Sunday, 11 July 2010


Although our village has no shop it has a small pub, which serves Otter beer (motto: relax with an otter) and very good chips, and there's a small church. The church is actually a chapel of ease, which means it was built so that people could have services nearer at hand. There have been three weddings there in its whole existence: some people I don't know, who had to get the church licenced first; my brother and his wife; and a fake wedding which Joss Stone recorded for a music video. (She comes from here.)

It's very nice to be able to walk a few minutes down the road to go to church, and the people are pleasant too. But I am being driven slightly distracted by its infantilism. Admittedly a lot of the services there are specifically for children. But there are endless colouring-in activities, and sometimes we don't even get sermons, we get Christian children's stories read aloud (actually these fascinate me in the way they revive sentimental medieval apocrypha which were just the sort of thing to which Protestants strongly objected at the Reformation, in my view rightly). Today the usual person was away because of a family illness, and so we went one step more inane. We didn't even get a Bible reading, instead we had our next-door neighbour telling the story of the early years of Moses extempore, with a long digression about how he sort of sympathised with Pharoah because he went to London yesterday and no one there looked English and he couldn't read the signs in the shop windows. You may be thinking, well, the King James Version is hard work for a child and maybe it's better for them to have something easier to digest: but we're not talking about the King James here, or the RSV, or the NIV, or even the Good News. (I didn't come across the King James until I discovered it for myself as a literary teenager, and loved it -- "I feel like a bottle in the smoke", etc, though it still wouldn't be my first call for trying to understand what the Bible is actually saying -- and we always had the NIV and the Good News at church.) At the best we're talking about one of those books of Children's Bible Stories which I really hated as a child. (It wasn't a religious thing, I also hated those Children's Stories from Shakespeare books, which really put me off Shakespeare until I was old enough to realise that the point of Shakespeare is not so much the plot as the mad vertigo of the language.) And I fear we might even be talking about one of those "modern" translations written in a mixed slang which is about ten years out of date. (Peter said, What up dog! That was like, so totally rad.) But this would still have been a step up from someone randomly dredging the story out of their memory, with splashes of Martin-Amis-style, I'm-just-saying-what-we're-all-thinking racism mixed in.

In a funny development, the bloke who usually does the service had e-mailed his 5-min talk to my mother, who read it out, and it turned out to be all about how we should welcome people from foreign countries and try to protect them from exploitation. It's heartening how often the people in charge in the church are in charge for a good reason.

Anyway, I fear that I need to find myself a church which is a bit less inane. It's not that I actually disagree in general with these things, it's just that I know that my own religious life has to involve some intellectual content. (Is it any wonder that so many people think Christianity is just a matter of accepting a series of children's stories?) I need to read things written by intelligent Christians, and here's the difficult bit, I could really do with some people to discuss them with me. In Cambridge this was achievable, although even in Cambridge it was pretty difficult to find people who are more interested in theology than aesthetics.

On the plus side the good thing about these lightweight services is that I flee them yearning for some serious meaty Christianity. I read Rowan William's Dostoyevsky book as a direct result of a Christmas eve service of peculiar inanity, and now I feel all driven to read Marianne Robinson's Absence of Mind. (She was on the Daily Show the other day, doing pretty well I thought at pointing out how the people engaged in the Science vs Religion debate are not the brightest minds from either tradition.)

PS Do children really need things to be so thoroughly digested for them? I remember that it completely blew my mind when I was eight and my mother told me that thing Augustine said, that we should love God and do whatever we wanted. I said but what if you love God, but you want to steal things? And my mum said, but if you really loved God like he loves us, you'd know that stealing things wasn't a God-like thing, and that it would pain him, and you'd be revolted by the idea of stealing and try your hardest never to do it even by accident. And this totally blew my mind. I remember thinking about it for some time, and when my mother came up at light's out (9 pm) to check I wasn't reading under the covers, I said that I had had an idea that could make everything alright. If we didn't only love God, but if we loved everyone, and loved them properly, then we could all do whatever we wanted all the time, and everything would be fine. My mother, bless her, said that she knew some people who had said that, and she thought maybe they were right. But I remember it vividly as seeming utterly amazing to me at the time.

PPS Wouldn't it be great to love God like that, so that all the commandments just became descriptions of what you were like? Wouldn't it be amazing to be that person out of love, not duty? I think that's what Paul is saying in Romans.


  1. I don't think I would be very likely to return after a service like that. In my old parish we had a good rector---his sermons were accessible and to the point, but he also was open to discussion and not afraid to recommend good, but difficult, books like Schmeeman's 'On the Eucharist'.

    I hate the King James Version---well, not so much the text itself, but the bizarre way that so many people seem to consider it the 'correct' version, when in reality it is based on inferior manuscripts, full of mistakes, and unnecesarily cryptic to modern English speakers in its archaism. This attitude seems to be particularly prevalent in the US, to the extent that some of its rather nuttier proponents will argue that the KJV is a divinely inspired translation, God's word to English speakers, devoid of the 'Satanic distortions' found in newer translations (plenty of expositions to this effect on YouTube). I favour the NRSV and NIV (as literal(/formal) and dynamic equivalent translations, respectively). Actually, I'm suprised more people don't bother to learn Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek so as to be able to read the originals (or the closest we have to such) for themselves. I'm only a beginner, but I find there's something quite exciting about reading the actual words that were spoken and written by Paul/the Evangelists/etc all those years ago, even if pronunciations and other details are only best guesses. And of course any translation is necessarily an interpretation, which removes original nuances/ambiguites/etc and inserts its own. But this seems not to be of great interest to many (most?) churchgoers.

  2. The problem is, that I don't think I can in all conscience leave. This particular church is far from great in many ways, but if it were a perfect church I'd only bring down the average. I'm not one of those people who can happily love the Church -- I think the Church is a sort of Christian tax, the penalty you pay in return for being a Christian. But then I'm a very unsociable person.

    I know what you mean about the KJV. People are very odd about it, from mad right-wing evangelicals to Catholics who ought really to be sticking with the Vulgate. It's not great for actually understanding what's going on -- I do love its translations of the Psalms though. I've never learnt any Hebrew and my Greek is pretty bad, though I have tried from time to time. When I was a fellow I kept a Greek NT with interlinear translation in the pews in chapel, and tried to follow the readings that way, but with minimal success. Maybe I should try again some time. I could more or less cope with the gospels, it was St Paul who did my head in. (That used to be true in general, not only in the linguistic sense, but as I get older I think I have a better sense of Paul, and that he has been rather unjustly maligned.)

    When I was an undergraduate I knew Christian Classicists who would not read the Gospels in Greek in case it ruined their Greek composition style. I still think that's a bit wierd.