Dear John Smith
I was deeply saddened to hear that you died earlier this year in March. I am told that you had prostate cancer. I am so sorry that you had to go through that. Though you don’t need me to tell you, my reason for writing is to reassure you that what you did -how you spoke and lived your life- was not in vain.
The first time I heard you speak must have been in the mid to late Eighties at the Greenbelt Festival. I still have the tapes somewhere. One day I am going to digitise them so I can listen to you all over again. But in a way I don’t need to. Your passion, learning, and prophetic imagination are with me all the time. I hadn’t, still haven’t, now I think about it, heard anything like it.
At the end of the festival we used to buy cassette copies of your talks to take home to the suburbs. Listening to you on that format, as we had to in those days, meant that we hung on every word, no fast forwarding or back with an indolent swipe of the finger to get to another passage. As with that box of cassettes, I still have the notebooks.
You might even say that my sheltered, conservative church upbringing had predisposed me to one of two reactions to your talks: dismissing you as ‘unbiblical’ (which I think you wore as a badge of honour when engaging in fundamentalist circles); or a kind of grateful shock that was pleasing as it was painful as I witnessed my naive, long-held and unexamined assumptions about everything (gender, race, injustice, the environment, economic power structures) fall away. You were also the first Christian speaker I had heard talking about depression without resorting to the language of demonisation. I was always grateful to you for that.
The talk of yours I still go back to is your riff on what you planned to ask God when you got to heaven. After the formalities, you said you wanted answers to two questions: Why, you would demand to know, had God allowed the Bible to be used as a tool for such historic oppression to both women and minoritised ethnic groups? And why, when he heard that John the Baptist was banged up in jail, didn’t Jesus bust him out of there? It occurs to me now that you might finally have been granted your wish.
You were the first speaker in my hearing who opened up and explained (not rationalised) how prophetic notions of wilderness, disillusionment, pain, suffering, failure and disappointment are critical to understanding the true calling of the church as you saw it. To borrow a line I know you were fond of using throughout your whole career, though I have been searching since then to hear someone else with the same ache in their voice, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. As a poet once said in a very different context, you went right in there and began opening windows. As another poet said, you also made us realise what we had been putting up with in the meantime.
Happy Good Friday, John. Keep a seat for me at your next seminar.
With good wishes and eternal thanks