubbish, a baker hopes for risen bread…. an act of creation is an act of love. Jesus loved the rabbis who were dogging his every step and waiting to pounce, just as much as he loved Peter, or you or me. They were made to be his.
It came home to me, forcefully, that in day to day life, the daily round, meeting others, interacting with them, I should feel and know the love of Jesus for everyone. Flip me! Everyone? Yes, because God has breathed life into all of us. Whoever they are, they are here because he loves them. Already loves them. His love is not waiting for the moment when they turn to him. It’s there already, from the moment of their birth, before their birth, in the very idea of them, in every breath they take, every cell of their bodies.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139)
I have a book coming out this year about my first 17 years of life. I can’t call it an autobiography because it’s coloured by a child’s flight of fancy, nor can I call it a novel because it’s solidly rooted in my own experience. Maybe it’s best described as a fictionalised autobiography. We all see the world with ourselves as the central character but that is never how anyone else sees us. Each person is their own central character, playing out their version of the narrative which will differ from every other, even when the story is experienced side by side, like conjoined twins. Good writing honours all lives with equal respect, and thoughtfulness. Good writing honours God in its honesty. All writers fail at this most of the time. Some writers manage it, fleetingly.
When I first started out as a dramatist, I worked very closely with a great young couple, producers who loved drama and understood writers. I was living in a council house, I wasn’t educated, they were super-bright graduates, they were from the Middle Classes, they spoke the Queen’s English, knew every book in the world (it seemed) and they were just the sweetest pair I could have met. They spent the first years of our working relationship patiently pointing out that even posh people have feelings, even aristocrats, even brassy millionaires. I eventually learned. It was a great lesson and it’s stayed with me – I have friends who are rich and friends who are permanently and hopelessly broke. No probs.
I think it was no probs for Jesus.
When the Christian sees clearly the nature of God, and her own nature, when she understands that grace is unending and lavished upon us, she sees that with God’s help it is possible to love everyone she bumps into, all through her long and messy life.
Wow. How I’ve failed at that, my friends!
When the Christian sees clearly the nature of God, and her own nature, she longs to step down as the central character of her life, for Jesus to take her place.
Wow! How I’ve failed at that, my friends.
I think of Jesus on the cross, forgiving those who were torturing and killing him. I think of people who have given me a rough time. And I realise that God created all of them in love, and his love never falters. Never. He didn’t wait until they were sorry for what they’d done before he loved them. He loved them even when they were deep in sin, and giving me a pretty lousy life. He wasn’t in communion with them, but even then, right then, in my childhood, he loved them as much as he loved me, as much as he loved anyone. All of them? The Uncles and the father and the aunties and those who looked the other way, the brothers and the drunks? Oh, do give over! ALL of them?
Yes, seriously Luce, all of them. Try it in italics, bold, written in blood. His blood. All of them.
God breathed us into being, spoke us into being, wrote us into being, and whatever we have done, whoever we are, we are precious in his sight. No villains. No one righteous. All loved.
You see? I thought I knew what forgiveness was, but I’m still learning.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35).