Thursday, 3 June 2010


I have just finished Liz Jensen's Rapture, and I am annoyed. It's pretty well-written and constructed, but it hasn't a shred of humour, the characters are all mildly annoying people -- in real life you'd overhear them talking on a train and put your ipod on to avoid their conversation --, the plot is predictable, and the premise hackneyed. (Of course evangelical Christians beat their children to get the devils out of them.) It's about a psychiatrist of doubtful stability one of whose patients keeps making awful predictions that come true. I was getting really worked up about its stupid portrayal of evangelical Christians, of whom I am and always have been one, until I read in her acknowledgments her huge gratitude for his advice on the matter to someone I knew at university. (He was one of those charming people who makes you feel stupid, a reaction I have since learned to mistrust, though I expect he really is as bright as he seemed then.) Lazy novels like this just add to the little wedge that is constantly being gently tapped at the divide between those who have a religious faith and those who do not, and we need no extra power to that wedge, in case one day it really does get some purchase.

But this is just one of those things, and no more than one expects when one reads thrillers aimed at a vaguely popular market. The reason it has upset me so very much is that it's by Liz Jensen, who is one of my favourite authors, and someone whose interesting mind I have in the past envied. She has written some of the most inventive novels I know, ones I revisit from time to time when I want to read something intelligent, unusual, and fun. She used to be on my list of authors whose books I would always read, an author with whose reviews I never bothered. I really highly recommend Ark Baby and Egg Dancing, for example, and in fact all of her previous books (although I wasn't that impressed by The Paper Eater). The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is quite startling. And now she has produced a novel which is the definition of pedestrian. I suppose it's a money thing.

And while I'm at it, I can't stand Kate Mosse, who is quoted on the front of this book as saying it's a warning of the dangers of evangelicalism. I suppose Mosse has at least never set high standards to fall from. Not only are her books badly written but it is fatuous in the extreme to be all sentimental about the Cathars, who weren't much better than the popes of the time, and given the popes of the time that was really going it something.

Anyway one day I might write a novel, and if I do it may well not be very good, and I suppose I shouldn't cast stones &c. Heigh ho. But I am seriously saddened by the loss of Liz Jensen from the ranks of the unusual.

That is all.


  1. Out of interest, if it's not too big a question: why are you an evangelical Christian?

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  3. I have a whole blog post I started drafting several years ago called "Why I am an Evangelical Christian". Or actually I think it might be "Why I am an Evangelical Liberal" -- the two terms both being much disliked by the higher end of the church, which predominates in Cambridge. (At Cambridge I encountered people for whom these were dirty words in the way that "liturgy" and "ritual" are in the church I knew.) I drafted large parts of that blog post on a delayed plane journey to Istanbul, and then kept at it for weeks and weeks until it got ridiculously long, but essentially it's still not finished, and every now and then I find it again and write some more. If this blog weren't a big self-indulgence with which I am loath to associate the word "ought" then I might feel that I ought to dig it out, finish it off, edit it down, and post it. Here is a really inadequate short answer: because it's the type of Christianity which seems to me most to do with love, which should be the core of Christianity. Of course there are evangelicals in America who are complete nutcases, which is partly why I feel it's important to reclaim the word a bit. But I speak as one who has been to Spring Harvest, and New Wine, and who has sung Shine Jesus Shine in marquees (though I mostly managed to avoid the Toronto Blessing, for which I may be just too British), and I hate to see the dangers of these things exaggerated. The church I was at this Sunday involved lots of hand-waving and dancing with banners in the choruses, and these things really aren't the threat some people seem to think them. Also, because I like being allowed to grin in church. If I were a vicar my Easter services would involve a congo line. We would all sing "Kyrie anestAY" and kick on the last beat. (Edit: it should be Christos aneste but that doesn't scan as well.)

  4. I suppose before really one needs to establish a clear definition of terms before the discussion can get down to specifics, since 'evangelical' has such a wide range of meaning. As you say, by 'reclaiming' the word from certain others you're making it clear that your beliefs are not necessarily theirs, so it would help to know what they are. But for a short answer, that does make sense.

    What interests me is the extent to which such beliefs---religious, political, or any others that are mainly ideological---could be considered 'situational', in the sense that they arise less from considered personal investigation than simply by adoption from the circumstances into which one is born. Of course each religion, and each of its distinct denominations, will usually have members who have grounded their position firmly through a critical engagement with the issues, but one suspects that more often than not this may be more a 'rationalization' of existing beliefs than a geniunely open-minded attempt to determine the truth---as evidenced by the large number of people who 'stay with what they know'. Logically this may be argued to be necessarily the case, if one holds that there is only one true religion (or religion nearest to the truth)---everyone else must clearly be deceiving themselves. Unless religious authority cannot be demonstrated through logical/critical argument: but then how does one know that one's own is correct?

    An interesting question is: if you'd been born elsewhere (into a Catholic family, say, or indeed a Muslim family on the other side of the world) would you still have come round to the beliefs you hold today? Or would you have accepted those alternative situational values and beliefs over your present ones? In which case, is it right to hold beliefs that appear to be only situational?

    Your unfinished post sounds as though it might be interesting---perhaps you would consider posting it in parts? Call it a serialization!

  5. You say: "Unless religious authority cannot be demonstrated through logical/critical argument: but then how does one know that one's own is correct?" Substituting something a little vaguer for "religious authority", like "religious truth" -- I'm a Protestant and authority as a concept raises isues for us which are not necessary here -- then that's clearly the nub of the whole thing. What can we prove? I don't think we can prove, as yet, that dark matter exists, though apparently it's likely. (God and dark matter, both concepts which have been accused of just being the gap in the equation.) It seems obvious to me that there are limits to the logical/critical capacity of the human mind, while at the same time the human mind has further capacities, like love. And obviously we don't live our lives, day to day, simply logically or critically. (That's why Highly Illogical, by Leonard Nimoy, is a great piece of 60s pop.) Can we logically expect religious truth, which must be to do with the whole person and not just one aspect of their existence, to be logically provable, when the logical part of us is by no means the whole? But as you say, if not by logical and critical standards, how do we evaluate truth? Is truth only what can be proved? Is that cat really both dead and alive until the point when we know which it is? I don't think it is, I think there is real truth unaffected by our ability to get at it or not. But these are open questions.

    So how do we deal with this? When I'm looking at medieval script and I'm not sure if two pieces of work were written by the same scribe, I often find myself trying to work out which is somehow "safer" for my work, to call them the same scribe or assume that they're different. In the legal system it is clearly defined that the default, safer assumption is that the accused is innocent. For a lot of people it seems to be the default and safer assumption that everything is knowable, and that leads to an attitude that what isn't knowable is best ignored or disregarded. And of course we can't really, by our own efforts, transcend the limits of the human brain. So, are there mysteries? Are mysteries possible? And if so, what should one do about them? Is it safer to disregard them, or is it safer to assume they are there? What do mathematicians do with statements which are experimentally true but have been proven to be unprovable? What about Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns? These are huge issues, and not just for Christians.

    So my Christian faith has more to it than just the logical and critical: though the logical and critical do not contradict what I believe, in my opinion, nonetheless there is more than the logical to my belief. I am increasingly of the opinion that apologetics, so unfashionable in Christian circles of the last few decades, is the correct attitude. If someone says to me "this thing X which you believe clearly cannot logically be the case" then it is appropriate for me to argue back. (This isn't a challenge though, because I ought to get some work done at some point.) But I disagree with those Christians who think that we should all go out there arguing people into agreeing with us, because there is more than only the logical and critical to Christianity. Christianity is not a series of moral precepts, or some sort of ethical system. It is about the revelation of God's love -- all the morals and ethics are just a side-effect. (Sometimes this seems so intellectually unrespectable to the Guardian-reading me that I am sorry to say I don't make it as clear as I should. But it's true, and it's actually a joyful, liberating, and amazing truth.)

  6. PS The question of whether I would believe differently if I had been born in different surroundings seems to me to be an interesting curiosity, but to have limited consequences to what I ought to believe. Issues of probability always make my head hurt, and there is no control me (actually it would require a whole battery of control mes), to make a sensible comparison. It helps that I was brought up as a Protestant, with the saying "God has no grandchildren", whereas the Catholic church is all for counting the children of Catholics as automatically Catholics, as if it were an ethnic thing. Despite that, of course when I was a child I believed in God because I believed in my parents and they believed in God. When I was about thirteen and had the usual extreme reaction where you go from being your parents' biggest fans to their sharpest critics I remember being very worried about it all. Eventually I had to decide that just because my parents believed something didn't make it true, but it didn't make it untrue either, and that I was going to have to consider it for myself. Over the next few years I spent a lot of time being very rude to church youth group leaders, especially about issues of gender and sexuality, and I remember going through copies of the Alternative Service Book with a pen making all the language gender-neutral (a big deal to a middle-class girl brought up to see writing in books as a terrible crime). And eventually I accepted, with great reluctance, that those suburban people at our church, with their terrible hair and terrible taste in reading, their propensity to pray in rhyme like something from a greetings card, their incredibly naff way of dancing around with banners during the choruses, and their persistence in putting up outside the church huge posters with weak slogans which made us all look like morons, really did nonetheless have something right. What I mean is, the transition to being brought up by Christian parents to being a Christian is not automatically straightforward: as well as the pro-Christian influence there's also the anti-Christian backlash you feel, especially if you're someone like me who takes perverse pleasure in being difficult. I'm just incredibly grateful that my parents brought me up not only to know about Christianity but to be curious and questioning about things.

  7. Dear Ones,

    I like the contemplation and conversations going on here. Looking forward to reading more. Peace,