My misguided quest for freedom
I was raised within a Christian sect commonly known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’. Born in 1970. my indoctrination took place throughout the 70s and 80s and still has an impact to this day. The key belief of the assemblies, as they self-identify, is that the Bible is the one inspired Word of God, handed down directly from God to the men who wrote each one of its pages, as they are with us today, and that it contains everything that humanity needs to know about him. My Dad was an elder in our assembly and over time he became stricter than many about the central tenets of faith. He became convinced that the Authorised Version of the Bible was the only correct version, and put a sign on the pulpit asking all visiting speakers to use only this. There were many others within the assemblies who used the New International Version or the Good News edition, but these, said my father and other, stricter ‘brothers’, were taken from an inaccurate source and were not the Word of God.
What I’ve realised, as an adult, is that in every walk of life there are those who dabble or sit at the fringes of a movement, and there are others for whom every detail and every doctrine is of the utmost importance. It happens with exercise, health, veganism and other types of lifestyle choices. These people will create new rules and expectations over time, repeatedly more narrow and strict, and are never satisfied with ‘good enough’. Initially I was taught that girls should have long hair and not wear men’s clothing ie trousers. Over time, this became long hair with no fringe or layers (although I got away with both), and no shorts, culottes or anything which revealed the womanly shape beneath. ‘Modest apparel’ became longer-than-knee-length skirts, up to the neck tops, nothing too tight and definitely no bare arms or shoulders.
Our family had no television (devilish), and I wasn’t allowed to go to discos or anything too worldly. My one and only dance party was at the age of five where I swirled around in a long, pink nylon dress to Abba, had an amazing time with the glamorous Galbraith family and, on being picked up, told that nobody realised it was a disco and it wouldn’t happen again. Men wore ties and suits to church, Sunday was the Lord’s Day, we did not play outside or do anything that could be construed as ‘work’, there was no musical instrument at the morning meeting (distracting), the ‘breaking of bread’ service was a plain and bleak affair, where men stood and prayed, preached or gave our hymns according to the leading of the Spirit, and women sat in silence as ordained by God, and learned in subjection to the men, their heads covered by a headscarf, hat or beret.
As children we sat through two meetings on a Sunday, after already doing Sunday School earlier, a midweek meeting on a Wednesday by the time we were a little older, a Bible class on a Friday and Tuesday Special (games for children followed by an epiloque) which was actually fun, except for the epilogue. We were not allowed colouring books or other distractions and were taken out and smacked if we wriggled or whispered too much. We were taught unquestionable facts about God. That Jesus is the only way to God, that anybody who does not believe and accept Jesus will go to Hell, an eternal torment in flames, and that once we understood and still rejected this message, we would go to Hell upon death, no matter how young we were. Messages about Hell were the main content of the ‘gospel’ meeting in the evening, accompanied by graphic descriptions, and even in Sunday School we were presented with flannel graph boards depicting its fiery flames and taught the inadequacies of our own good works. Only by trusting in Jesus and accepting the gift of salvation would we be saved.
Other churches were not to be trusted and were wrong, although it was conceded that there were individuals among them who were true Christians. I was ‘saved’ at the age of six in response to a conversation about Heaven or Hell. Of course I chose Heaven and I prayed the prayer, felt incredibly happy and excited, and was presented with a little picture bible, inscribed with the words, ‘To our dearest Ruth, on the occasion of joining the Christian family’. I treasured this and still have it.
Growing up, I faced a few traumatic and repetitive anxieties. The first was about Hell, because I believed that if I had any doubts, this meant that I wasn’t truly saved. So I prayed to be saved repeatedly, often in tears, through sleepless nights. The other was about the Rapture, when Jesus would return to the earth in a twinkling of an eye and snatch away all of the Christians both dead and alive and take them to Heaven. All who remained on earth would face the Anti-Christ, a man who initially would appear to be a man of peace, who would re-unite the warring factions on earth, and would be universally popular. But after three and a half years of his seven year reign, he would become an unstoppable tyrant, a force for evil, who would behead all those who rejected the ‘mark of the beast’ on their hands or foreheads, and those people would be unable to buy or sell or survive, would be tortured, tormented and executed, this being their only last chance of getting into Heaven through the back door, so to speak. I worried in the dead of the night that the Rapture had happened and I was left behind, padding across the landing and checking that my parents were in bed, listening for the reassuring snores emanating from my father.
Later, as a teenager, I rebelled, in dramatic style. Never questioning the truth of what I was taught, I did, however, want the freedom that my friends had. Inevitably I made friends at school, as we were not home-schooled, and I became aware that other people had other beliefs. I’d known since primary school that my family were out of line with the mainstream, but as a small child I didn’t really mind that. I thought that we were right and they were wrong. But as a teenager, I began to enjoy pop music, Radio One, ‘Jackie’ magazine, makeup, jeans and, most of all, flirting with the boys. I was a Class A flirt and would put my makeup on on the bus on the way to school and get changed into the jeans I’d bought with my pocket money in an alleyway whenever I wanted to meet up with friends. I kissed several boys at school and ‘went out’ with them, which meant hanging around at lunchtime and kissing on the way to the bus – not actually ‘going out’. And then at fifteen I fell head over heels in love with Shaun, who I lied about to my parents, went to the cinema with, kissed every afternoon on the school field, and dumped when he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Shaun broke my teenage heart when I discovered that he really did just want to get laid, and I returned to the brethren fold as a good Christian girl, truly subdued and sorry for my mistake.
See, the thing was, I couldn’t lie for long. Every time I met a boy (the next one was called Matthew and the next one Keith), I left the meetings, told the parents I wasn’t able to attend because I was seeing somebody, which was forbidden, unless he was a Christian and we wanted to get married some time, and there were massive rows over it. Every time. And thus began my two sides: the good Christian girl side and the worldly boy-chasing flirty girl side. I couldn’t have them both until I finally met and fell in love with the tall, red-haired, deep-voiced Scot who became my first husband, who everybody approved of, and who was also an assembly boy.
Eventually, after having three kids, I went to university, studied literature, came to believe that the Bible is a fascinating collection of texts with amazing contexts of production and reception and not the Word of God in a complete sense at all. For years I tried to escape all of the influences of the assemblies and find freedom of the heart and mind. I hated what they’d taught, the fears that I’d been subjected to as a child, the emotional manipulation, the physical punishments and the rigid doctrines which excluded anybody who disagreed or had the audacity to make human mistakes. I hated what I thought of as stupid beliefs: the seven day creation, the Rapture, the six thousand year old Earth and the binary beliefs about gender, sexuality and marriage. I mocked them, developed a raging dislike of all evangelical Christian beliefs and fought to release myself from the influence.
But here’s the thing. Hating something so passionately means that we haven’t escaped at all. I was still scared of going to Hell. Still am, a bit. Especially as a divorced would-be atheist who can’t quite believe in anything except the beauty of a sunset, a baby, a loving hug or a robin. Especially as a wishy-washy non-believer who can’t decide whether God exists or doesn’t, or whether we are all a serendipitous accident of the universe.
I have come to realise that the brethren isn’t just a group of people who raised me, shaped me, brainwashed me and then rejected me. Some of that is true, and some of it is not. There are those who only ever showed love and kindness and mercy. Some of the most amazing people I ever met were in those meetings. Preachers who spoke with such eloquence that the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. Sunday school teachers who really loved the children they taught and invited them round for dainty cakes and sandwiches on a Sunday afternoon. Married couples who adored each other and lived with love and affection for decades.
The brethren isn’t outside of me. It’s a part of me, entwined into every synapse of my brain. Indoctrination is permanent and, even if it’s unconscious most of the time, it’s there. I still think in black and white, I still find subtlety and nuance difficult to decipher. I feel uncomfortable dancing at a disco and I’m still moved to tears by parts of the bible. I remember the words of hymns and choruses, I still love everything that Jesus stands for and the story of the resurrection makes me want to stand up and punch the air. If I’m at a carol service, I sing and believe with all my heart, even though I don’t, really. It’s a fairly common paradox to believe and not believe, simultaneously.
Those of us who were raised in a fundamentalist religion are misguided to think of escape. There isn’t a full escape from something engrained in the psyche. The Jesuits apparently said, ‘Give us a child til the age of seven and he’s ours for life’. We can, however, keep the beauty, the wisdom and the kindness of it and cherish that as part of the rich experience of life. The harshness and fear can be dealt with by facing it square on and subjecting it to logic. If, for example, I start to think I’m going to go to Hell, I ask myself ‘who would I be down there with’? I don’t believe my kids are going, or my husband, any of my friends, colleagues or neighbours. I’d be hard pushed to think of anybody who I think deserves to burn forever in tormenting flames. So why would I? It’s ludicrous. Using logic I can face out most of the fears. Likewise, the Rapture. I get scared of the apocalyptic tone of some of the news: the global warming, the melting icecaps, the looming extinction of thousands of species and the bleak outlook for humanity. But does this mean the opaque prophecies of Revelations are coming for us? No, I think we are doing this to ourselves and only we can save the situation.
So I look to the good in humanity and in myself. We can’t escape our childhoods. Awareness that our early indoctrination is part of our DNA makes it easier to stop fighting, learn to love who we are and to respect the process of how we got here.