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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