The Minister and the Murderer by Stuart Kelly review – falling through faith, knowing it to be bottomless
Kelly circles the vast unseen ballast of knowledge attached to religious practice which is sometimes self-devouring, urgent and altruistic at its best
Stuart Kelly: finds a goodwill and egalitarianism in Presbyterianism that those who have experienced its outer reaches might not share
The Minister and the Murderer
October 30th, 1969. Twenty-four-year-old James Robert Nelson murders his mother at Barrachnie Road, Garrowhill in Glasgow. He’s convicted, goes to gaol, does his time and is released on licence. Twenty-five years later he’s back in the news, having applied for the grant of a licence to practice as a minister of the Church of Scotland.
In The Minister and the Murderer we get linked discourses – sermons for want of a better word – on the nature of guilt, the history of matricide, on the nature of the book and the word and on the sixth commandment, the prohibition against murder. All coming back to the question of James Nelson. Dark pilgrim or seeker after truth?
Stuart Kelly writes in the first person. He’s the strange boy drawn to the homely observances of the Sabbath in childhood Scotland, the practices of plain upright folk subject to God’s law. The boy who goes on to find transcendence, a burning faith, the God-light turned on him, only to lose it again. He grows into the fierce intellectual drawn to the abstractions of faith, disputation and enquiry.
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Nelson’s application is weighed by the Prebyterian general assembly. Advocates are appointed, sides are taken. Concepts of guilt and innocence are explored. Intellectual earnestness is applied. Kelly finds a goodwill and egalitarianism in Presbyterianism that those who have experienced its outer reaches might not share but makes a fair point in identifying similarities between the Calvinist Church of Scotland and the Jesuits who “prize intellectual subtlety and view intelligence as a means towards God, not an impediment to be overcome...faith does not exclude intellectual rigour”.
The dustjacket author photograph shows a posed dandy, cigarette in hand. It’s an attempt to throw the reader off the trail. He is no dilettante, the intellect is serious, there is an ease with deep learning which brings meaning to the forefront. We’re brought to Abu L’-Ala al-Maari’s 11th-century The Epistle of Forgiveness, the Islamic position on afw, or excusing a fault, the Alexamenos graffito. He spends a year reading Kierkegaard. Feeling around in the human for the divine. Kelly’s a man falling through faith, knowing it to be bottomless.
The subject behind all this, James Nelson, keeps drifting off into the darkness. Kelly never met him. He draws on photographs, trying to get beyond the abstractions into the actual matter of what exactly Nelson wants to lay before a congregation, Nelson had an inappropriate sense of humour. He appeared on Channel 4’s After Dark programme as a penal reformer. He had never provided a proper motive for his crime – a rush of blood to the head, a red mist descending. His father never forgave him. He got married after he left prison. He liked fancy cars.
It’s the part of the book where Kelly is unsure, tries too hard to connect, to draw firm conclusions from Nelson’s sparse utterances. He examines the criminal as writer. Norman Mailer’s championing of murderer Jack Abbot (who went on to kill again on his release). Jack Unterweger, the Austrian author and serial killer, whose recidivism is as bad as it gets, strangling six women.
You’re not sure in the end whether Nelson’s crime, strange as it was, can bear the weight of so much examination. There seems to be an alternative motive, Kelly weighing himself against the murderer. What would it be like to be tested the way Nelson was tested?
Kelly has been counselled that “engaging with faith as a kind of intellectual contrarianism is a perilous path . . . yet I wished to be the me that believes more than I wish to be the me that mocked belief”. He is sincere, and that longing erases the drift towards intellectual vanity. For all the faults he finds in himself, you wish him well.
The abstractions keep drawing him back. Can Nelson really become a recidivist since you only have one mother and you can’t kill her twice? None of this enquiry is pointless, none of it is indulgent. Nietzsche, John Buchan, DC Comics, Derrida, JM Barrie, Plato, Whitman and others are drawn into the debate. Obscure prophets, long-dead writers. They’re all brought in because they have something to say. Thought is as subject to authoritarian colonisation as anything else but there are no charlatans in this book. Kelly circles the vast unseen ballast of knowledge attached to religious practice which is sometimes self-devouring, urgent and altruistic at its best.
Kelly writes to Georgina Nelson, the woman James Nelson married before his appearance in the Kirk, requesting an interview. The marriage didn’t last. They’ve been divorced for years. Georgina turns Kelly down gently, respecting the privacy of her ex-husband and recalls him with affection and sadness. “We acknowledge the free grace and forgiveness of God, and yet is it right that we then walk away without sorrow or regret? . . . we do penance for the rest of our lives.”
Her phrasing is elegant and unforced – the conviction in it is the conviction of love, or the memory of love and in the end it feels that Kelly is scouring the doctrinal crevices for traces of that very thing. “No-one,” he says, “can reason their way to God, even if God is not inconsistent with reason.” In the final chapter he quotes St Paul, “the greatest of these is love,” he immediately gets tangled in the meaning of the word used by Paul, Agape. In searching for that meaning he may have missed what was important, bypassed love in the search for faith.