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…’ (Evan Maloney, as above) 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, 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 Enemies. She 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 Suns, nonetheless 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. 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). Malone’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?’ (Malone, as above). Are they also afraid to discuss the topic of Christian belief, unbelief, its positive and negative sides, its part in colonialism, as a state religion, does it have a future, and other controversial areas? Is that perhaps boring and passé?
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. There’s a choice between publishing ‘mainstream’ (do not even hint at spiritual or moral content) or ‘Christian’ (with a dedicated publisher … even without the ‘Republican’ makeover, definitely barring any investigation of risky areas, keeping to a code of what not to say, and with a happy ending for the faithful). 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.
The power of words…