A couple of dozen folk of all ages walk in a straggling group down the field of wheat, funnelling into the lane at the bottom on their way to church. What struck me was the sombreness of their clothing – all blacks and browns – in contrast to the rich colour of the countryside and the vividness of the sky.
It’s a scene from the film of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. The dark clothing seemed life-denying, a symbol of organised religion as it is depicted in both book and film.
Sunset Song tells the story of Chris Guthrie, a young woman in Kinraddie, a crofting community in the Mearns, south of Aberdeen. Chris comes of age in the second decade of the 20th century, her dreams shattered by the Great War. It’s a deep book, with a unique singing style, a passionate anti-war novel which explores Scottish identity, mourns the departure of an ancient way of life and concludes with a vision of a better future.
At one point in the novel Chris thinks that the Scots were never truly ‘religious’. ‘They never believed. It’s just been a place to collect and argue, the kirk, and criticise God.’
Whatever the author’s personal experience of religion, he portrays it in the novel as toxic. The Kinraddie minister is a hypocrite and a serial philanderer. Chris’s father John Guthrie beats his adult son for using the word ‘Jehovah’ inappropriately. He believes that the members of his family are his to do with as he pleases, and uses the theology of God’s will to justify his own lack of restraint which leads to his wife Jean’s repeated pregnancies. ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’, he sings blithely in the film, yet this deeply conflicted man shows little sign of following where the shepherd leads.
And yet there is grace in Sunset Song. Grace in the compassionate, if irascible, atheist Long Rob; grace in the kindly Christian socialism of Chae Strachan who has the ‘Blesseds’ from Matthew’s gospel on his parlour wall; grace, repeatedly, in the life of Chris herself as for example her active concern for those whom others ridicule as pro-German.
There is a yearning for meaning in the book, in deep-thinking Chris especially. Chris realises how fleeting our lives are. We live and love and wrestle with the land, and then we go to the place of the dead, and are quickly forgotten here. She resolves to live to the full in the spring of her life as Rob encourages her. ‘Sing it and cherish it; ‘twill never come again.’ Chris concludes that only the land of the Mearns, the land of Scotland endures, though constantly changing. Everything else perishes.
Hers is a Scotland where people are asking deep questions, seeking glimpses of something bigger than the physical world, and glimpsing grace in one another’s lives. Yet it’s a Scotland where religion is shrivelled and shrunken, destroying and binding rather that bringing freedom and life.
The Sunset Song novel ends with a vision. The new minister, Robert Colquhoun preaches at the dedication of the Kinraddie war memorial about a hope for the future. In the uneasy post-war world, ‘there shines a greater hope of a newer world – a world of justice, equality and peace.
It’s a world which the novel’s author hoped would come through socialism and communism, and though these experiments have failed since Sunset Song appeared in 1932, it’s a world for which we still are longing.
We too may find ourselves looking back to some Golden Age, and forward to a transformed future. This week, in Advent, I remembered that before Christ came the Jews looked back to a Golden Age when David and Solomon reigned, and forward to the future the prophet’s dreamed of, while for the present there was war and rumour of war, and an element of toxic religion.
There’s a story in Luke’s gospel of Simeon, an old man who’d had a promise from God decades before that he would not die until he saw the beginning of the future. The 8-day-old Jesus is placed in his arms. ‘My eyes have seen your salvation,’ Simeon says to God.
And a preacher in Sunset Song speaks of ‘the rising of Christ, a pin-prick of cosmic light far off in Palestine which will yet shine on all the world.’
Sunset Song warns us of the danger of domesticating God and dimishing our faith until we are shallower and less fulfilled than people of no faith.
We worship a big God of mystery and transcendence, a God who endures when the land passes, a God whose breath holds the world in place. A God who is in all beauty, all longing, all love. A God who promises a better world, who calls us through prayer and politics and poetry and compassion to help redeem the world.
A God who gives us a sign in the coming of Jesus that the future is beginning. Christ is the spring of life, the assurance that our lives will endure. This is breathtaking in its immensity – and this is the Christian gospel.
The Bible verse quoted on the Kinraddie war memorial promises that those who overcome will be given ‘the morning star.’ At times of war and trauma it may seem that a black, anguished sunset closes the day of our hope. But look – on the horizon! – the morning star. Day is coming.
And look! Down the wheat field of history people are dancing on their way to God’s house, their clothing a rainbow of glory.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 17th December 2015)