“ I finished the book ‘ Diary of a bad year” by J. M. Coetzee, knowing that it was profound and unsentimental, as he often is. And I reflect that the writings I really value are similar, like those of Jose Saramago or Dante, words worn bare against reality, with no time for nonsense, admitting that human life may have a terrible beauty, but that it certainly has a terrible ugliness. And that’s where you come in, Jesus. For your real words, not those invented in your name like the Gospel of John, with their pious loveliness, but those central to the tradition of Mark, Matthew and Luke, have also been rubbed against reality. You knew what we are like, so you had to tell us not to do religion for reputation, not to do charity to blow our own trumpet, not to use God like a actors on a film set. You knew our rage for revenge, our delight in violence, so you told us to love our enemies, to do good even to those who persecute us. You made no false promises, saying only that if we endured to the end we would be rescued. You watched as we walked past the least important of our brothers and sisters in need, and told us we were thereby ignoring our true king. Ah, there’s no one like you in the religions of the world, no one with your grasp of the nitty-gritty of life and your remedies for rescuing it. How did you do it?”

“I grew up without pretence. My parent were loving and full of trust in God. And there was the world of Galilee, the bright lake, the boats, the fish, the dogs, donkeys, foxes, wolves, ostriches, sparrows, the wild flowers the grain, the almond trees, oh, all of it, and human beings like my parents who worked hard to make a decent living. A shining world! But at the same time, the storms that sank the fishing boats, the droughts that led to famine, the diseases that left the bodies of children lying in the streets, the killings when the Romans came conquering or the Jihadis came to punish anyone who worked with them. The rich who took land from the poor and left them to starve. I knew that if God had any wisdom for people, it had to be as dry and real as sand, dealing with they way things are, but passionate enough, and funny enough to help people survive and live splendidly. I didn’t always manage it, but I tried.”

“You liked stories….”

“Yes, because the best stories deal with the world as it is, so there’s room for character, humour, surprise..”

“Like the fat farmer who plans for expansion, but snuffs it before it can happen.”

“You like that one?”

“And the man whose well-off pals are too busy to come to his party so he invites the poor, the riff-raff, the destitute.”

“But do you like it when the father welcomes back the arrogant wasteful son and sidelines the faithful hard-working one?”

“Yes, but only because I’m more like the wasteful son than the faithful one. But I can understand what the faithful one feels. If I can ask, however, why is your sower so inept that he wastes good seed on bad ground?”

“Because in Palestine we plough the ground after the sowing is done, whereas with you it’s the other way round. So the sower cats the seed on unploughed land hoping that some of it is good. My father is just as careless with the gospel of his kingdom. Lots of people did not accept it. The story is based on what happens.”

“You could be pretty brutal at times, mind you. ‘if your right hand leads you into sin, cut it off’ I suppose you know that one of your faithful saints, a man called Origen, troubled by his sexual urges, cut his willy off?”

“He was a very troubled man whose faith was touched with false teaching that bodies were bad and only souls were good. But I’m sorry if my words gave him an excuse to damage himself. I meant that we should not be over – protective of flawed habits of thought or action. We need harsh discipline, but as those who go to the gym know, it’s easily borne and can be enjoyable. I had no condemnation of pleasure as such, for ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

“In any case, it’s your hold on reality that holds me. One of my favourite poets, Seamus Heaney wrote of the ‘moment when the bird sings close to the music of what happens.” The closer the better.

“Do you read books, Jesus?”

“Yes. Why do you ask?”

“Because they’re such a big part of my life. I couldn’t understand a person who didn’t read.”

“That’s a bit narrow minded, no? There are millions of people who’ve never learned to read books, who can read the natural world much better than you, and are very interesting to know. But anyway. What have you been reading?“

“I’ve just started reading ‘The diary of a bad year’ by J.M. Coetzee, who has also written about you ‘The childhood of Jesus’ ‘The schooldays of Jesus,’ ‘The death of Jesus.’

“In fact, they’re not really about me at all, but rather about divergent kinds of intelligence and spirit. The one you’re reading, doesn’t it have little essays in it?”

“Yes, and in one he says things about child sex and child porn that make me want to smack him one.”

“I’m sure a smack in the face is an ideal form of moral argument.“

“He seems to think that sex between children is all right. Not to mention sex between a teacher and a pupil. “

“Didn’t you have sex as a child?”

“Of course not!”

“So what age were you when you were feeling Jean Rattigan’s breasts?“

“Uh, thirteen.”

“But that wasn’t sex?”

“How do you know about this?”

“I know you. And her. Sex isn’t something you just suddenly do. You learn it. And you start learning it quite young. In my Galilean community, people were old at thirty; many got married at fifteen; we maybe started learning sex when we were ten or so. Nobody thought anything of it.”

“Ok, Ok, maybe you’re right. But sex between teacher and pupil, surely that’s wrong, an abuse of power?”

“Often it is abuse, so I can understand the warnings against it. But if a social work boss falls in love with a basic grade social worker and woos her, is that abuse? Or the editor of a newspaper falls for a young reporter?

“I think if they don’t use their power to take advantage, it’s Ok.“

“But it’s not the same with teacher and pupil?”

“No. I think it is always wrong in a school. It may be Ok at college or university but the chances of manipulation by either party can’t be ignored. Coetzee blames militant feminists for strictness on this issue but this is a bat in his belfry.”

“Still, you’ve arrived at a more balanced view than just wanting to smack him one.”

“Were you balanced when you said that if anyone offended a little one, he should have a millstone hung round his neck and be drowned in the sea?”

“No, but I was trying to correct an imbalance in my society where children had no rights at all.”

“So could we agree that in defence of the small and the weak, balance is not always right?“

“That’s well said, but I’d still be careful about smacking the opposition in the face.”

“One of my colleagues, X, a true minister, has watched his wife die of cancer. I spoke with him, and could feel the force if his grief. I wasn’t sure what to say, as another colleague had told me that X had said to him, ‘ You don’t still believe in that old nonsense about eternal life, do you?’ Sometimes to be honest, Jesus, I wonder if it’s not just childish nonsense.”

“Eh, Jesus, are you on strike, like the bin men?”

“So maybe you’re too busy to talk to me….”

“No, I’m never too busy, but you have to make up your mind, whether I’m here, in which case resurrection is real, or not, in which case there’s no resurrection, and I’m not here to answer you.”

“I think you’re here and I’m not just talking to myself. So, yes, I seem to remember that you already believed in resurrection before your own?”

“Yes, there was a religious party in Judaea that considered resurrection to be a lot of childish nonsense, so they came to me with a daft story called “One bride for seven brothers” in which a woman successively marries 7 brothers all of whom die leaving her widowed. – she must have been some woman- and they asked me whose husband she would be in the resurrection. They were taking the piss. So I told them that resurrection was life with God, a great mystery, and not a replay of life on earth.”

“ Fair enough, Jesus, but didn’t you add some dodgy stuff about Abraham…?“

“I reminded them that we speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and that he is not the God of the dead, but the living. If God who is eternal, enters into a relationship, the relationship and that person, are also eternal.”

“I think you were saying that if there’s no resurrection, there’s no God.”

“You could put it like that….”

“I’ve said that myself. If there isn’t resurrection to undo the suffering and injustice of this life, then there’s no God, or at any rate, no God I want to worship.”

“You think you can tell God what to do?”

“No, no, I’m concerned for the honour of God, and didn’t you tell God what to do, when you healed people?”

“Quite the opposite; I did what God wanted me to do.”

“Ok, Ok, good answer. Now, seriously, when you told the Sadducees heaven wasn’t a place for a renewal of worldly relationships, weren’t you denying the hopes of many faithful people, that they’ll meet their loved ones again in that new life?”

“It is life with God, and therefore of course life with our loved ones, but it is a mystery which we should respect as holy. As my saint, Paul, says, “We shall all be changed”

“Yeah, Paul says we shall get new bodies, which I appreciate given the state of this one.”

“Your good colleague who doesn’t believe in nonsense, maybe you shouldn’t worry about him too much. Belief in resurrection is not that much of a comfort, as you know.”

“As I know?”

You do believe in resurrection but you still grieve for your daughter. Painfully. You learn to live with loss, and he will do the same. He may not have a hope of heaven like you, but then it will be for him a more joyful surprise.

“Your words are helpful. Thank you.”

“As I’ve said before, I never tell you anything you don’t already know.”

“I’m too busy this morning to sit around, Jesus, but I’d be happy if you joined me in the car. I’ve to go to the public skip in Arbroath with household rubbish.”

“So you’re careful about dealing with waste, but you go a round trip of 25 miles to dump it?”

“It’s the nearest for non- recyclables, and anyway, my car is electric, so there will be zero emissions. Besides it’s a pleasant trip. So, you’ll come with me?”

“Yes. I don’t think I’ve been invited into an electric car before.”

“But you have travelled by car?”

“Many times. Often people have invited me when the journey was dangerous, or stressful or sad. So I am aware of modern transport. For people who have known travel where camels were the speediest, your forms of travel seem like madness.”

“Welcome to my car. You’ll note that it’s very quiet, as well as clean.”

“In my Judaean life, 25 miles was a day’s journey, and you’re undertaking it because your habits are so wasteful.”

“Are you just going to criticise all the time? If so, I’ll regret my invitation. Or maybe you can see this rich farmland we’re passing through. Look at these golden fields with the grain already bundled!”

“But one of my farmer friends was complaining that his potato harvest was ruined because there had been hardly any rain.“

“I worked with farmers not so long ago, and I can tell you they are not often happy. But here they have such good land that they’ve been able to maintain small and medium – sized farms, family farms you might say, which are less industrial than the big farms further south. Many of them have kept their trees, or even added to them, as you can see.”

“Trees were a luxury in Judaea. These are wonderful, still green after all the heat they’ve had. And if I look the other direction, I can glimpse the sea, as I could when I lived and worked in Galilee.”

“Can I ask you a question about that?

“Of course.”

“I can imagine you working. But what about the business side of things? Did you give estimates to your customers? And bills? Did they always pay promptly?”

“Some people in the villages worked with money – there was Jewish, Roman and Greek money in circulation- but mostly we worked by informal credit. I would say, mend a boat, and I might get supplied with fish every week, or maybe the fish would go to the baker whom I owed for bread, and so on. If someone was I’ll or injured their credit would be good until they recovered. We trusted our neighbours, except the ones we didn’t trust. With them I did the job in stages, taking an immediate payment after each. I learned all this from my father.”

“And did you ever ‘forgive your debtors’?”

“Yes, if someone just couldn’t pay, I would wipe it out. I might also ask him to work with me, to restore his credit. We all did this, some more than others maybe, but we all knew that if the community cared, we all benefitted.”

“Sounds good to me. Thanks.

“Why are all the other cars passing us?”

“Because I am driving at 56 miles an hour which is the optimum speed for this vehicle, and I’m not in a hurry.”

“Some of them must be doing nearer 100 miles an hour, are they very busy or stupid?”

“ Just stupid, I’m afraid. The legal limit is 70. This road is seldom busy, so it’s not very dangerous. On a busy road, these people are killers. Also they are often careless – oh look at that, he just threw all that rubbish out of his car onto the road.”

“He wants his car to be clean?”

“Yes. Now, this is Arbroath, a town of many churches, including the ruins of a very old Abbey. There’s a sense here that faith is part of their identity. Maybe it’s a fisher thing.

“It was in Galilee.”

“ We’ve taken a kind of ring road, mainly because my daughter used to live up to the left there. When she was very ill, I drove here at all times of day and night to help her. She was alcoholic, with lots of mercy for others but no mercy for herself. She died of booze.”


“Yes. But how…?”

“She is with me. She keeps telling me I didn’t teach enough about animal rights.”

“I miss her.”

“I know.”

“This is the recycling facility or skip as I call it. You have to tell the gatekeeper what sort of rubbish you’ve got, and he tells you where to put it. I’ve got plastics and paper. See, what a cheerful man he is. So now we do what he told us.

“It’s interesting, here. A place for rubbish, but it’s clean and orderly. A place for everything. And everything in its place. Staff doing their jobs and citizens cooperating. Many drivers say thank you. It does good for your homes, your towns and for the planet.”

“So now we turn round to go home, but I’ll go via Easthaven, which is beautiful.”


It’s a small seaside community who decided to keep their beach tidy, and its toilets open and to beautify the place with flowers.

“Bless them.”

“Yes, and it works. We’re turning into the car park now. See, there’s no rubbish lying around. We can walk down to the beach. The tide’s out.The coastal path from Dundee to Arbroath passes through here, and it’s well used.

“And there’s man putting his fishing boat into the sea. A fine vessel, clinker- built. I wonder if I could still build one. Yes, at the shore here, looking out, it’s lovely.

“When Eleanor was ill I used to come here and pray for her, and when she was dead I came to grieve.”

“And now, are you content to leave her with me?”

“No. I still want her here with me.”

“But I’m here.”

“You’re no substitute for her.”

“And I don’t want to be. Well done. You just have to live with your loss.

“You’re such a comfort, Jesus. Let’s go back home now.”

“Even as a child I thought the natural world was perfect and wondered why I was such a mess. I loved it and yet it was a kind of rebuke to me. But probably you never felt that, Jesus?”

“Perhaps I knew the natural world better than you. Some years it provided no rain, and the land was parched and nothing grew and people and animals starved. Or it brought rain storms which filled the wadis and swelled the Jordan so that it flooded fields and villages. Of course, I didn’t see myself as superior to nature, but as part of it with my own droughts and storms, both of us worked on by God’s persuasion towards something better.”

“But if nature is imperfect where do its faults come from? The Bible teaches that God made the universe out of nothing, so how can it be imperfect?

“ No, it doesn’t teach that.”

“Now, come on, Jesus…..”

“So, tell me, what does it say?“

“In the best translation, by Everett Fox, it says,

In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, with darkness over the face of the Ocean, and God’s spirit hovering over the waters, God said, Let there be light,” and there was light.

“So, yes, He made it out of nothing.”

“How can you say that? There are a number of things that exist before God starts creating: the earth, the ocean waters, and the darkness; all of which are used by God and feature in his finished world. Some will dispute the earth, since it only exists in a chaotic form, but nobody can deny the waters and the darkness. God’s persuasive words bring the chaos into a marvellous order, but he did not start with nothing.”

“Doesn’t that mean that God is limited by the materials he used?”

“Tell me. Is the carpenter limited by having wood or by having no wood?” Yes, he is altered by the wood, is it pine or oak, straight or gnarled? But limited? Surely not. If he has wood he can work.”

“But if God is altered by the materials he found, then He’s not almighty!”

“There’s a kind of exaggeration that religious people love, ALmighty, OMNiscient, as if God is a kind of celestial Putin only more powerful. God has never worked by force, but always by persuasion.”

“That’s a very human word for you to use of God, Jesus….”

“What other words are there? Even the words spoken by God, ‘Let there be light’ are human words invented by the writer of Genesis, who certainly wasn’t around at the beginning of creation to hear them! He or she was telling a story about God, as I did in my parables.”

“So, OK, tell me more about this persuasion of God.”

“God relates to everything in the universe, persuading them towards perfection; to the mountain, the rock, the molecule, the atom, the particle; to the church, the person, the brain, the cell, and he does it all..”


“You accuse God?”

“No, I simply mention the obvious fact: either he’s a poor persuader or he doesn’t exist. Most people in their heart of hearts think he doesn’t. Yes, they can be bullied by priests, ministers, imams, gurus and the like into maintaining the fiction that he exists, but when the child dies, the husband betrays, the job is lost, the mortgage foreclosed, the cancer confirmed, the fairy tales crumble and they face reality, often with new courage.“

“I know the feeling, only too well.”

“Sorry, Jesus, I forgot…”

“I can’t remember if I said what Mark says I said, but I died, as you might say, unpersuaded. But here I am. And now I wonder why we refuse to grasp the appalling nature of persuasion. We know ourselves how we have tried to persuade a loved one towards something that will benefit them, only to be utterly refused. Why do we imagine that a persuasive God must be successful? Or that we know what success would look like? When Job, in the Bible, complains that God’s administration has been poor in his case, God answers him by pointing out how successful he’s been with the hippopotamus. He doesn’t apologise, but gives Job some hints as to what divine persuasion involves.

“But of course, that’s just a drama made up by a believer.”

“Are the dramatist’s views less important than yours my friend?”

“Fair enough. but if we can return to the question I raised before, aren’t you admitting that God is limited by human beings who refuse to be persuaded?

“If I am truly here with you, then you can believe that there is no limit to God’s persuasion; that the universe is telling the splendour of God’s love.”

“If you are here……..”

“….. And as soon as I heard her say that, I turned the radio off!”

“Sorry, I missed the first bit, who was she and what was she saying?”

“Yes, yes, Jesus, Sorry, I was angry and babbling. It was this nice Muslim woman on Radio 4 Thought for the Day. She was commenting on the harm done by the man who assassinated Salman Rushdie. She admitted that his book was offensive to many Muslims, but argued that everyone should have patience with verbal insults. Then she said, “In fact, that’s what God says in the Qur’an.” I turned her off because she’s so sure that God spoke the Qur’an. Because that’s the problem. As soon as you think you have direct access to what God wants, of course you’re going to kill anyone who makes jokes about it!”

“I seem to remember that the Holy Bible also has direct quotes from God.”

“I suppose there are some but they are contained in books ascribed to human authors, Moses, Isaiah, Samuel and the like. They tell us what God said. So it’s second hand and we can always suspect them of exaggeration or invention, no?”

“You are speaking for yourself….”

“No, Jesus, I’m speaking for every sane Christian. Scholars, historians and scientists have examined our Bible, dated its writings, pointed out its errors of fact, its contradictions, its out-of-date assumptions about the universe, its patriarchal attitudes. So we know it is not literally God’s word.”

“Oh, so how do we know that?”

Aren’t you listening Jesus? Because it’s a human book with human errors. How can that be called the Word of God?”

“Well, I was a human person who made human errors, and I’m called the Son of God.”

“Ah. Right. Jesus, are you saying that The Bible is a human book with human errors because God wants it to be like that?”


“So God never wanted people to think it was without mistakes….God was pleased when atheists and scientists took it to bits and pointed out its mistakes, because he never wanted believers to think it was a magic book, almost a God in itself.”

“The father doesn’t want people to trust in a book, remember he’s a jealous God. It’s like when the man called me ‘good teacher’ and I said, ‘Why do you call me good? Only one is good, God himself.’”

“Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have scriptures at all?”

“The Bible is wonderful: it gives some history, some splendid stories of faith, some teachings about right and wrong, some knowledge of my life, death and resurrection, some inspiration, some encouragement, much truth. But we have to read it like any human book of its time.”

“So the father doesn’t mind if we call him ‘mother’ rather than ‘father’ although he’s pretty masculine in the Bible.”

“Remember I compared God to a mother hen? Of course She’s delighted that her feminine side is increasingly discovered.”

“Can we define the Bible as a human witness to God, an essential witness, but one we are meant to study and argue over rather than the inerrant word of God?”

“Yes, that’s a way of putting it. The Noble Qur’an is wonderful in many ways, it contains so much that is beneficial. But it has to be accepted as the words dictated from God to Mohammed, peace be upon him. It cannot be scientifically or historically investigated. It cannot be interpreted in the light of the place and time of its composition, because its composer is Allah, God himself, and disagreement is a crime against God, punishable by death. The holy book of Islam is not a human book.”

“” And until Islam admits that the Qur’an is a human book, Islam will be dangerous.”

“Although so many Muslims honour God and serve their neighbours. Let’s remember also how many Christians are just as fundamentalist and just as dangerous as some Muslims.”

“But what about you and me? Am I not to treat your words as God’s word?

“Certainly not!”


“No indeed. As I have pointed out many times, you don’t know if you’re listening to me or your own imagination. Or both. Faith is a matter of trust and love, not certainty.

“At school I learned the words of George Meredith:

Oh what a dusty answer gets the soul / when hot for certainties in this our life!

Thanks for your dusty answers, Jesus.”