The dead have no known address
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 21 August 1998
The first suspicion of this truth came with the arrival or all those derr-brained bishop from Africa for some Church of England conference. Now, I'm not a great expert on any of this, but it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that Christian forgiveness was not very high on the agenda of a lot of these awful scum, that they were on the whole much keener on hatred and the incitement of violence against innocent homosexuals.
There's no need to take any of these people seriously, but the twit who said that he wouldn't ask a homosexual to address the conference for the same reason that he wouldn't invite a prostitute was especially interesting; I wonder whether his edition of the Bible just left out the bit about Mary Magdalene, or whether he just never quite got that far in his reading. I know, I know, it's awfully hard and stupid and boring and full of incredible silliness, but if you're a Bishop, you are supposed to read a bit further in the Bible than Leviticus.
But the sublimely enjoyable story, which finally confirmed that belief in God had completely come to an end, was the innocent waifs of Walsall. If you missed it, a lot of tots came home from Sunday school wailing and in terrible distress. It emerged that their Sunday School teacher had told them that the late Princess of Wales was probably in hell, having led a sinful life, and that they should repent before it was too late. The mothers of Walsall, I fear, are in uproar; "He worshipped Diana," said one mother of her tiny, without apparent irony.
When I had finished laughing at this splendid story - which I'm sure has been raising just as much merriment in every news room in the capital before the hacks sit down to compose their outraged prose - I just began to wonder. I mean, 50 years ago the proposition that if you lead a sinful life and die without repentance you will go to hell would have been regarded, in general, as unarguable.
It might, of course, always have been thought rather tactless or presumptuous to cite particular examples. But the theology is unfaultable, and the question of whether or not it made a few kiddies cry somewhat beside the point.
The truth is that nobody believes in God any more, even the poor saps who send their kids to Sunday school. Perhaps, in fact, only the odd Sunday school teacher, who is rare enough to merit tabloid denunciations. We quite like the idea of heaven, particularly a heaven with our favourite people twinkling away in the firmament, but we obviously don't believe in it; if we seriously thought there was anything in it, we'd also believe in the possibility of hell, and maybe even amend our lives. But of course, we don't; we only believe in talking about heaven in the way we believe in Father Christmas, as something for the children.
And Christianity? The Ten Commandments and the going to Church and the fleeing fornication and fearing the Lord? Well, that's a bit more tricky. "It's all a bit... over, isn't it?" a friend of mine has the habit of saying, of anything from Tommy Hilfiger to post-structuralism. And if anything is over, Christianity is. Humanity outgrows things from time to time; it has outgrown animism, it is outgrowing imperialism, it will outgrow Christianity as surely as it will outgrow cargo cults.
And in the meantime, we will carry on going through the motions, and telling our children that the Princess of Wales is a star in heaven, simply because it is too boring and complicated to tell the truth; that she was a good woman, who worked hard and achieved many good things; who frequently demonstrated kindness in the face of concerted public hatred; who, by doing what she thought was right, made ordinary silly people understand that Aids and leprosy were not easily contagious, that compassion was the universal right of human beings. And, in the year or two before her senseless death, she used her fame to state that the sale of landmines could never be justified.
She is not in hell; but she is not in heaven either. She was a good, ordinary woman, and that, surely, is enough even for children. I wish it was possible to tell them so, in accordance with what everybody now so clearly believes, not to start talking about angels in heaven, and respect not only the dignity of the dead, but our own dignity.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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