BWS Day 4: James Robertson and Richard Holloway's sacred texts

Richard Holloway at Scottish Poetry Library
Category: Reading

The first thought that sprang to mind when I was offered a ticket to the Sacred Texts event at Scottish Poetry Library was, "An event about books that should never be adapted to film?" I hope you'll forgive me this indiscretion. I'd had my nose buried in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations for the past couple of weeks in preparation for the latest film adaptation.

What Sacred Texts was really about, of course, is religious liturgy. In this case, the event focussed primarily on Christian texts, taking a look at various books of import. It is a timely discussion as last year was the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, this year is the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer (1662), and next year will be the 30th anniversary of William Lorimer's New Testament translation into Scots from the original koine Greek.

Chaired by Scottish Poetry Library Director Robyn Marsack the event began with a discussion led by Richard Holloway (writer and former Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church) and writer James Robertson (author of The Testament of Gideon Mack).

As someone who experienced a decidedly non-theistic upbringing, initially I was a little bit lost in Richard's discussion of reformation and Trinity and some of the particulars about the liturgy discussed. What was clear to me, though, was his appreciation for the language, rhythm and poetry in the prayers discussed. His every phrase spilled forth with great passion and intelligence. Richard argued that many new modern liturgies are not as beautiful and concerned with language as their more classical, celebrated counterparts and read a few of his favourite common prayers. I asked where the line lies between sacred text and something separate – as they seemed to refer to hymns and carols, for example, as outside of this liturgy. He said that he finds many of the more fundamentalist approaches like an information pack: words to be digested rather than enjoyed. The test, for him, is the spoken word: writings which wear well and retain their beauty, that don't cheapen the mysteries held within.

James Robertson with Robyn MarsackJames Robertson (right, with Robyn Marsack)  spoke of his Presbyterian upbringing, recalling some of the collects from his childhood. Richard offered to read one and James said that he hadn't heard them for decades, leading him into his take on sacred texts. He spoke of losing his faith as a teen, but of his abiding appreciation of Christian liturgy. James also expressed concerns about a general lack of knowledge in society of Christian texts, and the resulting loss of context in everyday culture for those who are not familiar with their words and stories. He believes that without these texts it is more difficult to read literature in general, and that texts which reference these sacred ones have the power to move you – to affirm, to relieve, and to heal.

James went on to discuss and read from the Scots translation of the New Testament. He spoke of its rich rhythms in common with those of the King James, and it was fascinating to hear the language applied to Scots. This was also followed by a reading of Hugh McDiarmaid's The Innumerable Christ; 16 lines which tell the story of the life of Jesus in Scots dialect.

What was surprising to me was the extent of discussion about non-believers who continue to connect with Christian liturgy for literary pleasure. Despite the general lack of contact, and therefore context, with these texts (as described by James) it shed light on our habits of reading and storytelling and the ways in which religious texts of today may someday sit alongside Greek mythology.

While nostalgia played a large part in the discussion of reformation of sacred texts and the ways in which language might renew itself in years to come, the thought that stayed with me was one of Richard's. He insisted that we must "save the good stuff", referencing Alan Bennett's play The History Boys and the message to memorise poetry, because you will need it someday.

I would argue that in the age of the internet where everyone is a curator, this is an active function of our literary – and culturally literate – culture. The idea of saving the best bits in an ever-changing and evolving culture is one that appeals to me, and one that crosses boundaries from liturgy to film to music and beyond. At its root, this event was about storytelling, and that's something that I am confident we will not lose any time soon.

Speaking of saving the good stuff, I urge you to visit the Scottish Poetry Library and have a nose around. The GiftED exhibition runs until 8 December, and it's your chance to see of all of the paper sculptures gifted to Edinburgh's various arts institutions in one place.

Today I'll be visiting Comely Park Primary School in Falkirk to find out what they've been up to during Book Week Scotland. Don't forget to take part in Reading Hour from 11am! Happy reading.

Nicola Balkind

Nicola Balkind is a writer, editor and avid reader. She contributes to a number of books, blogs, and the BBC Scotland Movie Café, and is the editor of World Film Locations: Glasgow. Read more of her Book Week Scotland blogs here.