In 1984, James Nelson, who had served nine years of a life sentence for murder, applied for ordination as a minister in the Church of Scotland. There was widespread media coverage, and deeply divided opinion both within the Church and outside it. After an “emotionally charged” three-hour debate at that year’s General Assembly, the Kirk voted 622 to 425 in Nelson’s favour.
The case is largely forgotten now, and seems an unusual choice for literary critic Stuart Kelly, whose previous books have been literary in bent: Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented a Nation and The Book of Lost Books. And this is an unusual book: wide-ranging, sprightly, tangential, from which the figure of Nelson frequently disappears altogether while the writer attends to the more abstract questions prompted by his case.
Nelson is rarely the focus of the book. It is page 45 before we get the basic facts of the murder, and nearly 30 more pages, and a long biblical digression, before we find out who he killed (his mother). Kelly seems to have made few attempts to track down those who knew him (he became minister of Calderbank and Chapelhall in Lanarkshire and died in 2005, so one suspects there are plenty still around), or to delve into the motivations for his crime.
He does track down his first wife, quoting a letter from her (“His past was always with him”) and visits the parish where he served: some remember him as dutiful and pleasant, others as arrogant and snide. And he also smashes up a turnip with a hammer in his back garden to explore the physicality of the crime (Nelson beat his mother to death with his grandfather’s police truncheon) though he admits he is not sure what he gained from this exercise.
Where Kelly really hits his stride – rigorous with detail, fiercely articulate, elegant in argument, fiendishly well read – is when he leaves Nelson behind. Nelson, he explains, is “the keyhole through which I can see issues and ideas that have troubled and intrigued me for decades”.
There is a superb short history of the Church of Scotland and what makes it unique; a survey of murder in the Bible (extensive and remarkably bloody); a catalogue of matricide from Aeschylus to Hitchcock, and of troubled ministers in Scottish literature. It makes for idiosyncratic reading, often fascinating, occasionally frustrating, and peppered with pithy insights: are we more disturbed by the prospect that the wicked can never change, he asks, or that they can?
But perhaps most crucial to the book is the discourse on forgiveness, in which he references writers from Cicero to Kant, Nietzsche and Derrida with fluency and panache. The Nelson case, he argues, “put the gospel of forgiveness on trial”. While Nelson’s opponents argued (many would say, sensibly) that a man with a murder conviction might not be the best choice for a shepherd of the flock, his supporters were on the horns of a much thornier dilemma. For them, the case touched the fundamentals of the Christian faith: repentance, forgiveness, the possibility of new beginnings. To have refused to ordain Nelson would have been to limit the forgiveness of a limitless and ever-loving God. It came down, as Kelly says, to a double negative: they couldn’t not support him.
This is also a deeply religious book. It begins with William Barclay’s Prayer for a Writer and ends with “Amen”. Every chapter opens with a verse from the King James Bible. It is also, episodically, the story of Kelly’s own journey of faith, from “pious little s**t” to “bumptious atheist” and latterly, “fractious believer”. This means the tone of the book slaloms, at times, from authoritative scholar to penitent parishioner, making for a bumpy, if exhilarating, ride.
But perhaps the true fascination of this book is with words. Kelly carefully dissects the language used by Nelson in the media, and probes the etymology of words like “forgiveness” and “conversion”. In the final chapter, his “Fire Sermon”, his text is from John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word”. What interests this writer more than James Nelson, who shifts, unknowable, through the shadows of this book, are the words faith, God and evil, and the extent to which the words help or hinder our attempts to get to grips with these essential and elusive concepts.
The Minister and the Murderer: A Book of Aftermaths, by Stuart Kelly, Granta, 352pp, £20