The craters and grabens of London’s Euston Road were filling with water. Cyclists ahead of me slowed to accommodate the sudden deluge. Already one ear down – a total blockage in my left canal thanks to a prolonged infection – and now unable to see the road ahead beyond a few red smears, I wheeled my bike the rest of the way to Bible class. I’d found the event online, when I typed in “Bible Studies for beginners”. Now I was heading to a central London conservative evangelical church for the first of a seven-week introductory course. For the next two hours, dripping wet and mostly deaf (the second ear on its way out too), I sat among dyed-in-the-wool Christians, the newly converted, and those on the brink of conversion as they set about interpreting Mark’s Gospel.
As the senior minister of evangelism (a man in the habit of introducing miracles with the phrase, “Hold on to your hats, ladies and gents”) was speaking of Jesus’s life in words I could no longer apprehend, I imagined a petition I might direct to the altar behind him: if You return my hearing now, it might prove Your existence to me. While they were discussing the Parable of the Sower, I read ahead to when the disciples ask Jesus why he teaches through the distorting prism of parable. “The secret of the kingdom has been given to you,” Jesus replies. “But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding’.” I thought: maybe I’m not even ready to hear it.
I was there because I’m writing a book about Christian conversions. My focus is those converting in their twenties and thirties – what it means to go against the grain, against the curve of decline, since this age group, my own, was revealed in the 2021 census to contain the highest percentage of non-believers (over 50 per cent). Friends often ask whether all this – my weeks spent driving across the UK to attend Christian retreats, my Sundays knelt before pews, my Monday nights at conservative evangelical Bible classes – is tempting me towards belief. At first I dismissed the question outright, noting and responding to the understandable pitch of concern in their voices – many of them had seen, or at least tended to perceive, Christianity at its worst: regressive, intolerant, homophobic.
[See also: Britain’s crisis of unbelief]
If anything, the Bible classes at the evangelical church became more confusing once I could hear again. In discussions I found myself easily provoked, frustrated by what I saw as simplifications and blanket statements. In truth, I’d been on the defensive since the second class, when it was put forward that this church loves gay people and that gay people in this church should aim to be celibate for life – “at least in this life”, they said, which made me optimistic for their heaven, if nothing else. When a new convert asked what he should say to his Muslim friends about faith, a more established Christian answered, “Just try telling them about Jesus. It’s all in here,” jabbing his finger at the leather cover of the Bible before us (there was a great deal of Bible-jabbing at Bible class, as if the physicality of the text carried more authority than the words inside it). How flimsy is this faith, I thought, if it can’t survive against the existence of other religions?
In Bible class, the interpretations were mostly literal, the teaching often supplemented by long didactic instructional videos. There was no space for strangeness, doubt, for ambiguity (even as we were reading about legions of demons passing from the bodies of men into pigs, or a blind man whose sight is returned to him, after which he says, wonderfully, “I see people; they look like trees walking around”). If the point of literature, and religious texts in particular, is to offer us another lens by which to see the world, the world I was being presented with at the evangelical church was smaller, quieter, paler than the one I was used to living in. And yet, those I sat beside for seven weeks had discovered hope in it. This faith had brought them comfort.
After the course was over, I set up an alternative Bible class with a few secular friends. We met once a week at my flat and read through the Old Testament chronologically, finding ourselves amazed at the heterogeneity in its style, authorship and intentions. A lot of our time was spent wondering what we were supposed to make of all this. Were these eclectic stories we already half knew– Jacob and the Angel, David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah – really supposed to lead us into faith? When we reached the two moments in Leviticus, eight lines out of a thousand pages, that declare it detestable for a man to sleep with a man (18:22 and 20:13), we paused and thought, how has so much fear grown out of so little?
But then we started finding the moments of beauty alongside the violence, the misogyny, the homophobia. When Jonathan dies in Samuel, his closest companion, David, the man who will become king of Israel, sings, “Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” When the widow Ruth chooses to follow her mother-in-law into the unknown, she says, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.” It was beginning to affect me in a way that might be spiritual.
There are four modes of biblical interpretation, first formulated by the 4th-century theologian St John Cassian: literal, moral, allegorical and anagogical. The last one is equivalent to spiritual, a form of reading that elevates your mind, raises you up momentarily from your ordinary concerns. And so, while I’m aware that I’m equating the quality of being affected with faith here, that’s a hermeneutics in itself. More than that, I’m not sure how else the Bible could work on me.
Three months into my research, I’ve realised it’s not possible to write about people encountering faith for the first time without simultaneously exploring it in my own life – or if it is, I haven’t managed it. I’ve started to think I’d really like to gain faith. I’d like to have the ritual and order of church, of prayer, to see my life as part of some larger design. Because, to be honest, in every other way, I’ve never had less stability in my daily life. The cords that hold me vaguely in place have never felt more ragged. I’m not suggesting faith would make my life easier, or make me more certain as to where I’m heading. But it was the supposed certainty I witnessed in that first Bible studies group which sent me the furthest I’ve been from Christianity since I started my investigation into it.
My desire for it doesn’t mean I’ll ever get there. To say “I want to find faith” feels as efficacious as saying “I want to fall in love”. Most of us would like the latter. It doesn’t guarantee it will happen. But still, I want to go out and see, as Gerard Manley Hopkins did, the world “charged with the grandeur of God”. Just once, I’d like to see that.
I’ve started reading the Psalms on my own, first thing in the mornings. I find myself moved by their plangent, first-person entreaty. “O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night” (Psalm 22), “O God, why have you rejected us for ever?” (Psalm 74). At its most human, most desperate pitch, I come closest to knowing what faith might be – the desire to unblock my ears and be ready to hear it, even if I’ll never truly understand.
[See also: A gender-neutral God is far from revolutionary]
This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon