Phil the Shelf: exploring 'faith-lit'

Monday 29 July 2013, 11:03

Phil Rickman Phil Rickman

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Let's face it: if it wasn't for God, being an atheist would be no fun at all.

Without the Bible, the Welsh geneticist Steve Jones' latest book wouldn't have a sexy title like The Serpent's Promise, suggesting, as it does, all manner of seductive sins.

Actually, it's just an attempt - fairly successful as far as it goes - to explain the Bible with reference to current scientific thinking.

Steve Jones is, of course, far too cool to come over as an arm-waving evangelical, fundamentalist atheist like, erm, others in his profession.

And, though he is an atheist, the Christian ministry is actually in his west Wales genes, as he explains on the BBC Radio Wales book programme, Phil the Shelf, before the show widens out to look at what's new in faith-lit.

Professor Steve Jones Professor Steve Jones

The thing about God is that he doesn't just walk off into the sunset, and people are still making life-changing discoveries.

For example, Margaret Coles, a former Sunday Times journalist from the Conwy Valley, has discovered that God might not, after all, be a grim-faced bearded bully who employs the Devil to deal with unrepentant sinners, but a kind-hearted, tolerant super-being who has already forgiven you.

This is the message of Julian of Norwich, a woman of the 14th century whose visionary manuscript, Revelations of Divine Love, is also remarkable for what could be the most forensically gritty account of the crucifixion of Christ in existence.

It reads like journalism, and Margaret Coles has threaded Julian into The Greening, an usual novel about a contemporary journalist's struggle to find love and become professionally worthwhile.

We also look at the largely-American sub-genre of crime fiction known as the clerical mystery, through Unholy Communion, a thriller by Donna Fletcher Crow from Idaho. Its subject is modern pilgrims following the old St David trail from Caerleon to the Pembrokeshire coast, tailed all the way by the forces of evil. How come only Americans these days can get away with what you'd have to call a devout detective story?

Finally, we look at the very American phenomenon of Scientology, with The Church of Fear, Panorama reporter John Sweeney’s account of his pursuit of Scientologists in nice suits, their pursuit of him and how he lost his cool with one of them and became a star on YouTube.

Scientology, and its set of practices known as Dianetics, were the invention of a science-fiction writer called L Ron Hubbard, and, in a curious way, they do seem actually to work. Behind all the fantasy stuff about evil entities from Outer Space lies what, even to psychiatrists, must be quite a credible idea about spring-cleaning your subconscious so you can move on.

However, 'going clear', as they call it, is not cheap.

Well, OK, it's peanuts if you're a Scientological role model like Tom Cruise but, for the rest of us, it might involve a second mortgage. John Sweeney's book appears to suggest that the Church's reputation for being sinister and manipulative and driving innocent Panorama reporters over the edge might, in some way, be not unconnected with protecting its enormous profits.

Talking of which gives me an idea. Surely there must be a massive bestseller-in-waiting called Teach Yourself Scientology, through which readers can learn to come to terms which their Inner Thetan* without spending tens of thousands or having to meet smooth men in expensive suits.


*Thetans? It's a long story. You need to listen to the programme.

Listen to Phil the Shelf on BBC Radio Wales today, Monday 29 July, from 6.30pm. If you miss the show, catch up on BBC iPlayer for the next seven days.

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