Religion Magazine


By Nicholas Baines

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

So says Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice – a line that stood out for me in the production I saw at Stratford a couple of days ago. It’s a dark play about even darker forces – particularly antisemitism and the limits of justice. But, it’s also defiant in the face of impending doom.

Perhaps Portia’s words stood out because a word being bandied around a lot at the moment is ‘hope’. A couple of decades of turmoil, austerity, decline and uncertainty have left us in no doubt about the scale of the problems we face as a country and a planet; but, there is a growing appeal for less diagnosis of the problem and a greater articulation of vision. Just listen to the language of party political conferencing.

Now, I find this not only understandable, but also intriguing. Because hope is not the same thing as optimism – telling people it will all get better … somehow. And neither is hope something that is primarily evoked by the repetition of propositions or promises. Propositions are debatable and promises get dropped once deemed inconvenient. Then both hope and optimism give way to tired disillusionment.

It seems to me that hope is awakened when our hearts are stirred – and our hearts get stirred by language and story and image that set the imagination alight. Truth itself doesn’t necessarily move us. This is why one Old Testament theologian, in the title of one of his books, described the Hebrew prophetic writings as “words that linger, texts that explode”. It’s why Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn writes “2000 years and half a world away, dying trees still grow greener when you pray.” Words and associations take root and sometimes only burst into flame later.

Portia doesn’t tell people to behave well, but evokes an image that suggests simply that a little flame can lighten a large room. Don’t play down the small or the apparently insignificant. Do your bit today to change the world and that is something in itself.

And what might a Christian vision of hope look like? Well, I put it like this: we are not driven by fear or the pressures of today, but are drawn by hope – hope that comes from the future and is called resurrection. This hope says that death, violence, destruction and dismay do not have the last word, despite their real power. God does. But, the evidence of this hope will be seen in people lighting their little candles in a naughty world.

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