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The God I Left Behind


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I tried to attach this chapter but it was too big. If you'd like to read and comment, I'd be grateful for answers to these questions and any other comments you wish to make. Thanks.

 

Brian

Questions:

 

Are there boring or awkward sentences?

Do you get a clear impression of my family?

Are you clear about how I felt about my experiences?

 

The God I Left Behind

 

A journey from fundamentalism to faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mild, Mediterranean Malta is a place of sunshine and holidays, not a place you’d expect to become radicalised, but that’s what happened to me. As a young and very immature soldier and father of three, I became involved with a fundamentalist Christian church. The Bible, I believed, was the inerrant word of God and everything within it should be read literally. Although such certainty brought me a sense of security at the time, it warped my thinking and damaged my relationships for many years to come. Ultimately, I found that such ‘certainties’ were only a substitute for true peace and that real faith was about being content with not knowing, rather than thinking I’d got it all together.

 

 

 

 

In 2005 I visited my sister in America. As an evangelical Christian she had an interest in my spiritual development, though we had never discussed it. One day she asked me where I was with God. I mumbled something incomprehensible and immediately realised that I couldn’t answer her question. I knew where I was with God, but had no words to express my experience. Part II and III of this book largely answers that question.

 

 

 

 

You will find that I refer to 'ego', 'false self' and 'true self' rather a lot. Since these are not expressions we come across in everyday language I feel I should give some preliminary explanation from the outset. These terms are metaphors I use for aspects of my mind which, even though I experience, probably have no true existence. I came to recognise that my ego has always been greatly influenced by fear and desire and, over the years, built from its experiences a model of reality in my mind. This model I now recognise as my ego's 'false self', which is simply a mental picture I've constructed of who I think I am. As Richard Rohr rightly says, this is not necessarily my bad self, it's just not the real thing. My 'true self' has always existed within me, even when overlaid by the mask of the 'false self'. All spiritual journeys seem to be about the identification of the 'false self' and the emancipation of the 'true self'. This is the story of my journey: how I descended into fundamentalism; how it lost its hold over me and how, eventually, I discovered a way to experience peace through a spirituality that was not totally dependent on doctrine or creed and which has enabled me to embrace all of humanity without having to agree with everyone.

 

 

 

PART I: The Making of a Fundamentalist

 

Krishna went into the forest at night to dance beside the fires with the village girls. When a girl thought in her mind, “he's all mine”, Krishna would disappear. Hindu myth.

 

Chapter 1 Father of the Man

 

In the years that followed my departure from fundamentalist Christianity I often wondered how I’d got into that mindset. When I was deeply involved I remember trying to imagine myself not being a Christian and, in particular, the kind of Christian I was. I couldn’t. Yet, a few years after my ‘faith’ evaporated, I couldn’t imagine how I could have believed all that stuff and behaved as I did. I'd reached a point in life, which some call a mid-life crisis. It was clear to me that it was no good blaming my parents, my school or my mistaken career moves for the way I was. Once I'd grown up I had to accept personal responsibility for who I'd become. Only then could I begin to follow a road that would lead me to discover who I really am.

 

 

 

 

My parents and grandparents, church goers though they were, certainly didn’t have any explicit influence over any religious belief I may have had. Like most people of my generation, I picked up my religion through a combination of osmosis and Sunday School. Whereas Mum had been brought up a Congregationalist, Dad had been raised an Anglican. As a boy he’d sung in the church choir of his tiny North Somerset village but he had never been very committed. Although his mother attended services regularly, his father would only attend if they were going to sing Onward Christian Soldiers. As a choir member, Dad was able to provide him with advanced warning if that hymn was on the menu for the following Sunday and, to the temporary delight of the vicar, Grandpa would appear, dressed uncomfortably in his best suit. Mum never spoke about her faith or any spiritual experience she may have had. She attended church regularly and sometimes read the Bible at home, but apart from helping me say bedtime prayers when I was tiny, that was all I ever knew about my mother's religious tendencies.

 

 

 

 

Dad told me about how the choirboys would sabotage the organ and surreptitiously aim their pea shooters at the vicars bald head during sermons, which made church sound like more fun than I had known it to be. I gathered that he hadn’t taken his religion seriously at all. Dad was happy to tag along with his in-laws who were very committed Congregationalists. Indeed, Grandpa Smith was a church deacon, which seemed to be very important. Throughout the second world war I spent my infancy in my grandparents’ house with my parents, my bachelor great uncle, Ernie, who bred Samoyed dogs, and from time to time, my aunt and uncle when they were on leave from the R.A.F. To this chaotic crowd was added, one February night, my baby sister who was born in the bedroom next to mine.

 

 

 

 

On Sunday mornings there was much preening in front of mirrors and complaints about dog hairs getting on clothes. I added to the Sunday morning chaos by whining “Aw, must I go?” and “It’s so borning!” This would make my mother, who was by then already pretty hyper, really cross. “You’re going to church,” she’d snap mercilessly, and I knew better than to say anything further to her about the matter. Patience, certainly wasn’t her strength, especially not on Sundays. It was up to Dad, an altogether more gentle personality, to try to calm things down. With a quiet voice he’d persuade me that I couldn’t stay at home alone, and no, it wouldn’t be O.K. if the dogs looked after me, and he knew I’d be a good boy and not touch anything, but I was going to have to go to like everyone else.

 

 

 

 

Then Grandpa would set off early as he had to help prepare the church for the service. At 10.30 sharp the narrow hall of Gran and Grandpa’s Victorian end-of-terrace house would be filled with people in posh clothes. Like flotsam I was carried along with this tide of adult bodies out of the door, through the front gate and up the long hill to church. In those war time days no one in the family owned a car, so we walked everywhere or went by bus. Sadly, buses on Sundays were in as short supply as butter and eggs. I could have wished that the family were Baptists, since their church was just around the corner, or even Anglicans because we passed two of their churches on the way. But at least religion gave us one thing – stamina!

 

 

 

 

I was made to feel that the church building was very holy. It was to me a dark and solemn place with lots of polished wood and brass and it had a concoction of smells which seemed to consist of damp from lack of use, polish, flowers, moth balls, face powder, sweat and breath. It was such a holy place that people were hushed to silence as they went in. If they found it necessary to say anything they did so in hoarse whispers. I was afraid even to cough.

 

Having found our seats, we all bowed our heads in prayer, then waited for the service to begin. This consisted of the traditional triple sandwich of hymn, prayer and Bible reading, with a big dollop of sermon at the end – just when you were full already. Then it was home to Sunday lunch, prepared earlier in the day by my grandmother, who was an excellent cook. After lunch the menfolk sat in the lounge reading newspapers until sleep overcame them while the womenfolk cleaned up after the meal. I was allowed to play with my toys but I couldn’t go out because I had my Sunday best clothes on.

 

 

 

 

With only a brief respite, I headed back up the hill with my mother to Sunday School where I had to suffer the attention of my Sunday School teacher, an elderly lady with bad breath who liked to cuddle me. It was a relief to head back once again down the hill for tea. But the relief was short lived, for after tea the entire family traipsed back to church for the six o’clock service. I can’t say that the hard pews and long, boring services, influenced me spiritually in any way whatsoever. On the other hand, looking at the path I would eventually take, I can’t say that the discomfort put me off religion.

 

 

 

 

At Clevedon I experienced a deep sense of security, being surrounded with an extended family of loving adults and three, sometimes four, large Samoyed dogs.

 

But when I was six and my sister two, the family moved to a house with a large garden in the nearby village of Claverham. Here I went to Sunday School at the local Methodist church, it being the nearest non-conformist equivalent to the Congregationalists and not so far to go as the Anglican Church. The Methodist church was a much simpler building than the Congregationalist church I'd become accustomed to. It had cream distempered walls, long clear windows and pews the polish of which had become dull with age. It was light and simple - but still smelled of church.

 

 

 

 

My experience of our few short years at Claverham has influenced me strongly all my life. I suspect that some of the positive character-forming experiences I had there enabled me later to get through negative experiences relatively unscathed. But there was a negative side to life there too and, on arrival at the infants school at Yatton I quickly learned that not all adults were benign – not even teachers.

 

 

 

 

The school hall was divided in two by a folding screen which had panels of wood in the lower third and glass panels above. In my second year my classroom was on one side of the screen, the headmaster’s on the other. The activities in the headmaster’s class next door could be clearly heard, especially when the headmaster lost his temper, which could be several times a day. He had earned the nickname ‘boner’, because when he became angry his face would contort with rage, go bright red and the bones in his bald head would stand out. It was a fearsome sight which induced such terror in me that I would usually feel sick on arrival at school. Several times I had to be taken out of assembly into the school yard for some fresh air but since the air was often freezing cold this wasn’t always the relief it should have been.

 

 

 

 

Although home was a secure place, despite the difficulties my parents had with health and making ends meet, school was anything but secure. My penultimate year at junior school was spent under the tutelage of the headmaster’s wife, who also had a reputation for severe strictness. I was relieved to discover that she was more supportive than I had expected her to be, and this was especially so when she discovered that I had some talent in written English. That year went by quickly and it was time for me to go into the lion's den - the headmaster’s class.

 

 

 

 

I was not in the A group, his favourites whom he called by their first names, but in the B group, whom he called by our surnames. Maybe he thought we needed more driving - he certainly knew nothing about leading. I was glad I wasn’t in the C group though. These children he looked down on because they would never pass the 11 plus and he regarded them as irredeemable failures. It was these poor souls who were usually the butt of his sarcasm and anger.

 

 

 

 

One night, during this difficult period, I had a strange experience. Though I was tucked snuggly into my warm bed I was ruminating on the terrors I might have to face the next day. Then something within led me to understand that whatever my bullying headmaster did, there was a part of me he could not touch. I believe now that this was the real me; I guess what Thomas Merton called ‘The True Self’. In that moment I recognised my True Self, that aspect of me that could never be assailed, and I was comforted. I realised that there was nothing that he could say or do to my mind or body that could affect this part of me. From having been kept awake worrying I fell into a blissful sleep and from that night on was able to cope reasonably well with the terrors my headmaster inflicted on me and my fellow pupils.

 

 

 

 

There was one other occasion during this period of my childhood when something significantly spiritual happened to me. One late afternoon during the long summer holiday I was sitting on the pavement, leaning against a sun-warmed wall, opposite the entrance to a neighbouring farm. In those days, cars didn't frequent the narrow roads that wound their way through the village so all was quiet. Where the other village children were I didn't know. Probably in the playing field behind the council estate. Neither do I know how long I sat there because for me time stood still. Many years later I read something Laurie Lee wrote: “Never had I felt so fat with time; so free of the need to be doing.” 1 When I read that the memory of my childhood experience returned and I knew precisely what he meant. On that village pavement I felt no need to think or do, but just to sit, filled with warm, quiet joy. It seems now to have been a moment of pure enlightenment, an all-too brief window into another state of consciousness, and it arrived unasked for and unexpected out of shear grace, as most such experiences seem to do.

 

 

 

 

I was an adventurous child and threw myself at life with great enthusiasm, though not always enough thought. By the age of ten I had: cut my arm open by breaking a window and had to have several stitches; shut my finger in the front gate and had a finger nail removed; fallen in a ditch and arrived home covered in tadpoles; stepped in a wasp nest and arrived home covered in stings; cut my scalp open, front to back on barbed wire and arrived home covered in blood; got stuck in a tunnel I’d tug and got home covered in earth; been knocked off my bike by a car; without telling my Mum, cycled four miles across the moors on my sisters tricycle, and later, twelve miles to Bristol on my own bike. Besides all this, on separate occasions, I broke my right forearm and my left elbow. I knew more about doctors surgeries and hospital interiors than anyone else I knew!

 

 

 

 

I had natural confidence and my experiences of being free to roam the countryside made me self-reliant and independent – some called it 'mischievous'. Certainly I had a lot of fun but there was a serious side to me. I made a puppet theatre and wrote plays for my cardboard characters. A neighbour who was a retired teacher gave me some old text books and I loved looking things up in a massive tome of an encyclopedia. There were also several books on languages and from them I learned to count to ten in French, German, Hindi, Welsh and Japanese – not exactly useful, and it would be more than fifty years before I met a Japanese person to impress with my knowledge of her language.

 

 

 

 

Home, though secure, was not a place in which I recollect being helped to think about the wider implications of life. My mother wasn’t a deep thinker and, although my father was, he wasn’t well educated or widely read. He was a practical man and taught me how to make a crystal set and eventually a one-valve radio. A keen short wave listener, we'd be woken in the morning by the sound of a kookuburra from and Australian station. In the evening, we'd listen to Dancing from Switzterland, radio Hilversum or Radio Ankara. There were news programmes in English from Russia and China and, as a special treat, I was once allowed to stay up and listen to a boxing commentary from America. Sport was never my thing and I fell asleep before the knock out.

 

 

 

 

I grew up exposed to a lot of interesting things but was rather naïve. This naivety often got me into difficult and sometimes embarrasing situations, such as the time I blurted out something about a 'Jew boy', without even understanding what a Jew was, let alone that the expression was an insult. My naivety meant that I was often caught off balance and with my negative experiences at school provoke a fearfulness in me which put an anchor on my natural self-confidence. On the one hand it probably stopped me from being quite as silly as I might have been; on the other it certainly did inhibit my ability to progress my education and career. No doubt my naivety was a major factor in my becoming a fundamentalist.

 

At the end of my last year at Yatton Junior School I astonished my headmaster by passing my 11 plus exam and he immediately began to call me by my first name. My self-esteem had a little growth spurt but the euphoria didn’t last long. Just before I was due to start grammar school my parents moved us to Bristol. I didn’t get into the highly competitive Bristol Grammar School and, for reasons which, in later life, neither my father nor I understood, I went to a Secondary Modern. I didn’t mind. Indeed, I can’t recollect being very conscious of what was going on. All my life adults had made decisions about me without consulting me and I was accustomed to going along with them. That was just the way things were.

 

 

 

 

 

I was never an outstanding pupil, except perhaps in English, but I did sufficiently well at Secondary Modern school to be entered for a 13 plus exam and joined a small band of boys who got places at Bristol Secondary Technical School (Engineering). My parents were immensely proud of this achievement but it eventually led me into deeper confusion. Here was a child who loved English, History and Art thrust into a school which specialised in physics, mechanics, maths, metalwork, woodwork and technical drawing. I hated almost every minute of it and my constant failures at school began to further erode my natural self-confidence and reinforce my fears.

 

It was around this time that a kindly member of the church sponsored me to go on a Christian holiday at Capernwray Hall in the Lake District. Shortly after arriving in Bristol I had attended Sunday School at the nearby Plythouth Brethren chapel and evenutally graduated to Bible Class. I returned from Capernwrayhaving ‘given my heart to Jesus’. The 'great event' happened on the Thursday evening, my having resisted until then the daily invitations of our host. I suppose, since it was the last but one day of the holiday, I might have thought I'd miss the opportunity if I didn't decide that night. I remember saying a special prayer with the help of one of the leaders, and then being disappointed that I didn't feel any different. I’d thought, indeed, had been led to believe, that ‘giving my heart to Jesus’ was going to be some kind of supernatural experience. I thought that a miraculous change would take place, after all we'd been singing the old evangelical song all week:

 

 

 

 

Since Jesus came into my heart,

Since Jesus came into my heart;

Floods of joy o’er my soul like the sea billows roll,

Since Jesus came into my heart.

 

 

 

 

It certainly raised my expectations and, whereas I didn’t expect choirs of angels to break forth in hallelujahs, or doves to descend, floods of joy would have been O.K. Whatever, I really didn’t expect to feel - normal. After all, having a Jesus in your heart would, I thought, be big-time compared to just going to Bible class. But there were no floods of joy – not even a trickle!

 

 

 

 

By Saturday morning, I still felt normal. Indeed, when I looked in the mirror I even looked normal, and this awful feeling of normality remained with me all the way home. However, my kindly sponsor seemed overjoyed when he got news of my ‘conversion’. Shortly after our return those of us who had been on the holiday were invited to tea at his posh house in Pembroke Road. When the genial figure of my sponsor, a world-renowned surgeon, put his large hand on my shoulder and told me how pleased he was that I had given my heart to Jesus, I felt a bit guilty. Some instinct within me made me vaguely aware that something transcendent should have taken place, and what I’d experienced wasn't 'it'. But I wouldn't have understood the term transcendent at that time and everyone seemed so pleased with me, it made me feel very proud and secure, so my little Ego was able to enjoy a good grooming.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps I’ve inherited a Dawkins God-gene because, undetered by this experience, a year or so later I went forward at the Billy Graham Crusade at Harringay in London. Now that was a real high. The huge crowd, the music, the exultant singing, Beverley Shay’s heart-rending solos, and the authoratative voice of Dr. Graham calling us to get out of our seats and come down, brought tears to my eyes.

 

 

 

 

Hindsight now shows me that I’d got caught up in a loop of psychological energy, generated from the platform, then amplified in the crowd. It was, no doubt, a more positive version of the phenomena that manifested itself among crowds in Nuremburg, but technically, it wasn't too different from that experienced regularly by crowds at theatres and clubs throughout the land. Whereas I recognise that some people's lives were profoundly affected by the Billy Graham crusades and others like it, the emotional energy was, in many cases, more to do with the Ego than anything spiritual. Egos get so easily caught up in rushes of psychological energy, especially when it occurs in the collective Ego, and at Harringay there was one big collective Ego. But individuals can’t sustain that level of hype for long - not even by taking tablets. So the euphoria wore off during the long coach journey home and the next day I was back to disappointing old normality once again.

 

 

 

 

Looking back at this confusing and insecure period of my life, I realise that I probably just wanted to feel that I belonged, something I’d lost since moving away from our country village and all my friends. Subconsciously I wanted to find the real me that grace had introduced me to, albeit briefly, as I leaned against that sun-warmed wall in Claverham. But all I was finding was the unreal me, the religious me, the me that was either what other people wanted me to be, or the one who couldn't attain to what other people wanted me to be.

 

 

 

 

Soon I drifted away from the church and my parents no longer insisted I went with them. It was at about this time that Dad got interested in Hindu Yoga through reading books by Paul Brunton. He even got Mum, my sister Marilyn and me practicing the lotus position, to our great discomfort. One day, when we got up after such a session, Mum remained sitting. Dad thought she was really getting the idea of it until she complained that her legs had become locked in place and she couldn't move! Such contortions were not going to convert us, it seemed, and pictures of yogis with long needles through their cheeks made mother feel quite sick.

 

 

 

 

At school I was constantly in trouble for not doing my homework and was always among the leaders in playing up weak teachers. Consequently I was regularly humiliated with punishments. School and fear began to become identified with one another and so, after two years and before taking any exams, I left school to get a job.

 

 

 

 

I had no concept of the kind of person I was and certainly didn’t know what I wanted to do. So when the man at the employment office suggested that, since I’d had an engineering education and my Dad was a motor mechanic, I should follow him into the motor trade, I acquiesced.

 

 

 

 

Soon I was crawling around under lorries helping to replace gearboxes, radiators, wheel bearings and back axle parts, fixing engines and windscreens, door locks and steering mechanisms. I hated it. I hated the dirt, the cold, the language of my fellow mechanics and wasn’t at all interested in talk about new models and modifications. While others sat eating their sandwiches and chatting about women and football, I read books on archeology. Not that I’m inferring there is anything wrong in chatting about women and football – I was certainly interested in the former if not the latter – this just wasn’t the right place for me. But what did I do? I acquiesced. I joined in with the vulgarity, tried to appear interested in the work and muddled through for a couple of years. But after inflicting several thousand pounds worth of damage on customers’ vehicles, I was fired. I felt like a prisoner reprieved.

 

 

 

 

For two years I drifted from one unsatisfactory job to another, but eventually helped form a pop group. There were four of us fellows and a girl and we called ourselves The Sapphires. We began to become well known among the clubs and pubs of Bristol and came first in the then famous Carol Levis Show one year. Thus encourage we turned pro and I felt I was about to become somebody.

 

 

 

 

We moved to London to work in nightclubs, did a gig in the Dorchester Hotel, a tour of armed services bases and even appeared on television. But by the time we returned from a six week summer season I realised that show business was not for me. I began to break out in a nervous rash every time we went on stage. We were appearing in a supporting role on the BBC Celebrity Dais at the Radio Show and staying in a hotel in Earl's Court when a blazing row broke out. Two of us walked out and so, nine months after leaving home for fame and fortune, I returned home, neither famous nor fortunate. Throughout this time I neither thought of or talked of God or had anything whatsoever to do with religion.

 

 

 

 

1 When I Walked Out One Mid-summer Morning

 

 

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Brian, I enjoyed the read very much for three reasons. You are a little older so the history was fascinating. Your writing is excellent so I didn't see the grammar, but followed the flowing story. The story premise is of interest to me and you are from England approaching the light from a different angle than myself. Thanks I will make comments as I read

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Brian, you write well. It is easy to read. Now, the question is: "Where do we go from here?"

 

Hal

 

Thanks for your kind comments, Hal. If you'd like to have the whole manuscript you can read as much as you'd like. It's not massive. Email me on bcholley@btinternet.com and I'll be happy to let you have a copy.

 

The same goes for anyone else reading this posting.

 

Brian

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Hi Brian. Your title definately got my attention, having something of a similar experience myself and being a rebel at heart. ;) So, like the others, yes, I want to see where your story goes next...

 

My first comment is that I appreciate that you are writing from the heart. As I read, yes, I felt along with you. Given the choice, I'd often rather read a book that makes me feel something rather just trying to convey facts. So I am glad that you have the gift for doing that.

 

Now, as to direct responses to your questions (and please keep in mind that these are just my opinions, okay?):

 

>>Are there boring or awkward sentences?

 

Not really boring. I loved some of your descriptors, especially the one about the triple decker church service; made me laugh out loud. Awkward sentences? To me, yes, a few. But then, I am on this side of the pond so our expressions, as you know, are a bit different.

 

>>Do you get a clear impression of my family?

 

Yes. I enjoyed these parts immensely because they helped me see the relationships and the contexts that helped form you.

 

>>Are you clear about how I felt about my experiences?

 

Yes. As I said, I appreciate that you make us feel along with you. That is not an easy thing for an author to do. As readers, we don't want to feel manipulated, but we do want to feel invited. You seem to know that.

 

In conclusion, just a bit of "constructive criticism," if you don't mind? Again, just my opinion, but if you want Christians of all flavors to read your book, you might want to consider leaving out the references to fundamentalism, at least in the beginning. I was raised in conservative Christian fundamentalism and spent 40 years in it (pant pant), but, as you well know, the default position of the fundamentalist is that he/she is a "true Christian" and believes everything correctly. So if your intended audience for this book is Christians in general, you may want to be a bit gentler out of the gate. On the other hand, if your book is more testimonial for progressives to read, your approach is probably quite appropriate. Again, I don't know your intended audience. But I've found that fundamentalists are more open to consider progressive ideas if we share our commonalities first and then address our differences.

 

I'm ready for the next chapter... :D

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Thanks for the comments so far. Some of you have asked me for the next bit, so, since chapter 2 is very short, here's chapters 2 and 3.

 

 

Chapter 2: Out of the frying pan

I was twenty years old and my life was just a jumble of confusion. I didn't know who I was or what I should do, yet my situation was about to get even worse. Within a month of leaving the group I was called up for National Service. To my utter frustration the call came just as I had fallen in love. Quite conincidentally to my earlier connection with the Brethren chapel of my ‘conversions’, my girlfriend was from a strict Plymouth Brethren family and she brought something into my life that I’d been lacking for most of my teens - a sense of belonging and respect.

 

 

 

We didn’t meet in church but in a coffee bar, a fact which had to be kept secret from her somewhat austere parents. Indeed, when I visited the family home I had to be very careful not to use such terms as ‘cinema’, ‘pub’, ‘pop music’ or ‘cigarettes’ and, if injured in their presence, to remember not to use any of the words I’d learned while working in the garage.

 

 

 

My impending inlaws turned out to be highly committed fundamentalist Christians. They didn’t have television, didn’t drink alcohol or smoke and wouldn’t listen to the radio or read newspapers on Sundays. They read the Bible every day, said grace before every meal and went to church more often than there were days in the week, or so it seemed to me. They were good people at heart, and I often wondered what they thought of me. I must have made a reasonably good impression otherwise I'm sure that father would have told me quite unambiguously that I should no longer darken their front gate, let alone their doorstep.

 

 

 

Later I reflected that no aspect of their religious practices seemed to have given my future in laws any sense of peace. My girl friend’s father was a particularly fearful man, partly, I guess, from an overstrict upbringing and partly because he had spent some forty years in a job he hated. I remember him becoming greatly agitated at my having bought his youngest son some chips when we were out on a Sunday. Such was his anger at my infringement of the Sabbath that he drove us home like a maniac, gripping the steering wheel so firmly that his knuckles went white. It should have been my first clue to the fact that religious belief doesn't necessarily lead to a deep experience of peace but I was still deeply unconcious of spiritual matters at that time.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

I arrived at Le Marchant Barracks in Devizes in the back of a draughty army lorry in early November. Basic training in the Army was like no experience I had ever been exposed to. We were billeted in a 'well ventilated' and poorly insulated victorian barracks and I shared a room with about about eleven other lads. There was a coke boiler at one end of the room and I was lucky enough to have a bed only a few feet away. Those at the far end had to put their heavy army greatcoats over their blankets to keep warm. It was a cold grey November and we weren’t allowed out of the barracks for the first three weeks. I was irritated by such confinement and particularly by the corporals and sergeants whose job it was to hassle we mere civilians into becoming soldiers. It was their job to induce fear in us so that we would respond automatically to orders in the field. Since I was already fearful, this didn’t take much to achieve and I was hurting inside a lot of the time.

 

 

 

Mostly I was hurting from not being with the girl I loved. I felt sick with anticipation for the post each morning and depressed all day if a letter from her didn't come. Not that there was much rich content in our letters, just affirmations of love, but that was more than enough for me. Had I been more mature I may have understood more about the quality of that relationship for, although my feelings were overpoweringly strong, when I phoned my girlfriend two or three times a week we had little to say to each other. When I eventually got home for a weekend after my initial encarceration, we spent every possible moment silently entwined and oblivious to the world. I was just one big bundle of accute lovesickness.

 

 

 

Within a year we were married and had our first child. I was delighted and I guess having someone else dependent on me gave my Ego's sense of self-esteem a considerable boost. As a husband and father I felt I had some status – so much so that within two years, twins, Stephen and Jeanette, arrived. Now I was in charge of a substantial household, with a home and responsiblities. Although my in-laws were extremely supportive, as were my own parents, and on the surface I appeared to be coping well, inside I was still in a state of turmoil. I was prone to angry outbursts and, to my shame, I'm sure I terrified Chris and the children at times.

 

 

 

About this time I started to go to bible classes at the Methodist Church. These were run by a reader from the Soldiers' Sailors' and Airmens' Scripture Readers Association (SSASRA). I tried hard to find peace through these sessions, but found none. A better option, I found, was to go cycling. I had been a keen cyclist most of my life but hadn't done much since I'd joined the Sapphires. I bought a bike and the exercise helped relieve some of my frustrations.

 

 

 

In desperation for better financial security, I signed up on a six year service contract as a regular soldier. By a twist of fate I managed to get into the band. I think because I had 'professional guitarist' as my civilian occupation it was assumed that I could actually play at that level. In fact I'd only strummed an accompaniment to basic rock and roll songs, but my ego's 'false self' had stretched this into something rather more exotic. I had to learn a second instrument and said I’d like to try a clarinet. “Sorry,” said the bandmaster, “I've got no vacancies on the clarinet, but I do need an oboeist.” At that time I didn’t even know what an oboe was, but I said yes anyway and was given an instrument, a box of reeds and a tutor book and told to find a quiet place (e.g. a loo) and learn it. I became an oboeist. Well, that was my official designation, but I was such a poor musician that, for the next five years, the flautist I sat next to played my most difficult cues. We never discussed it. He just knew I'd never get my fingers around anything faster than a semi-quaver. The band master never seemed to notice, so I bluffed my way through my army career and so supported Chris and family while not having to indulge in the dirty work of soldiering as a rifleman. At the time I could never have admitted any of this to myself, but looking back on the experience, I know there was an constant sense of an underlying dissatisfaction. There had to be more to life than this.

 

 

 

 

<b><br style="page-break-before: always;" clear="all"> </b>

Chapter 3: Into the fire

 

 

In December 1962 my little family left England with me when my regiment was posted to Malta. We travelled on the troop ship Oxfordshire; the last troop ship, to leave England. The week long journey and the first couple of months settling in to our new, and to us, exotic, location provided a distraction from reality. The excitement of travel and new places to see enabled me to overlay my personal feelings of insecurity with activity, but subconsciously I was dragging behind me a failed education and a whole series of failed jobs, including my present one.

 

 

 

After the short respite of our settling in period I woke up to the fact that I was now not only an unhappy soldier and an unsuccessful musician but I was in a none too happy marriage as well. There was also a whole host of people making demands on my life: officers and NCOs as well as Chris and the babies. I was drowning in a sea of personal unconsciousness and like anyone drowning, I thrashed around a lot. I’m sure my neighbours in our block of flats in Sliema must have wondered if there was a volcano on the ground floor, for I would errupt fairly regularly with much yelling and slamming of doors. I’d long lost the sense of self I’d encountered, albeit briefly, as a child in the country. Now I didn’t know who I was and therefore no one else could know who I was either, including those nearest to me. It’s difficult to relate to someone in that condition. If you don't know who you are, you can't expect anyone else to know who you are! My sense of isolation was with me every hour of every day.

 

 

 

After several months of increasing emotional misery, I reached a depth of darkness I'd never visited before and decided to give religion another chance. I am still deeply ashamed of the situation that brought me to this decision. Chris had gone swimming with friends one evening while I babysat. At ten o’clock I considered that she should be home and began fretting. At eleven, I left the kids and walked the 100 yards to be beach to fetch her. I found her in the water frolicking with a couple of fellows and it made me intensely jealous. I ordered her home and, although I’m sure it was entirely innocent on her part, she having been brought up with two brothers, we had an awful row and I struck her. The guilt of that act seized me and I felt awful for days. Then one evening, I rushed to the bedroom, fell on my knees and told God, in a most melodramtic way, that if He’d have me, I was coming back. The latter part was all good stuff for testimonies at religious meetings in subsequent years but even such a display was actually just as much a demonstration of my own state of unconsciousness as the act that seems to have provoked it.

 

 

 

We started to attend a Methodist Church just outside of Valletta but I found that the hymn-prayer sandwich routine, rather than satisfying my hunger, left me feeling empty and cold. Much to the delight of my Plymouth Brethren inlaws, I found a Brethren Gospel Hall secreted in the basement of a tall building in the back streets of Floriana. The only sign of its presence was a small plaque on the wall. As I’d never attended a Brethren morning service before the meetings were quite a revelation. Everyone sat waiting for the Lord to move someone to announce a hymn, say a prayer or read a passage from the Bible and perhaps expound upon it. Anyone might take part, it seemed, as long as they were men. The Lord didn’t move women except to make tea afterwards. Such an attitude towards women was so common in society in those days, it never occurred to me that it was sexist. The church was run on the basis of instructions found in Paul’s letters in the New Testament. Therefore men kept their heads uncovered and could take part in the service. Women wore hats and remained silent (except to sing a hymn if a man announced one). If visiting women arrived without hats, there was a collection of millinary in the spare room that they could choose from. I noticed that women visitors who had experienced this kind gesture rarely returned.

 

 

 

Being a Christian had a positive effect on my relationship with Chris and the family. I was much less frustrated and our flat became a home from home for a number of my comrades in arms. I began to feel better about myself though there was always an underlying personal dissatisfaction which tended to blight everything,

 

 

 

No one ever referred to the church as 'fundamentalist' yet the teaching I received from the good brothers of the Gospel Hall was undoubtedly of that brand of Christianity. It was many years before I discovered that the term 'Fundamentalist' had arisen in the opening years of the 20th Century. By that time many Christians were becoming alarmed by the rise of liberalism in the church. They were greatly offended by the discoveries of Charles Darwin and by textual and archeological research which was throwing new light on the origins of the Bible. The first recorded use of the term was at the Niagara Bible Conference late in the 19th century and it first broke into religious vocabulary in 1910, through a meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. This meeting established that certain Christian doctrines were immutable: the inerrancy of the Bible, that the Bible contained everything that was necessary to salvation, that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he died on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind, that he arose from the dead and would soon return from heaven to rule over the earth. It was a package. If anyone deviated from these fundamentals they were at best, a heretic, at worst, damned. I became ‘orthodox’.

 

 

 

Chris was pleased to be on familiar ground with the brethren church and her parents were positively ecstatic with joy at my conversion and commitment to the Gospel Hall. So much so that they made their first and, I believe, only journey by air to come and visit us.

 

 

 

One day an American evangelist named Ray suddenly turned up at our meeting. He’d come in on the ferry from Scicilly with exciting stories of ‘living by faith’. Someone commented that his was a ‘hand to mouth existence’. Ray agreed, but said that it was from God’s hand to his mouth. He travelled ‘as he felt moved by the Lord’. So, having spent some weeks in Scicilly he headed for the jetty, feeling a call to visit Malta. The only snag was that he had no money. Nevertheless, he believed the Lord would provide, and, it seems, He did. For just as the ferry was about to leave one of his Scicilian friends turned up and gave him some money. He told many such stories, which made an enormous impression on me at the time.

 

 

 

Ray stayed at our house. It was, for us, a service to God. He and I travelled around the island cornering unsuspecting Maltese, drawing them into conversation and trying to convert them from their evil Roman Catholic beliefs. I remember two young men we’d been ‘ministering to’ at the docks at Valetta. We had promised to talk again and when we turned up again a few days later, I spotted them falling over one another trying to hide behind some barrells. Undeterred, Ray marched up to the barrels, leaned over to the cowering couple and tried to engage them in conversation. “The priest told us that we musn't to speak to you,” they said. “If after you die you discover at the judgement throne, that you'd been wrong in your beliefs, what would you do?” Ray asked. One of the lads replied, “We'd say we did what the priest told us to and so it would be the priest's responsibility, not ours.” There being no way to counter this we prayerfully left them to their fate.

 

 

 

One day we had a meeting with the then aspiring prime minister of Malta, Dom Mintoff. He was very happy to welcome us into his home and talk about the possibility of setting up a Christian radio station on the island. This contact eventually lead us into a situation involving the security services, though it was perfectly innocent as far as we were concerned.

 

 

 

This contact made me feel rather important and acted like an analgesic, relieving me of the some of the pain that came from knowing I was in the wrong job. The job wasn't important, I reasoned. God had led me here to convert Maltese people into true faith in Jesus. If I ran into difficulty I knew it to be God's will because everything was his will. Maybe he was testing me or preparing me for some great work. So, not only did I praise God when things went well, I praised him when things got difficult as well. A new cliche entered my vocabularly: 'Hallelujah, anyway!”

 

 

 

Quite suddenly and unexpectedly Ray received the call from God to move on. The last I heard of him he was in India and deliberating on whether it should be an act of faith to drink the local water unboiled. In my reply, I urged him to use common sense. After all Paul recommended Timothy to drink wine because of his stomach and frequent illnesses.

 

 

 

Sunday, of course, was our big day. There was a meeting and Sunday School in the morning. Some of the ladies would take it in turns to run the Sunday School so they didn’t always miss out listening to the meeting. We'd return home with a crowd of fellow soldiers for lunch. After lunch and a trip to the beach we'd all have tea before catching the bus to Floriana in time for the evening meeting. To this meeting I often took my guitar to accompany the singing of Christian songs, some of which I'd written myself.

 

 

 

The Gospel meeting was an opportunity for the good news of salvation through Jesus to be preached to unbelievers, even though, I can only remember two unbelievers ever attending. These were actually Special Branch spies, sent in to investigate us when Dom Mintoff’s Labour Party Press printed some tracts for us containing some anti-Catholic propaganda. We had distributed them throughout Valletta and Sliema just before a sensitive election. It transpired that, whereas our motive was to save the poor Maltese people from the clutches of the ‘Beast’ (The Roman Catholic Church in our view), Mr. Mintoff just wanted to diminish the influence of the church over the politics of the island so that he had a better chance of winnng the election. At that time the Maltese church owned a substantial amount of property on the Islands for which it paid no local taxes. Our understanding was that Dom Mintoff had promised to redress this injustice if he was elected and this was a threat to the church authorities who had strongly influenced previous elections against him. But the political implications of our action didn’t come to our attention until we serving soldiers were called upon to put on our best uniforms and bulled boots and appear in front of our respective commanding officers. They reprimanded us – in the nicest possible way ― for having become embroiled in local politics. Thereafter, the nice young couple never again came to the Gospel Hall meetings. I imagine that this was not one of their most challenging spying missions and often wondered if, in their report, they ever mentioned that borrowed hat!

 

 

 

Fundamentalism can lead to all sorts of difficult choices. One Sunday morning an elder found that he didn’t have enough petrol to get to church. Instead of buying petrol on a Sunday, which would have broken the Sabbath, he caught a bus - I never figured that one out. On later reflection I realised that, like all of us, he actually lived more than a Sabbath day’s journey from church, but I wouldn’t have liked to have been the one to tell him that.

 

 

 

In being part of the church's collective ego I discovered a sense of security which had been missing for much of my life. My religious enthusiasm was warmly acceptable to the experienced elders and, supported by ‘readers’ from SSASRA my friends and I became missionaries in our barracks.

 

 

 

In those days, I had all my theology worked out from Bible commentaries and books of a certain kind. It was all stored neatly in my brain in the psychological equivalent of box files. If it was a question of creation, redemption, resurrection, the end of the world, judgement, or the Bible etc., all relevant theology, with supporting verses, could be retrieved in neat bundles of clichès. Thus I hoped to confound those who argued against the Truth. Life on the inside was certain. It was only uncertain in the world beyond the church, but then the Bible and the church told me to expect that. The Devil was on the prowl ‘like a hungry lion’, said St. Paul, and all opposition to my point of view I deemed to be the Devil's prowling. All I needed to do was stick to the script, like everyone else, and all would be well.

 

 

 

The script was the Bible and certain 'reliable' commentaries which I devoured like a starving man. Indeed, many years later I discovered that I was indeed starving, intellectually at least, and that it was largely my intellectual hunger that I was really satisfying. I was into mind-stuff, right up to my neck – or should that be 'scalp'? But spirituality is like water, it finds its way into the ‘soul’ in the most unlikely ways – perhaps like rain through a leaking roof. Even during this time of emotional instability and intellectual poverty I was able to experience a measure of spiritual sustenance, though I don’t think I identified as such at the time. In those days I thought religion and spirituality were the same thing and it would be many years before I experienced spirituality uncontaminated by religion. However, I had reached a place where at last I could enjoy some sense of self-identity, even though I would eventually discover that a self-identity obtained through religion can be no more truly me than one derived from being a motor mechanic, a shop assistant, a soldier or a musician. Such a self identity was, after all, only my ego’s ‘false self’. It seems to me now that there is a simple way of testing the presence of the ‘false self’. I became seriously uncomfortable when people challenged my beliefs, which must indicate that my self-identity was tied in with those beliefs. To attack my beliefs, was to attack me. The ‘true self’ doesn’t experience such problems because it knows that self-identity is not tied in with beliefs, opinions, doctrines or membership, but rests on an experience of who I truly am. My response was to project my fears back on to them and derive the satisfaction of believing that my antagonists would eventually have to face judgment and the wrath of God.

 

 

 

I and my family returned to England, courtesy of the R.A.F, at the end of 1965 and my parents met us at Lyneham. Chris, 5 year old Lin and three year old twins, Steve and Jinny, piled into the back of the car with my mother, while I sat in the front beside Dad. Not long into the journey I began to try to convert my parents to my brand of Christianity. When they politely declined I felt angry that my message hadn't got through and told them that they would suffer in hell for eternity! Years later, we could laugh together about that awful journey, but at the time, I'd got religion and I had it bad.

 

 

 

I left the army in 1966 after a short posting in Germany and just before the birth of our fourth child, Andrea. I shall never forget my homecoming. I had arrived from Germany late in the evening and the children were all in bed. The next morning the twins, as was their habit, toddled into the room before dawn. Steve stood at the foot of the bed with a look on his face which asked, “Who the hell's that in bed with me Mum?” Jinny leapt on the bed, threw her arms around my neck so tightly I could hardly breath and kept saying, “My Daddy!” The family was strong and stable.

 

 

 

Jobs were plentiful and I was soon working in the personnel department of an aeroplane company. I quickly became involved with our nearest Gospel Hall at Lawrence Weston, a suburb to the north of Bristol and for the first time I felt fulfilled at work and liberated now that I was free of the army.

 

 

 

In the wider area there were new developments in religion that excited me – even though they terrified the older members of our church. The cultural revolution of the 60s, with its more liberal attitudes expressed primarily in rock and roll, promiscuity, drugs and political protest, was beginning to find its way into religion. However, rather than ‘liberating’ religion, it was tending to drive some towards fundamentalism, albeit of a more exciting, even flamboyant kind.

 

 

 

American evangelists were coming to the U.K. and addressing large congregations of enthusiastic believers about how they had been getting hippies to ‘turn on to Jesus’. Religious rock music was gaining in popularity; I even played guitar in a rock musical put on by an American team in Bristol’s Hippodrome Theatre. I was getting that old emotional high again. However, the elders of my church didn’t feel the stirrings at all. Indeed, they were very much against any change whatsoever. A friend who left the church at that time said that it was because he could ‘no longer conform to their non-conformity’.

 

 

 

Once, I led a small deputation of younger members to address the question of whether it was a true ‘leading of the spirit’ for Brother ‘Jones’ always to announce a hymn at the beginning of morning worship. The elders conferred and agreed that it probably wasn’t. They approached Brother ‘Jones’ who received the criticism with good grace. At the next meeting we sat in silence for an abnormally long time. It seemed that nobody knew how to begin the service! I learned then that orthodoxy doesn't have to be written down.

 

 

 

This kind of behaviour is a living demonstration of, what Thomas Kuhn called a ‘paradigm’[1]. Kuhn worked mainly with scientists who, throughout history, repeatedly found that some well established theories ran into dead ends as a result of new discoveries. But instead of re-evaluating the old theories, scientists tended first to try to deal with the new situation by either rejecting the new discovery (if our theory is correct this discovery isn't possible), or trying to accommodate the new theory together with the old one. A paradigm was reached because, in scientists’ minds, everything had to be evaluated against what had gone before. Even the great Einstein himself falsified some of his findings because he couldn't bring himself to believe in the evidence about quantum physics that was emerging in his day. To those locked into a paradigm, change is almost possible and can only happen to the extent that it fits in with expectations derived from previous experience. But among fundamentalist Christians, as I imagine it is with fundamentalists of any persuasion, this is even more narrowly true. When you support your case with a God who can do anything he likes in any way he wants to, even if it seems illogical and against the laws of nature, there is no objection which will be acceptable to the believer. All things are possible when you have a god like that.

 

 

 

Kuhn showed that the change of mind required to make a ‘paradigm shift’ was not just confined to a particular issue, but had to be a more general attitude. People had to be open to change on a wide front. If this is difficult for scientists, you can imagine how difficult it is for religious people. I eventually learned that 'paradigmatic' thinking is one of the key characteristics of the ego’s ‘false self’. Of course I didn’t know anything about 'paradigms' then, or the ego for that matter, but just around the corner was a paradigm shift of my own.

 

 

 

<br clear="all"> [1] The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn, 1962

 

 

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Many thanks for your generous comments, Bill. The book is really intended for those who have given up on religion because of a bad experience of fundamentalism, yet are still instinctively hankering after that ineffable something their intuition tells them they should be able to experience.

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Thanks for sharing these next two chapters with us, Brian. Like you, I struggled with years of confusion and/or unrest because I was pressured to be orthodox.

 

Looking back on those years, I tend to think that while my spiritual desires may have been good, I spent way to much time and effort trying to gain God and the church's acceptance. I wouldn't have put it this way back then, but the goal seemed to be to make God pleased with me, usually through what I felt was correct orthodoxy or orthopraxy. The goal of being a Christian, so I was told and believed, was to keep God happy by worshipping him and that involved constantly trying to get everything right in my life. And I always fell short, resulting in constant guilt and recommitments to do better. Though I claimed the focus was on God, it was really on me.

 

I'm hesistant now to speak in terms of "the goal of being a Christian" or other such categories. My nick-name is "often wrong, but seldom unsure." :D But I, like you, noticed the disconnect between what religion actually produced in people and what it claimed it would do.

 

Many people in religion, as you have noted, are happy, loving people. But I am not convinced that this is a direct result of the rules and regulations of religion. I suspect it results from other good relationships in their lives.

 

Anyway, I'm enjoying your book. If you would like to email me the whole thing, I'll read it as I'm able.

 

Regards,

sbnr

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