Gideon Mack ate my sermon

he author James Robertson has let me down. Each year when our family goes abroad I try to take one book that will be more intellectually challenging than the usual pulp I read in term time. The theory is that the book will last longer, that I won't be stranded in Spain or France with nothing to read because I have raced through everything I packed.

Thus, I read A Scots Quair in Majorca and The House With the Green Shutters in Sirmione (and only just managed not to laugh out loud at the tragic ending). This year, The Testament of Gideon Mack accompanied me to Cannes.

I started it on the plane. Two days later I was finished, and that is where the let-down came.

The book was indeed intellectually challenging but unfortunately James Robertson also made it immensely readable, so I wheeched along, gripped by the story, drawn back to the novel at all times when I wasn't eating, sleeping, swimming, or mispronouncing French words in a baker's shop.

The Testament of Gideon Mack is set in the present. The eponymous Gideon is a Church of Scotland minister and atheist. He falls into a chasm and is presumed dead, but reappears three days later claiming to have met the devil. Commentators point out the connections between James Robertson's book and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I won't, because I have yet to read Hogg's book, though a quick shufti at some reviews reveals that both appear to share at least one common character.

Of the many thoughts stimulated by The Testament of Gideon Mack, the one I find myself returning to most often is the notion of preaching without faith. At one level, I do this all the time. I do not believe all that I teach in science. Half the time I am describing a model of reality that fits with what is observed, but I do not believe it is the whole story.

The same happened last year when I was delivering in-service training about learning styles, Piaget's levels of thinking and working memory capacity.

Supposing, though, I had gone as far as Gideon Mack and spouted forth from my pulpit on subjects whose core truths I had rejected. And suppose I didn't tell anyone.

Would people notice? Would pupils and parents care as long as I was preparing children properly for the sacraments of Standard grades and Highers?

Heavy stuff, eh? I may have read all the words of The Testament of Gideon Mack, but it is pretty clear that I have not finished the book.

Gregor Steele suspects that James Hogg will not let him down with Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (summer 2007).

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