When he was 24 years old, James Nelson killed his mother with a truncheon. After serving 10 years in prison, he claimed God’s forgivenessby Elizabeth Oldfield / February 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Stuart Kelly’s new book tells the story of convicted murderer James Nelson, who in 1984 divided the Church of Scotland when he was appointed as a minister. Kelly, literary editor of the Scotland on Sunday, uses this compelling story as an organising theme for one of the most honest and humane books I’ve read in years.
When he was 24 years old, Nelson killed his mother with a truncheon. After admitting the crime and serving 10 years in prison, he claimed God’s forgiveness—adding that he had forgiven himself. But in public, he didn’t seem particularly repentant. So was he a charlatan seeking safe harbour? Or was there something more profound going on? Could faith really transform a man—forgiveness truly wipe the slate clean?
Alongside the rights and wrongs of Nelson’s story, Kelly describes his own religious journey: as a youth he was, in own words, a “pious little shit”; then he became an insufferable unbeliever, before turning “apostate on atheism” and returning to Christianity. Both sides of the book illuminate the other.
Boldly, Kelly ignores all the conventions of narrative non-fiction: Nelson’s story dips out of sight for chapter-long digressions into ancient Hebrew, Scottish novels about ministers, matricide in Greek myth, prison reform, literary convicts. It’s also a surprisingly gripping primer on the history of the Church of Scotland—a deeply grumpy and deep-thinking institution that has stood up to kings and princes.
Kelly has a habit of dotting his elegant prose with Scots dialect phrases and theological concepts: “shoogly”; “whitrick”; “theopneusty”; “chthonic”; “welkin”; “peculation.” It’s testament to his skill that this does not seem intellectual showboating but instead an expression of his real voice.
This profound and quiet meditation on faith, sin and doubt doesn’t take readers where they expect; but it might change the way they see the world—and themselves.
The Minister and the Murderer: A Book of Aftermaths by Stuart Kelly is published by Granta, £20