Faith and Fiction


I’ve been reading about the Reverend E. J. H. Nash (1898-1982). He was a remarkably single-minded man and a highly influential one. His whole life was dedicated to winning people to Christ. And not just any people, but boys from the top English public schools, many of whom would go on to be high up in the Church, the Services, the Government, and the realm of industry and finance. So successful was he, at least with the first category in my list, that virtually all the leaders of evangelical Anglicanism in the late 20th century emerged from his Iwerne camps. 

It is said that Nash never read novels and disapproved of others reading them. This is food for thought for a Christian Writer. Of course, many ACW members write non-fiction: Bible study notes, guides to various aspects of the Christian life, memoirs, and so forth. Presumably these would have met with Nash’s approval. He himself was nurtured almost exclusively on the works of R. A. Torrey, perhaps not very familiar to the present generation of Christians. And the Bible of course. I suppose he would have viewed those of us who write imaginative literature as wasting our time, the time of other Christians, and perhaps worst of all, that of non-Christians on the broad way to destruction.

Since his whole life was dedicated to evangelism, and he thought that all other Christians’ lives should be too, he must have believed that both reading and writing fiction would simply detract from this vocation. He presumably did something else for rest and recreation. Not the theatre and cinema, as he disapproved of them as well. His disciples mostly favour sport, which forms the bread in the sandwich of the Iwerne camp diet.

Nash worked out how to create an environment in which young men were enabled first to give their lives to Christ, then to remain wholeheartedly faithful to that way of salvation, and finally to become replicators of this method of evangelism. His successor as director of the Iwerne camps, David Fletcher, even described the Alpha course as basically the Iwerne programme with a charismatic component tacked on. Iwerne was a sort of crucible in which evangelists were formed. Sadly, it was also a nest in which the cuckoo of abuse was hatched, as documented in the rather graphically entitled book Bleeding for Jesus. Was this just a tragic aberration? Hard to say, though the fostering and subsequent concealment of not one but two simultaneous abuse scandals might suggest some inherent flaw.

Another 20th century priest with an enormous influence on his contemporaries was the saint whose feast day it is as I write (23 September), St Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968). He  ‘bled for Jesus’ personally and involuntarily, rather than deliberately causing other people to do it as Nash’s errant disciple John Smyth did. He suffered the stigmata in hands, feet, and side for fifty years. He tried his best to conceal the phenomenon, wearing mittens to celebrate the Eucharist, but it was publicized world-wide and no naturalistic explanation was found by the numerous physiologists who investigated it.

Padre Pio portret

I don’t suppose Padre Pio read novels either. He too was utterly dedicated to the salvation of souls, mostly the souls of poor people, spending eight hours a day hearing confessions and much of the night in prayer, besides his long spells at the altar. There wouldn’t have been time. But in any case, the peasant society of southern Italy in which he lived probably had no tradition of reading and writing fiction. It would have been a culture of oral story-telling, much of it dealing with the lives and miracles of the saints, and of colourful festivals and processions.

As we descend towards a winter of unprecedented darkness and suffering for thousands, we need a message to keep us going. I don’t know what E. J. H. Nash’s would have been, but I do know St Pio’s: Pray, hope, and don’t worry.

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