Saturday, 19 April 2014

Ten poems that might stop young people being so astonishingly ignorant about their Christian heritage

I imagine that if you asked most Britons under the age of thirty what Good Friday commemorates, they’d shrug and mumble something about it being good because you don’t have to go to work or school. A teacher of A-level English here in multiculti London recently told me that her pupils are so bereft of the slightest knowledge regarding Christian traditions and beliefs that she has to explain The Fall in painful detail when it comes up – yes, many 17 and 18-year old Londoners are unacquainted with the story of Adam and Eve, the snake, the Tree of Knowledge, the serpent, Eden, the apple… the whole shooting match, in fact.

As for Easter Sunday, I seem to remember reading somewhere that most youngsters think it has something to do with rabbits. Or eggs. or sumfink.

The subject arose because it was my turn last week to choose and talk about a poem that had affected my life in some significant way for the local book group I attend. As the group is attached to our church, you’d think we’d be banging on about religion all the time – but, because this is England, the subject is barely mentioned. As I worked my way through various poetry anthologies, I kept coming back to George Herbert’s “The Collar” (‘I struck the board, and cried, “No more!;/I will abroad…”). I didn’t want to be boringly predictable and go for such an overtly Christian poem, but it didn’t leave me much choice: it affected my life, and that’s that. Let me explain.

I’ve never been a devout atheist. I’ve always felt the need to believe in something numinous, but I’ve never been much good with dowsing and healing crystals and Wicca and the Green Man, let alone Odin, Thor or Gaia. Besides, I always felt strangely jealous of my Catholic friends when I was a teenager: they moaned about their religion and priests and nuns all the time, but at least they had beliefs to renounce. All I remember from my school was morning prayers (The Lord’s Prayer), the occasional dull church service, soporific Religious Instruction lessons, one very nice priest (half-Norwegian like me) and one who (I’m told) eventually left the school under a bit of a cloud (for the usual reasons).

As for religious influences at home, I grew up in a pretty atheistic household. Religion wasn’t mentioned until my father turned to the church a few years before he died. At that stage he was serving in Norway and wasn’t around much: he and I never discussed religion (we never discussed anything much, really), but I was impressed that such an unfanciful man should have turned into a believer, albeit somewhat late in the day. As far as I know, my mother was never a believer: I have a feeling she’d encountered too much religious hypocrisy growing up in Glasgow.

Among the things that primed me for a (much) later change of heart was seeing the roll-up smoking, scooter-driving, near-toothless handyman employed by our first London landlords kneeling in our rented flat, praying for Pope John XXIII, who was dying at the time (my mother explained his peculiar behaviour to me after he’d left for the day). That intrigued me. Then my brother gave me a Thames & Hudson book about Michelangelo when I fourteen, and I spent hours poring over the illustrations, not quite sure why I found them so enthralling. There were films, of course (Ben Hur in particular). And I always enjoyed Christmas carols. The other priming agents were all poems. First, there was G.K. Chesterton’s “The Donkey”, which I must have read at school when I was about 12, in Sir Algernon Methuen's excellent Anthology of Modern Verse: 1900-1920. Telling the story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem from the point of the view of the donkey who carried Him brought the scene alive for me:

...For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:  
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet.

Later, studying for A levels, there was Paradise Lost and the poetry of George Herbert. I’m not saying that either resulted in any sort of instant conversion – they didn’t – they just struck chords that reverberated within me and, in some mysterious way, made later belief possible. Christianity no longer seemed intrinsically anodyne and milk-soppy and dull and a bit silly: rather than being safe, establishment, somehow corporate, I realised it could be both epic and deeply personal. I grasped - for the very first time – that the struggle between good and evil, darkness and light, happens on the cosmic and personal level, and that the two are somehow linked.

In later life I would find religious promptings in music, nature, the family, friendship, and painting, sculpture and architecture – pretty much everywhere, in fact. But as a boy, poetry was undoubtedly the most important influence, and, of all the poetry I’ve read, the lines most responsible for the religious belief I now hold (apart, I suppose, from whole sections of the King James version of the Gospel of St. John) are those which end “The Collar”:
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
          At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
          And I replied My Lord.
I’m not sure what opportunities teenagers these days have to learn about Christianity - the liturgy, the teachings of Christ, the Bible narrative, or the habits of thought it inculcates. Not many, I suspect. Not at home, in most cases, obviously. When it’s mentioned on television or radio, it’s usually by some “comic” reducing the concept of a personal saviour  to that of an “imaginary friend” - tee-hee! Or it’s some spastic bishop droning on about food banks and government cuts or inter-faith dialogue or somesuch tosh. Obviously, they won’t hear about it from state-school teachers, for whom the only true religion is egalitarian statism. (However I was surprised and heartened to learn that  Paradise Lost is still being studied in schools, which suggests there's still hope.)

I’m not asking for a system that churns out hordes of unquestioning believers at eighteen: this isn’t – thank God – an Islamic country (well, not yet). But even that High Priest of Unbelief, Richard Dawkins, recognises the importance of learning about the religion at the heart of our culture. If our Prime Minister now seriously wants to “do God” – and the Christian God at that – an education system that doesn’t require teachers to explain to pupils on the cusp of adulthood who Adam and Eve were might be a good start. And a quiet word with the BBC – which has done so much to encourage sneering scepticism – might be a good idea.

Apart from Paradise Lost, I’m not sure which other Christian-themed poems young folk are exposed to at school. But in amongst the works of Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and Linton Kwesi Johnson, I would hope that there'd be room for the following ten poems which might at least give schoolchildren some sort of emotional understanding of the religion which underpins our rapidly-dwindling Christian civilisation:

“The Donkey”, G.K. Chesterton
“Lepanto”, G.K. Chesterton
“Jerusalem”, William Blake
“The Collar”, George Herbert
“Dover Beach”, Matthew Arnold
“God’s Grandeur”, Gerard Manley Hopkins
“Journey of the Magi”, T.S. Eliot
“The Retreat”, Henry Vaughan
“Batter my heart, three person’d God”, John Donne
“Christmas”, John Betjeman


  1. The whole principle of belief or worship or call it what you will is a fundamental part of the human psyche. Following a favourite team and applauding a successful fooballist; being a ken fan of a pop star and travelling miles to be at a concert where you hear nothing but the clamour of the crowd and see a small person strutting his hour upon the stage or just revering a decent human being for being a decent human being is what makes us what we are.
    Embracing a religion is something that I have tried. About thirty years ago I attended our country parish church every sunday, read the odd lesson and grunted and groaned through the hymns as a member of the choir (they were desperately short of male voices - obviously). I never asked the parson for instruction as I thought he was a self-satisfied berk and I must admit that I did not find spiritual fulfilment have never taken it very much further. Many very close friends and family members have died in the last twenty years and I have looked casually for spiritual solace but have never found the Church of England a particularly welcoming fraternity. Maybe, I just have not met the right person to guide me through the tempestuous search for belief. Catholic friends of mine have no such trouble: I suppose they were brought up in family atmospheres where doubt was never an option.
    Now, after years of farting about, I have become a professional art historian and I cannot help but be moved by the timeless celebration of religion in general and Christ in particular, and all that that entails - it is overwhelming and begs so many questions that even the most agnostic/atheist/non-believer must be moved to self doubt.
    I am not saying that I am about to embrace the Christian faith but I would certainly welcome discussion - assuming the guides are not the self-satisfied berks I have met in the past.
    I shall look at those poems above and shall think again.
    Thank you for the prompt.

    1. I've been scared to answer in case I say the wrong thing and somehow put you off, Riley. Important for me was realising that faith is a volitional act rather than something that was going to happen to me one day. Also the fact that our local church didn't expect us to wear pudding-bowl haircuts and sing Kumbaya at every opportunity and didn't assume everyone in the congregation voted Labour. Anyway, I'll shut up now and wish you luck while you're giving it a rethink.

    2. It was very thoughtful of you to consider your response. I am not actively seeking belief, just very open-minded and willing to listen. As I said earlier, it is the artistic representation which I find so potent. I shall continue to sit on the fence but with my eyes scanning the horizon...

  2. Knowledge of Christianity used to be inculcated as part of our common cultural literacy.
    At least, thanks to RI at school, I was able to recognize the irony of a tattoo which I saw on the shoulder of an American girl on a Phuket beach.

    Her tattoo simply read ' Leviticus 19:28 '