Review: God Collar by Marcus Brigstocke

I’ve got a lot of time for Marcus Brigstocke. On a CDD (comedian-donation-duration) scale, where Mark Steel merits a long weekend and Jim Davidson the minimum number of milliseconds required to activate an off switch, Marcus gets at least a leisurely Sunday lunch, probably followed by an afternoon’s croquet and winding-up with the leftovers enjoyed as a midnight feast. Not only was Giles Wemmbley-Hogg tea-down-the-nostrils funny, but on his TV show a couple of years ago he sacrificed the opportunity of flirting with some airheady celebrity in favour of interviewing Harriet Lamb of the Fairtrade Foundation. So, on the twin criteria of making me laugh and being a Thoroughly Good Egg, Marcus maintains a consistently high score.

(It’s this good-eggery which emboldens me to refer to him by his first name, despite our never having met. ‘Brigstocke’ would probably be more appropriate for a serious review, but comes across as somewhat peremptory – a cross between ‘brigadier’ and ‘lock, stock and barrel’ – while ‘MB’ sounds coy, ‘Mr. Brigstocke’ archaic and ‘the author’ as though I’ve forgotten his name and can’t be bothered to look it up. So Marcus it is, and I trust that he’ll forgive the informality.)

So, if I write that God Collar wasn’t quite so funny or quite so thoughtful as I’d hoped, you’ll understand that my initial expectations were very high indeed.

As the close relatives to whom I moan about these things will know, I’ve been slightly niggled over the past couple of years at the laziness with which several atheist comedians formulate their anti-religion routines. To do him credit, Marcus refers to this ‘low-hanging fruit’ himself and avoids its most indolent tropes. It isn’t (just to forestall any images of a Melanie Phillips-Daily Mail-What sort of society do we live in where I can’t go to work as a nursery teacher dressed as a freshly crucified corpse?) that I don’t think Christians ought to be ridiculed. Personally, I’d like to be ridiculed as satirically as possible, preferably with a bit of reviling and persecution thrown in. It seems, according to the Sermon on the Mount, to be one of the easier and less painful ways of achieving beatitude. (The others: being poor in spirit, mourning, being a peacemaker etc. involve considerably more hardship, or at least long hours sitting round a conference table punctuating treaties and eating Rich Tea biscuits. I’ve never liked Rich Tea biscuits.) Of course, the snag is that you have to be reviled etc. for actually doing what Jesus told you to, rather than for wearing polo shirts buttoned to the top or listening to Cliff Richard.

Be that as it may, we Christians (I won’t speak for believers in other faiths but I’m pretty sure that many would agree) have done, and are continuing to do, or at least condone, some pretty atrocious things; things which, on the whole, our founder and guide instructed us specifically not to do – live by the sword, lay up treasure on earth, harm little ones etc. Our failures in these areas, though rarely rib-ticklingly hilarious, are undoubtedly valid objects for no-holds-barred satire.

What annoys me isn’t the target itself but the imprecision of it and the inaccuracy of the weapons used. Blunderbusses are being employed to nudge pachyderms on their broad but insensitive bottoms where a catapulted pebble could catch that spot where it really hurts. Partly this results from an understandable ignorance. Because the most egregious horror committed by professional Christians in recent years is the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and the most howling faith-related scientific blunder anti-Darwinism, there is a tendency to characterise the typical believer as a paedophile-shielding creationist. In fact most Catholics have no problem with evolutionary or other fields of science. To borrow a device from Marcus himself, if you constructed a Venn diagram in which circle A contained Catholics and circle B creationists, the section AB would contain a fairly small number of people. A small number of people who, had they happened to be at the Glastonbury Festival (probably an unlikely scenario), would be wondering exactly what they’d done to become the specific butt of quite so many late-night jibes in the Cabaret Tent.

Marcus manages to avoid this particular combinational canard in favour of some more original reflections. Unfortunately, several of these are even more inaccurate. In his live show he speculated about the probable fate of believing audience members who were reluctant to identify themselves.

“I did take great delight in reminding them that they only had to deny it twice more before they were in a whole heap of trouble. They couldn’t be sure if I’d ask them twice more, but it’s a tough call, isn’t it? Slight awkwardness at a comedy show versus eternal damnation for thrice denying the Lord.” (p. 149)

All cartoons from The Pick of Punch, 1957

A nice line, but diametrically wrong. In fact, according to John’s gospel, the follow-up to Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus in the Temple courtyard wasn’t condemnation but his threefold avowal of love after the resurrection and his being given the task ‘Feed my sheep’. So those who are tempted to leave their faith behind at the entrance to comedy clubs are far less likely to be flung onto everlasting barbecues and more likely to be forgiven and told to go on a sponsored run for Oxfam. Sweat yes, charcoal no.

Similarly, he gets the story of Sodom and Gomorrah the wrong way round, misremembering (could it really have been a prep school lesson?) that it was the visiting angels who wanted to rape Lot’s neighbours rather than vice-versa. It doesn’t take away the distasteful spectacle of Lot pimping out his virgin daughters, but does shed a slightly different light on the moral to be drawn. In fact it has been convincingly argued that the sin of Sodom wasn’t buggery at all but a failure of hospitality[1], it being less than gracious to gang-rape visitors to your neighbourhood (as members of town-twinning committees worldwide will no doubt be relieved to hear). Under this interpretation, contemporary sodomites would include tabloid editors with ‘bogus asylum seeker’ headlines, men who complain about official leaflets in Punjabi and women who tut in the post office queue at people sending parcels home to Ghana or Lithuania.

I do realise, by the way, that most of the material in the book first appeared within Marcus’s live show, and that a comedian’s poetic licence is endorsed with generous allowances for hyperbole, embellishment and sheer fantasy. Far be it from me to censure anyone’s extended riff on what happened when the Angel Gabriel, Holy Roly[2] and the Dalai Lama walked into a pub. But (and this may reveal a many-layered depth of uncoolness and decrepitude) I do have the feeling that when something is written down and put into an Actual Book, it ought, so far as possible, to be checked with its sources. And when the source is the Bible, which, as Marcus points out, “has been the number one bestseller since before even Bruce Forsyth was born”, it’s not that difficult to check. Some of the other rather lurid stories, such as the holey chair through which papal testicles are verified, do, I admit, require a little more research to disprove, such as, er, looking it up in Wikipedia.

Lecture over. One of the more endearing results of the confusion over what sort of book this is – polemic, humour, autobiography? – is an awful lot of digression. Most of these meanderings I like – there’s a long one on climate change which has little to do with the subject at hand but is currently so important that every newly published book should probably include a gratuitious global warming update. There’s another on iPhones with an unsettling gerbil image that is wholly impossible to forget (I’m trying very hard), then one about pilfering postmen which I didn’t enjoy; it had the air of a right-wing meme that had somehow crept in uninvited. After that came one about Marcus’s dyxlexia, which is a really sneaky thing to put into a book. When an author explains, in tear-jerking detail, how difficult it is for him even to read a book, never mind undergo the slogging agony of writing one, it’s hard to criticise it without feeling that one is slowly and deliberately crushing a kitten’s paw. Yowl.

On the subject of digressions, this may be the time to admit my full motivations for buying the book in the first place. One was the W H Smith voucher which required me to buy more than Watchmen, another our general family affection for young Marcus but the third, most compelling, was the picture on the back cover showing him as a slightly ginger cherub.

That’s the one. And this (specs and hair model’s own) is my son Rory.

Back to the book. If the stumbling blocks to faith in God include his Old Testament persona, the Vatican, jihad and Christian Voice’s bizarre persecution of Stewart Lee, I imagine that one of the principal barriers to wholehearted atheism is, for many, Professor Richard Dawkins. Like Marcus, I was rather excited after reading the introduction to The God Delusion, looking forward to the brave new world of Brightness to which the good doctor was going to lead me. Alas, we were both disappointed.

“Richard Dawkins says at the beginning of his book, ‘I would like everyone who reads this, by the time they put this book down, to be an atheist.’ Well, I was an atheist when I started reading The God Delusion; by the time I’d finished it I was an agnostic. I was going to read it again but I worried I might turn into a fundamentalist Christian.” (p. 156)

Not, it seems, that Marcus actually disagrees with any of Dawkins’ arguments, only with the interminably superior manner in which he makes them. There isn’t much about evolution in God Collar, but it does appear as one of the arguments against belief in God. I do think this is a red herring, rather like suggesting that, because Jesus talked about God clothing the lilies of the field, Christian faith and photosynthesis are intrinsically incompatible.

The creationists’ God is something like a man in a shed, tinkering with his latest project; more self-assembly than conception. If God is God, rather than a finite member of the Olympian or Norse dynasties, he is not only the man but also the shed, the ground on which they stand, the space and time within which they exist and all conceivable and inconceivable scientific processes, ideas and imaginings. ‘Intelligent design’ isn’t much better; it still contains the same anthropomorphic fallacy, that God’s act of creation must necessarily be analogous to our own, with discrete plans and processes and outcomes. If God is God, then nothing is too complex or too simple to be his work. All we are specifically told in the Christian gospels about creation is that:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John, 1:1-3)

That Word is, Christians believe, the Son who lived in Palestine as Jesus of Nazareth. So there is no particle that has ever existed in the universe, in any universe, that is outside his specific action and love.

As Antony de Mello writes,

“We forget all too easily that one of the big lessons of the incarnation is that God is found in the ordinary. You wish to see God? Look at the face of the man next to you. You want to hear him? Listen to the cry of a baby, the loud laughter at a party, the wind rustling in the trees. You want to feel him? Stretch your hand out and hold someone. Or touch the chair you are sitting on or this book you are reading. Or just quieten yourself, become aware of the sensations in your body, sense his almighty power at work in you and feel how near he is to you. Emmanuel. God with us.”

( Sadhana: A Way to God – Christian Exercises in Eastern Form, pp 46-47)

This is the immensity of the Christian faith, not so much that Jesus died, certainly not in the reductionist doctrine that would turn his death into the crudest of passwords, but that he, the infinite God, lived on earth as we do as a finite collection of molecules and forces and all those jolly sounding quarks and bosons. All particles are God particles, and if matter matters so much, isn’t it a bit petty to be squabbling about dinosaurs?

Suffering is hard, much harder than evolution and any believer who isn’t regularly stumped and stymied by it hasn’t been doing much thinking. It looks as though Jesus was when he asked on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” There are a few things we can say. A huge part of the suffering in the world is caused by people, directly or indirectly, by war and greed and injustice and carcinogenic pollution and climate chaos. If we all lived as we should we might even survive earthquakes and tsunamis. But that only raises the question of why we don’t. Free will, yes, but why is it so easy to choose the bad paths? Couldn’t we have been created with a better default setting? We can believe that, in the life of an infinite soul, our time on earth is necessarily short and incomplete, but we still grieve, and rightly, when someone dies almost before they’ve started. We can know that the incarnate God, the God of the Sermon on the Mount, suffers with those who hunger and thirst and mourn, but we don’t know why his messengers don’t do more to feed them in the first place.

Which brings us on to what seems to lie at the heart of Marcus’s atheism (which is so hedged about with uncertainties to be, if he won’t mind my saying so and won’t have to give back his Dawkins T-shirt, scarcely more than tentatively agnostic) – the behaviour of religious institutions. As I’ve already indicated, I have a lot of sympathy for him here, but I’m not sure that the situation is quite so simple as he suggests. His basic argument is that, regardless of whether there actually is a God or not, it is wrong for us to lend our support to organisations which have carried out acts of inhumanity.

“You wouldn’t save your money at the Bank of Rape, so why pray at a church whose record on child abuse means I’d rather employ Gary Glitter as a nanny than send my kids to a Catholic school?” (p.72)

This is pretty much unanswerable (with the minor caveat that most child abuse of every sort happens in the secular context of the family) if you accept the basic consumerist assumption lying behind it, that just as a bank is a purveyor of financial services, so a church, mosque or temple is no more than a purveyor of religious ones. If this were the case then obviously we’d simply consult our Ethical Shopper and select the Buddhists or Quakers along with the Co-op Bank, Ecover and Yeo Valley organic yoghurts.

But it isn’t, not quite. Being a member of a faith tradition isn’t just a question of paying your dues and receiving certain spiritual and social benefits. The decision as to whether to join or leave involves many factors: history, theology, revelation, community and vocation. The ethical behaviour of your fellow-members may be one of these, but whom are you judging and how? How many Maximilian Kolbes count in the balance against a Brendan Smyth? After all, the point of a church is that it’s made up of sinners; if we weren’t then we wouldn’t need it.

What it’s rather more like is being a citizen of a country. Like Marcus, I’m English, though I haven’t lived there for a while, and I rejoice to be so when I think of Julian of Norwich, William Cobbett, Jane Austen and Show of Hands. Then I remember Cromwell in Ireland, the Opium Wars, Dresden and the invasion of Iraq. Hmm. Occasionally people renounce their citizenship of a country on a point of principle, but it doesn’t happen very often. Most of us stick with it, vote, join political parties or pressure groups, work for the common good and campaign for an end to the injustices perpetrated in our name. It’s not so different within a faith. The view of the religious social structure presented in God’s Collar is rigidly hierarchical:

“It appears to me like a human pyramid. In Christianity, the impressive triangle of political power looks like this. On the bottom, with their feet on the ground, are the rank-and-file believers, churchgoers who occasionally arrange flowers and dabble in light charity work. … One row above them are the ones who are mildly disapproving of the somewhat occasional attendance of the bottom row. The second tier are religiously observant. They pray, sing, attend church, run weekend Bible studies and read the Daily Mail without laughing. … Above them are the ‘active’ members of the church; they ruthlessly promote their passion for the Christian way of life … are judgemental and cherry-pick from the scriptures to suit the politics they grew up with. Above them, very near the top, are the ones who say, as Stephen Green from Christian Voice did, that the floods in New Orleans were God’s just punishment for homosexuality.” (p.239)

Of course, faith organisations have hierarchies, few more so that my own, but, again, it’s not so straightforward as Marcus suggests. For one thing, the guys (and yes, I’m afraid they’re mostly still guys) at the top aren’t necessarily the baddies. Within the Anglican and Catholic churches, for example, recent archbishops have included Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero and Basil Hume as well as H.R. himself. Stephen Green, by the way, is not very near the top of anything except his own estimation. And does Marcus really think that there is a direct correlation between the involvement of the believer and his or her worsening behaviour, so that occasional churchgoers are decent enough chaps but by the time you’re on the cleaning rota you’re sunk into a ditch of depravity? And as for those reprobates who insist on ringing the bells ….

Of course, church hierarchies, like any other, afford opportunities for the abuse of power. People who want to do nasty, selfish, cruel things are always going to use the most powerful excuse they can to justify their actions. Just as, in a world where oil is running out, the unscrupulous backers of tar sands and fracking use the excuse of cheap energy and in a secular society dictators like Stalin and Mao used the good of the State, so, in a culture where people believe in God, divine sanction is invoked by those who want to consolidate their position. None of this proves the rightness or wrongness of fossil fuels, communism or theism, only that the powerful know their PR. No one ever got very far committing genocide, environmental destruction or wholesale theft on the grounds that Double Gloucester ought to be more widely available.

Over the past couple of millennia, religious structures have been the most stable and powerful and so have been the most successful at shielding crime and persecution. But in the hundred years or so that secular hierarchies have been thriving they haven’t done too badly at it either. Wherever you have hierarchical structures, you have power, power that tends to attract people who aren’t as nice as Marcus. You can say, as I do, that people who believe in a good and loving God ought to behave better, but there isn’t any evidence to suggest that not believing in God would encourage them to do so.

Incidentally, both Marcus and I clearly think that churches are hopelessly right-wing, but we probably ought to note that others think the absolute opposite. And, to do them justice, we have had Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, Martin Luther King, David Sheppard and many other anti-apartheid campaigners, liberation theology, Jim Wallis and the Sojourners, John Dear, the increasingly radical Christian Aid… The conservatives certainly haven’t had it all their own way[3].

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that some people are meant to be inside the church, nudging it in the right (all right, usually the left) direction and others outside heckling. (I realise that this mixed metaphor has turned the church into some sort of pedal-powered comedy bus, but I’m reasonably happy with the image now.) One of the most important things is for the nudgers and the hecklers to communicate with one another, and one of the silliest for them to waste energy turning that conversation into a slanging match. Some of the prime candidates for driving the bus, like Simone Weil, have been outside with Marcus and some of the best heckles have come from inside (try Googling ‘Partenia’ to see what I mean).

Marcus doesn’t like the Bible much, or the God that it portrays. Fair enough, neither do I to a large part; except that the Bible isn’t really, as he implies, a single entity telling a consistent narrative. Instead, it’s a collection of very disparate texts, some of which, like the Gospel of St John, are the bedrock of our faith while others, like large chunks of Leviticus, are frankly of no more than historical interest, and rather unpleasant interest at that. Sane Christians don’t give them equal weight any more than, if you were to come across a box of your great-granny’s bits and pieces you’d treasure her mildewed butter wrappers as much as her love letters. Not all of the Bible is ‘true’, not even as the metaphor with which Marcus accuses us of dodging the question; much of it is just stories. What matters is that, on the whole (with the odd blip) these stories show a progression from an early idea of a capricious and bloodthirsty master through the prophets’ realisation of his concern with justice and mercy to Christ’s parables of a wholly loving and forgiving Father. (The whole rounded off, I’ll admit, by a slightly random anti-imperialist hallucination in the form of the Book of Revelation.)

It’s therefore slightly disingenuous to treat the figure of God as though he’s a historical figure or a fully-drawn character like Peggotty or Horace Rumpole. The story of our understanding of God is less like the reading of a biography than a process of scientific discovery – we put a hypothesis forward, test it, refine it, put it through a pretty rigorous bout of peer-reviewing … And it’s still going on. Jesus put us right about the more egregious horrors of the Old Testament but we manage to ignore him, going on eye-for-eyeing, walking on the side of the road without the bloodstains and obsessing about the Sabbath. John Dear has estimated a hundred years of the church’s life as being equivalent to one in a human’s, which makes us somewhere near the beginning of our third year at university, old enough to know better but still not quite ready to leave the bar and start some serious revision.

To reject the idea of a God because tens of thousands of years ago the Mesopotamians told a good flood story and the Hebrews subsequently put Yahweh into it is a bit like avoiding bison because medieval bestiaries claimed that their farts could ignite a tree three acres away.[4] Yes, it’s sad and pathetic that over-literal bits of the story lurk beneath the matted fur of internet trolls, giving them ever more bizarre excuses for disbelieving in climate change. But they interpret the flood story in such a way to reinforce their political and social prejudices, not the other way around. The tale can equally (I would say with more justification) be told as the story of a family who, having learned about an impending extreme weather event (direct revelation not being that much different from the New Scientist), took mitigating steps, despite tabloid scorn, and prevented wholesale biodiverse extinction.

Marcus does, however, like Jesus.

“Jesus was a friend to the meek and downtrodden, he promoted the redistribution of wealth, he came to heal the sick and forgive the sinner. He’d make the front cover of the Daily Mail at least once a week as the evil face of ‘Political Correctness gone mad!’ … I like the peaceful, loving, long-haired, bearded socialist dude I see in Christ. I’m not totally sure but I think he may have pitched a tent next to mine at Glastonbury a few years ago.” (pp. 237, 246)

The problem, so far as he is concerned, is that, having established the Old Testament God as a bad-tempered mafioso, he can’t reconcile the Father and Son figures and has to postulate a sort of Trinitarian Oedipus complex to explain the family relationship. This leads into plenty of comic riffing about McDonalds and the Osmonds but doesn’t actually help. One of the reasons, if we can be so reductive as to talk of reasons, for the Incarnation seems to be so that we can understand a little of what God is actually like. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father”, which doesn’t make any sense if, like Marcus, you see the Father as a brutal monomaniac and the Son as a pacific hippy. In fact, in the bits of the Bible that atheists tend not to know about, prophets had been banging on for centuries about the fact that God preferred poor people, didn’t like sacrifices, wanted widows, orphans and refugees to be treated decently, was utterly fed up with the rich and powerful among his people but would forgive anyone who showed a bit of compassion. Sadly, no one wanted to hear it then any more that they do now. So God, the same God, not a dysfunctional relative, followed the old writer’s adage of ‘show, don’t tell’, clambered down to earth like a long-suffering drama teacher and bloody well acted out what he meant. And we know how that turned out.

Having been, probably, more critical than I meant to be of God Collar’s arguments for atheism, I should point out that there are lots of good things in it, lots of jolly enthusiasms for women, and sex and gay people as well as a lot more honest detail about his own history than he had to give us. In this respect the book is a bit back-to-front in literary terms; rather than beginning with the particular and extrapolating to the general, he starts with the big statements and only much later explains why it is that he makes them. It’s rather more like engaging in a conversation than reading a book; like meeting someone on a train and exchanging brisk platitudes only to discover that, owing to a points failure at Aberystwyth, you’re actually thrown into one another’s company for long enough to tell your life stories. I felt slightly embarrassed by the end that Marcus hadn’t had the opportunity to hear about my own disasters and doubts. That’s all he needs, poor man.

Before summing up, there are two small bees still niggling in my headwear which I’d like to liberate. The first is that most Christians don’t, these days, think that non-Christians go to hell. A few do, yes, but a few people think that electricity leaks out of wall sockets. It doesn’t stop the rest of us from switching on the toaster.

The second is the notion that religion is an escape from reality, comparable to alcohol, and/or a way of coping with the fear of death. Neither of these really work for me. It’s at the times that I engage most with my faith that I am most aware of the world and people around me. If I want to escape, to retreat into a comforting, self-centred, consequence-free zone, I don’t turn to God; I walk round a department store[5]. The Gospels are crammed full of reality: thousands of individuals who are poor or sick or disabled or questioning or lost or over-excited, all seeking and receiving the attention of Jesus. He didn’t live in a pastel-coloured fantasy world and neither can we if we take the slightest notice of what he told us.

And as for death, nothing seems more comforting than the idea that it’s the end of consciousness, that our bodies simply decay into the earth and, with them, the collections of synapses that we once mistook for eternal souls. If we accept with equanimity that there was a time before we were conceived when we didn’t exist, isn’t it just as easy to contemplate our future non-existence? I’d quite often choose that oblivion in preference to the terrible clarity of seeing my mistakes from the vantage point of eternity. (And that will be the real judgement, I suspect.)

When it comes down to it, I don’t really believe that the significant gulf is between those who believe in something they call God and those who don’t. The one thing we can be absolutely certain of is that if there is a God, our ideas of him/her/it are ludicrously limited. It may well be, therefore, that to stop believing in our circumscribed conceptions is to step closer to a distant inkling of what a real God could be.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that a more important and telling question would be; if there was such a thing as an infinite, sustaining and worshippable being, what would you expect that being to be like? Marcus’s book, I think, shows that the kind of God he would like to believe in would be compassionate, tolerant, patient and generous. My faith is that God is indeed so, that Jesus lived to show us that, and that all the scary stories are just shadows on the wall, remnants of cruel fairy tales that shimmer into nothingness as the morning arrives. Or, at least, that’s what I choose to believe. As C. S. Lewis wrote, in the end we can do nothing else. Good luck on your journey, Marcus. As you say, we’ll all finish up in Birmingham at the end.

 

This post first appeared on The Pen and Inkblog at www.crystalbard.com

  1. [1]see, among many others, http://rainbowallianceopenfaith.homestead.com/Sodom3.html
  2. [2]All right, the Archbishop of Canterbury. I’ve known him as Holy Roly since 1985, when he was my best friend’s dissertation supervisor and he’s done nothing to disprove it since
  3. [3]Though they do, on the whole, manage to monopolise the word ‘Christian’ which is presumably why Marcus spends some time exploring some of the more bizarre policies of the soi-disant Christian Party, including a return to corporal punishment in schools, a raising of the motorway speed limit with an amnesty for speeding offences and a limit on parking fines. It begins to sound more like the Irritated Motorists’ Party until you reach the Environment section and a surprisingly comprehensive commitment to greenhouse gas reduction.
  4. [4]See T. H. White The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the 12th Century
  5. [5]But then I don’t drink alcohol for comfort, either. Exhilaration, gluttony, friendship, obstinacy, merriment, boredom and absent-mindedness, yes, but when I’m miserable it has to be Lemsip. Maybe I’m just weird.