For some people, growing up as a Catholic makes one feel bad for enjoying oneself. Growing up as a Charismatic Christian can make one feel bad for not enjoying oneself.
I hate people exaggerating the trials of their youth. Sometimes they want sympathy. Sometimes they want to rationalise the failures of their adulthood. Sometimes they want to let off steam. Thousands have done it, online and in print, from misery memoirists to notable authors (Orwell’s Such, Such Were the Joys is an extended moan that, his contemporaries claimed, was ludicrously hyperbolic). It seems ungrateful, self-indulgent and, in many cases, dull.
Please do not think I am being resentful, then, in commenting on my religious youth. Sure, I resented going to church. I would have loved to sit at home watching the television. But I enjoyed lurking at the back of the room, with my friends, forming a kind of adolescent awkward squad – and in my grudging observation of the services I think I acquired a perspective that is worth documenting.
Services, in my church, were an experience: people danced, sang, shouted, screamed and fell like bowling pins as they were struck by the holy spirit. I invited a friend once and he was alarmed. At the time I thought this was amusing, as it seemed normal to me, but looking back I understand his reaction. There was an atmosphere so electric, on many occasions, that the fans at a rock concert would seem timid in comparison.
Now that I have lost my faith I am, of course, more sceptical about the origins of this religious fervour but at the very least it is astonishing what powerful sensations such collective rituals induce from our minds.
Or, at least, from some minds. They rarely did from mine. I remember long Sunday mornings, sitting at the back of the church, watching people dance, and shout, and sing, and scream, and sway, and not feeling compelled to join them. Not being able to. Sometimes I tried. I stood. I sang. I opened up my heart to God. But I still felt like a buttoned-up old bore at a rock concert. Sometimes I wondered what toad squatting on my soul, to steal from Philip Larkin, stopped me from ascending to their spiritual plane. Sometimes I would sneak a novel in and read.
Charismatic people naturally move towards the centre of social groups. The more “Charismatic” Christians – that is, those who are liable to experience prophetic insight or altered states of consciousness – move towards the centre of churches. If one has fewer spiritual “gifts” one might feel alienated. Involving us in the church might have been hopeless. We were teenage boys, with all of the obnoxious aspects of the species. But, looking back, I see how communities, to the extent that they have collective social aims, have to account for different ritualistic inclinations. Charismatic Christians and traditional Catholics might be more or less correct in their theological views but I am sure their services cater to different temperaments.
The church tried to engage us. There were lots of youth groups. There were lots of efforts to appeal to our interests: Christian rock, Christian films, Christian festivals. They could be fun. A problem, however, with such attempts to make Christianity “cool” is that they worked to the extent that they resembled mainstream culture. We liked POD riffs, and the jokes in Bruce Almighty, and the atmosphere at the annual “Soul Survivor” meetings, but we liked them in spite, not because of their themes. Once we had more accomplished, fashionable secular options we chose them instead. Religion, if it is to thrive, must be an alternative to the mainstream, not an imitation.
The mainstream, of course, hold things for young men that the church does not. Within the hormonal haze of our adolescence we endured “sex talks” with embarrassed amusement. Catholics are stereotyped as beating young people about the heads with ideas of sin until they are terrified and self-hating. Without ideas of sin, however, Christian ethics are left all but incoherent. Our leaders sought to avoid being judgemental (and especially explicit), and preached abstinence through convoluted allegories that offered nothing except a vague sense of unease. I recall one story of a man who ate a cake, piece by piece – starting with a sliver, ending with the crumbs – that was hilarious but left me wondering what exactly was bad about eating cake.
With their emphasis on experience, Charismatic Christians often “know” that God exists because they feel Him. I didn’t. I believed in God because I had been taught that he existed. Aged fifteen, then, after an awkward few months of doubt that involved skirting around copies of The God Delusion in bookshops because I did not want to think about the God question, it took just a few encounters with Dawkinsesque dogma to convince me that I had been wrong. I had never seen a rational argument for God. I assumed that they did not exist. After an embarrassing (on both sides) argument with a youth leader about how Jonah avoid being dissolved by the whale’s stomach acids I decided I was not a Christian. Most of my friends agreed.
In church, the optimism of the speakers astonished me. I heard, time and again, the claim that mine was a revival generation. This seemed comically absurd. Godlessness was spreading, with its ethics and assumptions, and our leaders looked Canute-like in their Christianity. This was unkind. It was their faith in God that made them optimistic. It was this faith that helped them do all kinds of selfless, valuable things, from raising funds for orphans in the Philippines to serving soup to homeless people. Even at social events, like barbeques, picnics and football matches, it was clear that these were men and women bursting with the good news.
Yet faith is not enough. History testifies that God, even if He exists, does not spare us, or even Christians, from worldly failure. A God who did not prevent the Holocaust, or the Holodomor, or the genocide of the Yazidis cannot be expected to avert the decline of faith in Britain. More rigour. More reason. More realism. More tradition. I think that would have improved the ideas floating around the Church. But, then, ideas are what I like. Others would have found them frustrating.
Overall, I look back on these experiences with affection. If one has grown up, in comfort, around warm and decent people one has a lot to feel blessed for even if one has regrets. I am glad that I grew up religious. Even if I die as an agnostic, or an atheist, I’m thankful for being exposed to big questions – bigger, at least, than I would have found on television.