The days I first believed...

How one man grew into his belief

I have no memory of my baptism as an infant, when my parents and godparents renounced evil on my behalf, repented of their sins, turned to Christ and promised to foster the faith I had just received.

From the next phase, attending Catholic Mass with my mother when I was a little boy, I have three abiding memories. One is of the little illustrated book I used to read during the service, showing Jesus and John the Baptist playing together as young boys in Galilee. Another is moving seats away from the stink of dog-do on the heels of the man in front, which he kept clicking together as he knelt. The last is saying “Thank you” to the priest in response to his “The body of Christ” upon receiving my First Holy Communion. Polite, and in one sense profoundly correct – gratitude really is the appropriate heartfelt response to Christ’s sacrifice – I was supposed to say “Amen”.

As a bigger little boy, it was time for a more adult commitment to faith. I was confirmed at 10 years old. My abiding memory from this day was sticking up my hand when the bishop asked us what came down on the day of Pentecost. Out of a cathedral full of candidates, he chose me to answer and I told him it was a dove. Wrong again! It was in the right ball park, of course - the answer was tongues of fire. Both the dove and the fire are manifestations of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, apart from, yet one with the Father and the Son, Jesus.

According to Catholic doctrine, confirmation is seen to complete Baptism and mark a person as a Christian with the seal of the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of adoption that makes us cry to God as our loving Father, rather than as a distant deity.

Yet, I didn’t see the tongues of fire the disciples saw at Pentecost. I didn’t hear a rush of wind. From that point on, I remember engaging with the scriptures read from the pulpit. I remember letting the teaching affect my decisions and behaviour. Every night I prayed sorry, thank you and please. One evening, during a difficult period at school, I felt a powerful, reassuring presence of Jesus in my room as I wept and prayed. Yet still, I turned and drifted away from God throughout university.

Upon arrival at Ephesus, almost 2000 years earlier, the apostle Paul met some disciples who had accepted that Jesus Christ was God. When Paul asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed, they said they didn't even know there was one. Remarkably, I had a similar blind spot until I eventually attended an Alpha course in 2002, and I learnt about the Holy Spirit and rediscovered my relationship with Jesus.

I have no doubt something spiritually significant did happen at my confirmation, but it wasn’t until I spent some serious time as an adult surveying my sinful life, surveying a broken world around me and surveying the cross of Christ, that I believed again and turned towards God wholeheartedly, vulnerable, repentant and genuinely grateful.

At this point, as he promised in the Old Testament book of Joel, God poured out the Holy Spirit into my heart. Again, there were neither fire nor birds, but this time, as I turned to him with the correct response, I received an overwhelming assurance of my Father’s love for me. I often think of this moment as his kiss of life to me and I haven’t been the same Christian since.

Adam is a worship leader at New River Church, Islington, a non-denominational, charismatic Christian church of about 40 people. He has a degree in physics, a PhD in neuroimaging and is a member of the electro-indie rock band Personal Space Invaders.
A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.