Sermon by Prof Graham Holderness: Chiswick Book Festival Mass 2016

People of the Book (Book Festival Mass, September 18th 2016)

The Chiswick Book Festival is an event in the life of a community, in this case a community centred around this church. It’s about bringing people together to share common interests and enthusiasms, exchange ideas, listen to one another’s points-of-view, learn more about other people and about themselves.

Books can do this. A best-selling novel like The Girl on the Train which has sold 11 million copies world-wide enables millions of people to share the same experience, as they are all reading the same standardised text, even in foreign language translation. And when we bring such people together here in Chiswick we extend and enrich our own neighbourhood, locally, nationally and even internationally. Books bring people together into the same place, allow them to enter the same imaginative world, foster an experience of community.

But that’s not the only thing books do. Books can also divide communities, set people against one another, create or focus conflict. Many of our greatest books have been highly controversial, attacked by literary establishments, censored, banned. Because the greatest books imagine and envisage a world different from the world around us; and not everyone wants us to see it. Books push into the future where most people prefer to stay in the past. The Guardian published a list of ‘10 books that changed the world’. You could guess at most of them. Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Marx and Engels The Communist Manifesto. Toni Morrison’s Beloved. These books were not published to bring people together, but to challenge the existing order. They divided people from one another, in order to move the world on. Eventually new communities emerge that are partly shaped by these revolutionary works. Today our common culture is predicated on ideas such as evolution, the unconscious, social and racial equality. Initially these ideas divided: now they’re part of a common culture, part of the world we share.

Most controversial of all is of course the kind of book we know as ‘scripture’. Sacred writings; Holy Writ. We call ours the Bible, which means in Greek simply ‘books’, biblia. The books; the book. The book, ‘the good book’, the signature equipment of Christians throughout the ages. Christians became known in Asia and Africa as ‘people of the book’ as that was how missionaries presented themselves, Bible in hand. And we are ‘people of the book’, not because we run an annual book festival, but because the Bible, biblia, the books, remains absolutely central to everything we do.

But that term ‘people of the book’, which seems to fit us so well, is not a description Christians gave themselves. In fact it originates in the Quran, and was a term used by Muslims to define both Christians and Jews. In this term Muslims recognised both Jews and Christians as monotheists who acknowledge one God; and as having some sacred writings in common with Islam. The Quran of course overlaps with both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. But its emphasis is not on commonality and community of faith: but rather on difference and distinction. In Sura 5 of the Quran, God explains that he offered a covenant to the children of Israel, but they perverted it:

Allah did take a covenant from the Children of Israel … But because of their breach of their covenant, We cursed them, and made their hearts grow hard; they change the words from their (right) places and forget a good part of the message that was sent them.

The same thing then happened with the Christians:

From those, too, who call themselves Christians, We did take a covenant, but they forgot a good part of the message that was sent them: so we estranged them, with enmity and hatred between the one and the other, to the day of judgment.

Jews and Christians strayed from the straight path, failed to recognise the Messenger of Allah -the prophet Muhammed – and were estranged from God.

O people of the Book! There hath come to you from Allah a (new) light and a perspicuous Book. Wherewith Allah guided all who seek His good pleasure to ways of peace and safety, and leadeth them out of darkness, by His will, unto the light, guideth them to a path that is straight.

This language should be quite familiar to us.

Allah guideth them out of the darkness and into the light. (That’s the Quran.)

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. (That’s Isaiah 60).

If humanity could be reconciled with God, we could enjoy infinite and eternal security:

Allah guideth all who seek His good pleasure to ways of peace and safety,… (Quran)

‘No longer will violence be heard in your land,
    nor ruin or destruction within your borders … (Isaiah 60)

These are all beautiful poetic visions of a life beyond violence and destruction; a life of peace, security, eternal joy. But the tricky question is: who is this salvation for? All humanity? Or just one particular section of humanity? In both the Quran and the Old Testament the Lord promises to save and protect his people, ‘the righteous’, the ‘godly’, the faithful; the Muslims or the Jews. But he will destroy the unrighteous, the ungodly, the unbelievers.

Do good, O LORD, unto those that be good, and to them that are upright in their hearts.

As for such as turn aside unto their crooked ways, the LORD shall lead them forth with the workers of iniquity (Isaiah).

You could hear that prayer, using much the same words, repeated daily all over Britain and in many parts of the world. But it would be in Arabic:

Guide us in the straight path

The path of those whom thou hast blessed

Not of those against whom thou art wrathful

Nor of those who are astray.

From the first sura (chapter) of the Qur’an; the ‘dua’ which every Muslim must recite many times every day.

These are examples of books written to divide and separate. The Hebrew Bible gave the Jews their own cultural identity, to distinguish them from the pagan societies all around them. The Quran did the same for Muslims: enabling them to think of themselves as quite different from Jews or Christians. And our New Testament is hardly any different: it was written to separate Christianity from Judaism and the paganisms of the Roman Empire and the pagan societies of the Middle East. And this is how books work to create new worlds, by splitting the old world, dividing communities, setting people against one another.

But the real test of a book’s greatness, whether it’s a work of literature of scripture, is its capacity to grow beyond that initial revolutionary stage, and to lead people into a new world of reconciliation, peaceful co-existence, community. It’s no good everyone being on a straight path if every path leads somewhere completely different. It’s no good our considering ourselves righteous, godly and faithful if those beliefs encourage us to hate others who are different. And that applies to all of us, all ‘People of the Book’. We should be sharing and rejoicing in in our common heritage. The God of Christians and Muslims is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; the God who sends Isaiah’s great light; Allah’s table spread with food from heaven; St John’s true and living bread. In the words of St Paul:

I urge that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—God our Saviour wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. (Epistle to Titus)

All the great faiths are, in the words of the declaration of the Second Vatican Council Nostra Aetate, ‘In Our Time’, ‘rays of that Truth which enlightens all men’:

Christ underwent his Passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is therefore the burden of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.[1]


[1] Holy See: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions (Rome: The Vatican, 1965).