Monday, October 11, 2010

At a family gathering last week I agreed to go and help my Grandma clear out my late grandpa's study. My grandpa died when I was 14, but he left behind a bewildering quantity of books and papers that no-one has had the time to investigate since then. I think a family friend went through the accounts after the funeral to find all the important financial information my Grandma needed, but the rest has largely been left to gather dust. My grandma now wants to make use of this room, however, so the current contents need to go.

The main task I was given was to sort and catalogue the many shelves of books with the eventual aim of finding someone willing to take them away. The books in my grandpa's study fall into  two categories: they're either engineering books (related to his long career as an engineer-turned-technology journalist) or they're theology books (related to his work as a Methodist lay preacher). He took both of these interests very seriously, it would seem, and collected a quite substantial library over the years.

Within a few minutes of looking around, however, I realized that this wasn't going to be as big a job as it first appeared. My grandfather's collection of engineering and technology books is, for the most part, completely obsolete. It's a shame to have to throw them away, but no-one is going to be interested in these texts. Authoritative though it might have been, a guide to computer aided manufacturing techniques written when a top-of-the-line computer had about 64k of memory isn't going to be any use today. They might perhaps be a interesting curiosity to someone working in that field, but they're ultimately useless as reference works.

Bearing that in mind, I decided to focus on the collection of theology texts. Religious scholarship, I figured, doesn't date in the same way as technology journalism, and so would probably still be of interest to someone.

Although I still think they're timeless enough to be of interest to someone, it was very interesting to discover—as I worked my way through the titles—that there are changing fashions and trends in theological scholarship. It seems that there was, for example, a strong interest in the historicity of the gospels in the late 1950s—grandpa had many books from this period that discuss the gnostic gospels, the archaeology of the holy land, and the early history of the Church. I suppose this period of introspection must have been initiated by the discovery of the dead sea scrolls, which was probably the first many Christians had heard of the many dissenting early branches of Christian and Jewish thought.

Simiarly, in the late 1960s and 1970s there was a wave of socially progressive texts, examples of the faith adapting and changing with new social structures and norms. (I expect there was also a wave of books denouncing these new social norms, but my grandpa wasn't that sort of guy).

The most interesting ones I found, however, were the texts that date from during or shortly after the second world war. These books were written by a generation of minsters and preachers who had witnessed two devastating world wars in their lifetimes. The one that particularly caught my attention was a book written in 1943 called In Quest of a Kingdom: An Examination of Jesus' Teaching on the Kingdom of God with Special Relation to the Projected New World After the War by Leslie Weatherhead. To give you idea of what this book is about, have a read of this, the introductory paragraph, with its wonderful preacherly prose.

In this poor, broken world, the teaching of Jesus is the only known philosophy of life which has never been seriously tried. Some have called it impracticable. But two thousand years of trying 'practicable' methods of living together have brought us to hell. Some have called it irrelevant. But the spirit of Man is too sublime to accept as truth that the only 'relevant' methods of getting on with one another demand that every twenty-five years we should sacrifice the youth of the nations and ask from our men of science that they bend all their energies to find new ways of killing others. Politicians labour to produce policies, economists labour to produce theories, psychologists labour to cure our neuroses, and social welfare workers labour at reforms. At the time I write, a hundred groups are studying and planning to make a better and happier world, and yet, while I wish them well, I cannot share their optimism. Incredible as our stupidity may seem in another thousand years, man is still blind to the fact that the cause of all his troubles is within himself.

I asked my Grandmother about the book and she explained that Leslie Weatherhead is very much out of fashion these days. Indeed, a quick google search shows that the last time he was mentioned by a religious leader (insofar as he can be called that) was when Ian Paisley denounced Weatherhead as an apostate and averred that he was probably burning in hell (which increases my opinion of Weatherhead's ideas no end). As we're once again living in an age of war, death, and destruction (not that they're really been a period where we weren't) it annoys me that more religious and secular leaders aren't working on the fundamental problem that Weatherhead identifies in this book: things tend toward horror and death because, no matter how you squish them into pseudo-utopian schemes, most people are still greedy, self-centered, and violent.

While I've been working my way through the shelves, Kristen was rummaging around and sorting through the cupboards and drawers filled with stuff. A process that she has documented here.

While I was there I found an amazing book from the mid-1980s (all about the latest consumer gadgets) that I'm going to have to scan and put up parts of here. It's a masterpiece.