While I was in America, I had a bit of downtime between a couple of book conferences so I decided to head to a lovely beach town in Virginia. I booked ten days at a beachfront hotel which was delightful but left me with a lot of free time.
I was working hard on marketing, getting swag (free stuff for readers) delivered, and trying and failing to set up my own online store via Shopify (I gave up in the end because it needed six million expensive plugins and they all had to be configured in stupidly complicated ways and wouldn’t talk to each other).
In the midst of all of this I was at a bit of a spiritual crossroads. After my parents had died a couple of years earlier, I realized that atheism just wasn’t working for me. Sure, it was logical and rational. It made perfect sense because there was nothing to make sense of.
I couldn’t handle the tenet that when people died that was it. I’d rather be ridiculed for believing in a magic patriarchal sky creator who thought up the whole planet in 7 days (including a day off…) than be dead from feeling life is pointless and empty.
I’ve got nothing against atheists, some of my best friends are atheists, but since my parents died, it’s my firm belief that humanity as a whole hasn’t evolved past needing a belief system of any kind.
China doesn’t exactly offer many opportunities to explore your spirituality.
I’d heard Catholicism in America involved gangsters shooting each other in Italian, so I thought I’d try something less fire-and-brimstone.
So when I found myself at a loose end one Saturday evening, I decided it would be nice to pop into a C of E place to soak up a spot of All Things Bright and Beautiful.
The trouble began with the fact that C of E stands for Church of England and I was fairly sure that only existed in… well… England. But I was aware that Church of Scotland was the same thing in Scotland. I doubted it was called Church of America in America but I was confident I could find the American version.
I wasn’t 100% on it, but I remembered it began with a P. Presbyterian, wasn’t it? The denomination as a whole? I was pretty sure C of E was presbyterian.
So I looked up a couple of local presbyterian churches to check them out online before turning up. I didn’t want one of the churches where everyone starts falling about in the aisles being “healed” because I don’t get it. Or believe it. The first church website was a bit OTT but the second one looked sober and said, “we are all sinners” on the front page.
That sounded like my kind of church. A place that acknowledged we all messed up from time to time, nobody was perfect, and that Jesus taught us kindness and forgiveness were nice. When I listened to a sample there was no pop music.
So I went.
This was not the kind of church I’d expected. As the pastor spoke I realized that there was maybe another meaning to the phrase “we are all sinners.” And they meant the other one. We are all sinners, repent, you’ve been bad and the world is terrible.
Some of what he said really resonated with me but other stuff did not.
And there was no singing. That was the worst part. I mean, not as bad as pop music in churches, but still.
There were women who looked like they might have been Mennonites (like Amish), with Victorian-looking head coverings and plain dresses.
I was about to write the whole thing off when two very kind and well-meaning parishioners invited me to dinner. Here was a perfect opportunity to learn about a subculture. The anthropologist in me couldn’t say no. I exchanged contact details. How bad could it be? They weren’t Westboro’ Baptists. Or even regular Baptists. Whatever Baptists were.
Okay. Unexpected human interaction. I could do this. I was making friends and learning about America, where most of my books are set, and where (at the time) I was hoping to live one day.
I’ve changed my mind about that because of gun drills. Guns are not a natural disaster like a fire. They are not unavoidable. Teaching children they are, through gun drills, is so unbelievably messed up. Teaching children that a grown man’s right to have a gun is more important than a child’s actual life is reprehensible.
But a few weeks before I found out about gun drills, I was invited to this dinner at the home of a very devout family. I’ll call them Frank and Ava.
At the correct time, I arrived and rang the bell. Ava answered and invited me in. She was in the middle of cooking dinner. Some of her children were helping.
“It’s a little busy today, we’ve got two extra children with us.” She pointed to a girl of about six and a two-year-old boy. They looked a bit shellshocked. “They arrived today, we foster children, but we haven’t had any this young for a long while.” She looked wistful, reminiscing on the baby days of her own children.
“Wow, so how many do you have now?”
“Including these two? Nine.”
Nine children. “That’s incredible. I’d love to have a big family.” It was a bit of a contrast to any family I’d ever seen. And I was really excited to be able to experience this slice of real life amidst a large family. At the time, we’d had our fourth miscarriage a month earlier and I was wondering if we would ever get to hold our baby.
“What brings you to America?”
I didn’t want to say too much because my job at the time was pretty much mutually exclusive with the type of Christianity I’d seen in the church. I didn’t want to offend anyone.
“There’s a book conference in [town] and I’m networking at it.”
“You work in publishing?”
“Editing,” I said carefully. “But I’m looking for a change in direction right now.” That was completely true. I’d been unhappy with my direction for about six months and craved some clarity and spiritual serenity that seemed at odds with the life I was living.
At the dinner table, as well as Frank and Ava, four birth children and the two foster children sat down.
“We’re having pork for dinner.”
I actually don’t eat pork, usually, because it gives me terrible wind, but I hate being seen as a fussy eater so I spooned as much sauce and as little pork into my bowl as possible.
I was seated beside the toddler. When Ava took one of his hands to say grace, I took the other. He spent the whole of grace trying to pull his hand out of mine. Aside from my half-sister, I’d never really been this close to a toddler before so I didn’t know what to do.
When grace was said and food served, I looked at the empty spaces around the table.
Ava must have noticed. “Our oldest is taking a test at the local high school.”
“And the other two?”
“We believe in Biblical discipline. You eat when you work. They didn’t work.”
I was shocked but I kept my face impassive.
“They learn to do chores very quickly when they are hungry.”
I’m not sure I properly processed this. All I could say was, “I see.” I didn’t really know what it was like to raise children and didn’t feel I could comment on her parenting without making her defensive. What would that change?
Also, it would be rude and this was a dinner table and it’s not very British to be rude at the dinner table. I was dragged up, and even I know to avoid unpleasantness at the dinner table at all costs. Especially when it’s someone else’s dinner table.
“Do you have kids?”
I shook my head. “I’ve been married for four years but we haven’t got pregnant yet.” I didn’t really want to detail it all.
“That sounds like Hannah would be relevant to you,” Frank said.
Hannah? Who was Hannah? I looked around the table. Was she one of the children? They’d all been introduced to me but I couldn’t remember a Hannah.
“Yes, the story of Hannah!” The way Ava said it, I understood this was a reference to something in the Bible.
Instead of saying, “I have no idea who that is,” I said, “I resonated with the story of Ruth.” Mostly because at that moment, it was the only female in the Bible whose name I could remember aside from Mary, Mary, and Mary.* Most of my brain was still busy being shocked at the fact these people used starvation as a punishment.
*Mary, Jesus’s mum, Mary, John the Baptist’s mum and Mary Magdalene. The three Marys. Like the three tenors, only subservient to the patriarchy to the point where the authors couldn’t even be bothered to give them distinctive nicknames.
“But don’t you think there’s a parallel between your situation and Hannah’s?” Frank probed.
I didn’t know. Who was Hannah? I didn’t even know there was a Hannah in the Bible until this moment, and I had paid attention to every assembly at school (assemblies were 40% The Good Samaritan, 60% every other Bible story, which tells you teachers 40% don’t give a fuck about finding interesting and varied stories to tell during morning worship). I listened to every Bible story in church. I loved storytimes in all their forms. I got an A in GCSE Religious Studies at school and was nicknamed “nunner” for a while. I even owned (and still have) a book on Lost Scripture, detailing all the stuff that hadn’t made the final edit of the Bible.
What I have never done is read the Bible from cover to cover. Mostly because even though I’ve tried about six times, I always get halfway through Leviticus and get bored: Fire and brimstone. Not a fan.
Couldn’t think of a Hannah.
The way they talked made it seem like this was really basic stuff and I didn’t know how to ask about it without seeming ignorant.
Actually, on reflection, that pretty much sums up the issue I have with organized Christianity. Its followers assume you either know all of it off by heart or you’re a Bad Christian.
When I compare this to my experiences within paganism, it couldn’t be more different. I always felt at ease asking, “which chant is that?” or, “Gardnerian?” or asking other questions to learn without feeling judged for not knowing.
During dinner, the oldest boy came home from his exam. He greeted me warmly and spoke about his exam. The subject was firmly changed.
The conversation moved onto abortion. There were all ages of children at the table but that was apparently a suitable topic.
We went into the sitting room. Instead of a television, there was a piano. Frank sat at the piano. One of the children handed out Psalm books. I said a thank-you when mine was given to me.
Frank gave us all a Psalm number. The children immediately opened their books and he played the piano while each child read a line from the book. Even the youngest, who was five if I remember correctly, read the psalm word-perfect.
I wondered how that had been achieved. Five-year-olds aren’t known for being fluent readers of Bible-level English. The concern marred what would otherwise have been a beautiful scene.
After the singing, the children were ushered to bed like a military operation by the oldest girl (who was younger than the oldest boy).
“They’re so good at reading, even the littlest,” I said, hoping to lead into how this had happened.
“That’s because we never sent them to school.”
I had more than a passing interest in homeschooling, being a trained educator myself.
Then we moved onto why their children were homeschooled.
“The transgender ideology scares me,” Ava said.
“What do you mean?” I tried not to ask it in a confrontational way.
“It’s in all the schools. They want to indoctrinate them.”
“I have quite a few friends who are transgender. I don’t know any who would do that,” I said carefully. At this point I was a little scared. For those who don’t know, I am a bit LGBT.
“Oh they all do. They’re trying to convert children to material worship and Satan.”
“Are they?” I meant it in the sense of, “do you genuinely think that or are you just parroting shite?”
“Oh, you have a tattoo,” she said.
I did. “I got it earlier this year.”
I think that was the moment we both sort of knew this had been a bit of a mistake. I hadn’t expected fire and brimstone. Or pork. They hadn’t expected tattoos and transgender friends. We had listened to each other’s points of view and respected each other, but ultimately we didn’t mesh.
But we’d had more common ground than differences. We were concerned about freedom and oppression. We believed racism was fundamentally awful and that everyone deserved respect. We both thought family was important, although we had very different understandings of what to do about that and how to raise children. We both knew there was something greater in the universe, although her understanding was organized religion while mine was still seeking whatever it was I was looking for. I hadn’t found it here, that much was obvious.
And I’d learned an important lesson. We are all sinners. Probably. And it was maybe not the best idea to just try out random churches and see what resonated. Churches in America, I learned, are like families, whereas in the UK my experience was they’re more like a bus stop where anonymous strangers all turn up for an hour then leave without ever knowing each other’s names. Or, heaven forbid, talking to each other! By contrast I went to our Catholic church in Belfast for 18 months before we moved here, and I never really spoke to anyone except to organize Jellyfish’s baptism.
I thanked Ava for a lovely evening and made my excuses to leave.
Back at the hotel, I looked up Hannah.
Encyclopedia Britannica says:
“Hannah, also spelled Anna, (11th century bc), mother of Samuel, the Jewish judge. Childless as one of the two wives of Elkanah, she prayed for a son, promising to dedicate him to God. Her prayers were answered, and she brought the child Samuel to Shiloh for religious training.”
I did read the full version in the online Bible but I won’t put it here.
Then I remembered. Protestant was the word for the denomination that Anglican fits into. Not presbyterian. Still not sure what presbyterianism is. Actually, after I typed that, I just read up on it and I can see why I got confused.
As far as I can make out, presbyterian with a small ‘p’ is a characteristic of most protestant churches and Presbyterian with a capital ‘P’ is a full-blown denomination based on Puritanism. Like the difference between being a conservative Christian and a Conservative Christian.
Two months later I conceived Jellyfish (coincidentally, on or near the date of the feast of Hannah). He is now almost three.
I’m not Louis Theroux but that was a pretty weird weekend. Lesson learned. When I crave spiritual community, I’ve only been to Catholic churches since then, because I know where I’m at with them and they’re not especially political. Also, I’ve never returned to America. Not on purpose. Life has brought me to Ireland since leaving China, and this is where I’ve stayed.
*Names changed to protect the innocent.