Christians think a lot about what leads people to faith: less so about what leads them away from it. There’s a silly programme on Radio 4 on which celebrities read extracts from the diaries they kept in their teenage years. While we were away at the Clergy Conference I heard bits of the episode with Pippa Evans as guest. Ms Evans is a comedian and co-founder of the secular Sunday Assembly gathering, and the diary she was reading from covered the years 1997 to 2001 (mostly just the first year or so) when she was 15 to 19, living in Ealing, and very religious indeed.
Pippa Evans’s family don’t seem to have been particularly religious but in her mid-teens she started attending an excitable Baptist church (‘there was a lot of hand-work’); her mother’s theory was that it provided a safe space for the teenager to make the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Ms Evans found an echo in the experience of the show’s presenter Rufus Hound who along with his brother also went through a Christian phase in his teens after their parents divorced: they were looking for a sort of security, he speculated.
Of course the young Pippa Evans had exactly the same maelstrom of emotional concerns as any other young person and in her spiritual setting expected that God would help her work out what to do in a very definite way. At one point, praying about her crush on a friend, she reported ‘God gave me a picture of a hot air balloon and said to me that if I want Ollie I mustn’t pull on the fraying ropes or he’ll slip away’. ‘You believed God was sending you actual visions, and this felt entirely normal?’ asked Hound. ‘If the company you keep says that’s how prayers are answered …’ said Ms Evans, ‘I do remember sometimes seeing things; this would still happen now, but … now I’d say that my brain had figured something out and made a connection – maybe “be less clingy”!’ Both presenter and guest agreed that a large factor in their teenage church attendance was feeling part of a gang, not one bounded by age but by sentiment and belief. Ms Evans’s diary petered out and her near-last entry described how ‘I don’t go to church any more due to a lack of trust and hope in God. Is he there? I think so. Does he care? I’m not so sure.’ The present-day Pippa Evans expanded, ‘he didn’t give me everything I requested, what an arse! … I was trusting a very kind of two-dimensional children’s picture of what God is.’
There are whole essays to be written opening out of this encounter. But, for now, let’s just note that it’s impossible to draw a hard-and-fast line between God and the subconscious. Only very, very occasionally will a Christian ‘receive’ a mental impression so strikingly disconnected from what they may have been thinking about that it can easily be conceived as coming out of a different place from those buried mental processes that go on constantly. A Christian would expect that God works through the unconscious anyway, and the unremarkable nature of such revelations doesn’t rule out a divine nudge behind them. Pippa Evans’s narrative shows how easy it is to shift from one paradigm to the other without any objective, observable difference in mental activity taking place. The picture stays the same, only the frame alters.
My second observation is that I find it really encouraging that, for these two people, Christianity provided a helpful clearing house for the troubles of adolescence. All right, they moved through it, but unlike, say, souls brought up within the Church who all too often, after becoming aware of the tensions, ambiguities, stresses and pains of Church life, fail to make the transition to a mature sort of faith, they have come through without any rancour or regret, at least that I could hear. They don’t seem scarred. Pippa Evans’s involvement with the Sunday Assembly certainly acknowledges something positive about the Church experience, however much those of us who believe might raise an eyebrow at the feasibility of it.