One of the things about growing up in an evangelical fundamentalist church is that you are encased in a tight straitjacket of rules and expectations. This is to stop you from doing anything which could threaten your eternal salvation, so you should be jolly grateful and stop whinging all the time about stuff your friends are doing like going to the pictures and the pub. Every action is viewed through the lens of IS THIS TEMPTING ME TO SIN (and therefore exciting), and if so, it is verboten, and jettisoned swiftly. On the upside, your ticket to heaven is booked for all eternity, but on the downside, you miss out on The World.
Take music for instance. When I was growing up, ‘Top of the Pops ‘was seen as the spawn of the devil and likely to tempt the young and susceptible into all sorts of trouble. The young were delighted to be tempted, but I didn’t have that opportunity. So the first LP I bought from Boots in town was ‘The greatest hits of Val Doonican’. My peers were all dancing round their handbags to Slade and The Bay City Rollers, but I was firmly stuck with Val in his rocking chair crooning ‘Elusive Butterfly’. You can see why I had trouble fitting in most of the time.
I didn’t feel saved growing up as I knew I was really bad, but the one thing which soothed my teenage angst was classical music. (It was accepted in church circles as touching warm on the not-too-much-of-the-world barometer). I immersed myself in ‘Bach’s Greatest Hits’, swooning to ‘Jesu joy of man’s desiring’ and didn’t realise then that I was praying. I felt guilty (the straitjacket tightening its straps) because I didn’t know how to pray, and assuaged my remorse by letting this music pierce my soul and find a home there. If I’d known how to recognise heaven at that stage, I would have believed I had touched it.
Then when I was a teenager, I discovered Queen. Maybe I heard it on the radio – I don’t know but it was just a kind of magic and they soon became the love of my life. I surreptitiously bought all their LPs and listened greedily on headphones behind a firmly closed door in my bedroom. My strong sense of self-preservation knew better than to make my discovery public – what with Freddie Mercury dressing as he did and scandalous lyrics talking about ‘get down make love’ and ‘fat-bottomed girls’, I would have been ripe for deliverance ministry.
However, when I was in my early twenties, the pastor of the church I attended got wind of my proclivities and was predictably horrified. He shook his head sadly and pronounced Queen sinful and not of God. And I was so young and raw and scared, I believed him and went home and put all my Queen records in the dustbin. I missed Queen but at least God wasn’t mad with me anymore.
As I grew older, I began to slowly and very painfully rub against my spiritual straitjacket and the rubbing left large red sores which wouldn’t heal and wept with anger. I needed to take off the straitjacket entirely and I didn’t know how to do that. But, emboldened by the love and security of my second husband (who would certainly have ended up in perdition according to the fundamentalists due to his penchant for a cheeky pint and a racy movie), I bought Queen – The Platinum Collection. But I was still scared of God not liking Queen and so, just to be on the safe side, I left it on the shelf. You can take the girl out of fundamentalism, but it’s much much harder to take fundamentalism out of the girl.
But - you know what – after years and years of struggle, I’m getting braver. I’m on the verge of chucking that bloody straitjacket in the bin and retrieving my records. I’m meeting people, especially Franciscans who know a different God and help me know her too. A God who won’t toss me into hell for listening to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ but sit and listen with me. And delight in its sheer brilliance and creativity.
I’ll let you into a secret. Yesterday I downloaded ‘News of the World’ which I last bought in 1977 (ended up in the bin). And I went on a long walk and I listened. Because the truth is, listening isn’t sinful or wrong or bad or dangerous and won’t commit me to an eternity of everlasting torment. That is the truth. And slowly, slowly, oh so slowly, I am ‘deconstructing’. Taking beliefs apart and finding new ways. And understanding that the faith of my early life wasn’t faith at all but acquiescence in the face of terror.
That’s not a God who is Love.
I’m going to download ‘A Day at the Races’ this week. And listen with God.