Friday, July 01, 2005

A conjuring trick with bones

It's good to see Helenann Hartley setting the record straight on a famous (mis)quotation of David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham. Philip Davies had written a piece in Bible and Interpretation called Do We Need Biblical Scholars?, a segment of which is quoted by Helenann:
When, a few decades later, a former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, referred to the resurrection issue as "juggling with bones" and dismissed the idea of a literal understanding of the stories of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, he immediately came under attack not only from churchgoers and from the media but also from his fellow-clergy, many of whom had presumably been taught as students precisely what Jenkins was saying! It is hard to know how many might have privately agreed with him, but it seems that they felt his public remarks could cause them acute embarrassment if they were themselves challenged by one of their own congregation.
Helenann comments:
Unfortunately, yet again, the former bishop of Durham, David Jenkins (who confirmed me) has been misquoted. Bishop Jenkins did not say that the resurrection was like 'juggling with bones,' what he said was that the resurrection was 'more than just juggling with bones.' It's a subtle distinction, but rather changes the sense of the argument. People always refer to Bishop Jenkins as 'the heretical bishop' or words to that effect, and he is continually misquoted. So I've done my bit to try and correct that!
In the spirit of Helenann's corrective, let me offer my own. I remember watching the interview with David Jenkins in 1984; it was on the ITV Sunday lunch time programme called Credo if I remember correctly (I was a precocious 17 year old and at the time I wanted to go into the church). What I recall is that Jenkins did not say that the resurrection was "more than just juggling with bones" but rather that it was not "a conjuring trick with bones". I've googled for "conjuring trick with bones" and Said What? gives this as the quotation:
I am not clear that God manoeuvres physical things... After all, a conjuring trick with bones only proves that it is as clever as a conjuring trick with bones...
Wikipedia has it much shorter and more how I had remembered it, as "not just a conjuring trick with bones". The article notes also that York Minster was struck by lightning in the year when he was consecrated bishop there. It reminds me of a question I did on my Oxford entrance examination General Paper in November 1984, which was words to the effect of "When lightning struck York Minster recently, could this be regarded as an act of God?" I can still remember elements of my answer, that there was something to be said for Jenkins's scepticism over the historicity of the virgin birth stories, and that if the lightning were a divine act, it seemed rather ham-fisted since (on this theory) God did not manage to time it so that it hit York Minster when Jenkins was present. Wouldn't He just have zapped Jenkins directly rather than cause all that damage to property?

Anyway, that's a digression. What's interesting about googling on this topic is that it confirms Helenann's essential point about the misquotation. Take, for example, a page called Fifty Years of Anglican Liberalism, which has it like this:
In 1984, David Jenkins, Anglican Bishop of Durham, described Christ’s resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones” (“English Bishop Calls Christ’s Resurrection Conjuring Trick,” AP, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Oct. 28, 1984).
One of the things that is so extraordinary about the way that this line gets misquoted is quite what the misquoters think it means. Are they assuming that Jenkins was saying that someone (one of the disciples?) performed a "conjuring trick with bones"? That Jesus did? I can't make any sense out of what they think they are charging Jenkins with having said. But perhaps that's just thinking about it too much, something that those who are misquoting are not doing.

The most interesting piece to turn up is from The Guardian from 1999 and is all about how this particular mis-quotation is a good example of something that simply resists correction:

Quote unquote
The Readers' Editor on... incorrect statements that keep coming back
Ian Mayes
Bishop Jenkins is at present writing his autobiography and, when I spoke to him he rather wearily conceded that he would have to spend more time dealing with the matter in his book than he really wanted to.

As the wrong version ran and ran, the Bishop did wonder why those repeating it never consulted him. "I thought they would have had the courtesy to ask what I really said." One feels driven to conclude that the wrong version with its apparently irresistible catchphrase, "a conjuring trick with bones", is still found preferable to the right one.
I wonder if there is a fuller account of Jenkins's actual interview out there anywhere?


Helen-Ann Macleod Hartley said...

Hi Mark! Thanks for doing some investigating, I was sort of going off the top of my my head (partly from a sermon he preached and partly from one of his books). If I get any further info. I'll blog it if I find anything else!

Anonymous said...

can anyone tell me what happened to the bishop of durham