Introduction: God’s Own Countries

Ian Jack

And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

—Genesis chapter 1, verse 31

For most of the twentieth century, and not only in the West, organized belief in the supernatural was held to be in decline. All of us know the story. Science, rationalism and materialism—usually personified by the Europeans Darwin and Lyell, Marx and Freud—had given religious belief such a bashing that its explanations of how the world came to be, how we came to be in it, how we should best live in it, and what would happen to us after our death—these explanations and the strictures that went with them became, quite simply, unbelievable and disagreeable. The idea of God as creator and custodian died, and many words in the old vocabulary were robbed of their potency, even their meaning: heaven, hell, salvation, sacrilege, blasphemy.

Or so the secularists thought, forgetting the great psychologist William James’s judgement that beliefs do not work because they are true, but true because they work. Today the godly, if not God, have bounced back. As I write, I can see them at work in today’s news. In Washington, President Bush in his State of the Union address is advising the people of Iran to rise against their repression by the ‘clerical elite’—one department of the godly advising another department to get rid of a third department, the biblical instruction regarding motes and beams apparently forgotten in the White House, if it were ever known there. In London, Tony Blair’s government has very narrowly failed in a parliamentary vote to pass legislation which would make it a criminal offence to ‘criticize, express antipathy towards, abuse, insult or ridicule any religion, religious belief or religious practice’ if the result fomented religious hatred. In Copenhagen, Denmark’s largest-selling broadsheet newspaper has just issued an apology to the ‘honourable citizens of the Muslim world’ after publishing a series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, one of which depicted him wearing a bomb-shaped turban, which in Muslim eyes was insult added to injury (most branches of Islam regard any depiction of the Prophet as sacrilege). According to the report in the Guardian, ‘Danish businesses started to take fright after religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, which last week recalled its ambassador to Copenhagen, called for a boycott of Danish goods. The dairy group Aria Foods reported that two of its staff in Saudi Arabia had been beaten by angry customers.’ A few other European newspapers have reproduced the cartoons—the managing editor of France Soir was consequendy fired—and there have been bomb warnings to newspaper offices and threats to Danish troops in Iraq. Most of the European media is happy enough to publicize art or literature sacrilegious to Christians—for example, the recent Son of a God exhibition by the artists Gilbert and George—or which would have been sacrilegious if clerical doubt and public apathy hadn’t gnawed away at so much Christian power and dogma. On the other hand, England still has a blasphemy law. There is confusion and argument.

Is it that we notice the godly more only because of the politicization of Islam? Certainly there is a widespread belief that the British government’s proposal to outlaw acts leading to ‘religious hatred’ was no more than a sop to the Muslim electorate, to keep Labour MPs in their parliamentary seats. The phrase ‘Muslim electorate’ is significant in itself: a redescription of various populations who had usually described themselves by their countries of ancestral origin—Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, the nations of the Middle East. Religious belief and its traditions have become for them a superior badge of identity. But it isn’t just Muslims. Christians (Christian fundamentalists, if you prefer) have become a powerful force in the United States; Israel’s religious parties are no longer an eccentric sideshow; a party founded to uphold the Hindu cause until very recently ran India and could easily do so again. Religion is the way all of them choose to see themselves socially and politically, though whether it is pure faith alone that binds them together in groups, rather than a mutual struggle against perceived injustice or the need to preserve economic advantage, is a different question.

How many people, after all, have ever come to God as Tolstoy did rather than sucking Him up from the cradle? William James in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, first published in 1902, describes Tolstoy as a man of fifty whose ‘sense that life had any meaning whatever was for a time totally withdrawn… the questions “Why?” and “What next” began to beset him more and more frequently… as they became ever more urgent, he perceived that it was like those first discomforts of a sick man, to which he pays but little attention till they run into one continuous suffering, and then he realizes that what he took for a passing disorder means the most momentous thing in the world for him, means his death.’ Tolstoy at the time had everything going for him; he had no obvious need to be born again. He wasn’t a drunk like George Bush or crippled by professional failure or divorce. As he wrote of himself, he had a good wife whom he loved and who loved him; good children; a large and increasing amount of property; the respect of his friends and relations. He was ‘loaded with praise by strangers’ and ‘without exaggeration I could believe my name already famous’. Neither was he mad, or ill. ‘I could mow as well as the peasants, I could work my brain for eight hours uninterruptedly and feel no bad effects.’

Tolstoy eventually diagnosed his craving for meaning, this ‘pining emotion’, as a thirst for God. Slaking it led him to the ascetic life and a denunciation of his earlier self, as well as some trouble with his wife. But during his struggle, that earlier self had doubted ‘that this condition of despair should be natural to mankind’. Or, he might have added, that even if it were more common, God didn’t always step forward as the cure for the afflicted, even in the late nineteenth century. Professor John Carey was persuasive when in his introduction to the Faber Book of Reportage he warned against the assumption that our ancestors, in the main, were any more deeply religious than we are. Religion was just the permanent backdrop to daily life, as the media is today. (Carey wrote: ‘Reportage provides modern man, too, with a release from his trivial routines, and a habitual daily illusion of communication with a reality greater than himself.’)

In January 1892, when Tolstoy was living the redeemed life in Russia, my grandfather in Glasgow got a book; his name and the month and year are inscribed inside. Whether he bought it, whether he was given it by a well-meaning Christian, whether he read it: these questions have no answers now. But it’s an attractive little book with a seductive title, so he may well have bought it and read some or all of it. The cloth cover is engraved with a drawing of a Victorian soccer game—the boy players in knickerbockers, jackets and caps—while a setting sun sinks in gold above them, its gilded rays spreading into the title: A Bright Sunset: The Last Days of a Young Scottish Football Player. According to the title page, this was the seventh edition; more than 30,000 copies were already in print.

As a child I used to dip into this book to savour its overwhelming sadness. There is very little football in it. On page three, the sixteen-year-old hero hurts his knee playing the game at school; the injury becomes cancerous; the rest of the book is devoted to his dying. It isn’t a novel. A Church of Scotland minister writes in his introduction that the text has been edited from letters the boy’s mother wrote to her sister in America: ‘The following papers were never intended to meet the public eye…’ Today it might be categorized as a ‘misery memoir’—except that each painful step towards the grave is lightened by the certain knowledge of what lies on the other side of it. ‘We were all wrong about death,’ says the suffering boy to his younger brother. ‘We don’t die at all… This body of mine has been going on for seventeen and a half years, and it’s tired, very tired, and it must be laid in the grave for a very long rest; but my spirit is not the least tired, and it will go straight to Jesus. Then you know, there, a thousand years are like one day; so I’ll not be weary.’

How many people were convinced of the truth of this idea in Victorian, Christian Scotland is impossible to say, but probably far fewer than had Bibles in their homes and not, I think, my grandfather. Today it seems to come from a vanished world, until you remember how firmly suicide bombers believe in paradise, or you read the letter favourably quoted by President Bush in February’s State of the Union address. All US troops in Iraq are encouraged to write farewell letters in case they die there. The late Sergeant Daniel Clay of the Marines wrote one to his family before he was killed near Fallujah in December, 2005. He said: ‘This letter being read means that I have been deemed worthy of being with Christ… The secret is out. He lives and His promises are real… What we have done in Iraq is worth any sacrifice.’

This is the first issue of Granta under new ownership. Rea Hederman, the New York publisher, sold it in December, 2005, to Sigrid Rausing, the London-based publisher and philanthropist. Granta owes a great deal to Rea Hederman’s generosity and commitment to new writing over the past two decades, as it will also to Sigrid Rausing’s in the years to come. Publishing a literary quarterly is never a way to find earthly fortune. Forgive the phrase, but the rewards are more likely to be found in heaven.

Ian Jack

Homage to Mount Desert Island
A Prisoner of the Holy War