Godless heathenry

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The next issue of Being Edit­ors will be about C.S.Lewis and Phil­lip Pull­man. As a sneak preview, and to give contrib­ut­ors an idea of what my own reli­gious (or more to the point, non-reli­gious) back­ground  is, here is the article I wrote which leads in to anoth­er about why That Hideous Strength is a guilty pleas­ure- if you’d like to contrib­ute, find out more here

That Hideous Strength has always been a weird guilty pleas­ure. I’m not a Chris­ti­an, never have been, and didn’t grow up in a reli­gious envir­on­ment. People enjoy the Narnia books because they’re good children’s books and writ­ten with charm and wit, and they don’t Jesus you too hard (except for the last one). That Hideous Strength is noth­ing like that, the plot is weirdly cobbled togeth­er, and it’s full of rail­ing against every single one of C.S.Lewis’ person­al bugbears as a sexist old Chris­ti­an univer­sity don of the 1950s, and he doesn’t both­er to hide it. The relent­less sexism, homo­pho­bia and evan­gel­ising makes me want to throw the book against the wall as the godless hell-bound pinko lefty I am, but it’s just so glee­fully bizarre that I actu­ally quite enjoy it and have re-read it count­less times.

I didn’t grow up with what you could really call any form of reli­gion at all. There was none in my family, and it didn’t play much mean­ing­ful part in my surround­ings. Although England, the coun­try I grew up in, has an offi­cial state reli­gion in the form of the Church of England, most people aren’t very reli­gious (I’m stick­ing to England here because North­ern Ireland is a very differ­ent propos­i­tion, and Wales and Scot­land have their own local factors). The CofE is a pretty wishy-washy, non-commit­tal form of sort of Cath­oli­cish Prot­est­ant­ism that’s just there as a sort of backup default option if you want it and don’t have anoth­er reli­gion. There were plenty of Cath­ol­ics, Sikhs, Muslims and a couple of Mormons at school, but none of them were partic­u­larly devout either. There was one girl whose family belonged to some obscure extreme Chris­ti­an sect whose name I can’t remem­ber, and she seemed to be banned from join­ing in anything fun, which made people feel sorry for her. The overt reli­gi­os­ity of a lot of Amer­ic­an culture seems pretty alien to us. If you are very reli­gious, it’s seen as pushy, creepy and over-shar­ing to talk about it in great detail to people who didn’t ask about it, and even worse to try to convert them.

My family didn’t attend a church for any reas­on other than weddings, funer­als and christen­ings. They didn’t really care if the church was a Prot­est­ant or Cath­ol­ic one either. Despite not actu­ally being prac­ti­cing Chris­ti­ans, like a lot of other Brit­ish people, they would have babies christened mainly as an excuse for a party. They didn’t actively believe in any kind of reli­gion, but didn’t actively not believe in anything as athe­ists either. Reli­gion just was not a factor or a consid­er­a­tion. A family friend worked as the choir­mas­ter at the local cathed­ral, and even he wasn’t reli­gious. He was a kind old hippy music teach­er who just liked conduct­ing people. My uncle worked as a sales­man for an educa­tion­al publish­er and regu­larly used to give us free refer­ence books. The lavishly illus­trated book of Bible stor­ies sat on the shelf right next to the book of Greek Myths. I think that sums things up fairly well. Chris­tian­ity was a histor­ic­al, back­ground thing, not some­thing you might actu­ally do now.

On the topic of my parents’ beliefs:

My dad assidu­ously atten­ded Sunday School as a teen in the 1950s for two reas­ons-

  1. The church had a snook­er table exclus­ively for the use of regu­lar attenders
  2. You got to go on free trips to the seaside

He didn’t pay any atten­tion to the reli­gious stuff, and the vicar didn’t really care, he was happy enough to keep his attend­ance roll look­ing healthy. (The pres­ence of the snook­er table prob­ably made it clear it wasn’t a very fire and brim­stone type of place anyway). Like the compuls­ory Latin lessons of school in those days, my dad freely admits to sitting through years of Sunday School classes without absorb­ing a thing. The only member of his family who was at all reli­gious was a bible-thump­ing maid­en great aunt straight out of cent­ral cast­ing, who had been thrown out of the USSR in the 1920s for trying to smuggle Bibles in, and who now satis­fied herself with haranguing my grand­moth­er for having given birth to my uncle Colin at the unusu­al (for those days) age of 45 on the grounds that there must be some­thing ungodly about it. (My nan’s fond­ness for Guin­ness was also coun­ted as ungodly).

My mum believes in an ever-chan­ging hodge-podge of new age beliefs. The details frequently change (the phase she went through of not believ­ing in anti­bi­ot­ics was pretty tire­some), but a firm belief in astro­logy and the import­ance of taking fist­fuls of vitam­in pills and a very shaky grasp of science are constants. She forwards on email news­let­ters about Mercury Retro­grade, and once tried to convince me that the dodgy battery on my old laptop had been caused by Jupiter squar­ing Mercury Retro­grade. I’ve always been glad that she never took to any form of organ­ised reli­gion, I could see her being a menace with it.

Due to the whole state reli­gion thing, there was a fair amount of reli­gious content at school, Reli­gious Educa­tion being a compuls­ory class until the age of 16. It was a jumble of learn­ing about the prac­tices and fest­ivals of differ­ent reli­gions, Bible stor­ies, and a bit of ethics and philo­sophy for the older ones. The Bible stor­ies were presen­ted as fiction­al and more as cultur­al back­ground, and not some­thing for you to actu­ally believe in. We sang hymns at least once a week, and mumbled through the Lord’s Pray­er, and made half-hearted school visits to churches at Christ­mas. Again weirdly, it was just considered some­thing you did in Assembly like listen to lectures from teach­ers about not being noisy in the corridor. You weren’t meant to believe in it. Juni­or Schools do Nativ­ity Plays at Christ­mas, and collect tins of food at Harvest Fest­iv­al, and the Sikh and Muslim students joined in at my school too. Again it was presen­ted as Just a Story. (I also won a Christ­mas Jesus Draw­ing compet­i­tion once when I was about 10. I wasn’t motiv­ated by any kind of piety, more by the huge pack­et of sweets that was the prize). At second­ary school there was one teach­er who was actu­ally a Chris­ti­an, and she tried to organ­ise a lunch­time club, and run a compet­i­tion to write a school pray­er. I think she was always disap­poin­ted that it was only ever the same old eight to ten people who came to the club, and that the pray­er compet­i­tion only had one entry. The head­mas­ter duti­fully read out the winning (and only) entry at Assembly, and then it was never mentioned again.

My homet­own has a Norman cathed­ral and is a short distance from Canter­bury. A lot of school trips were spent in one of the two cathed­rals doing brass rubbings or role­plays of the Murder of Thomas Beck­ett. (Once the school activ­ity person at Canter­bury had the idea of taking us all down to the Crypt, dress­ing us up in damp, mould-smelling monk’s costumes and getting us to walk in a circle chant­ing, with one girl ringing a bell. Good creepy work, educa­tion activ­ity person). All this histor­ic­al murder and colour­ing in sheets of stained glass windows and decor­at­ive tiles created a bit of confu­sion in my mind as a young child that cathed­rals sort of went in the same category as castles and museums as places you went on school trips that don’t really exist as active places any more, and they they weren’t really connec­ted with the dreary local church with 70s wood panel­ling and needle­point hassocks we also some­times went to at Christ­mas with school.

My homet­own also has a Mayday fest­iv­al with morris dancers and a Jack in the Green who gets woken up at dawn at a local neolith­ic barrow and then symbol­ic­ally murdered at the end. The streets are full of beer stalls the whole week­end, and most people use it as an oppor­tun­ity to get monu­ment­ally pissed. The local cathed­ral happily joins in with all this Wick­er Mannery (70s version, the Nic Cage one is an actu­al ungodly horror) which only added to the confu­sion. The medi­ev­al (and E.Nesbit’s Treas­ure Seeker’s misguided attempt to play make believe the Pilgrim’s Process with injury-caus­ing peas in their shoes and rows about who got to be the lion) seemed much closer than any kind of modern Prot­est­ant­ism. (Prob­ably not helped by school’s relent­less push­ing of Chau­cer and Thomas Beck­ett).

I devoured the Narnia books when I was a child, and constantly debated with myself which was my favour­ite, even­tu­ally settling on the Dawn Tread­er, with some stiff compet­i­tion. I borrowed them again and again from the school library, and then had my own set of paper­backs with colour photo inserts of stills from the TV show. My copies became festooned with my own coloured pencil shad­ing of the line illus­tra­tions and free stick­ers from French muni­cip­al camp­sites which I was loathe to turn down on the grounds of free stick­ers, but didn’t know what to do with, so stuck on my holi­day read­ing. (That prob­ably sounds exot­ic and luxuri­ous to the North Amer­ic­an read­ers, but I should add that France was two hours from my house). This treas­ured and re-read set of books didn’t include the last one though. I don’t know if my mum or the teach­ers at school delib­er­ately didn’t buy it because they disliked it, or  if it was just an over­sight as it was less popu­lar (and never adap­ted for TV).

I even­tu­ally got the Last Battle on a visit to my grand­par­ents. My grandad was a regu­lar at a local second hand book­shop, and he brought me along to pick out some books. I was thrilled that there turned out to be anoth­er Narnia book that I was unaware of. As I read it I felt less and less thrilled, like I’d been tricked or ambushed with some Jesus­ing, and had a bait and switch happen between the excit­ing adven­ture I was expect­ing, and the depress­ing bit of evan­gel­ising I read (a common reac­tion to the book). The magic book Lucy reads in the Voyage of the Dawn Tread­er includes a story described as being “refresh­ing to the spir­it”, the Last Battle defin­itely wasn’t that. It was so unre­fresh­ing I resor­ted to watch­ing a Star Trek film on TV with my grandad instead. I don’t even like Star Trek.

I’d also recently read A Wrinkle in Time from the library and loved it, and felt let down by the others in the series that I’d tried, for the same reas­on of feel­ing like a partic­u­larly sickly sort of evan­gel­ising was being fois­ted on me under the guises of an excit­ing adven­ture story. I really hated books that I felt tried to manip­u­late you into becom­ing reli­gious. It seemed dishon­est, and sly and under­hand and cloy­ing. It felt like the writers were trying to hide a didact­ic pious Victori­an children’s book under the cover of a more excit­ing modern one. The children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones (herself a student of C.S. Lewis’ at univer­sity) called the same type of book “goddy books” when she was young herself, and felt the same way (her short auto­bi­o­graphy and the article which that comes from is well worth a read here), so I guess I was in good company. I hadn’t actu­ally encountered many Victori­an Goddy Books person­ally at that age, but I was aware of them via parody in Alice and E.Nesbit and I was glad that I had much better options to read myself.

The school library also had Out of the Silent Plan­et and Pere­landra, which I read when I was ten or so. I was again thrilled that there might be more Narnia-type books, but in the older kids section, but was again (partially) disap­poin­ted. I mostly enjoyed Out of the Silent Plan­et, as it has what are essen­tially space otters and memor­able scenery, but Pere­landra left me cold as a clumsy retell­ing of Adam and Eve with too many theo­lo­gic­al speeches. The hero was dull, and the super-colo­ni­al­ist villains didn’t capture the imagin­a­tion in the same way as the White Witch either. It felt like the issue was that C.S.Lewis was criti­cising them from a posi­tion that half the prob­lem was that they were aligned with science rather than reli­gion as well as being terrible people who do bad things. (C.S. Lewis failed the maths entrance exam to Oxford, and was only allowed to waive it due to being called up for the Army in WW1)

Through­out my teen­age years I became outright unre­li­gious. I stopped eating meat and aligned myself with left-wing polit­ics. (This didn’t really cause any waves bar the odd argu­ment with stupid boys at sixth form). One of the set texts for A-Level English Lit was the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, which turned out to be right up my street with its argu­ments against reli­gion-backed miso­gyny. When I left home I enrolled at univer­sity to study Ancient History/​Classics. There was a pretty broad range of classes to choose from, and in the third year there was a Medi­ev­al Latin option, which I signed up for. I had already stud­ied Latin a fair bit, spoke French and German already, and also took on a year of Itali­an at uni, so I had the neces­sary criter­ia to be accep­ted. There were only three other under­gradu­ates who fitted the bill, so to save money they put us in a post-grad Medi­ev­al History semin­ar, and told us they’d just give us a differ­ent exam paper when the time came.

There was no prob­lem with the actu­al language, but us three students would read the texts and think “I under­stand all these words (and also noticed that this monk can’t spell and keeps putting French bits in), but I have no idea what it’s actu­ally about”. The history post-grads were a bit more clued up on the context and just wanted help with the Latin. It was at this point I real­ised my brain just didn’t seem to grasp Theo­logy very well, or be able to keep a very good grip on which Crusade was which. There were endless texts which were just monks bick­er­ing about small theo­lo­gic­al points, which felt just like the monks discuss­ing how to draw surprised back­wards horses on The Toast, except you were supposed to take it very seri­ously and be able to churn out essays on the topic. It was always a relief when Abelard or Heloïse turned up. (Koine/​Biblical Greek was covered in Greek classes, but that’s actu­ally quite straight­for­ward as it was writ­ten for second language speak­ers).

The exam took the format of “Here is a histor­ic­al text. Trans­late it, and then write a comment­ary on the contents and histor­ic­al context”. I was really hoping that it wasn’t going to be bick­er­ing monks or one of the Crusades that could possibly turn out to be a differ­ent Crusade. Unfor­tu­nately I got an ambigu­ous Crusade. In the end, I passed the exam by 1%. They prob­ably felt sorry for me, doing a decent trans­la­tion and then writ­ing a hope­less comment­ary (please give me a passing grade for this hope­less comment­ary). Since then the nearest I’ve been to bick­er­ing monks is read­ing the Name of the Rose.

A couple of months later I got a job at Oxford Univer­sity. The job itself was a miser­able exper­i­ence due to some of the ultra-classist and ultra-racist atti­tudes of some of the other staff and the way they treated me and other people, and I left after six months. The only bonuses were the oppor­tun­it­ies to explore the city and get to know it well, and the many many closed doors that my staff card opened in that famously snob­bish and closed-off city (Tip- If you ever want to get into places in Oxford or Cambridge, just be pleas­ant and polite to the staff sitting at the gates, and they’ll prob­ably let you in. They’re too used to people rudely treat­ing them like human furniture).

The pub that C.S.Lewis and Tolkein used to drink in, the Eagle and Child, was round the corner from my work. Due to a long-ago dona­tion from the Kellogg Found­a­tion (John Harvey Kellogg himself being a pretty sinis­ter figure), we often hosted Amer­ic­an visit­ors who were devout Seventh Day Advent­ists. They were clean-living, tee-total, early-rising, semin­ar-attend­ing, muesli eating healthy sorts, but they all wanted to be direc­ted to the Eagle and Child because they were big C.S.Lewis fans. You’d later see them in there, awkwardly nurs­ing a soft drink for a little while before leav­ing, not really sure what to do with them­selves now they were in what turned out to be a bog-stand­ard Brit­ish pub as an Amer­ic­an tee-totaller (I think they do food these days- this was over a decade ago). They would thank you profusely anyway, both because they were polite, and even if it hadn’t turned out to be fun, they’d ticked a sight off their list.

Most of the Seventh Day Advent­ist visit­ors were quiet, pleas­ant polite people who didn’t try to evan­gel­ise at you. There was one woman however, who was an eye open­er. She was very chatty, and in conver­sa­tion I sugges­ted visit­ing the Oxford Museum of Natur­al History, which although a small museum, is an impress­ive build­ing (and also shares premises with the Pitt Rivers anthro­po­logy museum). She imme­di­ately went into a spiel about how dino­saurs didn’t really exist, and were just a ruse by Satan to make you do sinful doubt­ing. I can’t remem­ber if she was the same woman who was hoard­ing tinned food because she was certain, or at least concerned, that the End Times might be coming soon, or if that was a differ­ent person around the same time, but either way, it was an eye open­er. I had never really encountered those kind of extreme in-defi­ance-of-all-logic-and-facts type reli­gious beliefs face to face before. They had mostly cropped up in terms of Flor­ida Man type news stor­ies of “Aren’t Amer­ic­ans Weird and Stupid”. It was quite alarm­ing to meet people who really believed in them, and would prob­ably contin­ue to do so no matter how much evid­ence they saw against them.

At some point around then I read that Hideous Strength, and it was possibly one of the most bizarre books I’ve read. I enjoyed it and wanted to strangle C.S. Lewis at the same time. Here is a short tour of its bizarre pleas­ures.

(For those ahem, surpris­ing joys, you’ll have to read the zine)

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