In 1984, after a widely publicised debate, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland agreed to admit as a minister a candidate with a horrific past. James Nelson had fourteen years earlier been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his mother.
The original crime, the Church’s decision and its aftermath are the ingredients of this extraordinary analysis by Stuart Kelly, who is by turns a historical and cultural commentator, a theological and literary sleuth, a dark humourist and a lost but mostly Christian soul seeking his own redemption (though he confesses he would make do with a minor miracle). It is a compelling read, beautifully paced and interspersed with a series of sermons. Chapters open with biblical quotations. It ends surprisingly satisfactorily, reaching no satisfactory answer.
The central issue is the character of Nelson. What caused him to kill his mother, did he ever regret it or repent of it, what led him to seek ordination and what did his past mean to him in his ministry? The evidence suggests that the original crime was an impulsive outburst (in fact he had suffered more from his demanding father than from