Saturday, September 10, 2011

Book Notes: God Collar by Marcus Brigstocke

Marcus is very confused. I'm not being rude in saying that - he's recently written this very long book about his levels of confusion, especially when it comes to matters of God, faith, and religion. The premise of the book is that while he has a crisis of unbelief, and can no longer subscribe to the staunch atheism he once proclaimed; he is highly suspicious, offended and scandalised by the tenets and practices of all the major world faiths which come under the scrutiny of his mocking wit.

Radio 4 listeners familiar with Brigstocke's material, and the patronising but barbed persona he adopts to deliver it - will instantly recognise his voice in God Collar. What might surprise his radio audience is the extent to which his act is obviously 'cleaned-up' for the BBC; the easily offended should beware!

The essence of God Collar is a series of diatribes, which are savage, funny, witty, silly, hilarious, weird, and very, very angry. Brigstocke turns his attention across the spectrum of religious phenomena from Atheists who are too smug, to pedophile priests, to suicide bombers and burkas, and Biblical stories of judgement against which he rails. While he speaks warmly of friends for whom faith or unfaith are important, he describes both the reasons he cannot accept their claims; but yet considers his own deeply-entrenched agnosticism to be empty and unsatisfying. This element of the book is fascinating, because not only does Brigstocke come across as quite likeable, he is also disarmingly honest about his own struggles.

There are some serious problems with this book however. The main one is that Brigstocke makes forays into some deep philosophical and theological territory in order to make his points, but then wants to retreat from actually discussing them with the catch-all excuse, 'I'm just a comedian, just having a laugh here'.. The problem is that while some of his observations are really astute, and he does (with all the controversy-fuelling vitriol he can muster) put his finger right on some of the most profound difficulties with belief and sacred texts; he too often simply ventures into areas he hasn't really researched, armed with little more than an array of 21stC western predjudices, in order to lob a joke or two, grenade-like into the congregation.

Take one example, as perhaps indicative. Brigstocke frequently mentions the biblical story of Abraham's apparent willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac on God's orders (God cancels the command at the last minute and Isaac lives). In Brigstocke's view this is a monstrous story of a twisted, capricious deity toying with his creations and egging them on to an act of crazed religious terrorism. It is one of the texts he returns to repeatedly to explain why he rejects any of the Abrahamic faiths. But this just isn't good enough! What he fails to learn, fails to discover or show any interest in, is the fact that this very story is the narrative which explains why ancient Israel came reject the kind of child-sacrifices which were typical in the Ancient near East! The story is designed to demonstrate that Israel's rejection of child sacrifice wasn't because they had a lesser God too weak to demand it. Israel's rejection of the practice is encoded in the story, not in terms of God's weakness - but His goodness. The problem is, so much talking and so little listening! At times Brigstocke seems to have only read just enough to get really cross, produce his brilliant satirical parody, get a laugh and move on. The problem for me, is that so much of it is so genuinely funny, and warmly human, that I was amused - even as I was outraged! While at times I found myself cheering Brigstocke as he witheringly, and brilliantly dismembered a lot of religious stupidity and woeful mishandling of sacred texts; I was irritated by his constant mishandling of the biblical text - which on one occasion he completely misquotes!

The other problem with Marcus Brigstocke's search for truth and life and meaning is the extent to which it is pursued along two contradictory axes. On one hand he examines beliefs systems and seems to want them to present him with a uniformly systematic set of propositional truths. He wants a truly 'modern' faith that conforms to the demands of rationality and is true for everyone, everywhere. Yet on the other hand he wants a faith that ultimately "works" for him in a subjective sense. He identifies the sense of the proverbial "God shaped hole" at the centre of his existence and mocks Richard Dawkins attempts to simply dismiss it out of hand. What he never grapples with is that the two things he determines as the criteria for an acceptable religion for him - might in fact be cancelling each other out. What if the thing which was modern, systematic and all-encompassing didn't "fit" all the self-orientated goals, desires, and prejudices which he demands of a faith? And vice-versa; what if a tailor-made faith designed to match all of his personal demands couldn't possibly make universal truth claims? In short, he is strung between his rather modern mind and post-modern heart! It's also the reason he never seems to have realised that the Bible is a story; an evolving developing story in which the early plot lines are complex and full of tangled loose ends. The only thing he is positive about in the Bible is Jesus. I think his mistake is to see Jesus as tainted by the things he hates so much in the Old Testament, rather than seeing them as the back-story, full of bewildering things which only make sense when Jesus shows us what God is truly like. His method is a bit like watching Midsomer Murders, but refusing to accept the valiant actions of the hero at the finale, on the grounds that his behaviour before the first advert break would still look suspicious if we didn't subsequently know that he had to be in the vicarage on the night of the murder because it was his turn to man the soup kitchen for the homeless.. (you, er see my point)

This is a book that will no doubt provoke extreme reactions. It has been lauded by both believers who loved his digs at atheism and humanism, and by those secularists who love his anti-religious diatribes. Take for instance his gag, "Religion and violence always seem to go together. They don't have to: but like Ant and Dec, what would be the point of one without the other?". On one hand, it is a very funny line, jumping absurdly between the philosophical and banal to make his point. It's a joke, it's a funny one - but it is also based on an unthinking acceptance of Hitchins' claim about a direct causal link between faith and violence; which as well as being open to "serious historical doubt", is also complete crap. (Sorry - I've spent too long with Marcus Brigstocke over the last few days).

Despite the fact that the book is ill-informed, vulgar, offensive, and in places crass, it is still a valuable read, which is insightful for people of faith to dig into - and not just because it will make them laugh even when they think they probably shouldn't be. Along with the entertainment value it offers, it is also a tremendously eloquent rehearsal of all of the prejudices and mis-information upon which so many of our contemporaries have formed their religious opinions. It is a neat little study in the 'credibility-structure' of our times. Perhaps those of us in the church would do well to read this, (cope with the offence) in order to then reflect on our texts, beliefs and practices. Preachers, might imagine he was in the congregation, and ask themselves, "How would I explain this to Marcus". That would be a valuable lesson in relevance, sensitivity and more apologetically-informed communication.

Some critics have expressed their disappointment that this book seems to "go no-where", come to no answers and stop in a vacuum. However that seems to be the very point of the agnosticism that Brigstocke is embracing, so that wasn't really a surprise. As I closed the book, what I really wanted to tell Marcus was that perhaps, if God is real, and personal, and capable of all that judging; then perhaps the way to find God might start by avoiding insulting Him, swearing at Him and calling him vile and filthy names; because if that kind of arrogance was to seriously alienate Him; then your search for Him will be made all the harder.

Marcus is very confused.

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