Whatever it is that informs Israel Folau’s beliefs, it isn’t Christianity
IN THE BEGINNING
I was brought up a Christian. Beginning in the Methodist church (as was only proper for a lad from Lancashire), at the age of ten I graduated to the Church of England. I insisted on switching, because the Methodists wouldn’t let me join the choir. Adults only. And I loved to sing.
I got my chance when we moved south. The local C of E (St Michael and all Angels, Harrow Weald, if you’re interested) was desperate for choirboys. So desperate, in fact, they paid a weekly stipend, with extra (plus a tip from the best man) at every wedding. A win-win, I thought. I got robes to wear, singing lessons, money, and the glory of leading the congregation in song. Heaven.
As to the religion itself, well, I went to Sunday School, then confirmation classes, and at first didn’t really think about it. The notion that God was always watching and listening was distinctly bothersome, especially once I discovered sexual fantasies and masturbation. Even more so, as my daydreams centred on posh, handsome young wildlife presenters on the BBC, like David Attenborough and Keith Shackleton, striding around in exotic locations in their khaki shorts.
But as time went on, I couldn’t help noticing the gulf between what members of the congregation professed, and how they actually behaved. It became apparent for most, church was a social, not a religious, activity.
When I broached the topic with my father he told me that a) no-one in their right mind could actually follow what the religion taught. That b) these vicars and such don’t live in the real world, and c) in an ideal world people would give away their money, go and work among the poor etc., but that’s not practical and anyway not necessary any more. Now we have the Welfare State. The clergy haven’t caught up with reality, he said.
I stifled my doubts and went along with the program. I loved the singing, liked my fellow choirboys, and the money was handy. But I couldn’t help hankering for something more, some sign, some proof, some of the joy that this religion was supposed to provide. But when I prayed, there was no-one there. Was God ignoring me because I was jerking off to Zoo Quest? Or perhaps, just perhaps, he didn’t actually exist?
The day of my confirmation rolled around. Maybe now, I thought, with the laying on of the Bishop’s hands, the magic would happen, doors would open and I would see and feel something of this ‘God’. Zip. Nada. Nothing. My strongest impression was of the Bishop’s grubby unwashed hands. First communion? Same deal. Nothing. I began to think the whole business was a fraud.
It was hard to square the stern teachings about sex with the obvious adultery of some members of the congregation. The affair between the junior organist and choirmaster and one of my fellow choirboys. Or the lectures on poverty with the rich people who came only to be seen, ostentatiously dropping notes into a collection plate mainly lined with coins.
However, it was a gentle, go-along-to-get along religion. Inquiring into your fellow worshippers’ beliefs would have been considered rather indecent. You would no more talk about the details of your relationship with God than you would discuss what you did in bed with your wife! In case of dire necessity you might seek a confidential chat with your vicar, but only as an absolute last resort.
When I went to university at age 18, I never went back, except at Christmas. And that was only to hear the hymns and anthems, which I still loved. The spiritual side of things never manifested itself, and the social side didn’t interest me.
I no longer believed, but I recognised that the church served a useful social function. Stay at home suburban housewives – this was the 1960s – were connected into the community and did charitable works. Their husbands hobnobbed at church socials, drove the kids and wives to all the functions, did the heavy labour at fetes and open days. The kids joined the Scouts and the Guides. Everyone connected, made friends, and in the dead wastes of London suburbia, that was healthy, and productive of significant happiness.
Many years later I reconnected with the Anglican Church, here in Australia. My husband is a lapsed Catholic, and when he was lucky enough to uncover a gay-friendly Anglo-Catholic church run by a gay vicar, he got the bells and smells and non-judgmental welcome he was looking for. And a community to belong to.
I went along, partly to support him, as you do, but partly out of curiosity. Had I, in my callow youth, thrown away something that might after all be worthwhile?
Right away it was clear that this was not the Anglicanism of my youth. Someone had thrown out the Book of Common Prayer, in which I knew all the correct responses, and replaced it with some of the worst flatfooted plain English I had ever read outside of an office memo.
From the gushing greeting at the door, to ‘do stay for refreshments after the service’, things rapidly progressed to chats about how I might ‘participate’ in services. Would I like to take up the collection? Read a lesson? ‘You have such a lovely voice, Douglas.’ Perhaps I would like to be a sacristan? A server? Of course, if you’re going to be a participant, you really need to come to bible study…
I felt as if someone had pulled the plug out of my bath and I was being sucked down the drain.
The vicar took me aside and explained that, in the old way, the priest and his acolytes basically put on a performance for the congregation, who then passively absorbed the experience. Now the church understood that God was the audience, and the congregation were to be active performers in the services.
I went to watch a performance, and found myself in the chorus line.
What about the choir, I asked? Oh we don’t have one of those, I was told, but perhaps (eager smile suddenly switching on), perhaps I might like to organise one? Er, no.
I joined the congregations and did my participating, waiting for those lightbulbs moments, but as before, they never came. After a couple of years, feeling increasingly like a fraud, I withdrew. Gave it my best shot, but it didn’t work for me.
Besides, a lot of the old hymns had mysteriously acquired new tunes, and there were even new hymns – how dare they – saturated with saccharine New Age ‘spirituality’.
But – and I must stress this again – despite my personal feelings and lack of belief, I recognise that this parish, even though it and most of its congregation were dying, was on balance, a force for good. And the vicar gave good sermons that often made me think.
NOW – ISRAEL FOLAU
I know the power of standing on a platform with a microphone, in front of an audience that is just waiting for permission to rev up and go off. I’ve addressed political rallies where my well-chosen phrases have elicited surging excitement and roars of approval. I’ve led chants that changed the destination of marches and refocused their intent.
That wasn’t changing minds: that was telling them they wanted to hear, whipping up their emotions, and directing them like a weapon. It’s not that hard to do. And this is what these megachurch pastors do.
Their congregations want to be told they are good, righteous people (Amen!) whom God loves and will reward (Hallelujah!), not in the life to come, but in this life (Yes)! Now! (Praise the Lord!)
Then the pastors tell them what’s getting in the way of their reward here and now. It’s all those other sinners, who anger God. And he withholds his blessings from YOU because you tolerate THEM!
Cue the literal demonization of women who won’t do as their men tell them, homosexuals, women who ape men, cultural Marxists… pick your own Aunt Sally.
They may prosper now, thunders the preacher, but in the life to come they shall receive their just reward and be cast into the eternal pit of flame, blah blah blah… We have to fight these people (cue to send round the EFTPOS machines), God is watching, give generously, help us fight the good fight blah blah blah…
Whatever this is, it isn’t Christianity. This is taking the swastika and straightening out its arms. This isn’t loving your neighbour. This is marketing, pure and simple. So simple, in fact, that you pay through the nose for a product – salvation – that the pastor never need deliver. And in the meantime he – and it’s usually he – can chuckle all the way home in his private jet.
This is the “Christianity” from which the likes of Israel Folau spout when sending out their tweets consigning us to hell.
This is not free speech. This is hate speech.
This is Toxic Christianity. Fake Christianity. And Folau needs to be rescued from it.
How can we counter this tide of – let’s be frank – evil? How can we beat back the Trumpists and their ilk?
Good Christians (who do exist) must reach out and rescue the Israel Folaus of this world from these false, dangerous Fakes. Only Christians – not noisy atheists like me – have a chance of getting through to them.
I know the good guys are reluctant to attack those who appear to share their faith, but then these loud, noisy Fakes win by default. Good Christians must go armed into battle to take back their religion from these usurpers. And we atheists must go with them. For all our sakes.