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 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.|