Tuesday, 11 March 2008

For God's sake

My life can be very random at times. I seem to meet a lot of people, all from different backgrounds, creeds, colours, attitudes, etc etc. You may think this is because of my currently itinerant lifestyle but really it’s always been the case. During my adult life I’ve often found myself doing stuff or visiting places that maybe you wouldn’t in the normal course of things.

And so it is that this Sunday evening I found myself at a concert of Christian music. And by concert I don’t mean a choir in a local church – this was a big event, taking place in a huge arena in Sydney, with an impressive light show and full-bodied anthemic rock songs, all singing about the sacrifice of Jesus and the glory of God. Amen etc.

So how did I end up here? When I was last in Australia I met a student called Andy who was staying at the same hostel as me. Tall and bushy-haired, he was here on a year’s placement for the mechanical engineering degree he was studying in Bristol. We bonded with a mutually wry sense of humour and a love of Lost, which we spent hours watching and dissecting together.

Andy is quite open about his Christianity. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be, of course, though people of our age do tend to treat other people of our age with a religious bent with some suspicion. But Andy’s relaxed and very chilled attitude towards it all disarms you totally. He drinks and chases women like any other man in the hostel, and is by no means a Bible basher. It is clear straight away that he’s not going to try and ‘recruit’ you, which I guess is most people’s fear.

But he is passionate and dedicated to his faith. On his Facebook profile he talks openly about his beliefs, saying:

“I know I'm far from perfect; I know of only one who is or ever was. His name is Emmanuel, Jesus Christ.I can merely endeavour to love. Whilst I know that my Earthly ties will inevitably be cut at some point, I do not fear death. Through my faith, I have hope: hope of an eternity spent in God's presence. I'd be lying if I said the notion of spending eternity in Heaven didn't excite me. The reason I am who I am and I act the way I do is directly because of this. I know I don't deserve to enter God's presence but the idea that I can in spite of this motivates me as a person. Jesus came to serve, not to be served. I hence try my utmost to follow His example: to serve both Him and others. I aim to share what I believe to be the greatest good news anyone could ever hope to hear. I believe it would be selfish not to.”

Being the cynic and atheist I’ve, one, been brought up to be, and two, become even more so as an adult, I always find it amazing when I meet someone of my generation with attitudes such as this. The role religion plays in Western society continues to be reduced for most people. There is still an acknowledgement by those in power of religion’s role in people’s lives but it by no means holds the power it once had historically. When a man as powerful as Tony Blair was refuses to discuss his Catholic faith openly, it’s clear that society is still moving slowly away religious dominance in its affairs.

And yet it does still have a huge influence. I’m constantly reminded that people who still worship God aren’t necessarily unintelligent, needy or naïve. Blair is one example. Professor Robert Winston is another. He’s a scientist who has presented many programmes on human behaviour, a man I interviewed a few years ago when he was promoting his programme The Story of God – an historical look at God and how the belief in a higher power as impacted human development.

“One of the reasons for me agreeing to make this series,” he told me, “was I wanted to show an aspect of humanity that is not, I think, very well dealt with by many scientists, who often profess strongly atheist beliefs and are rather dismissive of the spiritual side of humanity. I wanted to, as a scientist, redress that a bit really.

“It's my view, expressed in that programme, that actually there shouldn't be a conflict between science and religion, that actually they should be able to sit quite comfortably side by side. They're both looking at the natural world in different ways, but which aren't necessarily conflicting.”

Somehow he manages to balance his scientific knowledge with his faith as a practising Jew. When I asked him how he reconciled the two he told me:

“I certainly follow a somewhat religious track in my life. I think religion provides a very useful framework for people and it's been quite helpful to me. Has there been a conflict between my science and religious practice? No, I don't think there has. On the contrary I think it's enlightened and helped my clinical practice. I think it's been very useful in making good decisions about an area of biology that is fairly controversial - mainly the embryo, human life and its start, pregnancy and conception.

“Many of the decisions I come to in helping people have been illuminated by, not necessarily my religious views, but other peoples', and religious views in general.”

And then there’s Andy – not a stupid fellow at all, a very, very clever one in fact.

So when he invites me along to a concert he’s performing at, being put on by his church, I see no harm in it. He’s part of the choir and as a friend I think it would be nice to go and support him. Plus it’ll be something a bit different, something I’ve never done before. Another new experience to investigate.

I’m intrigued as well. In the few brief conversations we’ve had about his church he’s told me it’s not the happy clappy cliché people might expect. He says it takes the Bible’s teachings and applies them to modern life. To me this seems nigh on impossible. How can something written some 2,000 years ago have any hope of applying to today’s society? Of course the moral stance laid down by those writings has permeated society and often forms the basis for what people consider to be ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ behaviour. But to still be using that language and those stories, and keeping the focus entirely on ‘what the Bible says’ seems faintly ridiculous to me.

But maybe this church has found a way for it not to seem ridiculous. Maybe this church has found a way to navigate this compilation of probably historically inaccurate stories that have been translated, re-written and re-interpreted hundreds of times over the past 2,000 years and make it work for today’s society.

At the moment my attitude is much the same as the Malaysian I met recently who could not understand why there were so many branches of Christianity. Why is there Catholics? Why is there Methodists? Etc etc. Why aren’t there just Christians? The only answer I could give was that the Bible was such a vague piece of writing that it can be interpreted many ways to suit the needs of whoever is reading it. It’s this malleability that makes me unable to take it seriously. There’s nothing genuine about it. How can there be when it supports such differing points of view?

But as I say, I was curious about Andy’s church. When I go along I know nothing about them, I do no research. I’m just there to go and see Andy sing. I’m picked up from the hostel by Andy’s friend Druvis, a Sri Lankan guy that Andy’s kindly asked to give me a lift. In the car on the way we chat and get to know each other. Given the nature of our destination it’s not long before he asks me if I go to church as well. I tell him no, I’m not a religious man. He tells me he doesn’t think he is either, he doesn’t like the word religious. He, quite rightly, says the word has bad connotations and suggests rules and regulations. And control, I want to add, but don’t as I’m not sure I trust myself in this debate.

I don’t trust myself because there is a part of me that gets angered by religion. As someone who has always been fascinated by history I’ve read a lot about how the powers that be control their societies with religion. It horrifies me to think of the millions and millions of people over the past 3,000 years or more that have been slaughtered mercilessly in the name of God. The one shining example that I always think of is that of Queen Mary Tudor and her relentless burning of Protestants in her attempt to bring the country back to Catholicism. Imagine that for a second. Imagine being arrested because you do something slightly differently to your ruler. You worship the SAME GOD, but you have a slightly different take on how the worshiping should be done. And so you are BURNT ALIVE for your opinion. She did that to over 300 of her own people. That’s fucking sick. And there are hundreds of examples like that throughout history. Hundreds of them. Each of which I’ve read has hammered it in to me that religion is A Very Bad Thing.

So no wonder Druvis baulks at the word religion. He instead talks about a relationship he has with God, something personal. He says he goes to the church and listens to what they say and develops his own personal relationship with Jesus and God from that. Which seems fair enough, I think. A lot of people don’t do that though, I reply, a lot of people take what’s written in the Bible as gospel (quite literally! No pun intended) and use it to structure their lives. They need that structure to lean on, to help them get through life. He tells me his faith just gives him a sense of peace, a sense that everything’s going to be all right because “someone” is looking out for him.

I change the subject at this point because I know I might offend if I carry on. He seems to be an archetype of why I think people become religious or spiritual - they can’t handle life. They can’t handle the full responsibility of their lives and so they pass some of it over to a higher power, a very quiet and unobtrusive deity who they can turn to when things go bad. It’s such a neat set-up when you think about it. I wish I could convince myself that there’s some greater being watching over me, occasionally poking or prodding me in the right direction. Wouldn’t life be so much easier to bear? But it seems to me a cop out, a get out of jail free card. It’s too easy. And really, when you think about it, it doesn’t make sense. If God’s watching over us, why does bad stuff happen? To test us? Test us for WHAT exactly? Why does He test a 10 year girl who is being abused by her father in such a way? Why does He test a woman with rape? Or an innocent man with torture at the hands of his captors? What’s the ultimate goal with that? What answers do these people hear when they do turn to God in those incidences? Any?

But of course God works in mysterious ways. Who am I to question his motives?

Druvis and I arrive at his friend Andrea’s house to pick her and her friend up, then we go on to the ACER Arena.

Now, the ACER Arena isn’t small. It’s played host to concerts by the likes of Rod Stewart, Iron Maiden and Justin Timberlake and has a capacity of 21,000. Apart from the middle tier, the place is full.

If you thought young Christians were a rarity then you’d be wrong. I question Druvis about where all these people have come from - all over the country, from different churches? No, they’re all from the same church and they’re all from Sydney. I’m stunned.

The concert starts off with a young good-looking chap welcoming everyone. It’s immediately a cliché as the guy starts banging on about how God is in the room with us tonight, how this is worship like any other Sunday but how we’re on the cusp of something special, something amazing, everything is going to be different after this. What is he talking about? It’s a bloody concert. He then reads a passage from the Bible - Isaiah 42:8-13.

"I am the Lord, that is My name; And My glory I will not give to another," it begins. It later ends with: "The Lord shall go forth like a mighty man; He shall stir up His zeal like a man of war. He shall cry out, yes, shout aloud; He shall prevail against His enemies."

It’s a call to battle. Everyone cheers. I’m confused. Who are they going to FIGHT? These people are going to go leave this place and go home thinking what a nice evening they had, not go out on the streets and take on all who deny the glory of God, or whatever. It DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE.

The music starts. It’s pretty good. It’s the kind of emotive, anthemic pop-rock that U2 or Coldplay could knock out during their lunch break. But with the impressive light show, the combined joy of thousands of people and an excellent sound system it’s pretty moving stuff.

On the way here Druvis told me I would have quite a night. He said he didn’t know what I would feel but I would definitely feel something, implying that he expected me to feel God in that arena. I don’t. All I feel is what I feel every time I join thousands of people in a room to listen to music everyone there enjoys enhanced by fancy lights and heartfelt performances – that joyous buzz of being part of a huge exciting event. These people are confusing that purely chemical response to stimuli to feeling ‘God’ in the room. All they’re doing is responding to that basic, innate human desire to congregate in large numbers, play loud music and have fun together. Where I do it in a club or at a festival, these people do it at a church or Christian rock concert. There is no difference whatsoever – the ultimate goal is the same.

Thing is I’m more likely to feel ‘God’ at a Madonna concert (oh the irony if He actually showed up to a gig of hers) than here. The music’s enjoyable but nothing I’ve not heard a million times before, plus it’s full of lyrics that directly lift Biblical language to sing the praises of Jesus and God. It seems incongruous to me but has obviously worked wonders in winning over these kids to the ideas of Christianity.

Not long after the gig starts I notice a guy down to my left with long grey hair and beard, arms outstretched in praise to the Lord.

In any other scenario the people around him would be pointing and giggling behind cupped hands. Here, I notice as the gig goes on, he is one of many. Down to my left two fit-looking guys in board shirts and tees are doing exactly the same. I briefly consider whether they are on ecstasy. I figure not. This reaction that has been trained in them, this kind of ecstatic hypnosis that sees them arms literally reaching to the heavens, head back, eyes closed, slight knowing smile on their faces, is not drug-induced. Or maybe it is. Where others use drugs and a good tune to reach that high, or drink and a good tune, or just some friends and a good tune, these people use God and their pounding rock music.

The music critic in me can’t help but be impressed with the musicianship and vocals on display here. One brunette woman who Druvis is unable to tell me the name of has a particularly striking voice that manages to move even me.

But it’s all let down by the silly lyrics. One song in particular stood out for me, singing as it did about how everyone should be ‘running back to sit beneath Jesus’s throne where they all belong’, or words to that effect. Eh? This is just lifting Biblical imagery and turning it into song, this isn’t making Christianity relevant to today. Some slick rock music just isn’t enough. Other lyrics bang on about the worship and veneration of God – ‘We are living to make Your name high’ is one, ‘For You are great and mighty, let the nations sing’ is another. This isn’t about having a personal relationship with God, this about adulation, reverence, subservience, fawning even. That, to me, does not constitute a relationship.

And this, ultimately, is what I baulk at when it comes to these kinds of ideas of spirituality – the personification of God; the idea of some sentient being up there or all around us or wherever He hides out. I’m not talking about the image of a man in a white dress and long ZZ Top style beard - no one’s that silly any more. I’m talking about the idea of God as thinking, feeling entity with ideas and opinions just like the rest of us. To me that’s a strange idea, that’s just humans projecting their own behaviours on the long-held idea that there is something bigger than us out there. That it is a sentient being is merely an idea borne from the arrogance of humanity. There IS something bigger than us out there - everything that's around us. As I’ve travelled the world I’ve seen it and experienced it numerous times. I know where this feeling of God comes from. I’ve felt it. If I was Christian I would happily say that I have felt Him. All you need to do is stand on the side of a mountain, in New Zealand say, and look down at the beauty that surrounds you and stretches off into the distance and then you’ll feel God. God is the awe we feel when we realise our size and insignificance in the grand scheme of the world. It’s what we feel when we become aware of the small part we play in the world’s workings. It’s what I’ve felt walking around ancient temples being ripped apart by the roots of trees, or when I’ve stood on a boat and watched a gigantic hump-backed whale swim underneath, or when I’ve waded through three foot of powdery white snow while all around me it decorates hundreds of trees. God is everything that we can see, not everything we can’t.