Choose December's Reading Group book

With next month's nativity at the top of everyone's mind, let us gather together suggestions for faith-themed readings

When I was in the first form at secondary school, at about this time of year, a poster went up offering free mince pies and philosophical discussion in the classrooms where lessons in "Divinity" (it was that kind of grammar school) were taught. Still wet around the ears, a few friends and I went along. Of course, there were pitifully few pies – and of course before we could get our hands on them, we had to sit through a lecture.

Fortunately, however, the proceedings were interesting. The organisers (the LRGS Christian Union) had invited a guest speaker who turned up carrying a giant suitcase and an outraged expression on his face. He opened the case, pulled out a parcel and shouted, "PRESENT-MAS?", before ripping the paper up with a flourish. Next he produced an advent candle, shouted "CANDLE-MAS?" and slammed it down on the table. Next a bit of a pine tree: "TREE-MAS?" Next a bauble, which sadly I don't recall him smashing.

This went on for a while, and of course, we all giggled and thought he was an idiot, but by the time he got to his conclusion – a plaintive repetition of the questions "Christ-mas? Where is Christ in all this?" – the mood had changed. His camp theatrics had been replaced by genuine emotion. He had tears in his eyes. He could hardly go on. He had lost his cool in front of a roomful of 11-year-old boys. The idea of his forsaken Lord was too much for the poor man. It mattered far more than our smirks and horror. And I've never forgotten it. Whatever I may think about his complaints about forgetting the central Christian message in this essentially pagan mid-winter festival, about getting us into that room under false pretences, and about the disappointingly few mince pies, it's the emotion that remains. I've never had any kind of religious faith myself – but that odd moment helped me understand how deeply it can take people.

His central point has also stuck with me. It's worth remembering that there's more to Christmas than getting tipsy and mocking the absurdly clean clothes and carriages in BBC costume dramas. The backstory and the shepherds and angels and kings matter to a lot of people – and that has to be worth discussion, even if we're never all going to agree. So I thought this might be a good opportunity to run a Reading Group about faith.

The closest I've come to recreating that strange moment of emotional insight has been through literature and trying to understand TS Eliot's glorious inspiration when writing The Journey of the Magi , John Donne's plea to be ravished, or, at the other end of the scale, why Evelyn Waugh would feel compelled to ruin Brideshead Revisited with all that guff Catholicism. Faith has a huge role in fiction and poetry, and it's rarely talked about today, so we should give it a shot.

Alternatively, we might also try to understand the meaning of faith through the insights of writers like Gabriel Josipovici. Or we could just as easily go for the counter-argument and have a look at Richard Dawkins. Heck, we could even read a bit of the Bible itself. The choice, as usual, is yours – and the hat's. This time (with apologies to the LRGS Christian Union) it will be red.

Contributor

Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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