Day follows day, one sliding into the next, so that change is often imperceptible until something jolts us, prompting us to stand back. So it has been lately for evangelicals (whatever that notoriously slippery term means or is said to mean) in the United States—and for many American Catholics, too, I suppose.
At the end of 2001, as was my custom, I wrote on the Books & Culture website about my favorite books of the year. One of them was P. D. James’s novel Death in Holy Orders. I have read all of James’s Adam Dalgliesh novels more than once (I have copies of them all), and several of her other books as well. Wendy and I have listened to audiobook versions of many of the Dalgliesh books. In my opinion, James was not only among the best crime novelists of her time; she was in the first rank of English-language novelists across genres. Here is what I wrote back then about Death in Holy Orders:
If you are already a fan of P. D. James and her signature protagonist, Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, by now you are likely to have skipped to the next entry: you devoured this novel when it appeared last spring, and you don’t need to be persuaded. And if you haven’t already read this book, very likely you simply have no taste for mysteries, or for James. So why bother even to mention it here? Because it is such a rich, wonderful book, it demands to be celebrated. Like all of James’s novels, it is anchored in a particular place—in this instance, a small Anglican theological college perched on the windswept coast of East Anglia. There is a mystery, yes, involving several murders before it is resolved, and the satisfactions of that are not to be deprecated. But in the course of her expert telling, James layers in a different order of mystery. This is the mystery of her beloved England, of how it has changed for better and for worse, and interwoven with that the destiny of her beloved Church of England: what sort of church should it be in the England of the twenty-first century? Evangelical readers may wince at the character who represents the evangelical option here, and one can’t help but wonder to what degree he embodies the author’s perception of evangelicalism in general, but the questions James raises transcend any party allegiance. Indeed, the debate she stages between a High Anglican churchman and a “Bible evangelical” is playing out right now, with slight variations, within American evangelicalism.
Not quite twenty years later, I read these words as if across a vast gulf. I think what I said about the novel was true, but it seems to be part of a conversation from another era. The decline of James’s “beloved Church of England” over the intervening years, already marked when she was writing Death in Holy Orders, has been grim indeed, and as for “American evangelicalism”. . . .
I often start pieces that ramify over time—months! sometimes an entire year or more!—without ever coming to fruition. I decide I must also read this, and this, and that, and eventually abandon the project, though not entirely without profit. So it was when I first read Death in Holy Orders in the spring of 2001. The book set me thinking about James as a sort-of-Christian writer (a subject of recurring interest that I’d never tackled head-on in print) and about larger questions involving ways of being Christian “now” (at the beginning of a new century, a new millennium).
That project stalled, though it did prompt a re-reading of the Dalgliesh series to date, with many Post-it notes and scrawled observations. And it led me to re-read the Paris Review interview with James that appeared in the Summer 1995 issue (issue number 135), conducted by Shusha Guppy, the Paris Review’s London editor. There are some very interesting bits in the conversation, but this extract will allow you to understand why I felt like flinging the magazine across the room:
I believe you are religious, so perhaps you believe in an afterlife?
I certainly believe in God. As a Christian one is supposed to believe in “the resurrection of the body,” but I don’t think I do. I hope the soul is eternal. I am rather attracted to the Buddhist idea of reincarnation, that we are on the up and up!
Oh, dear. I re-read the interview earlier this week, for the first time since 2001. What struck me as before was not merely the feebleness of the response, but how incongruous it seems coming from James, whom I have admired greatly for her tough-mindedness. But reading the interview in the first week of 2019, I was no longer inclined to throw the magazine against the wall. Alas, it was old history.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.