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The Sense of an Ending

I am today taking executive privilege and allowing myself a hiatus in my discussions of various things academic in this post.  I still have several posts I want to make about editing the edition of the apostolic fathers – especially about translating them – and I want to get back to what I was writing about before all that, as I do more and more reading of relevance to the topic of belief in Jesus’ resurrection.  And I want to talk about the two book ideas that I have been floating to my publisher.   But all that can wait.  I want to talk about an amazing novel I just finished.

So, as background information that you didn’t ask for.   This past New Years I made some resolutions and oddly enough, in a rare event of history, I’ve actually been keeping them.  I vowed to lose 15 pounds (I did, and still want to lose 5 more; but it ain’t easy!) (my daughter, years ago, suggested that if I wanted to lose my beer gut I should stop drinking beer; that struck me as altogether impracticable) (I don’t drink nearly as much beer now, but nice red wine, martinis, single malts, etc have made up the difference); I vowed to work out four times a week (I manage 3-4 times usually, when I’m not travelling like crazy); to meditate every day (that’s happening); and to read fiction every day.

I’m doing that too.   I’m a big 19th century buff, and to my shame I had never read any Anthony Trollope.  I’m hard at work going through some of his best stuff.  He wrote 47, count them, 47 novels; I’ve been reading the Barchester novels (six of them).  Fantastic.   Next the Palliser novels, which are supposed to be even better.   But this week I decided to give myself a break for a bit and picked up last year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize, a book by Julian Barnes called The Sense of an Ending.   What a terrific book.  Short but completely compelling.  Beautifully written.  Moving.   Thought provoking.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

My wife Sarah – the most voracious reader I’ve ever met, by a wide margin – asked me what it was about.  I won’t give up the plot, but, well, it’s about life, death, getting older, memory, and remorse.

Two lines really struck me.   The first is spoken by one of the characters in a history class in school in his upper sixth (that’s the year English students prepare for university; it’s a lot more rigorous than our senior years in high school) (mine anyway; and I went to an unusually good high school!).   When asked, at the end of the term, what history is (looking back at all they had studied), he responds:  “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Brilliant.  It ties closely into the plot – although in some ways you don’t realize it till the very end of the book, virtually the last page.   But it’s an insightful comment about even what it is I do, with the distant past, where the documentation is thoroughly inadequate, and even this is based on memories that are fully imperfect.   Out of that we try to create the certainties of what happened.  Fat chance, when you think about it.   It’s hard enough to recreate what happened 20-30-40 years ago.  As this book shows in a gut-wrenching way.

The second line took my breath away and I reread it about ten times.   The main character has just called his 32-year old daughter before going on a vacation for five days to Mallorca, making sure he got in touch and left on a good note in case something should happen  to him on the trip, and it makes him think how much more important that would be before one’s “final” trip.  So, he reflects: “And if this is how we behave before a five-night winter break in Mallorca, then why should there not be a broader process at work towards the end of life, as that final journey – the motorized trundle through the crematorium’s curtains – approaches?”

Wow.  “the motorized trundle through the crematorium’s curtains.”  What really wrenched my attention was the thought that one sometimes has:  that’s really going to happen.  There will be a time when my body will be sent to the incinerator, and I am no more.  My body will be burned (or if you prefer the long-term approach, it will eventually decay; and if it doesn’t decay, it’ll be incinerated anyway when the sun blows up).  And life will go on anyway (well, until the sun blows up).   People will mourn.  People will get on with their lives.  The sun will still rise.  Sports will still be played.   The storms will still come.   Nations will rise and fall.  Our children will grow old and die.  And then their children.  And then their grandchildren.  And soon, no matter how important or unimportant we seem to be to the world, we will be completely forgotten.  And then *that* generation will come and go.  And so it will happen.  It happened to our parents; to our grandparents; to our great-grandparents; to …. all the way back.  And it will happen to us, each of us, individually, one at a time.  It will happen to me, with  the motorized trundle through the crematorium’s curtains.

For me, these thoughts completely relativize everything I do.   And they make me appreciate the good things I have and the life that I lead, life itself, so precious to me.   They don’t make me despair or turn nihilist.  They make me love existence and want to do more to help others love it.

Time for some nice red wine.

The Art of Translation
Textual Problems in the Apostolic Fathers 2



  1. Avatar
    Tim  November 1, 2012

    Thank you, Bart, for once again pointing our attention at ideas that MATTER.

  2. Avatar
    Adam  November 1, 2012

    Thank you for this post.

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    Jdavis3927  November 2, 2012

    Bart, your last paragraph is very thought provoking. I myself, believe in God, but even those that do not, we can all at least agree on one thing..life is very precious. More so for some people than others, but sill, very precious. I know there is a lot of people out there that are suffering, that probably do not feel the same about life..wish I could help each and every one, but that would be impossible. Looking at life,and wondering myself sometimes what eternity holds for me/us, still does not make life less precious, in fact it makes it even more precious. Thanks Bart..Shalom

  4. Avatar
    Dennis Steenbergen  November 2, 2012

    Cheers Bart, right behind you.

  5. Avatar
    Jim  November 2, 2012

    You have a lot of self discipline. I decided to keep my beer gut so I gave up eating.

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    mjardeen  November 2, 2012

    Thank you for the words, tonight you made me tear up at my mortality, and the certainty that this is all I have and all I will ever have. As the words echo and the music fades, ‘love is all we have’…

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    maxhirez  November 2, 2012

    I personally take a kind of comfort in the fact that I will one day cease to exist, that my consciousness (hopefully) will not outlive my body. If life can be scaled to a day, then that sensation just before going to bed after a particularly strenuous exertion where all that matters to your mind is sleep and you can think of nothing beyond that is something I feel almost constantly. I still love life, but I don’t know that longevity is any guarantee of an improved experience of it. This kind of frees me to meet each day without fear or reservation. My death will be selfish-that is to say it will be mine and I will not be able to share it with anyone (even if it comes in an event concurrent to several others crossing over at once-they’ll all be busy with their own) and though I don’t take actions to hasten it, I do in some fashion anticipate it happily. The release from worry, loss, the unknown and disease is the greatest gift and greatest freedom humans can attain. We should not fear it, no matter what one thinks happens after life.

  8. Avatar
    proveit  November 2, 2012

    An advantage of good health is you cut down on lingering illnesses and suffering before you die. Healthy people die rather quickly of old age…pneumonia being quite popular. I think this is a good incentive for exercise and moderation. Did your change in drinking habits get rid of your beer gut?

    Richard Dawkins’ new documentary, Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life is available on youtube. He got his genome sequenced (?). It was amazing the details this revealed about him.

  9. Avatar
    MED  November 2, 2012

    Might I recommend Barnes’s “Nothing to be Frightened of”? It’s non-fiction but strongly autobiographical, with tie-ins to “Sense of an Ending,” being written only a year prior, I think. Much like “Sense,” it was written in the aftermath of the death of Barnes’s wife.

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    JTShaw  November 2, 2012

    I read The Sense of an Ending over the summer, and I recall pausing to re-read sentences, paragraphs, even pages just to marvel at the clarity and feeling present in Barnes’ writing. I cannot say that I was entirely happy with the story, but I deeply appreciated his invitation to think and reflect.

    “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” This is a brilliant line, and integral to Barnes’ story. The irony of “certainty” compels a smile. The study of history is an invitation to humility and a corrective to dogmatism of any sort. We cannot truly know history, even though we may feel more confident about some approximations than others. After reading much of the Bart Ehrman corpus, I am left thinking that the quality of our New Testament texts is probably better than deserve, and that we should be grateful to have them. Dogmatic assertions about what they mean or how they may apply strike me as rather pointless.

    When pondering the nature of history, I find it helpful to circle back and remember the opening words of Herodotus’ History: “These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done….” We are, often more than we realize, the sum of what came before. Capturing this, even imperfectly, is a useful endeavor. Time and gravity are indeed relentless, but during our brief moment in the universe we have the opportunity to ponder and marvel. History provides one context for appreciating our place.

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    RParvus  November 2, 2012

    If you like “The Sense of an Ending,” you will probably also like another book by Barnes: “Nothing to be Frightened of.” You can get a sense of it from its first sentence: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

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    seeker_of_truth  November 2, 2012

    I find it fascinating that you meditate. I do too.
    I would be interested in anything else you have to say about it. What got you into it? etc.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 4, 2012

      I think I wanted to advance my self-awareness significantly; I missed the kind of contemplative aspects of prayer (as a non-believer), and I think meditation is good for both body and soul, for prolonged health, and for understanding better who one is.

      • John4
        John4  July 19, 2015

        Your thoughts on meditation, Bart, reminded me of a favorite essay by the liberal Baptist theologian, Langdon Gilkey, in *American Congregations (volume 2): New Perspectives in the Study of Congregations*. After comparing his own attenuated spiritual disciplines (and those of his generation) to the robust practices of his liberal but evangelical father (and his father’s liberal but evangelical contemporaries), Gilkey concludes his reflection this way:

        “What are we to do to recapture what has been lost? For without piety, without spiritual discipline, and especially without any experience of the holy, the congregation will hardly find new life. This may be too personal a reaction, but I do not think that a return to the acts of the evangelical past is feasible, at least for congregations that recognize their own destiny to be liberal in our general sense. In our present pluralistic world, however, such practices are fortunately not the only ones available; and many of the forms of meditation circulating in Zen, in Vedanta, and in Sikh communities represent perhaps more appropriate places to begin than do those religious habits of the Protestants of the 1880’s and 1890’s. Such modes of meditation (yoga exercises, breathing exercises, mantras, zazen, and so on) do not only create inner integrity and strength, an experience of infinity and eternal transcendence. They also are productive of community, of a sense of oneness in and through a common spiritual presence — an Energy that is neither simply bodily nor simply spiritual, but, being divine, participates in both. These are strange thoughts for Western dualists (and for an American Baptist *or* a theologian) but possibly thoughts that can help us refind the holy we have all but lost.”

        Personally, Bart, I (unlike Gilkey) have leaned more toward looking to the acts of the evangelical past. But, I notice that my congregation now has a very active yoga group, lol.

        Enjoy your meditation, my friend! 🙂

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    Mikail78  November 2, 2012

    “Those people who tell you not to take chances
    They are all missing on what life’s about
    You only live once, so take hold of the chance
    Don’t end up like others, same song and dance”
    -“Motorbreath” by Metallica

    It was quite an awakening for me to realize that we need to make the most of this life now, and to not live passive, dull, and unordinary lives for the false hope of eternal bliss.

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    Adam  November 3, 2012

    You have hinted of books and new projects you are thinking about doing. Have you considered writing a memoir? Off hand, I know Crossan wrote one (A Long Way from Tipperary) as well as John Shelby Spong (Here I Stand).

    I think such a book would have a wide influence and that much can be learned by us from your life, story, and personal experience.

    Many are fascinated with your experience and want to hear more about it. You have talked about the process of going from a person of faith to agnostic as well as your general experience at Moody in your books already, but I (and many others I’m sure!) certainly would want to hear more about your Moody years, PTS years, initial teaching years, etc. I think doing so will keep your vision and legacy going beyond “the end.”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 4, 2012

      Interesting idea! I’m not sure completely what I think about people writing their own memoirs; but in any event, mine would have to be down the road, when I’ve actually done a bit more with my life. I’m thinkin’ I’m about half way there. 🙂

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    toddfrederick  November 3, 2012

    Yesterday I changed my reading plan….I’m finishing “Did Jesus Exist” and planned to read your Apocalyptic Jesus book next, but started to read “God’s Problem” instead. Your thoughts above spoke deeply to my dilemma, and I think that book will direct me to some solutions to consider.

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    RonaldTaska  November 4, 2012

    So, one can see how people would have a very difficult time giving up the comforting idea that the most powerful force in the universe is personally involved in their lives.

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    gmcmather  November 12, 2012

    Many thanks for the book recommendation. I read it this evening and enjoyed it immensely. The aging process is a minefield when it comes to memory and episodic lives leave all kinds of unfinished business. I’m thinking a measure of remorse is as inescapable as loss. The depth and beauty of the language reminded me of A River Runs Through It.

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