by Adrian Thatcher
from Signs of the Times No. 43 - Oct 2011

I am grateful to the editor of Signs of the Times for the opportunity to reflect on the recent annual conference which I chaired, Can These Bones Live? Reading the Bible Today.

The conference questionnaires indicate a high level of satisfaction with it. This provides some quiet, welcome relief, since there were several innovations. The restored reception for first-timers was clearly a success. New friendships were still being forged long after the copious wine had run out. Then, there was  a major innovation regarding the organization of discussion. The location of impromptu groups within the conference hall, around tables, sustained by sweets and drinks and worksheets to prompt conversations, seemed far superior to fixed groups meeting in different rooms, and it also gave opportunity for more interaction with the speakers (while leaving an option for people who wanted to, to meet outside or in an adjacent room).

The late night drama and late night cabaret were, in my view, splendid occasions. The play, 'The Burning of the Book', topical and written especially for the occasion, was a tour de force. The highlight of the cabaret  was the remarkable talent, on guitar and vocals, of one of our speakers, Maggi Dawn. Initially worried  that there would be insufficient volunteers for the cabaret, we were left with the opposite problem:  who could we leave out, because we couldn't really go on until midnight. I hope the organizers of the next conference  will want to keep and develop these innovations. Perhaps a new play can be commissioned? Or some of the excellent  Greenbelt musicians invited to play for us? Or a young jazz ensemble that plays and composes for contemporary worship? And there is clearly no shortage of talented members who can perform confidently and make sure that we don't  take ourselves too seriously.

Now to more serious, but not more important matters: what did we achieve? First, given the glut  of congratulatory activity celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible, I think our topic  was well chosen, with just the right dissident, critical note being sounded. I was also pleased with an exact blend  of female and male speakers, and a good mix of age-groups, with established academics nearing retirement  taking the platform with a new generation of young academics whose refreshing brilliance and supreme competence  was a joy to experience. The lectures will be spread over two issues of Modern Believing, and should provide  a strong recommendation for our journal. The inclusion of an atheist Hebrew Bible scholar and broadcaster in our line-up, and the reception she received, indicated our traditional respect for inconvenient scholarship, and a willingness  to learn from it, without signalling agreement with it.

I think we may have established a new theological agenda without realising we have done so. The sessions on the Bible and film, the Bible and literature, and the Bible and culture all indicated the need  for the use of the imagination in the apprehension of religious meaning in films, books and paintings. That was true  also of the session on William Blake and the one on contextual Bible reading. These sessions were more than variations on easier topics like 'theology and film', 'theology and literature', and so on. They offered 'ways of seeing', 'ways of viewing', 'ways of reading' which are profoundly relevant as we engage with the stories, texts and themes of scripture. They raised all too well the question how our engagement with the arts can impact on our reading of the Bible.

I would have liked to have pursued that question further, taking us into the area of what imagination is, and how it assists in the urgent 're-viewing' and 're-visioning' and 're-reading' of familiar biblical themes. Another conference may one day provide a more satisfactory answer to that question.


Adrian Thatcher is Visiting Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter.