Crossing the culture from Rachel Thorpe: Back down the Crow Road

Two names have appeared in the media countless times recently: Iain Banks and Peter Capaldi.

The popular novelist Banks died in June having announced two months earlier that he was dying of gall bladder cancer. Peter Capaldi made the headlines for a rather different reason — in August he was revealed as the new star of BBC’s Doctor Who. Do you know what connects these two men?

I’ll tell you. Capaldi recorded the audio versions of many of Banks’ most famous novels and also appeared in BBC Scotland’s 1996 television drama based on Banks’ novel The Crow Road. The series was repeated on BBC Four over the summer and revealed something of Banks’ approach to religion. Banks was a self-proclaimed ‘evangelical atheist’ who described religious faith as ‘basically bananas’. His novels often explored and critiqued Christianity and The Crow Road is no exception.

Searching for meaning

The Crow Road tells the story of Prentice’s family, who seem to be cursed. When his grandmother dies after falling through the conservatory roof, Prentice is reminded of his aunt Fiona who died in a car crash. He also thinks of his uncle Rory, who has been missing for eight years. The only clues as to the mysterious pattern of tragedies are the notes left by Rory, who was writing a book called The Crow Road. Prentice becomes obsessed with piecing together the evidence and discovering the dark truth.

Faced by the mysteries of his family, the trials of adolescents and the death of a close friend, Prentice desperately needs answers. He cannot accept that the universe has no meaning and that death is final. He tells his friend Ash that he believes in God, if not as ‘an actual thing’ then as ‘a sort of interconnectedness; a field effect’.

All he wants is to know that there is ‘something out there, just to witness, just to know’ about the suffering of humanity. He continues: ‘It didn’t even have to do anything; it didn’t have to act on prayers or have us singled out as a special species, or play any part in our history and development; it didn’t even necessarily have to have created us, or created anything, all it had to do was exist and have existed and go on existing, to record, to encompass’. Does such a being exist? Faced with the same question, and the same problem of suffering, the three male figures in Prentice’s family give him very different answers.

Three alternatives

Firstly, Prentice and his father Kenneth have fallen out over the issue of God. Kenneth harshly insists that any theory about a higher being is merely a sick story for cowards, telling Prentice: ‘Trouble is, people can’t believe they’re not the centre of things, so they come up with all these pathetic stories about God and life after death and life before birth, but that’s cowardice. Sheer cowardice’. Further, Kenneth claims that Christianity simply cannot provide a robust answer to suffering. He ridicules a family friend who lost her faith after suffering a string of personal tragedies, calling her outlook ‘blinkered’.

Secondly, Prentice’s missing uncle Rory looms large in his imagination. Rory himself believes in some kind of higher meaning, but it is vaguely defined. He tells Prentice: ‘I started to think for myself when I was about your age’ and subsequently stopped believing in God. ‘I knew there was no Santa Claus, and no fairies and elves […] I mean how did I really know I could trust adults? Even Mum and Dad? There were so many things I didn’t really understand about people, about life’. His questions and doubts didn’t send him in search of answers, they simply persuaded him that there were none.

Thirdly, there is Prentice’s Uncle Hamish. He is the novel’s only overtly religious character and provides Banks with an opportunity to poke fun at the language and ritual of religion. Hamish has created his own bizarre version of Christianity which involves convoluted prayers and candles. He tells Kenneth: ‘Only religion gave any meaning to life; only God, as an absolute, gave us a peg to hang our philosophies on. What was the meaning of life, otherwise?’ Yet his own philosophy is warped and worrying. Hamish sees suffering as the punishment inflicted on disobedient humanity by a heavenly father who is ‘terribly, terribly strict’. His attempts to persuade Kenneth of his beliefs have disastrous consequences.

A fourth way?

In The Crow Road, suffering prompts three very different responses to religion: angry denial, vague reluctance or fervent Christian legalism. Prentice is left looking for a fourth.

The Crow Road is another reminder that our culture needs to be shown this fourth way too. It does not want Christian faith forced down its throat, but it does want answers to the issue of suffering and it does crave meaning in the face of death. Let’s help society find the solutions to the mysteries of suffering and meaning, starting with the words of Jesus: ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world’ (John 16.33).

Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at

This article was first published in the October 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057