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Review: Exploring Narrative and Belief

Richard Holloway
Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making Meaning in a Meaningless Universe

The Secretaries of State for Health and Education have been telling stories this week that many of us don’t believe. Reorganising Public Health England mid pandemic will create more chaos to add to the exam debacle. Mat Hancock ‘does not accept’ the evidence (even the science) put to him that such reorganisation will distract and demoralise staff.

Stories we tell ourselves are important and give us meaning in what might otherwise be a meaningless world. That is the view of Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, who now sits on the edge of belief in the God story – he lives with and without God. The book is his attempt to answer a personal quest to identify the story he lives by and the consequences. He explains his personal problem with religious stories of a good God that allows the ‘sorrows of children’. He finds weakness in theological systems as they demonstrate ‘a discomfort with uncertainty that impels a compulsion to explain or account for every mystery under the sun.’ Holloway is more comfortable with mystical story telling.

The book is the result of wide reading but has far too many quotes. There are great insights to be found but you will have to dig for them. Science is not immune from telling stories about what is ‘true’. Such truth is often contextual and paradigm shifts occur at points of transformation when an accepted world view changes. Part one explores stories about the universe and where we came from and then moves on to look at stories that we told ourselves before science uncovered the reality of creation and sin. Holloway considers politics and religion to be ways in which we ‘channel our hopes, fears and insecurities’ seeking to turn them into ‘infallible systems of knowledge’, which he describes as pseudoscience.

Mystics with and without mushrooms in part three provide an insight to where Holloway is most comfortable – ‘straddling a frontier’ where he is ‘mistrusted by both sides’. He then tackles the problem that occurs if you ‘believe that the universe has some sort of purpose, the fact of suffering…’ His desire is that we do not ‘close our accounts with reality’ and believe we ‘know the absolute truth about the nature and direction of the universe…’ His exploration of Bonhoeffer’s theology in relation to suffering were, for me, the most interesting part of the book.

Holloway concludes with the story he tells himself. It is a story about the Christ event. He is no longer interested in justifying it or persuading others of it. His is a practical approach – what difference does this story make. He finds the concept of forgiveness to be revolutionary – to ‘reverse the world’s chronic addiction to revenge.’ As a follower of Jesus – it is actions not God that he believes in.

The book makes sense if you see it as a personal exploration of meaning. It is wide ranging and thought provoking. It will challenge you to question the stories you live by. If you prefer not to enter that level of uncertainty about the meaning of life, then leave well alone.

Review by Canon Mike D Williams