Glasgow, the stoning of Stephen and a lack of theological imagination

Doug Gay, a colleague who teaches Practical Theology at University of Glasgow, recently posted a citation on his Facebook page from Alastair Gray’s stunning 1981 novel Lanark that gave voice to much of what I been wrestling with for the past two weeks. For those not familiar with Lanark, it is reminiscent of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses with echoes of William Blake’s poetry, Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass, and George McDonald’s Lilith and splashes of Irvine Welch and David Foster Wallace. Like Joyce, Gray is tearing away the facade of society and looking deep beneath the images toward a deeper notion of what is really animating life. Like Joyce’s Dublin, Gray sets much of his wanderings in an unsympathetic repose of Glasgow in all its decay and longing. Rather than trying to universalize humanity in abstraction, he instead drives us to the particular, the intimate and the real. The central character in the first two books is named Lanark who akin to Joyce’s characters is a persona in constant transition. Lanark’s name changes to Thaw in the second two books for no explicit reason but this further goes to illustrate the liminality of identity. In this passage, Thaw ponders the lack of imagination for people in the city of Glasgow and the cost of this lack of imagination

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”

“Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw. McAlpin lit a cigarette and said, “If you want to explain that I’ll certainly listen.”

“Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in painting, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. what is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or a golf course, some pubs connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

While I had visited Glasgow prior to moving there, I didn’t imagine life in Glasgow nor how I would reimagine the world because of that city and its people. Yes, I thought about my life in the university as a research student, serving in the Cathedral as an Assistant Minister, and relationships we would be establishing. But I never considered how this city with its poverty, its joy for living, its working class and upper class sitting side-by-side in the Tinderbox on Byers Rd. or singing the same songs at a Partick Thistle game would cause me to reimagine how I was to live, to serve, and even to believe. Over the six years we lived in Glasgow, my imagination shifted in ways both subtle and dramatic. Seismic shifts in how I saw faith, life and the resources I would draw from to make meaning in the world. Like Lanark’s Thaw, I only allowed myself to consider Glasgow as a parody of sorts – a place Belle and Sebastian made music, where AL Kennedy wrote her novels, and launching pad from which to see the Highlands and Islands of the Celtic twilight. What I didn’t take into account was that I would grow to see that much of what I learned was deeper than a renewed reason and was really a transformed heart. But this always comes with a cost and part of that cost was seeing and listening to the world in different ways, seeking out conversation partners that would not be valued (read: not authoritative) by some, and even dreaming of a world that was not the world of others.

This morning our church reflected on the stoning of Stephen in the book of Acts. In chapter 7 Stephen, one of seven deacons of the followers of Christ, is charged with sedition and treason (“We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God” – Acts 6:11) and as such is sentenced to death before the Sanhedrin. Chapter 7 of Acts is Stephen’s grand sermon where he challenges the lack of theological imagination of those who consider themselves stewards and guardians of the faith. He rolls back time to recount from the very foundations of the faith that there is an expansiveness and wideness to God’s working in the world that is now ushering in a new way and depth that not only continues on all the God has been doing, but will increase it even further to the very ends of the earth. Stephen is so passionate about this vision he has that he essentially turns to the so-called guardians of the tradition and utters these words:

“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” – Acts 7: 51 – 53

With this Stephen is put to death with stones emblematic of the cold, hard, unchanging and unbending hearts that surrounded this first martyr of the renewal movement now called the Church.

I find a lot of commonality in Stephen and Thaw and will admit that after the past few weeks wondering whether we live in a world where renewal and change will ever come to the venerated institutions that guide and manage our public discourse, our view of the Good, our vision for humanity and even the so-called orthodoxy as to what passes as true faith and right belief. I wonder with Thaw if all that we sometimes truly offer the world around us is more of the ‘same’ – the repeated refrain of old sayings that are safe and don’t cause mischief, the repose of the theologically rigorous yet little of the prophetically bold, the caution of partial activism that only serves to justify my life yet offers little enduring justice for others, and an economy of sacrifice that is measured carefully and with restraint and therefore costs me so little as to seem like a fad rather than faith. And yet here is Stephen, pounding out the faith story to the point of death and taking no prisoners along the way. Here is Stephen, caring so much for the future to be realized in the now that he will stand at the gates of power and no longer be silent. Here is Stephen, not even an apostle of the Church and merely a deacon, willing to engage the collected powerful and remind them that faith is only seen in what we release from our grasp and not in what we guard and protect at all costs.

There are times when people need to reach ever deeper into their hearts and ask with all sincerity whether the world is truly that which they ultimately desire and for those that we call our neighbors.

Is this all – as Alastair Gray’s Thaw muses in relation to Glasgow – that we offer the world and ultimately all we offer ourselves? Are we so tied to the way things have been that we cannot hear the worlds of prophesy when they knock on our door and preach to us truth?



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