Long View

I recently finished reading Jill Paton Walsh’s Lapsing. The book follows Tessa, a young Catholic woman, through 50’s Oxford. With a title like that, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the she loses her faith eventually. What I liked about this book was how well it evoked the strangeness of growing up, and particularly, the dissociation of losing one’s faith.

<lj-cut text=”The colours change”>

Though any photographer knows how the light changes all the live-long day, how various it is under every passing cloud, in every different climate, latitude, season, hour, for most people the medium of seeing is invisible – a constant white. We can hardly believe that the fabric samples, carefully matched under the lamplight, can so treacherously clash by daylight. “The colours change”, we say. Just so, for the most part, we treat our own consciousness, by whose flickering light we view the world, as an invisible medium seeing: its quirks and tints, and shadows, and changes of hue simply projected as changes in the world outside. Eagerly and hungrily viewing the whole world, the young particularly treat themselves as the invisible constant – though retrospective understanding will later illuminate every one of their friends, enemies, companions – it will always be hardest to find for themselves. Whatever thoughts and actions seem most entirely natural will occasion the most astonished incomprehension later; later everyone’s behaviour will seem explicable except one’s own; and thinking back across the years, Tessa will, of course, be able to see clearly everyone in the circle except herself.



The person I was is out there for all to see, but though I know in abstract what drives evangelicals as a group, my own inner life from that time is alien to me. There are occasional echoes brought on by a song or a sunny day, but I don’t know why I thought what I thought or felt what I felt.

The book’s characters are well described, for all the brevity of some of the cameo roles (which perhaps reflects the rush of Oxbridge life and the protagonists’ own self-involvement). The portrayal of religion is realistic and sympathetic, although the feeling of a lapser is well described too. Catholics named Theresa might enjoy the book 🙂

16 Comments on "Long View"


    1. Glad you like it. It was stolen from here, but I can’t find an email address on that page from which to ask permission. Hopefully the picture’s creator wouldn’t mind me using it for this sort of thing, anyway.

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  1. I’m not familiar with the book and I mostly only know you from being an online presence (LJ recently, and old uk.r.c posts). As a result, I hope you won’t mind me sticking my oar in.

    You speak of the “person I was” as though you are not still the same person. I realise that your beliefs/behaviour/practices, even entire thought processes may well have evolved and been over-turned (I don’t want to speak for you), but I still see you as somebody who sincerely seeks the truth. I still see a kind of continuity between who you say you were and the way you write today. Even if your old inner life has become alien, I read (maybe wrongly, and maybe between the lines) of the maintenance of a kind of continuity in freedom from duplicity. I admire that kind of constancy.

    I hope you don’t take that in the wrong way.

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    1. You seem very anxious not to cause offence. Don’t worry, no offence is taken. 🙂

      In fact, what you’ve said about me is rather flattering. I hope I do sincerely seek the truth. My suggestion that I am a different person is perhaps a little dramatic, but it was a year of fire, a personal apocalypse. I did not sleep, and I certainly was changed. There is a continuity in some ways, but I’m not the same. I’m freer and happier, but probably less ambitious in my ideals.

      I was talking to my girlfriend about this the other night, about why I left, and I said that I came to a point where I realised I wasn’t so very different from my nice, non-Christian friends. I realised that being a Christian was not about the things that my church thought it was about, that my reading of the gospels meant that Christianity was meant to mean something other than daily quiet times, not drinking, not swearing and not quite having sex, and that the church should not be a club whose only purpose is to increase its own size (note to StAG readers: feel free to object to this characterisation). However, what Christianity was meant to be about seemed to involve being very committed to a God whose existence I was not certain enough of to make that commitment. I’m sure some people practice a Christianity in proportion to their faith, but I found that untenable when the Jesus-is-my-boyfriend choruses tell you that you should give your all to God. I was seeking to be honest with myself and others, and in that I hope I’ve not changed. StAG’s preachers are right about one thing: faith will change us and that change will often be painful.

      This isn’t quite the story of the famous web page, which is more about the intellectual arguments that made me not have enough faith, but S’s question was why those arguments never occurred to me before. That was down to how Christianity affected my life, I think: once things start to slip, you begin to question everything.

      Home time…

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      1. I suppose that I am anxious not to offend. At various times throughout the journey that I find myself caught up in, pleasant and well-meaning people have made comments to me, assuming that they have understood what I was trying to say to them, and have then gone on to demonstrate that they have entirely missed the point I was trying to make by having failed to listen closely enough.

        If I’m anxious not to offend, it’s an anxiety from three sources. The first is that I will say something daft like “I know how you feel” or “we’ve all been there” or “time heals”, (some or all of which might be true, but none of which demonstrate an openness to vulnerablity). The second is that I will misrepresent what you’re trying to say, and tell you what I want you to be thinking. The third is through fear of the unknown. I have known many people “convert”, but I’ve not known many people who have chosen to leave, (which I see as contrasting with “drifting away”). The fear and anxiety that that produces is not a fear that the faith that I lay claim to is brittle (although sometimes it is), but a kind of fear of somebody who seems to display a kind of hostility (or perhaps ‘closedness’) to much of what I hold very very dear. (That doesn’t quite work because much of what I hold dear is not conservative evangelicalism, but even still…) And so if I seem anxious not to cause offence, it’s probably through not wanting to do metaphorical violence to you through a fear of an “otherness” that I fail to comprehend.

        I have been mulling over some of what you said above, and today I came across some lines by Tennyson that reminded me of some of what you have written. In his poem “Confessions of a Sensitive Mind”, he writes:

        “Yet,” said I, in my morn of youth,
        The unsunn’d freshness of my strength,
        When I went forth in quest of truth,
        “It is man’s privilege to doubt,
        If so be that from doubt at length,
        Truth may stand forth unmoved of change,
        An image with profulgent brows,
        And perfect limbs, as from the storm
        Of running fires and fluid range
        Of lawless airs, at last stood out
        This excellence and solid form
        Of constant beauty…”

        When I was reading to understand more about Tennyson, and why he thought what he did, I also discovered these lines from “In memoriam”, stanza 95/6:

        “Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
        At last he beat his music out.
        There lives more faith in honest doubt,
        Believe me, than in half the creeds.

        He fought his doubts, and gather’d strength;
        He would not make his judgment blind;
        He faced the spectres of the mind,
        And laid them : this he came at length

        To find a stronger faith his own;
        And power was with him in the night,
        Which makes the darkness and the light,
        And dwells not in the light alone.”

        It is said in one article that I found that T. S. Eliot remarked that the poem “In Memoriam” was “not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt.” I thought that you might find that useful to ponder, but not to worry if not.

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        1. I’ve come across In Memoriam before. Tennyson seems to suggest that some greater faith will be forged in the flames of doubt. That’s not happened to me so far, although I don’t discount the possibility. But right now although I quite the the ritual and songs at the weddings I’ve been to recently, I don’t actually believe in God. One can indulge in philosophical musings about how God does not exist in the same way as other things, but God must be experienced somehow. That experience is currently lacking from my life, and even if I did persue it, I’m not sure how I’d align any such experience with the philosophical problems of Christianity.

          As I’ve said before (bottom of here), one can tolerate a certain amount of inconsistency in life, because nothing else really fits together either. But right now I’m not sure what is to be gained from the attempt.

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        2. kind of fear of somebody who seems to display a kind of hostility (or perhaps ‘closedness’) to much of what I hold very very dear. (That doesn’t quite work because much of what I hold dear is not conservative evangelicalism, but even still…)

          I’m overtly hostile towards evangelicalism, which is believe is both Bad and Wrong (or possibly Evil and Rude). Not just wrong, but dangerous, anyway. Having read Cupitt and Karen Armstrong and an introduction to the philosophy of religion, I’m not hostile to liberal Christianity so much as being uncertain why I’d bother: q.v. my earlier thoughts on this. My morality (or ethic, or whatever) these days is to be pleasant to people who are pleasant to me, so don’t worry, I don’t bite. 🙂

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      2. (Sorry, I become more and more verbose over the years, and you’ve got the short straw here!)

        I suppose I’m not so interested in the story of the famous page because the ‘rational’ arguments are a kind of outer shell, but the inside is only worked out as one learns to live with a new set of convictions. I don’t think in the way that evangelicals or certain scientists think, and so it’s not that the arguments are not persuasive so much as they simply fail to engage very much at all. I always try to play board games in a way which means that I prefer to learn the rules, not so much as rules, but as normative ways of acting. I want to know how to play as I go along, and I infuriate everybody who I play strategy games with by getting bored less than half way through their explanations of rules. When you say, “when things start to slip, you begin to question everything”, I want to say that the questionning of everything ought to have been part of the normative way of living all along. Hmmm. Maybe that doesn’t make sense, but I’m trying to say that I think people who question everything are attempting a closer walk with God than those who never ever let anything slip. In a way, I admire you for rejecting the “largeness” (the “give your all”) of the claim, because you’ve recognised its worth more than others who consider it easy, and thus reduce its import. I think that a greater vulnerability is required from Christians (than many of us customarily allow) if our preaching is to remain truthful. That is, if you’re not engaging with those for whom everything slips or has slipped on a regular basis, then you’re not living or hearing well enough. And I say that, not to reduce in importance the phrase “everything slips”, but to point out the importance of sitting beside others in their brokenness without moving, in the words of one New Age poet, to “hide it or fade it or fix it”. (After all, is that not part of what we claim when we say that we take seriously what it means to be crucified?)

        That leads me to affirm what you said about part of the preaching at StAG. I am led more and more to the conclusion that any encounter with a God who threatens to change one’s life (or even just an encounter with a people who claim that they live lives so changed) ought to be painful. It’s supposed to be worth dying for, worth hurting over. It’s supposed to question every single one of your pre-suppositions. And then, when you think you’ve a neat little bundle to present to people in the manner that some seem to present “2 ways to live”, God might, if it’s really worth living for, cause a person to chuck it all in the air and force it to be thought through again. Why? Because God is radically other than us, and does not want to be imaged as an easy to swallow capsule. Christians ought to have learned by now that we do not work alongside “neat little packages tied up in string”, but messy, fleshy, bloody people who live with “spectres of the mind” and pain and the inadequacy of never measuring up. And so I thank you, I think, for pointing that out, and challenging us to live lives that measure the convictions we proclaim (or sometimes fail to proclaim in the “silent eloquence of our grief”). I agree with you that Christianity is meant to mean more than the list you give above, and I regret that often it does not.

        A long while ago now I decided that Christianity wasn’t worth it if the whole purpose of it was to make life more comfortable. But, I still wrestle with the question of what it means to be happy. I think happiness probably finds us when we are so caught up in doing something worth doing that we cease to trouble with it any more. However, I don’t feel qualified to speak about happiness right now. Christian living is painful, and I do not know of any effective way to assuage the pain that faith sometimes causes or seems to effect. But neither do I know any way of living life in a way that shields us from pain, and I would be very suspicious of it if I did.

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        1. In a way, I admire you for rejecting the “largeness” (the “give your all”) of the claim, because you’ve recognised its worth more than others who consider it easy, and thus reduce its import.

          It’s possible that one can only realise the largeness outside the student setting, I guess. It’s very easy to be a CICCU Christian. It’s a shame that this means a lot of people will put their hands to the plough and look back.

          A long while ago now I decided that Christianity wasn’t worth it if the whole purpose of it was to make life more comfortable.

          Why not? You seem to be quite suspicious of having it too easy. I’m not sure that we should be suffering to give our lives meaning (yet again, there are musings about this in my LJ: I seem to write posts full of nothing but backlinks to old entries. I think it’s great that the sarcastic link on the word “hetrosexual” in that entry, which points to Reform’s latest press release, is always appropriate how ever many press releases they go through. Anyway…)

          I don’t like pain, and I associate Christianity with rather a lot of it. Neither evangelicalism’s neat solutions nor what sounds like the philosophical angst of more thinking Christians sound like they’d make me happy. I like your definition of happiness, though. What is it you’re doing that makes the pain worthwhile?

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  2. Catholics named Theresa might enjoy the book 🙂

    What about lapsed Catholics who have abandoned their saintly name? 😉

    It does sound interesting – can I borrow it from you whenever in the next year I see you?

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    1. Really, Terrie! I’m shocked!

      Just on Saturday I talked about Jill Paton-Walsh to you and you looked clueless. Well, this was who I was talking about. Gillian might be able to introduce you 🙂

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