Saturday, 5 November 2011

Losin' my Religion

I was not brought up religious. My dad dismissed religion as rubbish probably because he saw it as being told what to do, and my mum if asked would say ‘well, I think there’s something’ and see no need to elaborate. At primary school we endured the usual morning assembly with its prayers and dull Bible stories interlarded with hymns - 'bombastic nursery rhymes' as Alan Watts called them. One hymn for six year-olds had the following syrupy lyrics:

Summer has come from the sunny land,
Summer is here again;
Bringing the birdies to sing their songs
In e-ver-ee wood and lane.

But I should very much like to know
How did you learn to sing?
Who was it taught you the way to fly
And gave you each tiny wing?

"We have a Father," the birdies said,
"Loving and kind and true;
He who has taught us to sing and fly
Will think of the children too."

The tune was in waltz time and the little girls would sway gently to and fro as they sang. This was the daily God Slot, however, and they were required to desist. ‘I know it’s nice to sway in time to the music,’ the headmistress said, ‘but…’

But what, you miserable old trout?

‘…but really we shouldn’t, in assembly.’

Sez who? Why not? Why should little kids not enjoy the music and show it? Nobody asked, of course, or challenged the saccharine sentiments of the hymn.

''We die of starvation'', the birdies said,
''From cold and predation too;
Our livers are toothsome on toasted bread,
Our bones make sustaining stew.''

On Fridays we were usually gathered in the school hall, a room of modest proportions that seemed to me then the size of a cathedral. Here the motherly Mrs Shaw would read us a story and this was all very cosy on a dark winter afternoon. On occasion her place would be taken by the Reverend Sausby with his sodding Bible. Sausby was forced every few minutes to intermit whatever gruesome God yarn he was spieling in order to deal with the discipline problems that will arise when you bore small children comatose. We had longer attention spans then than kids have now, I’m pretty sure of it, and less sense of our entitlement to be constantly entertained, but Sausby did not have sufficient understanding of his audience or his own want of charisma to see that he had no chance of making the story of Ananias and Sapphira engaging to six year olds. I always thought the God Bits of the school week were as dull as watching the test-card.

How then did I come to be saved, heaven bound, showered in the blood of the lamb, my sins blotted out?

In our milieu, kids called their mother’s female friends ‘auntie + first name’. Auntie was pronounced to rhyme with ‘panty’ or it would have sounded too posh. (‘Aunt’ was way out of our league.) Thus Auntie Joan was and is my real aunt, and Auntie Audrey, Auntie Marlene, Auntie Madge and Auntie Glenys were honorary aunties by virtue of the fact that my mum regularly did their hair, the room reeking of the vile mixture of air-freshener, ammonia and diarrhoea they must have used to do perms. Auntie Glenys had lived in Galveston, Texas, and there she had got religion. We’re talking born-again, Jesus-saves, hell-is-real, all-else-is-heresy balls-out Christerism. As I now see it, Glenys was by far the superior of the God she worshipped, being a woman of great good humour, generosity and patience. How she found it in her to revere God as she construed him is still inexplicable to me, but she did, deeply. Her kids could rattle off great chunks of the Bible, (KJV, natch) complete with punctuation: ‘And Ruth said comma Intreat me not to leave thee comma or to return from following after thee colon for whither thou goest comma I will go semi-colon and where thou lodgest comma I will lodge colon…’

Glenys, her son and daughter and I attended ‘Huddersfield For Christ’ meetings on Saturday evenings at the YMCA. The organisers greeted everyone enthusiastically with pumping handshakes and before the event proper, you could browse trestle tables set out with Christian books, Jack Chick tracts and - my particular favourite - Jesus badges and stickers to adorn your person, your school satchel and the books you kept in it. Chick tracts are fundamentalist, pin-headed, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-evolution, anti-mind, anti-pleasure, anti-humanity arse-wipe, but nobody objected because everyone was too nice. The books tended to conform to a genre. The author would have been a drug addict or alcoholic or gang leader or preferably all three. He had gravitated towards Wicca and/or Satanism, burgled, mugged, swindled and prostituted himself homosexually to maintain his heroin habit. Then a street preacher had challenged him to acknowledge his sin and bow down to Jesus and he had not wanted to do it! He had not wanted to humble himself! He had fled in terror, but that ol’ Hound of Heaven had pursued him, and he had capitulated, and behold! He’s now clean and dry, a pastor, a dad, a regular guy who reads bible stories to his kids at bed time. Praise the Lord!

Minatory Jack Chick story about 'evilution'and how its followers raise their children for Satan. Naturally, Tyler winds up in the Lake of Fire for not listening to his born-again girlfriend. 'Depart form me, ye cursèd'. No good pretending you weren't warned.

The meeting would typically start with a hymn and a prayer, and then continue with an address from a guest speaker, or a film. From our fellow god-botherers across the Atlantic, committed then as now to bothering God with a zeal that made us British look like dilettantes, we were sent a movie about missionaries in the Amazon, where these warriors for Jesus were engaged in claiming yet another tribe for the Lord. The Arowana (or whatever) lived in fear and incomprehension, holding fast to unreasonable superstitions to make sense of their wild, chaotic world. How unlike us, serene in our knowledge that our tripartite, death-defying God-man had, by dint of sacrificing Himself to Himself, saved us from the hell we thoroughly deserved for His having created us in the first place. Pity the Arowana, then, vainly believing they could make sense of this life without Jesus. We knew that you can't. How did we know? The film presented us with a visual analogy. A clean-cut, smiling young man with lovely teeth was blindfolded by a handsome grey-haired man in a suit, his teeth no less lovely, and seated in a swivel chair, which was spun.

‘Say Bud, now which way you spinning?’

‘Well, Hank, I’m spinning to the right… getting faster… getting faster….’

How we chuckled, for the blindfolded Bud was in fact stationary! The chair had stopped spinning and he was simply dizzy. Here behold the state of Man: blindfolded and dizzy, but still confident we know which way is up. What we need is Jesus. Ay-men! Anyone in the audience here tonight who knows they need Jesus? Come Forward! I went. A big deal was made of those who Went Forward – they were welcomed and counselled and prayed over, and felt very special, or at least I did. I certainly didn’t feel profound humility in acknowledging that Jesus had suffered in my place – in fact I don’t think I ever really gave Jesus a thought in my entire brief time as a Christer, despite the stickers that I plastered over all my books. As a kid I was all about show, convinced I was destined for a career in the theatre, and I had picked a very showy branch of Christerism here.

HFC and the local Baptist church were becoming too confining for Glenys. She was lately the recipient of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and the gifts, the charismata, that this confers. These included the discernment of spirits, healing, speaking in tongues and other stuff I don’t remember – signs, miracles and wonders of one sort or another, anyway. We began to attend meetings held in someone’s living room where speaking in tongues and prophesies were regular occurrences before the Nescafe and digestives. Speaking in tongues is not difficult once you push past the initial reluctance to do it out loud. Although I say it myself, I was shit-hot at glossolalia as a fourteen-year old. I had Latin, French and German from school, and Italian, Spanish and smatterings of Russian, Urdu and Punjabi pursued privately, so I could really let rip, palatalising and clustering consonants and laying on the velar fricatives, while my fellow Charismatics were confined to praising the Lord with more modest efforts: shabala abala alabasha shabla halamashabla balashabala. These days I can do you Xhosa clicks as well – pity I didn’t get into Miriam Makeba thirty-odd years earlier than I did.

At a Charismatic meeting, if you delivered yourself of a message in tongues, you had to wait for the Holy Spirit to prompt someone else to interpret it. Interpretation was a matter of mastering another genre. You thanked the Lord that these were the last days, that we were His chosen people, and that He would soon be returning to the Earth to judge nations in righteousness. There: you soon picked it up. I still sing in tongues when I’m hoovering the living room or walking along a noisy road. There’s something at once calming and liberating about it, but of course it’s no more miraculous than scat singing. Indeed I don’t think I ever really felt it to be miraculous: it’s quite amazing to me now how unmoved I was by the whole business. What everyone around me regarded as proof of Divine intervention in the world simply didn’t register on my wonderment meter.

A place of miracle and wonder, Wednesday evenings, fortnightly. Post-miracular refreshments served.

At one non-charismatic meeting at Glenys’s we listened to a tape-recorded sermon from some plummy, fairly establishment clergy-person whose identity I have forgotten. This was a tongues-free evening for the unbaptised and thus a bit of a bore, but my ears pricked up when the Bishop of Wherever said: ‘…and I pity anyone who is homosexual.’

‘Is there anything wrong with being homosexual?’ I asked afterwards, as if I didn’t know.

‘Oh, yes,’ said the unofficial chair of the meeting. He had been of the Plymouth Brethren and he was the first exemplar I had met of a type that can still make me incoherent with rage: the biblical inerrantist (read 'I'm never wrong') who knows the Bible inside out, sees everything through its lens and treats every dissenter like a presumptuous child that needs to be put in his place. You should have heard the certainty in that ‘oh, yes.’

At the local Baptist church, Glenys made arrangements for a ‘Come Together’. This was not an evening of sex counselling, but a musical event composed by US Jesus People Jimmy and Carol Owens, aimed at making Jesus cool to a wider audience. It was very professionally done, but I stayed about ten minutes before feeling repelled by the hand-holding intimacy it required of the audience. We may well be members of one another, but go and be one of my members somewhere else. This might have been the first adumbration of my coming apostasy. Or if the person fishing for my hand had been a gorgeous lad instead of a middle aged lady, I might have stayed and become another Bible-fucked, screwed-up, self-loathing pouf like Haydn here. And here too, rather more entertainingly.

The Local Baptist's. We don't hold with splendour of design or opulence of appointments, and it shows. Conveniently situated next to bus stop. Sandwich shop on the left, laundrette on the right.

The Christianity I knew made people profess knowledge none has any right to claim, and condemn behaviour in others that harmed nobody. It was literal-minded, theatrical, outwardly kind and hearty but based on hate and suspicion, of the body, of sexuality, of other belief systems, of life itself, which is after all only a prelude to the glory of eternity with the Lord. Let’s hope North America never elects a Pentecostalist president – s/he’d be delighted to help bring on the End of Days.

I stopped taking interest in the meetings and ‘ministry’ when I was about sixteen. I read Alan Watts’s popularising of Zen in ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’ and Christianity fell away from me like snow from a gable end. Glenys and I didn’t communicate after that, probably because, with characteristic generosity, she respected my withdrawal rather than for any sense of betrayal. She died suddenly in her mid-fifties about twenty years ago. She and another woman, who was given license by all about her to be a frail physical vessel for Divine Energy, had spent some years doing Christian healing services which were identical to the ones performed by a local spiritualist healing sanctuary that Glenys had always opposed - except of course that Glenys and Eileen had God working for them, and the spiritualists were deceived by Satan. Maybe this explains why the name of the Spiritualist place was 'Golden Rain', the heathen duped by the Great Deceiver into naming their HQ after a wicked perversion of the flesh.

You who dismiss Satan as a fairy story are his favourite people, you know that? He knows he is going to Hell when this world passes away, and he wants to take as many humans there as he can, therefore he counterfeits the gifts of the spirit to fool the unwary, and that's you! You who will heal and prophesy, and cast out demons, but go to hell merely for not suspecting a trick. Thinking of all this petty, convoluted, infantile spitefulness calls to mind Alexander Portnoy's exasperated (and racist) exclamation: 'I was brought up by Hottentots and Zulus!' But I wasn't - my early exposure to my dad's dismissal of religion on the grounds that it posited some authority that he was not prepared to bow to, and my mum's vague 'something out there' belief seem to have shielded me from the battier tenets of the faith I visited briefly as a teenager.

The Lord thy God is a touchy so-and-so.



Fionnchú said...

I grew up same era as you, VS, 6000 miles away, in perhaps a last diasporic gasp of intense Catholicism, and surely the last generation to have lots of downtime free of this wired-24/7 electro-grid. I mull over how much has evolved so rapidly, and how impressionable young minds may nowadays somehow be more and less locked in to fundamentalisms than were we, depending on how they respond to this same medium.

There's an irrational but deep sadness lingering in me, decades later, from how Catholicism's ebbed for me, and I guess my childhood idealism, and my recurrent fears of damnation and sin, both entangle with the forces imposed upon our formative psyches, when we're all judged most receptive to the Good News. I remain fascinated more than ever by religion, but my own eclectic and agnostic outlook now allows me to wander, ponder, and analyze, instead of defending or attacking one "faith-based" encampment. That's a kind of freedom, even if a "complex" remains dominant in my p-o-v towards a Catholicism that terrified and seduced young me.

My best friends in the early 70s were (gasp) Protestants, about the only ones I knew, and one was from an evangelical family, a diligent reader of fantasy--including those Chick pamphlets.

My tribal Catholic pieties took offense at their anti-papism, and I recoiled at their simplicity, but I had a queasy fascination with their simple-headed Know-Nothing Manicheism that made the Holy See kind and wise--if only by comparison.

Vilges Suola said...

My flirtation with this particular branch of religion was brief - I never had the experience of being brought up in a faith, was never terrified of hell and damnation and never took it especially seriously. As I said, I think the theatricality and emotionality of it was what attracted me most, and what still fascinates and horrifies me is what you describe so aptly as its 'simple-headed Know-Nothing Manicheism' - lovely phrase!

Anonymous said...

I was a convent girl - oh yes, seduced by the bells and smells and the subjugation of the flesh. This, however, did not make me a favoured little accolyte with the nuns. They just plain didn't like me. They thought I was "bad" and "ungodly" and "wicked". And then oh frabjous day, calloo callay - when I knelt in front of some old geyser in a purple frock and a frankly ludicrous hat,to have the Holy Spirit forced into me, a dear dear dear little dove flew in at the chapel window. Not so quick to treat me like devil spawn after THAT little "sign from God". I LOVED it......

Vilges Suola said...

May I touch the hem of your garment?

Anonymous said...

Bless you, my son....the rapture of St Theresa had NOTHING on the look of ecstasy on the faces of those nuns believing that they indeed verily had "one chosen by Go-od" in their care. But memory is short and I didn't escape their frustrated rage for long - was almost expelled for being "a bad girl" not long after....

Vilges Suola said...

Ah, now missis, ah now missis, doesn't the devil take many forms, and can we not be deceived? Indeed he does and indeed we can, so we're always right and wrong at one and the same time except it's me that's right more often. Now if you'll excuse me, the lube is drying up the choirboy's arse and it'll chaff like the devil himself if I don't get on.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this – it so resonates with some of my own experience. I even know the town! One of the few friends I keep in touch with from my social work training (which I did in Manchester) lives in Holmfirth, so if we meet up, we tend to do lunch in Slaithwaite as it is a handy meeting point if I am up north visiting family in Rochdale (I was born and bred on one of its more infamous council estates!).

A large chunk of my doctoral research was done within a Pentecostal/Charismatic Baptist New Religious Movement (NRM) that is at present opening faith-based community centres around England. As part of my research I immersed myself in both the faith-based social welfare, in volunteer-like capacity; but I also spent time attending one of their churches. This was a curious thing to do without faith – I chose not to join in the worship, but merely to observe it. I noted how the services followed a pattern that worked on the principle of building to an emotional crescendo – with load music and even a light show, not unlike a 1990s rave.

Worship began with some well known choruses (of their own writing – Graham Kendrick didn’t make an appearance) and ended with people being ‘slain in the spirit’ and jabbering away in tongues. At this point one of the elders would usually try and convert me with a ‘word’ from the Lord. Sometimes I had to fight to maintain what in the sociology of religion research is termed ‘methodological agnosticism’ – a state of impartial observation. I occasionally had a real desire to laugh, because I was standing in the midst of a crowd of people do the most bizarre things – people braying like donkeys or writhing on the floor ‘laughing in the spirit’. To me it was a kind of emotional masturbation and you did occasionally notice adherents slyly glancing around to take their cues and/or see if they could out do their neighbour in manifesting the gifts of the spirit – or, in the case of elders, to take notice of those not joining in to their satisfaction. On my way home, following an evening session, I would sometimes stop off for a G&T to calm my shattered nerves somewhere in the depths of Soho or Fitzrovia.

Of course I had come into contact with similar behaviour back in the 80s – tho’ not in church, but in housegroup. At the time I attended an Anglican Evangelical church in Leeds. It was straight-laced, full of white middle-class professions who conveniently promoted middle-class culture as the social reality of Christianity – I never perfected the smile... At the time I was uneducated and stuck out like a sore thumb – I only attended the church because I happened to work at its attached nightshelter: even then Christian philanthropy was mainly vicarious, the wealthy parishioners paid others to the work in their name.

Gingham and corduroy abounded and the women wore blouses with the top button fastened and oozed a natural spermicide of cold indifference to their fellow parishioners. On reflection it was an unfriendly place, if you didn’t fit in.

I attended a local house-group, linked to the church, where John Wimber and the Vineyard Fellowship were making an impact (this was not welcomed by senior figures in the wider church). I can see now, with almost three decades distance and the gift of hindsight, informed by a greater knowledge of theology and religious studies, that many of the ‘tools’ of Wimberite teaching and practice were actually a Christianised form of white-magic. They had a flavour of Gnosticism, but dragged into an age of consumerism and individualism and augmented by the alienation and disenchantment of Baby-Boomers for whom life hadn’t delivered the goods it was supposed to deliver.

I did, thankfully, see this hocus-pocus for what it was... eventually. I left the Evangelical fold and entered a monastery. Yet even within the cloister there was (is!) an unhealthy interest in the self, that the less perspicacious mistook for piety.

Vilges Suola said...

Your involvement went far deeper than mine ever did. Even so, for several years after I left it behind I couldn't hear of Christianity without feeling a surge of anger and contempt - proof to the faithful, I suppose, that I was being duped by Satan. (Or possessed.) Actually it was because I loathe the way so many Christians suppose that being 'born again' confers on them special insights, when it simply reduces them to thinking in caricatures: the unsaved are all bitter and shallow hedonists who will never find true happiness being perhaps the most offensive. Have you written on your blog about being in a monastery?

Anonymous said...

To be frank, I think one of the real driving forces of any religion is the implicit (and explicit) conceit of being ‘in the know...’. For one, it is possible to see other forms of authority (civil authority, scientific authority etc.) as inferior or not worthy of consideration (religious schools (Jewish, Muslim and Evangelical Christian being a good example at present) – thus opening the doors to some very dangerous and destructive behaviour. Though there is always a degree of cherry-picking – even your most fundamentalist, fundi, who spends a good deal of time and effort dissing evolution and science, happily embraces science if his/her life depended upon it. Those who take the Bible literally when it comes to a few obscure verses that could possibly be concerned with friends of Dorothy, can be strangely ignorant of other commandments that might inconvenience their own compromises with morality or their comfort and place in society: foot-washing, turning the other cheek, want to be the servant of all instead of society’s master just don’t have the same degree of fun as queer baiting and concerning oneself with what others do (are imagined to do) with their genitals.

If want to be bored, I’ve written at length on this:

I do think the Mighty Boosh have the measure of religious worship!


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