Life, Life

Stephen Mitchell, priest in the Church of England, reviews Don Cupitt's book 'Life, Life'

Way back in the late 1970s, Lutterworth Press published a little book called Jesus and the Gospel of God. The aim of its author, already known to television viewers through a BBC programme Who was Jesus?, was to put Jesus back at the centre of Christian faith. What distinguished Jesus' teaching was not dogmatic instruction about God, but distinctive linguistic techniques that induced people into God.

A critical Christian theology will pay close attention to these techniques, and consider what is implied in the choice of them. The only odd feature of such a programme is that it has so rarely been attempted. (p 58)

For twenty-five years, Don Cupitt has continued to pay close attention to language and to create techniques for religious writing today. As he confesses in The Revelation of Being (SCM 1998)

I am obliged to push meanings around a bit and to play a few tricks, both with language and upon the reader (p 2)

Why? Because

in philosophical and religious writing today, everything depends upon command of language; upon attention to the fine detail of vocabulary, rhetoric and idiom...A new vocabulary builds a new world. (p 6)

And now Cupitt engages in an even more challenging project: to bring life back into the heart of religion. So be warned, Cupitt's latest book, Life, Life, is not to instruct you about life. It's to change your view of the world, to induce in you new life and happiness. Cupitt is out to play tricks on you and lead you astray.

The programme of this book is so breathtakingly obvious that again, one is tempted to ask, why has it so rarely been attempted? How else do you write a book about the Meaning of Life other than writing about the uses and meaning of the word "life" itself? And if that isn't outrageous enough to enrage the most worthy of systematic theologians, then how about writing it after the manner of Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark—in fits; short, violent, compressed episodes.

Through its short, highly charged reflections, this book will attune you to the way 'our worldview, our religion, and our morality are currently being organised around the idea of life'. The day I read Life, Life I went to see The Hours, David Hare's adaptation of Michael Cunningham's book, starring Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf. It is, in its own way, about the meaning of life, and the life idioms leapt from the screen. Woolf, in a note to her husband, is not far from the hope of Life, Life when she writes:

Dear Leonard, to look life in the face—always to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is. At last, to know it, to love it for what it is . . .

The themes will be familiar to those who've read The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech (SCM 1999) but Life, Life is more daring, radical and witty. In the earlier book much is made of the similarity between life and God. So much so that Sea of Faith Magazine's headline greeted it with Tolstoy's pronouncement in War and Peace: Life is God. Now the relationship is more subtly drawn. The key fit is Chapter 24, Loving Life, which deftly compares the logic of loving God and loving life:

However, it is now possible to find a few modernists amongst the believers. These are people whose love for God finds expression only through love for life, and in their case there isn't any great difference between 'God' and 'life' as religious concerns—a point we need to emphasize in order to help people make the transition from the god-centred religion of the past to the secular and life-centred religion of today.

If there is little difference in the logic, then there is a difference in attitude. There is little in the religion of God that matches the acceptance and irony of such expressions as life's a bitch, it's a dog’s life and that's life.

This is an exuberant book. Like the exploding firework on the front cover, the book is dazzling in its playfulness. Take the bit, The Life in Your Man, chapter 29. We start, of course, with Mae West's famous saying for which Cupitt, teasingly and deliberately, omits the reference (as well footnote 4 of the chapter). With a glance at Schopenhauer's boast of being the first philosopher who was willing to do justice to sex, we are plunged Under Milk Wood into the darkness of Osama bin Laden's philosophy. But bubbling, zestful high spirits welling up within us, catapult us into another battle with the author's critics. Escaping the abusive power of baroque Catholicism, we—who, like Mae West, are no angels—surprisingly arrive in the dreamiest and dizziest late rococo heaven. All in less than a couple of thousand words.

The blurb on the back tells us that this hymn of praise to life is a 'must-read'. But you have to be quick to snaffle up a Cupitt book: you'd be hard pressed to find a copy of Jesus and the Gospel of God these days. Like the butterflies on the Everyday Speech books and the fireworks on the cover of this book, it won't have a long shelf-life. But catch a glimpse of this brilliant portrayal of the rhythm of life and you'll have caught a glimpse of everything.

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