Jonah: Poet in Extremis with @richardlittleda

image003Richard Littledale, author of a number of books on preaching, communication and Biblical topics has recently released a book on Jonah, available on Kindle.

Why did you write a book on Jonah?

Any man who can be pressed into service by Reformation preachers, Jewish comedians, Russian painters, children’s book illustrators and others has already been through the ‘interpretative mill’ quite enough.  The purpose of this little book is not to rescue Jonah from his detractors, nor to ask that the ‘real Jonah should please stand up’ – for he is long gone with the passage of the years.  These pages are not the place to tackle discussions about the scientific questions raised by the tale, nor to provide some authoritative conclusion to the theological debates.  Instead the book aims to understand Jonah by immersion (pun fully intended).

You mention the idea of an ‘adult-friendly’ book on Jonah? Do you think this is a story that has been very much associated with children, and that adults need to see the deeper elements of the story? What do those look like?

There are numerous adult elements to the story. For a start, it brings us face to face with the pinched and ugly face of prejudice which we pull whenever God’s heart is wider than ours. It also raises the spectre of disappointment, both with God and ourselves. Alongside all of that there is plain, old-fashioned fear.

If people want to take it further – what does the study material involve?

The study material allows people to reflect on each chapter and apply the lessons learnt to their own lives, both as individuals and churches. In particular, it encourages people to engage with the strong emotions evoked by the tale.

You appear to be taking a somewhat poetic take on this, can you give an example from the book?

With just an animal shriek of blind terror, half torn away by the vicious wind, the prophet, or whatever he was, was gone.  The sea left no sign to mark his passing, just a clump of bubbles quickly swirled away.  At once the savage wind dropped away and the huge waves died back, as if embarrassed to look on such cowardly inhumanity.  A piece of torn rigging pattered, rather than slapped, on the shards of the mast.  The hull, relieved to have sustained the onslaught, creaked with each rise and fall of the now gentle waves.

For #BIGRead14 (Lent), we’re using poems newly written by Stephen Cherry. You have described Jonah as “Poet in Extremis” – do you want to say a bit more about that, and what value do you see in poetry? Should people be scared of it?

The word “poetry” comes from the Greek verb poeio ‘to make’. A poet is one who fashions something new from the found materials of human experience, often hammered out on the anvil of experience. To quote from the book: A poet attains a new understanding of his or her environment and then makes something new and exquisite out of the old materials and experiences they find to hand.  This being so, sometimes the best poets are often to be found in extremis, where the going is tough and the raw materials are very raw.  Great poetry may often be forged of great suffering, just as the notes of blues music were originally wrung from the extreme hardship and degradation of those who wrote it.  Maybe the tale of Jonah’s experiences in extremis will make poets of us all.

Finally, what do you see the tale of Jonah telling us as digital disciples in the 21st century?

Advances in technology mean that we can connect with others across the world in ways which were impossible one generation ago.  News feeds and information can be delivered from one side of the world to the other in hundredths of a second.  However, this self-same technology can also develop a kind of ‘silo’ mentality – where we monitor the needs of close friends and distant situations from the privacy of our own home without ever truly engaging with them.  It is perfectly possible to know twice as much about the needs of others and do half as much about it as people did in generations gone by.  Jonah reminds that privatised faith is not God’s kind of faith at all.

About richardlittleda

Baptist Minister, preacher and writer. Author of Littlest Star, a crowdsourced project, and Who Needs Words, regarding church communications.