A Literary Elephant in the room?

Do we really know words as well as we think we do?

I have often heard aspiring writers saying how they ‘love words’ or referring to themselves ‘wordsmiths’. What are words, static material we beat into shape to form what we mean to say, or are they rather less like metal, and more like wild natural creatures, slippery as eels? Shape changers even? Researching their ‘meanings’ over time certainly reveals words as living things, capable of evolving and changing beyond recognition. Take the words ‘worry’, ‘why worry’, ‘don’t worry’, ‘no worries’… how many of us today would use ‘worry’ where ‘strangle’ would do? A dog ‘worrying’ sheep isn’t just increasing their anxiety. If a dog worried sheep, our ancestors were finding dead, mangled, sheep among their flock – a very different threat.

Here I need to seize another word and carefully lead it along—beating it with a smith’s hammer and anvil won’t do. Originally used simply to mean ‘relating to the Gospel or Good News’ the word ‘evangelical’ was adopted to describe a particular type of Protestant Christian belief, often including fervent practice and emphasising that faith should always stem from a personal ‘conversion experience’. Here we then have another way words ‘change their meaning’: the ‘meaning’ slithers by contextualisation, by usage, by connotation…  The ‘gospel’ has  been hijacked: as Evan Maloney (Where did all the Christian writers go? Guardian, 31 March 2010) says, ‘The central commandment of Jesus was “Love one another”—it’s not an idea that leverages power for religious brokers. With social power church needs to divide society into good and evil, and to have these divisions recognised as gospel.’  And so instead of ‘bringer of good news’ the word ‘Evangelical’ has become associated in a majority of minds with not bringing good news at all. ‘Evangelical has morphed in common usage from being a reference to a set of primary theological commitments into something akin to a passionately defended, theo-political brand’ says Mark Labberton, president of Fuller seminary, and editor of Still Evangelicals?  (2018).  And, ‘It is now painfully clear that the evangelical world was strategically and politically co-opted—not by more conservative evangelical leaders, but by political operatives from the Republican Party who saw a real opportunity to take over the evangelical world by making particular appeals to “conservative social issues”’ say Jim Wallis and Adam Taylor in Towards a more authentic Evangelicalism (Sojo website 10 March 2018).

So much for words, slipperiness, and hijacking. 

Identity, and Getting inside another pair of shoes

My previous blog, on Authenticity, talked about identity books, the kinds of books which explore in memoir or in fiction the world of a particular culture, and how reading can open up our imagination to understanding people different to us, by culture, life experience, sexual orientation, etc. And how much I have valued several I read recently. The world of Damien La Bas, from a Gypsy background; the world of Vicky Beeching, raised evangelical, working as a singer/songwriter in ‘mega churches’, and battling with how and whether it was safe to ‘come out’ and be her lesbian self; the world of Afua Hirsch, being ‘mixed race’  where neither Britain where you were born and educated, or Ghana, feels like ‘home’. I feel a bit ‘mixed race’ myself sometimes—more of that later on… 

In that blogpost I’ve also pointed out that ‘labels’ can define us: ‘Once labelled, anything can happen to you. Once a labeller, you lose sight of our common humanity…’ (Three Seek Identity (August 2018)). Our common humanity, sharing our crowded planet, is an important concept: possibly one which might stop the tribalism which threatens to lead us into mutual destruction. If we can all hang on to that. That’s one reason why I value  books by writers who belong to different cultures from the one I was raised in. 

My reading from other cultures began with Jewish novels, but more recently, and against the backdrop of fear created by this century’s wars and terrorism, I’ve read Sudanese Lela Aboulela’s deep thinking stories, particularly The Translator, Minaret, and The Kindness of EnemiesShe paints a picture of Islam as the Western media don’t know it: sensitive, thoughtful. While Afghan Khalid Hosseini shows us another side, in A Thousand Shimmering Sunsnonetheless bringing the novel to a peaceful and happy conclusion, after much suffering. Damian La Bas finds suspicion and rejection from fellow Gypsy Travellers as well as kindness. Kamila Shamsie sums up today’s power hungry politicians and confused young men, and the misunderstanding and the misuse of ‘love’ in Home Fire… 

Are there ‘shoes’ we don’t find in the bookshops?

In all this, where are the serious novels which examine any of this from the viewpoint of the major religion which has become associated with the West over thousands of years, Christianity? English Vicky Beeching, raised in an Evangelical family, growing up surrounded by positive family love, writes in Undivided about the heartbreaking cruelty of Megachurch (and other) leaders and members, who are convinced that being gay is seriously evil, and incompatible with her faith. Despite the fact that Jesus’s teaching omits to pronounce on LBGTQ+ and centres on generosity and acceptance for our neighbour whoever they are: ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave or free…’ writes Paul to the Early Church. Vicky’s book is a memoir, not a novel. The antagonism isn’t a story, it’s real.

Serious, thoughtful fiction, examining our present lives, the faith or absence of faith which drives us, underpins decision making, defines our culture, unites or divides us, is hard or impossible to find. In my intended third story in the Mullins Family Saga, Alice, in her mid teens, is going to spend the long, wet, summer of 2007 observing the antics of the adults in her life, discovering their strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately a tragedy which might have been avoided. It’s a bit like updating I Capture the Castle to early twentyfirst century North Oxford and it should be exciting to write. The ‘saga’ began with what was then a stand-alone novel, Baby, Baby, an attempt to look as objectively as I could at the relationship between two graduate students, powerfully attracted but from entirely hostile family backgrounds. The genre was partially inspired by the works of Shamsie, Aboulela and Hosseini, exploring family, generational, and community relationships in the context of Islam. And by being inside a family which is its extended form includes two ‘world religions’ and none, while also watching and accepting my own children and their friends turning away from following a path of faith, while maintaining a strong, but sometimes different, moral code.

BB: Science, Faith, and Prejudice

In Baby, Baby, Jenny’s secular family, her father a prominent fertility expert, and her mother, a GP, have no use for religion. Max’s father pastors the nearest thing to a ‘megachurch’ in Northumbria, preaching a narrow, patriarchal faith. Here’s my ‘mixed race’ feeling: raised in a birth family very much underpinned by Christian faith (though not at all Evangelical), I grew up very aware that ‘our’ family culture was not shared by, most probably, the majority of those around us.  I happily read children’s science fact books alongside the Bible, but was kind of unable to ‘get’ Narnia. 

So, my ‘mixed-race’, discomforted sense of not belonging to either culture: the ‘religious’ one, or the secular.’God is irrelevant, we don’t need one…’ ‘Are you religious?’ Well, actually, no. I belong to and follow a faith. I can’t identify as ‘religious’, that word which now carries a lot of ‘stuff’ including all those ‘don’ts and ‘do’s’ hedging a person around with a fence that has no door to open and let in compassion, integrity, and inclusiveness. My answer to this question is summed up here: ‘Writers are generally independent thinkers who dislike having their thoughts roped by doctrine’ (Evan Maloney, as above). Maloney’s article was asking ‘Where did all the Christian writers go?’, and he references many who lived, well, a very long time ago, pointing out that there aren’t many, if any, writing today. 

“‘By the time Lewis and Elliott converted to faith in the late 1920s, Christianity was a bete noire of the literary world. Virginia Woolf wrote about Elliott to a friend in 1928 “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Elliott, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would would seem to be more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”’ (In Evan Maloney, as above).

This about sums it up. Though we can cite Marilynne Robinson and J.R.R. Tolkien, their books are quite hard to read and not perhaps in line with popular taste. In children’s writing, Narnia though loved in the 1960s and 1970s, is now inadequate through much dated language and culture, reflecting the era when Lewis was writing. Most novels from the twentieth century dealing with faith have been critical exposures of the woeful inadequacy of Christianity in various ways—John Updike, Graham Greene. And those whose unhappy brush with it has led to their atheism: Philip Pullman comes to mind—possibly also Patrick Gale (it seems possible, as he attended a Cathedral choir boarding school, and tells the story of the secret life of a priest in his novel A Perfectly Good Man). And I’m not unsympathetic to those who end up rejecting the God they were taught about by words or actions. ‘Modernist and post-modernist literature vivisected the body of Christian orthodoxy,’ (Malone, as above). Maybe that orthodoxy had already wandered far enough from its roots to deserve a radical removal?

Where then are the ‘Christian’ writers – and what does ‘Christian’ imply?

So, is ‘society today prejudiced against Christian writers? Or is Christianity rightly viewed as a faith that deters the freethinking that great literature demands?’ (Maloney, as above). Probably. Are we as a society afraid to discuss the relevance of Christianity, unbelief, ‘the Church’ with its positive and negative sides, its part in colonialism, as a state religion, does it have a future, and other controversial areas?  Is that really boring and passé? Or is it so woven into our past that to banish it entirely threatens our understanding of our history, and our present?

I’d never claim to write anything approaching ‘great’ literature, but aiming for a serious literary handling of faith, in today’s English language milieu, it’s pretty much impossible to be published.

TLY: Art, Science, and Losing your Way

I decided on gong Indie (and joined the Alliance of Independent Authors, link here). There’s otherwise a choice between publishing ‘mainstream’ (do not even hint at spiritual or moral content) or approaching a ‘Christian’ publishing house (though these, even before the ‘Republican’ makeover, definitely debarred the more liberal faithful investigating risky areas, included a list of what not to say (for example, no dialogue with the f-word,) and preferred a happy ending, possibly with conversion though redemption could do.) This makes it hard to enter even a toenail into the water of agents or trade publishers. Authors are resorting, if they can, to writing fantasy, or historical novels set in times when (they claim) ‘everyone believed and it could be talked about’. But has that ever been true?  I very much doubt it. In a hierarchical society, it was simply wise to go along with what everyone did, and keep your doubts or disbeliefs to yourself. 

Fear, prejudice, or whatever makes a book unacceptable to either side if it discusses the definitely off-topic subject of faith or unbelief, without advocating or demonising one or the other, has now made ‘Christian’ literature an ‘elephant in the room’ best avoided. Like ‘evangelical’, discussed above, the label ‘Christian’ has now been shape-shifted, by usage, association, and connotation, into something aggressively opposed to the radical teaching of its founder, a man of integrity, inclusive of women, foreigners, outcasts, and passionate for the poor and dispossessed. 

 Labels. Connotations. The power of words …

 

Being Authentic: Three seek Identity

identity books 1
My pile of recently read books 

Summer reading: mine has been ‘serious books’ so far: all very recently published, each has a very 2018 feel.  The only novel is Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fires, a sobering take on today’s culture and politics. But here I’m concerned with three non-fictions on the theme of being authentic: not ‘who do we think we are?’ but ‘who do we know we are – and will our society allow us to be this?’

Afua Hirsch has written an extensively, carefully researched book on the hows and whys of being Black and a Brit. Significantly, it’s called Brit (-ish). Damien Le Bas decided to take to the road in a Ford Transit van (visiting all the places where his Gypsy ancestors probably stopped in their travelling days). His book, The Stopping Places, is an account of his physical and emotional journey, packed with reflections on the Gypsy lifestyle. Vicky Beeching’s book, Undivided, a memoir, tells of the pain of growing up and becoming. All three have been students at Oxford University: Hirsch and Le Bas among the few of ‘minority’ background, Beeching outwardly ‘mainstream’.

The problem of ‘labels’

A quest for ‘authenticity’, alongside the chaotic state of our world, is a defining aspect of life in the 21st-century. Tradition, with its rules and boundaries, gave some cultural stability, each culture led by generally acknowledged and imposed beliefs. But in reality, to think that it created a happier, more stable life is to ignore history and the contributions of those often intelligent and thoughtful individuals whom traditional ways have set outside the boundaries of the culture’s rules, labelling them as less than ‘us’.

Once labelled, anything can happen to you. Once a labeller, you lose sight of our common humanity – Black people can be seen as slave material, Travellers and Gypsies as trash. Traditional societies can lull anyone into accepting that the ‘other’ is harmful, not truly human, worthy only of servant status, marginalisation or even  death.

Afua Hirsch’s book carefully traces the history of Black people in Britain, revealing that their position worsened once this country was involved in the slave trade. And that in the 1920s ‘mixed race’ children were regarded by official bodies as less intelligent by nature and unable to benefit from education. ‘Liverpool’s “half-castes”…were pronounced to be…intellectually inferior, with intelligence “below the average”’, (Hirsch, page 148). Labelling the children of parents with different skin colours as morally inferior perhaps reflected an idea that a Black person ‘having sex with’ a white person was wrong and disgusting. This idea was repeated in a report on East London children in 1944. And Apartheid was alive and well in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s (see Enoch Powell’s speech 1968, Hirsch page 149).

Crossing boundaries

What is true of Black Britons is in its own way true of Gypsies. Le Bas’s book includes research into his people’s history alongside reminiscences from his amazing Nan and his own experiences both growing up and on the road. Like Hirsch, Le Bas studied at Oxford (after first gaining one at an independent school, at the instigation of his parents, the Romany artists Damien and Delaine Le Bas). And like Hirsch he has become an outsider both to his own community and to the surrounding culture.

Knowledge and inheritance from two communities carries both useful understanding and painful awareness. It is far more difficult to bridge two cultures than to entrench yourself in the tradition of one. Hirsch, well aware of her Black heritage as she went through first a highly academic independent girls’ school, and then her university life, felt that she belonged more to Africa than to Britain. She tried emigration to Ghana, her maternal grandparents’ country, but found that as a ‘mixed race Brit’ there was as much ‘you don’t fit’ in the attitude of West Africans as there had been in the white culture of Wimbledon. Before, as a teenager, she had learned that African hair cannot be straightened with the products which her European friends used; now, that her skin was too pale in Africa just as it was too dark in Britain, and her accent was wrong. But the experience of the inner person was neither African nor European. She now lives and works in London, which is of course a cosmopolitan city.

Hidden ‘Difference’

Vicky Beeching’s Undivided, tells of how, while appearing to be just another white woman from the mainstream, she ‘wore a mask’ for the first 35 years of her life. Vicky is neither Black British nor Gypsy British, but Evangelical Christian British. Yes, it’s another tribe – a tribe in the white, ‘respectable’ community, and a tribe with firm traditions, beliefs, and rules. They mightn’t like it, but Le Bas’s comments on his people, apply equally to Vicky’s birth and faith families. He says (page 265) ‘Gypsy culture can be stifling in its demands for living in line with its hidden rules’.

And Evangelical rules are not hidden. They are taught in church, in families, and in the very air they breathe.

As a young child, Vicky became aware of her attraction to girls. Becoming a teenager she was being taught that this was a sinful lifestyle choice. From then onwards she donned a ‘mask’, denying herself any close romantic relationships, terrified that to be gay and remain Christian was impossible. Didn’t God hate gay people? She believed that this ‘choice’ (or ‘demon’) could be ‘cured’ by ‘prayer ministry’. When this did not work she continued with her studies and the songwriting she had begun as a pre-teen, took a degree at Oxford, and became a very popular and successful singer-songwriter on the Evangelical church circuit. Until, while working in the USA, singing in mega churches, the stress of hiding her true self caused a breakdown in her health. She wrote Undivided in the strong conviction, and after much thoughtful research, that the Bible does not teach that being born gay is incompatible with being a Christian (unless you can be cured or remain celibate). Like Hirsch studying racial history, Vicky carefully studied the evangelical ‘proof texts’ and became convinced that their interpretation of these Scriptures is flawed.

Where ‘tradition’ comes in

Tradition, with its rules and boundaries, may have given cultural stability in the past, but looking into the sources we can see that these are based on fear of otherness rather than ‘God’s commands for living’. All three books speak of the writer’s longing to fit into the surrounding society, to have a place of acceptance rather than to be treated as a misfit and an outsider.

Is outsider status perhaps one reason why both Le Bas and Beeching chose to study Theology? A search for meaning? Would Social and Political Science or Philosophy have served them better? Both used the resources of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, as did Hirsch, searching for answers.

Whatever, there appears to be a human need to keep our cultures safe by shutting out minorities and those who pose questions by their very existence. In its extreme form we see this need functioning within nations, causing wars, genocide, and suffering. Opening our minds to look at the world through the eyes of the outsider is discouraged. Those of us who do this are likely to join them.

An elderly Traveller man whom La Bas met on the borders of Wales said, ‘The thing is, you say the border…But let me tell you something. I’m living here now, and I’ve lived over there, and my people is all here and there. And let me tell you something about that border. That ain’t no border to us, boy. And never has been. I am a Travelling man, that’s what I am. And ain’t no border stopped my people making their way.’ As the writer thinks in response ‘whether he knows it or not, he’s just struck a heavy blow against my lifelong need to know if I’m one thing or another’  (page 220).

And knowing who we are, accepting who we are, and being accepted as who we are is what we humans  want and need …