Some of you might be be familiar with the BBC series Who do you think you are? In the programme a number of celebrities uncover, one assumes with the BBC researchers assistance, a number of lost connections and unfamiliar parts of their histories. The thread running through the programme is the persons history revealed in their family tree. Connections are traced and with the help of family the viewer is drawn into the biography as it is revealed. These celebrities trace their family trees and unearth experiences of courage, joy, sacrifice and resilience. It is gripping, moving and illuminating in equal measure. Reassuring, perhaps, in so far as not all gets resolved ( how could human life be so sorted?) and while some ghosts are laid to rest the incompleteness of who we are remains laid bare for all to see. No life is whole, or sorted or resolved.
Who is Giles Fraser ?
I have never met Giles Fraser though know something of his story through his public resignation from St Pauls, his fearless attempts at truth telling on the BBCs Moral Maze and especially through his column in The Guardian. He is engaging, brave and often persuasive. He lifts the lid in this book on a number of narratives and in doing so slays some demons too. The pages have an energy and fluency which draw the reader in and on. It is beautifully written with some challenging questions for this reader.
Narrative theology ?
It is a ‘narrative theology’ about redemption and new beginnings with some searing judgements about some of those people and places that shaped the story. Chosen is a wonderful mix. It is in part memoir, but also theological reflection when Fraser sets free some fundamental questions about vision, identity and the efficacy of religious organisations. It is also a work of philosophy primer that occasionally invites us into self-help. You might also describe it as a robust defence of therapy ! It is also an exploration of the the identities and relationship between Christianity and Judaism and an invitation to read Scripture carefully in the light modern scholarship.
What is the book about ?
In the first part of the book we read about Frasers resignation as a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral over his role and views about the Occupy London occupation there in 2011-12. This is devastating for him, his marriage and ministry. We feel the depression that comes with a loss of status and direction, its part in the marriage break-up and the power of pain and hurt that result from inner chaos and the contemplation of suicide. There is justification and a settling of perceived wrongs. It is both personal and theological. There is Cathedral and Diocesan politics and a persuasive argument of the legitimacy of a valid resignation on the grounds that the church should not use force to defend its buildings. Fraser invites us into thinking about the ‘just cause’ of the protesters in the face of the forces of capitalism and a Cathedral unclear about its purpose. The fall out from his decision to resign following the eviction were far reaching.
Fraser explores whether Cathedrals really understand their purpose and especially in relation to the prevailing culture of materialism and economics. How are we to understand the role of church buildings? In what way does religion defend its distinctiveness and purity ? How far are our places of worship prepared to go in accommodating the messy, impure world of which they are a part? Doors, membership, language, boundaries and the prevailing culture of panic about our survival all bear upon a vision of space which can never be neutral, partisan or separate from the communities that shape and mis-shape identity and practice ? These chapters should become compulsory reading for all clergy but especially Cathedral Deans as they are forced or enabled ( for, perhaps, very good reasons) to manage the ‘temple’ at the expense of the truth of the Gospel. It also poses some uncomfortable questions to those of us who are responsible for theological formation for mission and ministry.
In the second part of the book Fraser discovers and uncovers some of the secrets of his Jewish family, which has been in England since the early 18th century. He tackles prejudice and our deep rooted anti-Semitism which led many of the generations of his family to hide their ancestry away. This brings life and love to his journey and life but the insecurity of belonging, of being know and understood persist. Fraser is ‘establishment’ (red canonical buttons and all), an authoritative and generative voice who feels himself to be an outsider who doesn’t fit in. There are many who would echo these feelings from within a variety of narratives and places. Hurt is deep and shame haunts us all. Fraser draws his reader back into the persuasive power of theology to heal.
The history of racism has been laid bare in recent months. No where is this more obvious than the complicated history of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Contempt, prejudice, arrogance and violence are embedded into our history. Fraser invites us into a different picture and especially into a listening and learning from our Jewish sisters and brothers. Richard Harries sums this up in his Guardian review of the book –
“What Giles Fraser can teach all of us, however, whatever our beliefs or lack of them, is how enriching it can be to look at the world through the eyes of others. What is it for me to look at life through Jewish, Muslim or atheist eyes, or for others to see the world in Christian terms?”
This is a great book. It offers vision, edge, honesty, and deep wisdom. Its vulnerability is its strength. The capacity of Fraser to keep digging into the tradition is inspiring. Look out for Augustine on Grace, the vitality and necessity of anger, Freud, the power of writing life, the exploration of innocence and guilt, the meaning of ghosts, the way of reading New Testament text with Jesus the Jew at its heart, our destructive obsession with purity and boundaries, the power of not knowing, the meaning of love and ( I think) a happy ending ……
” it took me seven years to work through this book. For seven years have sat shiva, and now I am ready to begin again ” (p 216). Gratitude Giles – now what might be next ?