Child of Evangelism

James Wood

  • The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage by Paul Johnson
    Weidenfeld, 216 pp, £14.99, March 1996, ISBN 0 297 81764 7
  • Is There a God? by Richard Swinburne
    Oxford, 144 pp, £20.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 19 823544 5
  • God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism by Anthony Freeman
    SCM, 87 pp, £5.95, September 1993, ISBN 0 344 02538 1
  • Robert Runcie: The Reluctant Archbishop by Humphrey Carpenter
    Hodder, 401 pp, £20.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 340 57107 1

My childhood was spent in the command economy of evangelical Christianity. Life was centrally planned: all negotiations had to pass by Jesus’s desk. Language was religiously inflated. When my bedroom was untidy my parents told me that this was ‘poor stewardship’, because it was not right to be careless with God’s things. Poor behaviour was ‘unworthy’ or ‘unedifying’. Sometimes it seems that my childhood was the noise around the hush of God. And at times an actual hush: I remember several episodes when my parents talked quietly about someone they knew who had ‘lost his faith’, and the solemn vibrations that would fill the house at these times, as if a doctor were visiting. Similarly, my childhood was marked by the deaths of friends of my parents who were members of their congregation, people for whom the full evangelical panoply – prayer, the laying on of hands, anointing with oil – did not seem to have worked.

Markings: my childhood was a carpet on which Christians walked and spilt things, and then tried to clear them up. My family was loving, but I have never felt the family of God to be especially loving. The church to which we belonged was part of the Church of England, but during the Seventies it had been ‘renewed’ and now considered itself ‘charismatic’. These code words seem dated now; at the time they meant that the church felt itself to have been visited by the Holy Spirit, and to be making fresh use of what St Paul called ‘spiritual gifts’ or ‘the manifestation of the Spirit’: speaking in tongues, dancing in the spirit, ecstatic worship, healing, miracles, prophecies. This movement had its roots in American worship. It blew through many parts of the Church of England during the Seventies, and was a casualty of its own explosiveness, for it broke up congregations into those who had been mildly renewed and those who had become fanatical. Eventually, the fanatics left the Church of England and established the ‘house church’ movement. This was an influential generation: George Carey, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, led a renewed church in Durham before his elevation to a bishopric.

Wonders occurred at the church I attended. I saw people shivering with ecstasies, clutching at God with their hands raised. I saw people dancing in the aisles, whirling and writhing. It was explained to me afterwards that these dancers were ‘taken with the Spirit’. One young woman was a persistent dancer, and I recall being disappointed that she was among the least attractive women in the congregation (at 13, this was important). The frondy dresses worn by Christian women in the late Seventies and the visionary intensity gave everything an odd resemblance to the film of Woodstock that I first saw at the age of 12 (Joe Cocker as rhapsode). I was disturbed at how many adults broke into tears during these services. One man spent entire services juddering like a machine. I never saw his eyes dry; he always looked as if he were painfully giving birth to something unwanted. I began to associate Christianity with crying, and with a form of sublime punishment. The sick were prayed for. Repentant sinners gave testimonials. A visiting preacher who brought his guitar into the pulpit with him – a strange Picasso-effect, this disjunction – told us that if we had not committed ourselves to Christ we were in terrible danger. For who could tell – we might walk out of the church and be hit by a car, and then where would we be? After the service, people came up to me and asked me how I had done in my school exams. If the answer was good, there would be an earnest hug, and a bellowed ‘Praise the Lord!’ Nothing was too small for the Lord’s attention.

There were many good and kind people in this church. Nevertheless, it was full of punitive hysteria. It was perhaps the wrong kind of religion for a child because it excited in me two childish responses: fear and slyness. I feared being called out to give testimonials to the congregation. At times, we would all have our heads bent in prayer, and the vicar – incongruously, a rather bluff man with the voice of a classics master – would announce that he was certain that there was someone here who ‘had not turned to Christ’. His message scathed me like a searchlight. With the self-consciousness of adolescence, it was always I who had not turned to Christ. The fear produced slyness, or suspicion. I noted that no sick person was ever healed of anything, despite the laying on of hands, the prayers. Indeed, one of the kindest and gentlest people in the congregation died of cancer, despite the enormous prayerful effort to save her. I was bewildered. My parents told me that God had called her. I concluded that prayer either did not work (for it could not be that people were not praying hard enough) or that God had decided not to answer this particular prayer. Either way, prayer seemed a fool’s game, and one of the cardinal promises of the New Testament – ‘If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will give it’ (John 14) – seemed not to be a promise. Faith might move mountains, but in an invisible mountain range. And I noticed that when people were speaking in tongues, instead of producing a nonsense version of English, they seemed to produce a tourist’s imitation of Hebrew – a throaty noise as if they were saying the Scottish words ‘Loch Shiel’ over and over again. The idea seemed to be that this was more ‘religious’, a small Jerusalem moment.

The theology tended towards literalism, but a literalism of the spirit rather than of the word: intelligent evangelicism – the church was in a university town. Nobody believed that Genesis was creation’s blueprint, but most believed that it was a divine story of its divine beginning. The Bible, in Protestant custom, could be argued over locally as long as certain general truths were not compromised. This nest of truths opened out thus: God made us; the Bible was God’s revealed word; Jesus was God made man; Jesus was resurrected, thereby conquering death; Jesus died for our salvation, and if we believe in him we will have eternal life. We will not always understand why some things are as they are, but we must have faith. Evangelicism is most impressive, perhaps, for the intensity which it bestows on our decision to choose, and the consequences that flow from this. If we choose to accept Jesus as the saviour, then our lives will be in sublime revolution, every molecule adance, every minute scrutinised. This is what such believers mean when they talk of ‘commitment’. It is like entering prison: you must turn out your spiritual pockets and hand over all your belongings, even your shoelaces. They take their intensity – fairly, it seems to me – from Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus, as told in John 3. Jesus tells the puzzled Pharisee, Nicodemus, that to see the kingdom of God a man must be born again. Bemused, Nicodemus wonders how a man can be born twice, and Jesus replies that that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.

What is both magnificent and oppressive in evangelicism is the apprehension of momentousness, and the belief in divine realities. It is an appalling contract. If you believe in Jesus’s claims, then everything flows from this, and your life has been changed. Nothing could be more important. And once you have signed this contract, then certain dividends follow: God’s love, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, eternal life, Christ’s active presence in your life.

The child of evangelicism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference: he is always evangelical. He rejects the religion he grew up with, but rejects it religiously. He is perpetually rejecting it, just as the evangelical believer is perpetually believing. He has buried belief but he has not buried the evangelical choice, which seems to him the only important dilemma. He respects the logical claustrophobia of Christian commitment, the little cell of belief. This is the only kind of belief that makes sense, the revolutionary kind. Nominal belief is insufficiently serious; nominal unbelief seems almost a blasphemy against earnest atheism.

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