Thoughts on Reading P.D. James

This is an unusually long post for me, and if I were you I’d skip it.  It’s just something I needed to get down in writing.

Every once in a while I’ll pick up a P.D. James book just to get away from theology and immerse myself in a good British murder mystery, and what do I get?  Theology!

A sub-theme that runs through many of her books explores the struggles of contemporary British religion in which the C of E is regarded, mostly, as a moderately charming, anachronistic and quite minor adornment to the upper-class pomp and circumstances of British society that have become the mainstays of its tourist industry.  Modern Brits who actually have to live in that society must work in an around all of that with a certain respect for what it offers to the economy, and some residual pride in it as well, but they don’t have to take it seriously, and, as far as the C of E is concerned, they are unable to connect whatever it has to offer with the ultimate questions of life that trouble their minds and souls. 

Other denominations, if mentioned at all, are perceived as having retained the dead faith of the C of E without keeping the only thing of value it had to offer, its rites and rituals.  They are like sails full of wind with no ship beneath them.

Nevertheless, her books are populated by characters who know they are missing something of great value, who constantly struggle with, even battle, the God in whom they don’t believe, and who have a nagging suspicion that maybe the Church actually does hold the key to the most important mystery of all.  The fact is that she does a terrific job of describing the contemporary agnostic and atheistic mind sets, and maybe we should pay a little more attention to that if we are to become better evangelists.

Of course we are Americans, not Brits, and Americans believe in God don’t they?  All the surveys say they do.  So, as evangelists, all we have to do is explain to people who already believe in God why it is that they should do that in our churches and according to our doctrines, rites and rituals.  Right?

I’m more inclined to think that we have our own version of the C of E and it’s not the Episcopal Church.  It’s Evangelicalism.  Evangelicalism may not be a denomination, or even all that easy to define, but it seems to me to be an adornment to America’s own version of tradition.  In it’s current form it does that through five tenets of beliefe.  It affirms a certain romance connected with the right to bear arms as an icon of our independence by being staunchly protective of the Second Amendment, excluding all others, as if it was one of the Ten Commandments.  It gives the impression that once one has said the “Sinner’s Prayer” and accepted Jesus as one’s personal savior, one must turn one’s full attention to condemning homosexuality, endorsing creationism, and becoming rigidly anti-abortion, all in the name of family or traditional American values.

The media portray it not as a lifeless but charming icon such as the C of E, but as part of the life force of America, and to a certain extent they are right.  But I think the great, oh what is that term?  Ah, yes, the great silent majority, are more inclined to see Evangelicalism, however defined, as an anachronistic entertainment not so much different from Civil War reenactments and preserved colonial villages.  Evangelicalism has become a symbol of something that defines America to the world, but in which most contemporary Americans don’t actually live or participate.  As a result, Evangelicalism is not likely to draw the questioning unbeliever toward God in Christ, but keep them away.

Nevertheless, like the agnostics and atheists in James’ novels, their questions persist about the ultimate meaning of life, and there is always a nagging sense that, perhaps buried somewhere in American Evangelicalism, is the key to the answers.   I think that they are right.  The key that is so deeply buried is the truth of God in Christ that is at the very heart of what we Episcopalians and other mainline denominations (including Roman Catholics) are most able to unearth and hand over.  To do that we must become bold evangelists, and that’s the subject for another essay.

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on Reading P.D. James”

  1. This is an interesting idea, but I think there are some pretty significant differences between the role that the CofE plays in British society and the role that Evangelicalism plays in US society. For one, the CofE, rightly or wrongly, is part of the shorthand for \”mainstream\” or traditional Englishness. Evangelicalism, rightly or wrongly, is (depending on where you live, I guess) often portrayed as a significant and vocal subculture – a minority; a political/social contingent that often operates in opposition to \”mainstream\” America (although the shock of the 2004 election, it seems to me, was \”mainstream\” America realizing that the Evangelical subculture wasn\’t really a subculture, and \”we\” weren\’t the mainstream – but it was a shock because that was largely the understanding on the ground.)It all depends on who defines mainstream…the significant difference here is that the CofE is finally waking up to the fact that it ISN\’T mainstream anymore, where as Evangelical America is realizing that it just might be, or that it has a lot of power if it can claim to be such.BTW, what PD James book are you reading?

  2. The actor who played the part of Inspector Adam Dalgleish in one of the series based on the mysteries of P.D. James said, in a TV interview, that she was a conservative person of \”received opinions\”. I think that she shows, in her writings, a sort of sad nostalgia for the traditions of the Church of England, without any real hope that it has any of the answers for what Garrison Keillor calls \”life\’s persistent questions\”. Her attraction to the Church seems like that of T.S.Eliot in his Four Quartets. It is similar to the attraction that drew so many artists and intellectuals to Roman Catholicism in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century (and to the Anglo-Catholicism of that era also). G.K.Chesterton, whom you say you have not read, followed that path, but called \”reverence\” the \”tribute one respectfully pays to a beautiful lie.\”

  3. P.S. I assume that \”nathan\” is our brilliant Whitman graduate now at the General Seminary in New York?

  4. Interesting. I think I must now read some P.D. James, as I am entirely unfamiliar with her work. Like you, I love good crime fiction as a bit of light relief, but I always read you Americans, never my own native British authors. Maybe part of the escapism is reading about a culture other than one\’s own?As to PD James\’s portrayal of the CoE, I think that it kind of depends what class and background you are.I just took a look at James\’s website, and she is clearly an upper-middle-class white elderly woman whose background would have been steeped in the kind of \’village fete\’ stereotype CoE. I can imagine her yearning – through her characters – for that and by extension for a genuine spirituality.I think that many of my countrymen are indeed sentimental in their outlook (witness our absurd clinging to our anchronistic system of monarchy), but I suspect we hunger after a kind of idealised sepia-tinted version of the 1950s that didn\’t really exist. I agree that \’church\’ generally is viewed as irrelevant by many. But I think that recent discussions at the General Synod around homosexuality, plus the agreement to women bishops, bruising as they have been to many, have shown even to the man and woman in the street that the modern CoE is willing to talk about important issues.But by the same token, perhaps that\’s made the CoE seem political rather than relevant.I suspect that for us here there is a hunger after spirituality, but that the concept of \’church\’ is largely irrelevant. I\’m not at all sure that most British people even see the CoE as mainstream any more. We have large Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as many other faiths, with good visibility.But I could be completely wrong!

  5. As to your thesis that the Evangelical movement, however vaguely defined, is the American institution most corresponding to the position of the C of E, I have reservations. That movement, for one thing, seems very vibrant and alive, not moribund as the English version. The recent Republican convention seems to demonstrate how linked that party now is to the Evangelical movement, as the C of E is to what Tess calls the \”absurdly anachronostic monarchy\”. And the Republican politicians are careful to show what Chesterton called \”reverence\” toward Evangelical Christianity, without any necessarily accompanying belief. The financier J.P. Morgan was a generous patron of the Episcopal Church, which he somewhat irreverently called \”the Republican Party at prayer\”. Now that title passes to the Evandelical right wing!

  6. I think the term \”evangelical\” covers a wider spectrum of social and political views than those you\’ve ascribed to evangelicalism.Many labeled \”evangelical\” don\’t think of themselves that way at all, even though the particular churches they attend might come under the evangelical umbrella . I never think of myself as an evangelical, although I attend a non-denominational church, which believes, among other things, in evangelism.As an aside, I\’d like to point out that I almost never hear politics discussed among people with whom I worship. So I don\’t know the political views of most of the members and regular attenders at my probably evangelical church. This leads me to conclude that what you\’ve called \”evangelicalism\” doesn\’t really exist, although you\’ve drawn a good caricature of the stereotype with which we\’ve become familiar. I think evangelicalism is a media distortion of the views of conservative Christians.Among the people with whom I worship, I\’ve never heard anyone talk about the Second Amendment. I have heard a few discuss abortion, and they were all pro-life.But I know quite a few ardent Second Amendment supporters who not only aren\’t religious, it would be a cold day in Hell before they darkened a church door. Their conservatism seems to stem from their military service. Most of them are at least nominally pro-choice. I have the distinct impression that, almost to a man, they vote Republican.I think Christians in general and evangelicals in particular tend to be misrepresented in the media, mostly because of ignorance. So here we are, trying to have this discussion, with what is actually a faulty point of reference.

  7. Both Anon (Dr. B.) and Firefly have commented on my analogy from the point of view of the institutional church, but I intended it to be more about the dynamics at play. If, in James, the CofE is a caricature of Christianity, then I suggest that in America, what I call Evangelicalism fulfills that same caricature role. The big difference being that there really is a CofE, whereas evangelicalism is a potpourri of various elements of conservative and often fundamentalist evangelical Christianity that does not actually exist in any one organization. Bryan McLaren\’s \”A Generous Orthodoxy\” touches on some of that idea.

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