Victoria and Albert Museum 26 October 2013–19 January 2014 Admission £13.50

IF YOU have ever been irritated by swarms of Oriental tourists clicking away at our cultural treasures, this exhibition offers the chance to get your own back. Not that you will be allowed to take photos – the strict Chinese tradition of keeping light off works on paper goes back to the fourteenth century – but you can be an ignorant gawper and read the scrolls from the wrong end (readers of NEW DIRECTIONS will know to start from the right).

A better way to get even is to enjoy this great show. It aims to provide an introduction to the history of Chinese painting, though not that of the modern era. Even so, despite the quality of the presentation, for most of us the show will be a challenge of taste and judgement to see just how well we might appreciate great art without much by way of cultural background.

There are eighty exhibits. They cover twelve hundred years; that is five hundred years more than the National Gallery does. In such a broad sweep of history it is inevitable there will be periods which do not appeal. For me those periods are the late Western influenced works and the early Indian influenced ones. But it is worth spending time with the early works. They are an important prologue to the tradition of hanging works, as opposed to scroll paintings, and a rare and precious loan from the Musée Guimet.

Much more interesting is the first work on display, the snappily entitled ‘Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk.’ This work is one of the very fine US loans and is from the early twelfth century. It might have been painted by the Emperor Huizong, one of a number of emperors whose love of the arts didn’t save them or their empire from defeat and ruin. The picture is on a gold ground painted on silk and shows three groups of court ladies preparing silk. The delicate patterns of the robes counterpoint the black of the ladies’ hair. The three scenes move from one to the other like some of the later landscapes. Another court ladies scene from the fifteenth century features women playing golf and football – pace Boris’ claims for ping-pong, you wonder what the Chinese didn’t do first.

An important feature of the Chinese artistic tradition is the way the calligraphy may be an important part of a painting. Even if we cannot read the characters it is still possible to feel the dash, bravura and sentiment conveyed by virtuoso penmanship. One example of this is Chen Rong’s ‘Nine Dragons’ (thirteenth century). This is the earliest surviving dragon painting. The technique and control of the characters is on a par with the brushwork which creates the swirling dragons. And what dragons! They are so captivating as they chase around and merge with mountains and clouds.

More sedate are such landscapes as the ‘Winter Evening’ by Li Gongnian (early twelfth century). Here the mountains are again misty, but now far away, part of a distant view for the traveller looking beyond spiky and gnarled trees along a river valley. These are pictures to let the imagination walk in, and this one at least is not ruined by collectors placing their seals all over the picture. The tradition of the connoisseur who makes his mark as part of the life of a picture may be an early form of reader response, but the organizers tacitly recognize the limitations of this practice by showing how much better Ni Zan’s ‘Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu’ would look without all the chop marks.

Social realism does not feature in this art, and another landscape genre – that of bamboo and rocks – could easily be the nadir of a centrally imposed tradition of aesthetic conformity. But with a specialist such as Zheng Xie the genre becomes just the thing to which Matisse looked to give solace after a hard day’s work. The example in the show is remarkable for the sense of perspective created by shades of grey and by the delicate balance of forms. Relaxation of a different kind is provided by ‘Prosperous Suzhou,’ a very long scroll devoted to showing the achievements of the Qing emperors. It is a work praised by David Hockney for the excitement created by the lack of viewpoint, though we might also enjoy it as a high quality version of ‘Where’s Wally?’

A third type of painting alongside the scroll and hanging painting is the painted fan. Modern versions of this can easily be kitsch but those on show are too fine to wave in the air. They are painted on silk and epitomize precise observation of nature alongside balance and a bold use of space. They are just some of the highlights of a show which seems to grow in recollection, which is as it should be with such masterpieces of seeing and technique. The catalogue is excellent.

Owen Higgs

THE BIBLE Channel 5



THERE WAS a sudden outbreak of religion on TV this month, and that’s quite apart from the media’s on-going fascination with footage of Pope Francis embracing the poor, the disfigured and the bewildered. Even Channel 5 got in on the act, with the beginning of the award-winning miniseries The Bible. Criticisms of this series have included the suggestions that it is too cartoony; that there are moments when it borders on the Python-esque in its romp through the Old Testament; and that King David in his shepherding days had implausibly perfect white teeth. But all of that rather misses the point, which is the remarkable fact that Channel 5 is broadcasting Bible stories as peak-time television. That this is slick, smooth, sub-Hollywood drama, repackaging the Bible ‘for a new generation’ (to quote Channel 5’s publicity material) should not take away from that fact. My favourite observation came from the wag who observed that while the TV adaptation isn’t bad, the book is better. Meanwhile, the rugged and perpetually windswept Simon Reeve began his latest series, on Pilgrimage. Featuring everything from Lindisfarne and Lincoln Cathedral to an ancient burial site for prostitutes in the depths of Southwark, this was an exciting and captivating journey through the world of pilgrimage past and present. Did you know, for example, that for something like 200 years Lincoln Cathedral was the tallest building on the planet? It was a salutary reminder of precisely how much we lost at the Reformation. Not that pilgrimage is solely a thing of the past, of course. Much fun was to be had putting names to familiar faces when Reeve visited the National Pilgrimage at Walsingham, and it is immensely to Reeve’s credit that he recognized and acknowledged the difference between a living and thriving pilgrimage site and historical monuments to a different, more religious age. Finally, there was the Richard Alwyn mini-series on Cathedrals. I cannot help wondering what it is that drives apparently sane and sensible people to agree to participate in these fly-on-the-wall documentaries. The basic problem is that you never know what angle the makers are looking for. And sure enough, the first episode, looking at Wakefield Cathedral, seemed from the outset to be setting up an ‘it’s grim oop north’ scenario, as the programme started with Alwyn travelling through foul winter weather to reach the mother church of the diocese soon to be formerly known as Wakefield. And in fact it was the unfolding story of the new super-diocese and Wakefield Cathedral’s opposition to it, coupled with the £3m refurbishment that was underway when the cameras arrived that drove the show’s narrative. The Dean of Wakefield hardly helped his cause by appearing to suggest, in commenting on value for money in the building project, that Jesus Christ might return as one of his successors. Given the startling appearance of the ambo in the newly refurbished cathedral, a visit from Dr Who seems rather more likely. In contrast to Wakefield, the sun shone brightly when the cameras visited Wells. This was useful, because everything else about it seemed pretty dull. By far the most grown-up – in every sense – of these three programmes was the final episode, on Southwark Cathedral. Amidst the breath-taking photography of the most vibrant and exhilarating city on earth, this was a portrait of a mature Christian community striving to make sense of that city – and to help make its residents, workers and visitors make sense of their own lives too by the constant presence of a Christian witness at the heart of one of the most dynamic parts of London. If there was an agenda here – and I suspect there was – to stick Southwark Cathedral firmly in the pro-feminist, pro-gay and anti-establishment boxes, then it was largely sidestepped (not defeated) by the confidence of the people involved in the life that they are living. When faced with what seemed to me to be some deliberately provocative questions about current affairs in the Church of England, the Dean did not hesitate to assert his own (wrong, as we would see it) position – but nor did he allow it to dominate the programme or undermine the life and mission of the Cathedral. Uniquely among the three episodes, it seemed as if the agenda was being set by the interviewees rather than the interviewer.

Readers of this magazine will have had many small things shown in this episode with which they would wish to quibble, no less than there are many weightier matters that we would wish to dispute with Southwark Cathedral. Bu this programme made me remember why it is worth engaging with the rest of the Church of England – because together, we have something to offer a society in desperate need of the knowledge of the Love of God. And if places like Southwark Cathedral can help people find that love, then who are we to stand in their way?

Richard Mahoney


Colm Tóibín Penguin, 112pp, pbk

978 0241962978, £7.99

WHEN I heard that Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year I was pleased. My previous experiences of his writing had been good, especially his descriptive way of painting the background upon which his characters live out the story. There can be a harshness, almost anger, that comes through at times in his fiction as reality. Knowing this, and hearing also that this was a portrait of Mary as fully human, prepared me well, as surely Mary would have had a great deal to be angry about in her life and in her grief.

The Testament is written with Mary as narrator, describing what happened and what is happening still, her struggle to make some sense of it all and find rest. One of the first things we learn is that Mary cannot sleep. Her mind races continually over the past, going over and over again its events and questioning ‘what if….?’ There is the constant threat too that the authorities might come knocking on her door, that she will be next, so that she needs to be always anonymous, hiding away.

Two disciples regularly visit, and see she has all she needs, but their visits are increasingly unwelcome. They are writing it all down and want her version of what took place. When this sometimes does not chime with what they want to hear, they disagree and tensions rise. There is almost humour in her coping with what she increasingly sees as intrusions, to the extent that she does not even deign to name the second disciple and seems to block him out completely.

As readers of the Gospels we are all used to the writers using the events to help get their message across to their readership. So sometimes events appear in different timescales. Thus I was not bothered that the account of the wedding at Cana comes at the end of Jesus’ ministry. It enables the testament to have Mary and Martha present with Lazarus, brought back from the dead. The description of this man, living this strange new life, is beautifully portrayed even in its (almost) tragedy. Here is a man who was dead in a tomb for days, now brought back into the daylight, into noisy company, with a knowledge of death which makes living difficult to cope with.

Mary’s description of the Good Friday events are realistic and painful. To cope, her mind seems to fixate on what is going on around her. Haven’t we all done that in times of grief or huge stress? Noticed something amusing, or absurd, become obsessed with what I or someone else is wearing; little unimportant things grow out of proportion, but allow our minds to process what is happening at a pace we can cope with? These passages all seem to make perfect sense; they are about a fully human being grieving.

Anyone who has made pilgrimage to the Holy Land and walked the Stations of the Cross will relate to this: the busyness of the city, the cramped space through which the processions walks, the ordinariness of life going on around, with its sights, noises and smells, the fact that most people do not seem to notice that I am trying to have a spiritual experience here, and continue on with their daily lives, immune, sometimes even jostling, pushing to get past these pesky tourists. Crucifixion was an everyday event, to be avoided by most; done on the whole to people ‘who deserved it’ so little interest or sympathy shown.

At first I wondered if her description of the end of the Crucifixion was part of that coping in Mary’s mind. Is she describing what she hoped had happened, rather than what did? This is because here the testament changes drastically to the testaments we Christians are used to. And then the lack of sleep, the anger, the restlessness in Tóibín’s Mary begins to make sense. This is a woman who has lived through the Crucifixion of her Son whom she knows to be different, set apart. The Resurrection seems to be taken as a given too. What is missing is Pentecost. This woman has not experienced the power of the Holy Spirit, she has not been convinced of her Son’s promise, ‘I will be with you till the end of time’.

She is like those people who are faithful, pious members of the church until something really hits them like bereavement or illness, or something awful happening to a loved one. They have not had that Pentecost experience that enables them to understand that if Christ was present with them in the good and ordinary times, then how much more likely is his presence in the bad, tough times. It is like when I convince myself that it is all right to do something that is unchristian, when I justify or excuse my behaviour, compartmentalize my life into church and non-church. Crucifixion and Resurrection are still real but the Pentecost is absent, that in all my thoughts and actions Christ is present it is simply me pretending otherwise for my own self.

So I enjoyed the read, but was pleased that Tóibín’s book didn’t win the Mann Booker Prize. I was not being naive enough to think that I was going to get a great Christian apologetic here, but I had hoped that it would maybe, with the exposure of success, lead others to a deeper understanding of our faith. But without the Spirit, my Christian discipleship is nought; without the Spirit, the Church, founded at the foot of the Cross with Mary and John, is simply a man-made institution, bound to fail, bound to disappoint and anger, and leave us (like the Mary and Lazarus of this book) wondering what this life is all for.

Nicolas Spicer


Debating Ethics and Faith with Leading Thinkers and Public Figures
(The Westminster Faith Debates)

Edited by Linda Woodhead

DLT, 176pp, pbk

978 0232530186 , £8.99

I READ this survey book in a month that saw the announcing of a Vatican survey along some similar lines. Both made me think of the Don Camillo story where he kneels before the crucifix with some pastoral issue and asks the Lord whether he should ‘consult public opinion’. ‘Don’t bother’, the Lord says, ‘just look what it did to me!’ Finding consensus on any matter is important but so is the courage to stand against what is deceptive, however popular that may be. Linda Woodhead, as a Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, is well equipped to facilitate the public conversations recorded in this book documenting how personal life choices connect with religious faith and practice. I found it painful reading.

‘Does the embryo have a soul?’ ‘Do we live in an over-sexualised society?’ ‘Is it right for religions to treat men and women differently?’ ‘What is a ‘traditional family’ and do we need it?’ ‘Do Christians really oppose same-sex marriage?’ ‘Should we legislate to permit assisted dying?’ ‘Why do God?’ Seven questions are addressed by a dozen or so public figures, most of whom would not be counted as among what the survey describes as the ‘moral minority’ in Britain – 8.5% of the population – who take their authority from scripture or religious leaders, rather than relying on their own judgement like the majority of religious and non-religious people in this country’. The consensus of thinking in the book is with the latter, i.e. with renegotiated Christian ethics. I agreed with a quotation from Austin Ivereigh of the lobby group Catholic Voices that such surveys may best show ‘how little exposed even practising religious people are to the teachings of their church’.

More positively it was good to read Giles Fraser’s traditionalist sentiments on assisted dying, countering Lord Falconer: ‘I don’t think you have a right over your own body’. Also Jenny Taylor’s discovering in Christianity ‘a tradition that taught me that the body is something very honourable, and very good…and how character becomes stronger through sexual continence. That creates stronger societies. It is the seed, the germ of civilisation’. Steve Chalke’s explanation of his change to accepting same-sex marriage through seeing the homophobia within Evangelicalism is powerful, even if it reduces marriage to an institution mainly serving our being ‘made for intimacy’. John Milbank is one of few convincing traditionalists interviewed in the book. He argues same-sex marriage is undemocratic in denying people the right to a ‘biological identity…emerging from a human interpersonal identity…getting rid of the idea that the sexual partnership mirrors the partnership between Christ the bridegroom and the church as bride…to admit gay marriage in the church would be to undo Christian doctrine’. The last chapter has Delia Smith engaging ‘pro-faith atheist’ Alastair Campbell on God with her bottom line ‘goodness will always win through’.

Religion and Personal Life paints a picture of a post-Christian society in which religious allegiance has little impact on sexual morality unless people are Muslim or Baptist. Linda Woodhead sees it as problematic for the Church of England ‘to be completely adrift from what most English people believe’, and there is the rub, especially for NEW DIRECTIONS readers who would see her bound to the faith of the universal Church through the ages. There is a catechetical problem, to put it mildly, for such age-old and proven faith is not getting communicated and owned in Britain today. This book is a wake-up call to those of us who value traditional faith and see its boundaries as empowering and not crippling to engage more in the public square.

John Twisleton


The Tightrope Walker Malcolm Johnson Christian Alternative, 220pp, pbk

978 1782790020, £9.99

MALCOLM JOHNSON was ordained in 1962 and served for five years at St Mark’s, Portsea, as one of eight curates, living in the clergy house with three other priests (including, initially, Edwin Barnes). He became Chaplain to Queen Mary College in 1967 and stayed in London until his retirement in 2001. His diaries offer a fascinating account of life in the City and Diocese of London in the last third of the twentieth century. It already seems a different world. His succinct pen portraits of bishops, royalty and church and civic dignitaries are well drawn, and he has amusing and curious tales to tell.

As Rector of St Botolph’s, Aldgate, from 1974 to 1992, Johnson developed a significant ministry to homeless people. St Botolph’s also became the headquarters of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and Johnson was known for his work for and with gay Christians and especially gay clergy. He represented the London clergy in the General Synod from 1985 to 2000, coming second to John Broadhurst in 1985 and topping the poll in 1990.

The book documents Johnson’s struggle with homosexuality in the 1960s. As a curate he spent Thursday nights in London, visiting a psychotherapist, attending choral evensong in Margaret Street and picking up a rent boy for £3 after supper (which left him with a lifelong ‘disgust of paying for sex’).

In 1968 he married, hoping he and his wife could ‘beat this homosexual thing together’. But he was unable to ‘satisfy her physically’. After seven months, much pain and even visits to three mediums they agreed to part and the marriage was annulled. Shortly afterwards Johnson met his partner Robert Wilson. It is salutary to be reminded of the torment that many gay men (and quite a few wives) endured not so long ago.

There was also a fair degree of ignorance. The day before the Gay Christian Movement’s inaugural service at St Botolph’s in 1976 the Archdeacon of London summoned Johnson and asked him, ‘What is gay?’ In 1978 Bishop Jim Thompson of Stepney asked him, ‘What do gay men do together?’ (‘I sat him down and told him everything. Well, perhaps not everything.’)

From 1985 onwards AIDS took its toll: funerals of priests and of talented and beautiful young men become a repeated refrain. Johnson sees gay relationships as intrinsically different from marriage. Believing that ‘most gay couples need and want sex outside their relationship’, he and his partner quickly rejected exclusive sexual faithfulness. In a meeting with Archbishop Carey in 1992 Jeffrey John was ‘pushing monogamy’ but Johnson disagreed. In 1977 Johnson (already blessing three same-sex couples a month) had been shocked when ‘two girls’ turned up for a blessing ‘one wearing a suit and one a bridal gown attended by five bridesmaids’. He vowed to ‘make sure this never happens again’. One day it might not matter if some gays and lesbians ‘want to ape heterosexual marriage’, he wrote, but ‘probably only a few’ would.

The hierarchy could not offer the public affirmation of Johnson’s sexuality that he craved, but the compassion and support he received from successive bishops and representatives of the secular ‘establishment’ are striking. This began in 1969, when Robert Stopford refused to accept his resignation after his marriage failed, saying that he had made a huge mistake but had done nothing wrong, and invited him to preach at St Paul’s.

Johnson became Master of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in 1993, but after three years he was asked to leave. The Governors paid his stipend for three more years, to enable him to continue his counselling ministry from St Martin in the Fields, but he felt ‘shabbily’ treated. One would like to hear the Governors’ side of the story.

Age often mellows people. Beliefs may become fixed, but one’s failings prompt charity towards others: most people have weaknesses, but it seems more profitable to rejoice in their strengths. People one has collaborated with remain friends despite differing beliefs, and a wide spectrum of friendship makes it difficult to dismiss whole categories of people.

The younger Johnson is likeable, charitable and fair: a right-wing lay opponent turns out in conversation to be ‘not the bigoted ogre I expected’; Johnson is ‘a fan’ of Archbishop Coggan despite their disagreement.

Towards the end, however, notes of bitterness creep in. Individuals with whom Johnson disagrees are dismissed with cutting remarks, and in April 2008 he writes, ‘It is difficult to know which I detest most – conservative Catholics or conservative evangelicals. They resemble a ladies’ loo – all clean, bright and sweet smelling, but underneath there is something nasty.’ Was Johnson a campaigner against prejudice, intolerance and bigotry, or was he, after all, merely fighting for people like him? In the Pilling Report the Bishop of Birkenhead writes, ‘Sadly, prejudice and intolerance sometimes have a strange tendency to flourish among those who were once their victims’ – a warning that all who feel marginalized should heed.

Johnson writes, ‘I do still believe in God although often He seems a Cosmic Sadist.’ Though he still prays, ‘I do not often attend church because the services are so stunningly boring and wordy.’ It seems a sad end to a notable ministry. These diaries are enjoyable and informative. Consciously and unconsciously, they have much to teach us.

Colin Podmore


Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk

Wiley, 274pp, pbk

978 0 470 67405 5, £14.99

THIS BOOK seemed like a good idea. If we are to be involved in the presentation of the Gospel in a secular age, it should be helpful to know how our opponents respond to our arguments, and which of ours carry little weight, or look plain stupid when viewed from another perspective. The title should have made me suspicious. ‘50 great myths’? Such exaggeration suggests a certain lack of self-awareness. Which was duly corroborated by the text.

This book was written to give encouragement to fellow atheists; it is lightened by a series of cartoons that are at times clever and cutting but hardly funny: they have their counterpart in those grumpy, agin-the-world cartoons to be found in many parish magazines. This is symptomatic, unfortunately, of a book too bad-tempered to commend itself to any but the paid-up members of the club.

One of the problems of talking with atheist intellectuals is that they almost universally take American Protestant fundamentalism to be the central – or even the only – form of Christianity. In the case of this book, they have a partial excuse in that they are Americans writing for an American audience. Unfortunately this then makes the arguments discussed less relevant and interesting: there are great cultural differences between Europe and the States. Much is shared, but as with any culturally coloured beliefs, much is not. We may feel greater affinity with an English atheist than with an American Episcopalian.

Would they have done better to narrow their scope? Of course. ‘Myth 22: Atheists don’t give to charity.’ From reading this chapter, it is abundantly clear this is no myth. They begin their case by arguing that the ‘billions and billions of dollars’ given by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett should be added to the atheist side so as to raise the average. When this does not carry sufficient conviction, they move to questioning the motivation of church-goers: surely, they argue, these people are giving out of a fear of divine sanction; atheists, self-evidently immune from this motivation, are therefore more likely to be giving ‘because they feel compassion’. What an unpleasant, ill-natured chapter. True, Christians can also be rude and unpleasant; but this is still bad writing.

Let’s take another example. ‘Myth 32: Atheists want to ban teaching religion to children.’ Richard Dawkins is well-known for arguing that the imposition of religious belief upon young children is ‘a form of child abuse’. After nuancing his thought at some length, the authors point out that Dawkins ‘has not argued that socializing a child into a religion is ipso facto child abuse’, and that A.C. Grayling actually ‘takes a harder line’, so presumably Dawkins cannot be that severe.

The worst part of this book, though, is the way in which it deals with the genuinely positive aspects of atheism. ‘Myth 18: Atheists turn to God when death is near.’ The philosopher David Hume died of abdominal cancer in 1776, and did so with great equanimity and almost Roman stoicism. His death, as one who refused any comfort of religion or any belief in an afterlife, had an immense social impact, and greatly disturbed his Christian friends such as James Boswell. The authors acknowledge this, and cite his example, as they should, with approbation. But it is clear they have no real appreciation of the importance of this event, nor of how much it did to commend the wider Enlightenment project, nor the influence it had on Christian apologetics. Since I would class Hume’s death as one of the ‘50 great moments’ of atheism (he wasn’t called ‘Saint David’ for nothing), I find their lack of understanding surprisingly dispiriting.

We need such books as this, but I would have to say this one gains only three out of ten for effort.

Anthony Saville


Priests Reflect on Personal Experiences of Serious and Terminal Illness

Edited by Jennifer Tann

Canterbury Press Norwich, 224pp, pbk

978 1848252776, £16.99

I HAD a telephone call from a priest friend the other evening. ‘I can’t stand any more of the ‘Sideline Smirkers’ in my parish’, he groaned. Although the phrase ‘Sideline Smirkers’ is not one that I would find in my dictionary, I knew exactly the sort of people he meant! They are those in any parish who are swift to know what they think the parish priest is doing wrong or what he should be doing right, but resolutely refuse to do anything themselves.

In the same way, ‘Soul Pain’ is a term that immediately conjures up the sort of suffering and torment that can strike at the very centre of a person’s being. It was coined by Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of St Christopher’s, the first hospice in England. And she certainly understood pain!

The editor of this book, Jennifer Tann, who is Professor Emerita of Innovation at Birmingham, as well as a very active and involved member of the Church of England, has collected together eleven very personal accounts of priests who in the course of their ministry have spent much time alongside people who are facing serious or terminal illness. Their stories are not, however, about other people’s stories of fear, anger and struggles with faith, but their own, when they are the ones diagnosed with a serious medical condition.

Each contributor recounts how they have found that being in the public eye adds an extra burden to their inner wrestling with the awful knowledge of their own illness. How much to tell others? How to carry on ministering to others while needing to be ministered to? Several times while reading this book I was reminded of another priest friend who only found out how much his people loved him when he had a breakdown and was no longer able to keep up the pretence of ‘Wonder Priest’. As he said to me, ‘My breakdown was my break through’!

Because of the theological training and skills of the authors and the editor, this book can explore the meaning of suffering and healing in an unusually rich and profound way. This is no academic treatise on the nature of suffering and God’s purposes for his world. These raw and heart-wrenchingly personal experiences of being confronted by very bad medical news indeed tell it like it really is.

The real cost of wrestling with belief when it is your life that is on the line is something almost too personal to share. However, these authors and their editor have managed to do so without becoming embarrassing, or above all, pious. This is not a comfortable book to read, but if you can, you will find that you have been privileged to walk with a collection of remarkable fellow Christians on their own Via Dolorosa.

George Nairn-Briggs


Lee Smolin

Allen Lane, 350pp, hbk

978 1846142994, £20

CONTEMPORARY PHYSICS has vast sums spent on it – witness the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva – and is able to amaze and fascinate us from the level of sub-atomic particles to the level of the universe itself. Unfortunately, in all this glorious panoply of science there is surprisingly little coherence of theory. Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time came out in the mid-Eighties, was beautifully written and was rightly lauded as utterly brilliant, but it could never have achieved such status now – witness Hawking’s later writing, strikingly mediocre by contrast.

There is simply too much going on, too many theories, too many untestable but persuasive alternatives, and above all too much technical detail. The various string theories, with their endlessly multiplying alternative universes, are symptomatic of the current complexity. It is all so technical that, unless you are a mathematician, there is little to enthuse us as the general public, which is why Professor Brian Cox is so curiously pedestrian in his theory, for all his infectious love of the physical details.

What is going on with the cosmos? The question may seem flippant, but it is important. Nations do not spend billions of pounds, working together in close co-operation, looking for something popularly called ‘the God particle’, unless it is seen as important. This is part of the background for our shared cultural norms in religion and mythology. It is not unfair to suggest that there is an essentially atheist consensus resting, unreasonably, on a most uncertain base of theoretical complexity. Scientists and politicians have not quite caught up with the changes of the past half century. We used to know where we were: this is no longer true.

Into this mix comes a confident, well-written book by a working physicist, with two books already under his belt. It has been hailed as a successful

attempt to cut the Gordian knot and restart cosmological physics along more satisfactory lines. That is going too far; but it is still worth celebrating. His vision? To re-introduce time as one of the essential (and no longer illusory) elements of the physical world.

The first part of the book explains this perhaps-unexpected feature of scientific explanation from the Enlightenment onwards, and the development from Newton right through to Einstein and beyond, of the idea of a block universe. Time, in this world, is another dimension to be added to the three we already know. We mortals pass through time, and experience it as real in our lives, but viewing the universe from a scientist’s perspective, from outside, it is seen as an illusion. In science, time has become one of the four dimensions of the space-time universe, imagined as an eternal block, unchanging and timeless.

It takes more than a couple of sentences to describe this approach, and to explain the paradoxical notion that time has had no place in physics. Smolin does it superbly. I would happily acknowledge that this is the best such description I have read. It is not a new idea – after all we learn it in school physics lessons – but it still deserves and repays clear and detailed explanation, especially when it includes twentieth-century developments in relativity and quantum physics.

In the second part, Smolin seeks to persuade us how and why time should be regarded not as illusory but as fundamental. And it is here, through no fault of his own, that he has to plunge into the complexity that is contemporary physics. With the result that little carries conviction. Interesting, but forgettable. Which is a pity. But it does at least underline the importance of what he was saying in part one.

I like the idea that time is fundamental to the universe in which I live; but that does not make me warm to his theoretical suggestions in part two. His suggestion, for example, of evolving universes, steadily moving to ever greater complexity through a sort of Darwinian natural selection, is a fine idea. But it is only a metaphor; it is not science. And as such, rather less exciting than a good bit of theology.

John Turnbull ND