Sympathy for Jonah
This happened haphazardly. I started writing a musical of the story of Jonah, mostly out of a fondness for the Bible, Moby Dick, Pinocchio etc. and while I was putting together songs about how terrible things were in Nineveh, I saw on the news footage of ISIS blowing up the tomb of Jonah in modern day Nineveh; that is, Mosul, in northern Iraq. I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t want to go to Nineveh either.” The news about ISIS (back in 2014/15) became so disturbing that I lost all taste for the musical and started, wide-eyed, writing a book about how frightening real enemy love might actually be. Everyone picks on Jonah for his lack of warm feeling towards the enemy, but I don’t see many of his pious critics marching off to Mosul to make peace with the regime there. And any historian will tell you that the Ninevites (Neo-Assyrians) were more dreadful than ISIS, by a long way.
The book was published last summer, and then after that, rather more soberly, I finished recording the musical retelling.
I know it has been gestating for a while and I imagine that there has been a weight to living with these ideas for so long before being able to finally unleash them on the world. How do you manage to contain such a strong prophetic vision (alongside the accompanying passion and restlessness) without it eating you up?
I think it probably does eat me up. I don’t know if you can make good art about something without allowing yourself to swallowed up by it. If you’re not battered by the journey, then where did you go, and what do you have to tell? Perhaps this is why artists have often been considered dangerous by controlling societies. We’re unhinged openings for dangerous and unpredictable kinds of power to enter the orderliness and disrupt it: in this case, grace, forgiveness, re-humanisation of the enemy, redemption of the irredeemably evil, etc. The prophetic job is to bring in this dangerous new thing, not, I suppose, to always come out in one piece.
Living with this story over the last few years has also been interesting, because the contemporary subject matter has changed. When I began, the monster of public discourse was ISIS. Today, many struggle to see people like Trump, Farage and Le Pen as human beings – an attitude which is quietly and dangerously transferred onto all those who support them. I also know people on the right who can only talk with disgust about “liberals” and people on the left. Who wants to go Jonah-ing over to the terrible other now?
So, how did you end up getting NT Wright on the album?
No living theologian has made a deeper mark on me than NT Wright, and I would have been tickled just to meet him. So it was a strange and unexpected thing to get to work with him on something like this.
A couple of friends of mine from Nomad Podcast were going up to interview him about his new book The Day the Revolution Began. They were up for having me involved in the podcast, so I emailed Tom to see if he’d be interested in narrating Jonah while we were up there. He’s a very good sport.
We recorded in his study, surrounded by huge, wobbling towers of books, as you might expect. He was very engaged and eager to capture the sense of drama I had in mind for each point of the story. I didn’t need to say too much really; he had an instinct for the book’s inner logic, and I think his wisdom and wit have made their marvellous mark on the story.
Besides his sonorous voice and scholarly brilliance, he’s a warm and wonderful character with a very kind and connected presence. A delight to work with.
The Book Of Jonah/Sympathy For Jonah then - give us the hard sell. Why should this release be added to our bookshelves and iTunes libraries?
The Book of Jonah is a radiophonic production of the biblical story, read in it’s entirety from the old King James Bible by the deep voice of theologian Professor NT Wright. Jonah himself is played by the theologian and activist Professor Alastair McIntosh, in his wheezing Hebridean sea-dog’s tones. The story is punctuated with dark folk ballads and awash in spaghetti western soundscapes.
Sympathy for Jonah is a series of meditations on the biblical tale, delving into the necessity, and the dreadful cost, of enemy-love, for all of us. Especially in these divided times. It’s short. I’m told it’s funny, though I didn’t particularly mean it to be. And it gives theologically digestible exploration of both the Book of Jonah and of the cross of Jesus.
What’s next for you? How are you going to promote this project, and have you got anything else in the pipeline?
I’ll be spending time performing The Book of Jonah where I can - lounges, bars, churches and gatherings - and holding discussions around the themes of the book. There’s always something new in the pipeline, but I’ll focus myself on planting our community garden and gathering some theological learning groups in the coming months.