Between the monster and the saint

Book signing
Book signing

76 years old and on his 27th book, Richard Holloway nicknamed the “Barmy Bish” has been for me a minor revelation. I can’t say I had massively high hopes, at The Auckland Writer and Readers Festival, of super enjoying an hour listening to an ex-Bishop burble on but hey, as always I was wrong. No burbling, not much religion, tears, laughter and a full-house.

Holloway resigned from the postitons of Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus Of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 2oo0 and now terms himself  an “after-religionist”, a label he prefers over the more loaded title agnostic. He still values the role of religion but is if anything even keener now without his mitre, he threw it in a river, to ponder the big existential questions and explore the nature of humanity both good and bad.

Holloway’s latest title Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the human condition looks to explain and rate the differing responses to the “big questions” and he sees four major categories: those with strong religious conviction, those with a weak religious conviction, after-religionists like Holloway himself and those that just don’t get religion at all or are even hostile towards it. Of course Mr Richard Dawkins does in Holloway’s view fall into the latter category adding that “Dawkins needs to go back on the prozac and chill out a bit”. Holloway does see a role for atheism in combatting false idolatry; likewise he strongly emphasised the importance of writers, artists and general creativity in ridiculing authority figures to expose and temper corruption.

On forgiveness
On forgiveness

He talked briefly about his  energetic little dog Daisy and his sadness that the Christian church denies animals souls. He suggested that heaven might in fact be full of  homicidal turkeys, chickens, cows and pigs all looking for revenge, having suffered to make us fat.  Equally unappealing to him is the stereotype heaven with endless masses and choirs of angels.

The overriding message Holloway seeks to share, and he became quite emotional at this point, is the need for pity and the role of imagination in engendering empathy. Encounter with others is an essential part of understanding and with understanding comes a true humanity. At the end of the session  Aotea Centre volunteers had to almost forcibily eject several members of the audience, myself included, who had started impromtu conversations with complete strangers raving about the barmy bish, his courage and kindness.

The next 100 years

The famous opening line from Allan Ginsberg’s poem Howl goes “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”. This afternoon I got the sense that I simply saw the best minds of my generation as James Surowiecki, George Friedman, Hendrik (Rik) Hertzberg, Richard Holloway, Marcus Chown, and Mohammed Hanif sat in comfy chairs to discuss the deliriously lighthearted topic of where humanity might be going in the next century.

I had hoped that this session might be a little more freeform with the gathered “big brains” perhaps riffing off each others ideas a little more but I guess this was difficult given that each person (notably no women) had quite different “realms of interest”. The next 100 years is a pretty big topic after all and discussion on this  could go in any number of directions. Initially Chair Sean Plunket did pretty well in sharing the spotlight amongst the six men but as the hour and a half long session wore on the three Americans tended to dominate necessarily veering the discussion into the area of world economics and politics. James Surowiecki and George Friedman were particularly, yes I will say it, long-winded in their responses to questions. Continue reading