This post is lengthy – so feel free to skip.
Jock’s McSporan’s comments on one of Scoop’s posts and my own recent watching of videos by Dr Jordan B Cooper have led me to consider writing this series. It is a kind of testimony, but not, perhaps a conventional one. I have long resisted writing anything quite like this for two reasons:
- It feels egotistical to write something like this and in this format (that may perhaps just be a by-product of English culture, of course).
- I do not feel like a good model of how to be a Christian (though, perhaps there are things to be learned from my life – we should all be learning from each other’s experiences anyway).
This series will involve thematic explorations. I do not propose to write the story of how I became a Christian as such (though I gave a testimony when I was baptised) – but there will, no doubt, be elements of that story here and there. There is no particular order to how the elements of this series are arranged – but within a given section there may be a kind of sequence.
The Catholic tension (1)
I am half-French and lived abroad for a portion of my life (USA and Continental Europe), so I have been exposed to Catholicism. I was not raised in a religious household, but I was taken to certain church services in a military context (Remembrance Sunday, etc).
As a toddler – though I cannot say how much influence it really had on me – I attended a kindergarten ( ?and reception? for the English readers here) at a church outside Philadelphia (I lived in the USA at that time). I do not know what denomination the church was (though it may have been Baptist), but it was certainly Protestant of some description.
In primary school back in the UK, I was exposed to Sunday school-style presentation of Bible stories. I remember taking part in a nativity play (I think I was a blackbird, which people in the UK will understand given our insistence on everyone taking part). I also remember an Easter presentation in which I had to read out a passage that mentioned Pontius Pilate (it sticks in my memory because I had to learn how to pronounce that name). I think there was an element of re-enaction in this, but I do not recall the details now.
In Continental Europe, although I went to a British school, I do not recall anything particularly Christian in those years as part of my education. We attended certain services because we were part of the military community and these were not organised through my school. These services were held at the National Basilica, and it being a Catholic country, although the service was in English, it had European, Catholic clergy, I believe.
In this context, I became used to seeing statues of the Virgin Mary in glass cases on houses and by roadsides, as well as roadside crucifixes. I think I the odd church and Cathedral as a tourist (also in other European countries on holidays and school trips). I understood little about Christianity generally or Catholicism in particular (except what I gleaned from popular culture, such as The Simpsons, which in those days was played on the BBC, which we could get in Europe, and I had seen on VHS and DVD).
I do recall a few elements of Christian engagement at school in those years. There was a chapel of Saint Hubert in the park behind my school and one of my teachers (I suppose as part of local history) explained about Saint Hubertus and the stag. There was a famous chapel in a city we visited, connected with the Crusades. As part of learning English history, I was taught about the religious upheavals during the Tudor monarchy. I “learned” that “Bloody Mary” had people burned at the stake, but that she thought this was necessary to save them.
In my last year in Europe, “The Da Vinci Code” came out and I read it as part of the craze. Unfortunately, I did not have the means at the time to reject the conspiracy theories it espoused, but in later years I would have the means to do so. I suspect that I had largely forgotten about it when I became a Christian. When I started really looking into the faith, it soon appeared ridiculous.
When I became a Christian in my teens, I intended to attend a Catholic Church in my locality. However, it seemed a little far and I did not want to ask my non-religious father to give me a lift every Sunday, so I instead opted to go by myself to the local “Community Church”. This was within easy walking distance and meant I could get back in time for Sunday lunch with my parents. In this way, I felt I would not be a bother to anyone.
It turned out my church was a Baptist one, and we would eventually change our name to reflect that reality. By this time, I was a member, having been baptised, and thus able to vote on the matter. I personally was opposed to the decision as I felt that denominational differences were less relevant among Protestants in this day and age – but that’s how it went and, though I still disagree with the decision, I can understand the reasons for it and respect that.
During those early church-going days after my conversion, I made the acquaintance of an older Christian who decided to mentor me. He recommended certain websites to me and books to me, which proved influential. In later years, when I severed the mentoring aspect of that relationship and grew more confident in learning for myself, I would come to reject a lot of what I read and become agnostic on other parts.
Nevertheless, at the time, I was struggling with issues of salvation/justification/sanctification. I decided at one stage to read the Bible in the course of a year. Although my parents gave me a King James version earlier in my life, I struggled to really engage with the text. Although I could understand it, and could persevere with trickier sentences, it just did not seem to really touch my soul (at least not in ways that seemed to matter in the unverbalised parts of my subconscious).
So, having come across the Good News version at school in my religious education, I asked for a Good News bible, and worked my way through it in the course of a year (or so I recall). I generally do not read from the Good News these days, but I consider that it was a good foundation for getting some basics out of the Bible. I would later be able to refine my thoughts and engage directly with the Greek and Hebrew of the Bible (I don’t have any Aramaic to speak of – just some basic awareness of vocabulary).
My religious education at school was split into two parts: compulsory and optional. The compulsory part (national curriculum), focussed on ethical issues (I suspect that if I had been at that school earlier, I may have received a proper introduction to Christianity – but I was in Europe at the time, and this school was taking a progressive approach, rather than recapitulating things each year). I was struck at the time by the integrity of the Catholic position on a number of issues, especially abortion.
As for the optional side, I had chosen Religious Studies as one of the subjects that I would be examined on (GCSEs) in addition to the core subjects (English, Maths, Science, etc) that everyone had to take. GCSE RS had two components: a study of Luke’s Gospel and ethics considered from a Christian perspective.