Sunday, December 10, 2006

P.D. James and The Children of Men

The following is from an email sent by Mars Hill's Ken Myers:
On Christmas Day, a new film based on a book by English novelist P. D. James will open in the U.S. The novel is The Children of Men, a book that came out just when MARS HILL AUDIO was starting up operation. I interviewed Alan Jacobs about that book for Volume 3 of what was then called the MARS HILL Tapes. It was the beginning of a fruitful and enjoyable collaboration with Alan.

I had interviewed P. D. James for Morning Edition when I worked at NPR in the early 1980s, and I had recycled part of that interview on Volume 2 of the Tapes. Now, I've recycled it again, for Audition, our monthly podcast. With the movie's release, I thought it appropriate to devote an entire issue of Audition to P. D. James's work, which has profound resonances with Christian concerns. So a few short extracts from my interview with James and a slightly expanded version of my interview with Alan Jacobs are augmented by a 20-minute version of an interview about James's fiction with Ralph Wood, who now teaches literary studies at Baylor.

Audition is free, either as streaming audio or as an MP3 download which you can save and listen to when you like. We have a special page at for downloading it. If you're not accustomed to such things, go to the page linked above, look for the link at the end of the description of the podcast that says "MHA_Audition_005.mp3," and right-click on the link (Mac users control-click) to begin a download. (If you have iTunes, Audition is also available on the iTunes Music Store.)

I decided to send out this special message about this podcast because I think this film is a chance to introduce a lot of people to James's fiction. Ralph Wood thinks she is one of our most important living Christian novelists. Although Baroness James (as she is now officially addressed) is reticent about describing her own personal beliefs, there is no escaping the profoundly Christian framework of her fiction. In a 1994 essay about The Children of Men (published in Theology Today [JT note: see Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide--James's The Children of Men]), Wood wrote the following:
The key to P. D. James's fiction, especially her later work, is her Christianity. She regards our cultural malaise as having theological no less than ethical cause. The murder in A Taste for Death occurs in a church, for instance, and the murderer is not only a sadist but also a nihilist who revels in the god-like power inherent in the threat of death. He kills in order to prove that the cosmos is empty of divinity. Like Dostoevsky, James is determined to ask whether, if there be no God, all goodness is vacated and all evils unleashed. As a Christian, James knows that the answer is yes. But as a novelist, she has sought to make her faith implicit rather than overt. . . . James is an artist whose moral instruction is conveyed indirectly through aesthetic appeal, not a prophet who seeks our conversion by directly declaring the divine Word.
If you haven't already, I encourage you to listen to this issue of Audition. And I encourage you to consider whether you have friends, family members, or colleagues who may benefit from hearing it. Films released during the Christmas season rarely invite as much serious reflection as this one could; neither Elf nor The Santa Clause series nor Bad Santa left much room for thoughtful discussion of the Permanent Things. If you know anyone who sees Children of Men in a few weeks, think about forwarding a link to our podcast page to them. (And if you want to get really aggressive and get into a handbill-posting mode of notifying people at your school or church about our podcast, you may download an 8-1/2 x 11 pdf file to print and post in an appropriate place. It's at

Finally, consider reading The Children of Men, which is both grim and profoundly hopeful. The film may not capture all of the spiritual nuances of the book (I haven't seen it yet), so don't judge the book by its adaptation.
Ms. James, in an interview with Ralph Wood, confessed: "I do find huge difficulty with much of the dogma." Nonetheless, she said: "When I began The Children of Men, I didn’t set out to write a Christian book. I set out to deal with the idea I had. What would happen to society with the end of the human race? At the end of it, I realized I had written a Christian fable. It was quite a traumatic book to write."

The book is available at

See also Woods's essay, A Case for P.D. James as a Christian Novelist.

Here is the official movie site for The Children of Men. The trailer is also online.