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Believe it or not

by Vincent Guy

Walking across Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, I happen to be following a man carrying a holdall with a big logo on it announcing “Crusaders”. I’m mildly surprised as I thought the word had fallen from favour since President George W. Bush had unwisely used it against the people behind the 9/11 attacks. So I ask him:

Is that to do with the Crusaders’ Bible class?”

Oh, they don’t use that name any more!” he replies. “They’re called the Urban Saints now. No, this is the Irish football club.”

Well, I ask because I used to go to the Crusaders’ Bible class when I was a kid.”

Yes, I know about them. I’m a Christian myself.”

I certainly got to know the Bible with the Crusaders. And I also got sexually abused.

Oh dear,” he says. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” and he apologises more or less on behalf of the entire Christian clergy and flock for what was done to me. “I hope that it didn’t do you too great a harm.”

No serious damage.” I say. “Well, I’m nearly 80 now and I think I’ve recovered.”

The incident in question went something like this. The Crusaders held regular Sunday afternoon sessions in the local Friends’ Meeting House (location of the Quakers, in fact). We boys would turn up and a couple of adults would explain a verse or two, usually from the New Testament, read a bit more and encourage us to read the Bible for ourselves at home. Then we’d sing some choruses; these were bite-size hymns, some 4 or 6 lines long, presumed suitable for youngsters with short attention spans. One I remember was “I will make you fishers of men”, to which we in the back row would sing behind our hands, “I will make you vicious old men.” The Crusaders also ran so-called ‘house-parties’ in the school holidays. They would take over a private school building somewhere, with dormitories, and 30-40 lads would go for a week of fun and games with added Bible-reading. On one of these events, there was a bivouacking expedition to Ramsey Island, a notable bird sanctuary off the Welsh coast. We were formed into groups of six or eight and assigned to sleep in communal bell tents. Each group of boys had an adult in charge. Our adult had his own two-man tent alongside. Each night he would invite one of us boys into this small space with him, and spend the dark hours trying to do dark things. The next night it would be the turn of another boy. I suppose he was hoping to find someone amenable to his gropings. I don’t know if he did, we just put up with it, but I do remember being furious with him for his abuse of trust: trust invested in him by the leaders of the house-party, trust our parents had put in these people who claimed to be virtuous. It has left me with an abiding anger toward people who exploit their positions of responsibility. Looking back, I wonder why it never occurred to me to tell the main house-party leaders, let alone my parents, anything about it. It was ultimately just one of those things. Have the times changed?

My weekly attendance at the Crusaders’ Bible class did eventually bring me to a kind of conversion. I went through a period of great enthusiasm for God and His Works. I even went so far as to hold a meeting at my school to expound what I fancied was wrong with Darwin’s theory of evolution. As if I knew anything about the subject. Our biology master came along with a long-suffering expression on his face and at the end simply said, “Sorry, but you’re wrong.”

A few months later I again went through a conversion, in the opposite direction. It came upon me that all this literal belief in the words of the Bible was a mistake. I took instead to going round the Crusader leaders’ houses arguing, with backup of whatever rational scientific evidence I could muster, that the whole religion thing made no sense.

My cousin Harald, whom I mentioned in a previous Only Connect article about my Jewish roots, having fled Hitler’s Germany, was probably more aware of those roots than me. Sometime after arriving in Britain, he converted to an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism, the Foursquare Elim Pentecostalists. He went to a standard teacher-training college to qualify in Biology and when it came to the exam he chose to write about the common frog, Rana temporaria. He went into considerable detail about how it was brought forth somewhere between the fishes of the sea (Day Five of Creation) and the beasts of the earth (Day Six). This led to his failing the exam, and his career as a teacher ended before it began. Instead he became a missionary. Years later, I discovered quite by chance that the Crusaders were actually a front organisation for those same Pentecostalists; although the leaders at our Crusader class professed it to be “nondenominational”.

For a while as a teenager I would go cross-country running, keenly covering the miles at dead of night after homework. Harald on a visit to us advised me to try praying as it would improve my performance. I never put this to the test, but then I never won any races either, so perhaps he was right.

The efficacy of prayer plays a major role in the USA. Perhaps particularly fitting to the American way of life is a form of Christian belief known as Prosperity Theology. Started early in the 20th century by an unqualified preacher called Oral Roberts, its core is this line from St Mark’s gospel (XI 24):

What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.”

In other words: believe, pray and God will make you rich. Implication: your riches will be a sign of your piety; and anyone poor is clearly a sinner. James Cagney, playing a gang boss in the good old days of monochrome movies, put it more graphically:

Stick with me and I’ll put a gold spoon in ya kisser”

I find it strange that the American people are still largely wedded to the idea of an Almighty Being creating and guiding the world when they are the technocratic, materialistic society par excellence. A Gallup poll (2019) found that nearly half the US population believe that the earth and all therein were created in a single act within the last 10,000 years. Even the highly educated: one quarter of US Americans with post-grad degrees hold to this strict view of creationism.

Perhaps equally strange is that Europeans are now becoming less religious with every passing day while the remainder of the world’s billions holds strongly to some form of creed. Humanity throughout the ages has always held such beliefs important. Religious faith seems to be hard-wired into human nature unless you happen to be alive now and in this corner of Europe.

My daughter walks the same unholy path as me. We had never mentioned religion to her as a toddler but the nearest nursery classes to home happened to be with a Church of England School, which meant an elderly vicar came round once a week and gave the kids a pep-talk. But we knew nothing of these visits till one afternoon 4-year-old Zoë came home, and blurted out, “What’s all this God nonsense?”

My take-home from the Crusaders is a joy in the words of Scripture; I still take real delight in the language of the King James Bible, much in the same way as I enjoy Shakespeare. The King James is the Authorised Version which I grew up with. The more recent Revised translation may be more accessible, and more accurate in some details, but its style remains heavily earth-bound.

And have I any vestigial feeling for the spiritual? Yes, transcendent experiences do come my way. It might be while listening to a Requiem by Mozart or Brahms, reading aloud a poem by Keats, or simply feeling fully in my body after a workout in the gym. But above all, see the photo below. It’s the early morning mist rising beneath me through the valley at Delphi where the ancient Greeks brought their earthly treasures and held special communion with their gods.


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