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  • Helen

Books of Life


Fifty-five years ago this month, I used a red phone box in the city of Exeter to call my parents and find out my A level results. Although it happened long ago, I can still remember the trepidation with which I dialled and then my disbelief and euphoria when I heard what they said! I hadn’t failed! I have remembered that experience every August since 1964.

Last Wednesday, the day before this year’s A level results came out, I spent the day with my dear friend and former university flatmate – some of it talking about our time at university. And then there was the report this week of young people who are reportedly questioning the value of the university experience. They are turning to apprenticeships as a more certain way to a salary. And I have been reflecting on the value of my undergraduate experience.

Although I had always loved books, I had not grown up dreaming of going to university. I never saw myself as an academic not least because I didn’t really know what an academic was! Nobody in my family had gone to university. I would not even have applied had one of my teachers not encouraged me. I simply wanted to be a teacher and I knew I could do that by going to what in those days was called a ‘Teachers’ Training College’.

For the first few months, I found the university world overwhelming and entirely intimidating. But it piqued my ever-present curiosity! From the beginning, I was fascinated by the seriousness with which academics explored ideas. It was a seriousness that I had seen previously but only in people expressing religious commitment. I could not dismiss the vital significance of the questions my teachers were asking. As I settled in, my curiosity developed into a new relish for the mental gymnastics required to see different views of the world from mine.

I began to recognise the inward-looking and often self-congratulatory attitude of some of the Christian approaches I had been used to. I had always asked questions. Now I recognised that if I was to be a believer who knew not only what she believed but why she believed it, I needed to stay with my questions. I clearly had quite a lot of thinking to do. If I was going to worship the God who sent a Spirit to ‘lead us into all truth’, I needed to recognise that ‘truth’ was a great deal bigger than I had hitherto understood. And the quest was, in so many ways, far more serious than I had recognised.

The value of university struck me again this week as I undertook a 7-day Facebook challenge. Another close friend nominated me to choose seven of my favourite books and post their covers online. There was far too much agonizing involved! In the end, I opted for ‘literary’ choices rather than broadening the pool of choice to include biographies and dramas and religious and spiritual and psychological books. I could easily have chosen seven in all of those categories.

But as I ‘agonized’, it seemed that the choice between ‘secular and religious’ became more and more artificial. The poems of one of my chosen authors, Emily Dickinson, are choc-a-block with spiritual questions and insights. And all the novels in the Gilead trilogy by Marilynne Robinson my final ‘favourite’ have given me enormous insight into the workings of faith. Lila, the third in the series, challenged me to think about the nature of grace in ways that had never struck me before.

Once again I recognised what I began to learn so many years ago as an undergraduate. All truth is God’s truth. And ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’ may be rooted in the Bible but it can be heard and touched in so many different ways.


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