A. S. Byatt’s ‘Grouper’

Among the several stereotypes of Anglican clergy in English fiction, there is one which appears relatively infrequently: that of the ‘Grouper’. Partly because of its lack of organisation, the Oxford Group movement has left relatively little trace in the self-understanding of the British churches, but for a time in the 1930s it seemed poised to disrupt and refresh British Christianity from its local roots.

The Reverend Gideon Farrar appears in A.S. Byatt’s Still Life (1985), the second part of the so-called ‘Frederica Quartet’. The novel is set in the mid-1950s, somewhat after the heyday of the Group, and though he is never identified directly with it, or indeed any larger organisation, the parallels are unmistakeable. Farrar’s gospel is one of relationship and mutual self-discovery, which has its intellectual roots in two soils: an understanding of Jesus that stressed his humanity at the expense of His divinity; and the findings of the ‘new sciences’ of psychology and sociology. Farrar’s curate at St Bartholomew’s, Daniel Orton, who distrusts much of it, sees that Farrar has an ‘almost anthropological vision of the source of morals in the life of the family’ (ch. 10).

A moorland hike. Image: bearpaw (Flickr.com), CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

His ministry starts with the ‘agape meal’ in which the rather reluctant parishioners of Blesford are to ‘discuss and discover’ each other. The Young People’s Group, which meets in the church hall for dancing, cider and earnest discussion, is much the same. The Grouper ‘house party’ is a weekend away in which the youth of the parish and others are to ‘experience each other’ as they walk briskly over the moors (ch. 17). In the evening, cosy and hot, the group sit and tell their life stories, an antidote to their English reserve and the repression of emotion that it is thought to entail. Farrar, while affecting to listen, in fact guides and shapes these stories into one larger archetypal narrative, of parental inadequacy, failure or absence; of damage that, once uncovered and owned, can be repaired in the wider ‘family’, the Church.

All these features of the Group – its emphasis on the personal, the spontaneous, the self-expressive; the influence of a kind of garbled depth psychology – all remained within the bounds of orthodoxy, and (as David Bebbington showed) anticipated much about the charismatic movement of the 1960s, and the related flirtation of the churches with the broader counter-culture. And Farrar appears briefly again in the third book in the quartet, Babel Tower (1996), now in the mid-1960s, as leader of the Children of Joy. The Children meet in large halls in London, and on country retreat weekends, where they ‘dance, sing, shout and encounter each other’s bodies in loving exploration, acting out infant joys and terrors, anger and tenderness, birth and death.’ (c.13) By now the distrust is widespread. But in the Blesford of the 1950s, Farrar’s religion seems to work: though the elderly members of the congregation are disorientated, the young are enthused, the sad held up, those ‘hungry for feeling’ fed (Still Life, ch.20).

The contrast between Farrar and his predecessor Mr Ellenby (who has his own post) is both theological and aesthetic. Ellenby represented the eternal givenness of the faith, and the awesome unknowable Father (ch.10). Now the sentimental Victorian crucifix is removed from the altar; Farrar’s religion is of the human Son as He dwelt among men. The heavy branching candlesticks make way for plain wooden ones; the closely embroidered altar cloth to ‘austere snowy linen’. All this recalls more than one artistically-orientated reordering of a church, as do the new vestments with ‘modern, abstract stitching’. In the vicarage, whole walls are gone, and new bright spaces opened up. It is emptied of its heavy useless things, the mahogany cabinets with glass fronts, the thick Turkish carpets; all is sleek, plain yet well-made, modern, European, young. Picasso, Miro and Chagall prints hang on the newly painted walls in lemon yellow and white (ch.10).

Where Byatt’s character parts company with the historical Group is in what Farrar does with his hold over his flock. There was certainly a kind of personality cult around Frank Buchman, the moving spirit of the Group, and a creeping authoritarianism under certain conditions. But Buchman’s appeal, rather like that of another American, Billy Graham, is exotic and foreign at a time when British culture was unusually susceptible to such things; Farrar’s is a similar handsome and clean charisma but transposed onto an unusual Englishman. Farrar is assertive, indeed intrusive, in his attempts to force an emotional intimacy with others which is not on offer. Stephanie, Daniel’s wife, who sees through Farrar sooner than most, recognised a combination of ‘personal conceit and intrusiveness’ which she had seen in other clergy (ch.10). But where in others it was a mask for shyness, for Farrar his directness is merely the outflow of a restless energy. He is a large man, ‘with a presence he enjoyed’; all is abundance, from his full beard flecked with gold, to his exuberant embraces as he gambols among his hikers on the moor (ch. 17). Daniel detects a compulsive need to both receive and give affection, warmth (ch .10).

Byatt shows us little of Farrar’s inner life, and so (though we are clearly invited to view him as culpable), it is not clear how calculated his manipulation of his young female flock is. But the picture that gradually unfolds – of late night ‘counselling’ in various states of undress, complaints from parents that their teenage girls are ‘interfered with’ – is an unsettling one, of which his wife is well aware. Though she is repelled by it, and by him, she nonetheless attributes it to his nature – to the inevitable inbuilt drives which the new pschology told her that no-one should be expected to regulate – and her own inadequacy in satisfying them (ch. 30). And in Babel Tower (ch. 18) we see the terms in which, after a decade of unregulated elaboration of his own myth, Farrar ends up justifying himself to his victims: ‘a horrible fantasy of sacrifice and communion’, created by Farrar’s exploitation of his own physical presence and clerical separateness. Real theological and social currents in the post-war English churches are eventually a means of sanctifying what Stephanie, the moral centre of the novel, knew immediately as a ‘crude version of the routine pass’.

Boundaries, dangers and ways ahead: Anglican evangelicals and the edited collection

In the first chapter of my forthcoming little book on a neglected aspect of British academic life, I examine the recent history of British theology through an unaccustomed lens: the role of the edited collection of essays. These have worked in several ways: as a means to take stock of the state of a discipline (for example, Lux Mundi, or Soundings) or to address the nation on matters of social and political import (such as the essays from William Temple’s now famous Malvern conference of 1941.) There were also a plethora of volumes on very specific issues of doctrine and practice. But there is another purpose that such volumes played (which I don’t pursue in the book for reasons of space): of both policing the boundaries and assessing the health of the different parties that are a constant feature of Anglican history. In this post, I look at Anglican evangelicals in particular.

Within the groupings or parties in the Church of England, and the networks of theologians in both universities and theological colleges that tended to speak to and for them, the edited collection has often provided an opportunity to take stock at times of particular opportunity or danger. Though I’m particularly interested here in evangelicals, the late 1960s were just such a time for the Anglo-Catholic constituency, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and concrete moves towards reunion of the churches in England. The party had in the nineteenth century been a ‘a militant minority, feared, vilified’; now, instead it had been accepted – had enjoyed, indeed, a period of some dominance between the wars – but as a result Anglo-Catholics ‘lost their definition as a party’. Catholic Anglicans Today (edited by John Wilkinson in 1968) was an attempt to articulate that distinctiveness afresh.

In Anglican evangelical history, one particularly tenacious interpretation of the fortunes of the party has been one of inter-war obscurity, followed by gradual revival from the Sixties (centred around John Stott) ending in simultaneous dominance and diversification by the late 1980s. The recent collection of essays edited by Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden did much to revise and qualify that narrative, and I don’t intend to defend it in fact. But it is possible to see that story both articulated and made normative in the several edited collections of the period, some of which I examine here.

Take for instance, the volume Evangelicals Today (Lutterworth Press, 1973). Where Catholic Anglicans Today was defensive, Evangelicals Today was bullish, a sign that Anglican evangelicals saw the balance of power within the English church shifting in their direction. The editor John C. King placed particular importance on the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1967, the event that became universally known by its venue, Keele University; the Keele conference came to be seen as the moment at which the evangelical constituency decided to engage positively with the wider Anglican church. (The conference itself was prepared by a set of essays, published under the title Guidelines.) King took as his point of comparison another volume, published in 1925 with the title Evangelicalism: ‘a vintage expression of a type of evangelicalism which has all but passed away’: narrow in concern where Keele had been wide-ranging; defensive where King’s contributors were open to new directions of thought. Though King had a normative point to make, the 1925 volume was indeed defensive in character, a response to a general ‘theological unsettlement’ made yet more acute by the effect of the First World War. In its turn some of its contributors engaged directly with two other collections of essays, as representatives of the theological modernism against a defence was required (the two were Foundations (1912), and – from within the evangelical stable – Liberal Evangelicalism: an interpretation (1923).

Twenty years later, the balance of power had shifted even further, such that Michael Saward could declare in 1987 that evangelicals were ‘very firmly in the driving seat of the Church of England.’ Energetic and outward-looking, the future for the party was bright since more than half of the new clergy in training were in evangelical theological colleges. Even though a sense of crisis could be detected in the wider Church of England, Gavin Reid (later a bishop) could in 1986 assemble a group with the common conviction that the answer to the question Hope for the Church of England? (published by Kingsway) was a positive and an evangelical one. And in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a slew of volumes that attempted to make sense of the new state of affairs. Evangelical Anglicans: their role and influence in the Church today (SPCK, 1993) was the product of one of those busy theological colleges – Wycliffe Hall in Oxford – many of the staff of which were also members of the university’s theology faculty. Their mood was one of ‘a settled confidence, reflecting a sense of belonging and purpose which is becoming increasingly typical of evangelical Anglicanism today.’

Not all Anglican evangelicals were so sanguine, however. Restoring the Vision: Anglican evangelicals speak out appeared in 1990 (MARC/Monarch), edited by Melvin Tinker. ‘Many fear’ argued Tinker, ‘that evangelicalism in the Church of England has become so broad that it has become thin, compromise has replaced conviction and the once crusading spirit has been tamed into a conforming spirit.’ It was under Tinker’s guidance that The Anglican Evangelical Crisis appeared in 1995 (Christian Focus), addressing many of the same themes.

The confidence of the Wycliffe authors was misplaced, Tinker argued in the later volume; just as had been the sense of the editor of Catholic Anglicans Today in 1968, the evangelical movement out of isolation after the Keele conference had come at the cost of a loss of identity and theological distinctiveness. The contributors to The Anglican Evangelical Crisis, all linked to the newly formed conservative organisation Reform, were a more mixed group than the Wycliffe authors, with stronger links to theological colleges and seminaries in the USA and Australia. Its final chapter, by Don Carson, takes the form of a review article on the divergences between the two volumes, works that were ‘so divergent that a complete outsider would find it hard to believe that they emerge from what is widely assumed to be more or less the same camp’. The two ‘camps’ were distinct enough to bring representatives of both together to debate the issues in general, and the existence of Reform in particular. The question was asked: Has Keele Failed?, a volume edited by Charles Yeats, chaplain to University College, Durham, and published in 1995 by Hodder and Stoughton.

It is not a straightforward task to assess the precise impact of these books, especially when sales figures are hard to obtain, and when the culture is not one in which there are citations to be counted. But Anglican evangelicals, like others in the Church of England and the other churches, were often to be found coming together in collections of essays to assess the state of the party, to check its boundary markers, to warn of looming dangers and to suggest ways ahead. The impact these collections had was of a particular kind, distinct from books by individual authors. Historians of evangelicalism have much to gain from a fresh look at its publication culture.

The Devil’s music: a review

[A review published in July in Reviews in History.]

The Devil’s Music. How Christians inspired, condemned, and embraced rock ‘n’ roll
Randall J. Stephens
Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780674980846

When viewed in a long perspective, the modern history of popular music has very often been one in which new styles are adopted by the young in spite of (and indeed because of) the incomprehension and disapproval of their elders, only to enter the mainstream as those young people age. At the same time, Christians, when confronted with the arts of the societies in which they find themselves, have variously ignored, embraced, adapted and tried to replace or eradicate those arts both in worship and in public. It is in these two ongoing stories (in their American variant) that Randall J. Stephens makes a timely and important intervention. It will be required reading for students of modern American cultural history, but specialists in the religious history of other countries will also find much of value in it, as will the growing number of theologians and musicians concerned with the relationship between the churches and the arts. No serious academic library will want to be without it, and since it is generously produced and sensibly priced, it should find a wide readership outside the academy amongst Christians and ageing rock fans alike.

Stephens’ argument is relatively easily summarised, although the introduction to the book does not do so adequately. Chapter one shows the close linking between the early development of rock and roll and the music of the Pentecostal churches, such that (although some Christian critics did not care to admit it), the stylistic differences between music inside and outside some churches were small, even if the lyrics were very different indeed. Striking here is the relationship between the Pentecostal televangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, his cousin, but similar debts of influence were owed by James Brown, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and indeed Elvis himself. Stephens’ exploration of the agonies of conscience that some suffered as a result of the disapproval of their own churches is vivid and convincing.

Chapter two describes a short but intense period of concern, not to say panic, over the dangers of rock and roll in the years before 1958, followed by a period of relative calm as several of the stars either died or were kept out of trouble in the armed forces. Stephens evokes the cluster of interrelated concerns in play: of the impact of ‘savage’ music (the possession of a subjugated culture) on white America; a more general anxiety about the young in an increasingly affluent and consumerist context, and their apparent slipping out of the control of their elders; there are overtones too of the fear of Communist infiltration. This is all deftly done, but it would have been useful to examine more closely the degree to which these concerns were distinctively religious (or, the prerogative of religious people), as opposed to those of a particular race, class and generation. After this period of calm, chapter three then shows the remarkable storm of dispute with which the Beatles were met after John Lennon’s famous comment to the London Evening Standard in 1966 that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus now’. Though Stephens is not quite right in saying that the comments made little impression among British Christians, the protests were of a quite different order in the USA: radio stations ceased playing their records, death threats were made, and effigies of the band burned in Dixie.

Chapter four and five, taken together, deal with the central paradox of the story: from the late 1960s onwards, how did part of the evangelical constituency come to see that these forms of popular music were not passing phenomena and as such were to be reckoned with, and perhaps used, rather than simply rejected? Stephens is vivid on the interconnection between the new ‘Jesus rock’ and an ongoing Christian negotiation with the wider counter-culture of the period, as Billy Graham, previously an opponent, grasped the need for a different approach to the extent that for a time he wore his hair long. For proponents of Christian rock then and since, it was possible to adopt an artistic form while changing its content; medium and message were separable. At this point Stephens’ book intersects with other recent work on the subject, notably that of David W. Stowe, and it appears at almost the same time as a new biography of the Christian musician Larry Norman, by Gregory Alan Thornbury.

Chapter five documents the backlash amongst other Christians, which Stephens calls the ‘fundamentalist reaction’. For these preachers and moralists, the proponents of Christian rock were variously too effeminate, too emotional, their stage acts too sexualised, and too closely associated with the charismatic movement. More often, though, the issue at stake was one of genre: rock, because of the associations it carried, could never be turned to a positive use and had to be shunned. Nonetheless, as Stephens’ story ends in the years after the millennium, Christian rock had become ubiquitous in American churches of an evangelical kind, with the remaining redoubts against it becoming fewer, and crossover artists had achieved mainstream recording and touring success.

All of this is wholly convincing as a characterisation of the period and as a chronology. This reviewer would wish, however, to make some criticisms on grounds of method and analysis, not so much to contradict the argument as to draw out and make explicit some things that are latent in it but which Stephens does not spell out.

Stephens’ method is documentary rather than narrowly analytical, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Having unearthed a vast, teeming field of Christian voices arguing about rock and roll, Stephens’ evocation of this cacophony is brilliant; his ear for the cadences of the preacher and the moralist is acute, and his ventriloquising of their concerns rings true throughout. Just occasionally the style becomes overripe, however; preachers ‘thunder’ and ‘howl’ in ‘raging fires’ of controversy but rarely just speak; guitars blast and drums thump but rarely do musicians just play or sing. In short bursts, the heightened register that Stephens adopts is vivid and evocative; over the length of a whole book it becomes somewhat wearing. It is also the case that quite often the argumentative thread is lost amongst the clamour of voices, and there is a tendency to repetition, as the same themes recur again and again; we hear about the length of Billy Graham’s hair at least four times.

Some of the impression of repetition could have been avoided had Stephens included a more precise analytical framework in which to work, into which his narrative could have fitted well. The first such structure that is missing is a musicological one. The music here is ‘driving’, ‘revved-up’, ‘blasting’ or (in the case of the Christian metal band Stryper) ‘schlocky’, but to really apprehend what is at stake this reader at least needed a clearer sense of genre, instrumentation, performance practice, melodic and harmonic structure and so on. To borrow a quotation often attributed to Elvis Costello amongst others, writing about music is like dancing about architecture: exceptionally difficult to do well, but here the reader needed more nonetheless. As it is, readers without Stephens’ prodigious knowledge of this music are left with a great deal of work to do.

Stryper in concert, 1986, promoting their album To Hell with the Devil
Image via Wikimedia Commons: By Rafael Faria, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The second area in which the book would have benefitted from a clearer analytical framework is in the definition of different strands of Christian opinion. There are here pentecostal voices, Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics: denominational divisions that are reasonably robust as analytical categories. But Stephens never quite defines the differences between those who are ‘evangelical’, ‘fundamentalist’ and merely ‘conservative’. The term ‘fundamentalist’ is particularly difficult to define, and Stephens only meets the task head on in chapter six. ‘Fundamentalism’ has often been defined in strictly doctrinal terms, particularly concerning the authority of the Bible; the virgin birth, nature and eventual return of Christ; and the doctrine of the atonement. Defined in this way, several of those within the Christian rock movement appeared very ‘fundamentalist’ in their views of the Bible and on the issues that tended to trouble those with a conservative view of Biblical authority, such as gender, sexuality, and creationism. Stephens instead defines fundamentalism in terms of a determination to separate the faithful from the culture around them. This is clearly what is happening amongst some Christians during the period, but even if such cultural separatism was a marker of those Christians who were ‘fundamentalist’ in doctrine, it is not at all clear that they were the only Christians who took such a view of culture. On its own, cultural separatism seems insufficient as a definition of the term.

And it is the theologies of culture in play here, the guiding principles that underlie the rhetoric, that are often submerged in Stephens’ account and that most needed to be named and analysed. From time to time they briefly break the surface only for the reader to be swept downstream in the chronological and rhetorical flow. Christians have historically taken the arts seriously for two main reasons. The incarnational sense that all human creative endeavour was a sharing in the creative work of God was the key element in the Catholic recovery of the modern arts in the 20th century. Stephens notes in several places the pervasive sense amongst secular critics that Christian rock was more often than not mediocre, a poorly executed example of an art form. This ( at least in the British context) was also the objection raised by Christian critics of ‘church pop’ in the 1950s and 1960s; if there were Christian voices in the USA making the same point, it would have added to the narrative to hear more of them.

However, this incarnational understanding of the arts has historically been a minor theme at best in evangelical thought, with many being prepared to embrace bad taste in the service of the gospel. Evangelicals have been more interested in how the arts can be made to communicate a message, and (correspondingly) most exercised by the particular dangers posed if the arts were made to carry the wrong kind of message. The phenomenon of Jesus rock, far from being an anomaly, is part of a long tradition of evangelical efforts to adopt an artistic style for use in worship and/or evangelism while rendering it safe by supplying appropriate words, performed by those whose personal lives met the required moral standard. The insistence that a certain style of music – a certain arrangement of sounds in time, produced by a certain combination of instruments – could never be sanctified; that an element in God’s creation could never be redeemed for His use, is only one of the several theological options available to evangelical Christians, and has been the option least often chosen in evangelical history at large. All this is implied in Stephens’ account but only comes into focus in chapter six; it would perhaps have added to the impact had it been placed front and centre, earlier in the book.

To reiterate, none of these criticisms is fundamental to Stephens’ argument, and to adopt a more analytical structure and style may have lessened the significant media attention which the book is attracting at the time of writing, which it deserves. That said, although The Devil’s Music is a timely and important book, it leaves the reader with some work to do.

[See also Randall Stephens’ response.]

Lecture: Understanding religious networks in the archived web

Back in April I was in Jerusalem to give a paper at a two-day conference on web archiving at the National Library of Israel. The majority of the lectures are now available on YouTube, and mine is below.

It draws on material from three projects, some published, some not. The first was my forthcoming piece on religion in Web history in the Sage Handbook of Web History; the second, another forthcoming piece on cross-border religion in the Irish web (due later this year), and thirdly, this (so far unpublished) paper on British creationism.

(It starts about 28 minutes in).

British creationism in the web archive

Some time ago (2014) I wrote a short post on some work I was doing on the link patterns in the archived UK web surrounding the web estates of British creationist organisations. That post has since attracted a certain amount of attention, including a citation or two. I have not yet pursued formal publication of that work, but I did give a short paper at a conference in 2015 which provides fuller documentation of the case. With all the necessary caveats about its status as a preprint, without having been through formal peer review, I make it available here: Reading British creationism in the web archive (ReSAW conference, June 2015, Aarhus, Denmark)