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God meets the Old Devil

A memorial service for an atheist? Andrew Brown understands

Andrew Brown
Monday 21 October 1996 23:02 BST

"I'm an atheist, yes. But it's more that I hate Him" said Kingsley Amis, explaining his view of God to Yevgeni Yevtushenko. The story is in his memoirs, and it is given added piquancy by the fact that the novelist's work will be remembered at a service in St Martin's in the Fields in London this afternoon. Of all the people for the Church of England to commemorate, a man who boasts in his memoirs of hating God, and who wrote with extraordinary lucidity and savagery of his reasons for this hatred, ought perhaps to be fairly low down on the list of priorities. Yet perhaps it makes sense.

One reason for such a service lies in the deep respect that parts of the Church of England have for art, and especially for literature. Hardy and Housman both have their memorials in Westminster Abbey. Both were fairly dedicated enemies of religion: "Keep who will, and keep who can, these alien laws of God and man" wrote Housman. There is no trace of Christian hope or fear in his poems. He sees no damnation, only death.

Amis, who admired Housman, surpassed him, I think, in the detailed savagery of his detestation of God. There is something high-pitched and rhetorical about Housman. Even - especially - his restraint shows off. But Amis can manage the ordinary everyday unglamorous hatred of God, woven into the fabric of existence, alongside boredom and fear. Nowhere is this better done than in The Green Man, a ghost story in which Maurice Allingham, the alcoholic landlord of an ancient pub, becomes possessed by the spirit of an earlier owner, an Elizabethan alchemist and black magician. There's little supernatural activity in the book, and all of it, in the CIA phrase, deniable. "You're a good security risk", God explains to Maurice at one stage. "What, You mean drunk and off my head and seeing things?" "Yes."

But the conversation the two men have, however deniable, has a terribly authentic ring. In the living room above the pub, in the long dead hours of an afternoon on licensed premises, God appears as a young man, well dressed, if anything a little too sleek. He only slips out of this character occasionally, when Maurice refills His whisky, and bones clink against the glass. "You didn't have to do that," says Maurice, the sort of hypochondriac whose fear of illness cannot diminish or make manageable his terror of death. The young man replies that he did have to. Maurice must not, in their pleasantries, forget Who or What He really is. Yet for the most part, God is charming, if a little world-weary. You cannot imagine, he says, how difficult it is to resist the temptation to miracles - even a small one: a dinosaur appearing in the middle of the rush-hour traffic in Piccadilly Circus. But there are the rules of the game - the rules of the game, old man, as He explains when asked what to do about the suffering of children or of animals. This is grotesque in its manner.

In its matter, it is just about perfectly orthodox. Of course, Amis's God cuts out all the guff about suffering being for the good of the sufferer, but so do most modern theologians.

They, too, explain it as part of the "rules of the game": God, it appears, could not make creatures who could freely love Him without setting them in a world where they might be tortured to death. Besides, by the end of the novel, Maurice can see God's point. No matter how terrible eternity with Him may be, it is surely preferable to an eternity of being Maurice. The doctrine of sin could not be more succinctly stated. And even if the afterlife is only wish-fulfilment, Maurice's wish to escape from himself rings truer, perhaps, than a regiment of houris, or even the pleasure promised by St Thomas Aquinas, of watching the sufferings of the damned.

So perhaps the Church of England is right to celebrate such an acute theological thinker. Besides, what is taking place tomorrow is not, formally, a service, or even a celebration of the novelist, but a celebration of his work, which has some comfort for Christians. In the drunken, lecherous, God-fearing Maurice Allingham, the drunken, lecherous, God-loathing Kingsley Amis created a character who makes sin and redemption far more real and natural than they appear in the works of most professedly Christian novelists.

And yet. The Green Man is a genre novel, and largely forgotten now. I suspect that the theology in it was no more than the science in science fiction: a necessary scaffolding, and not the stage, still less the play itself. Much truer to Amis's beliefs was a jeering incredulity: God in one poem is told that three hours on the cross was nothing. Many have suffered more, and to less purpose. Next time, "get some time in".

Even this, however, may be more thought than is given to the matter by many people for whom vicars must find some words of condolence this week, treading the fine Christian line between truth and charity. "I think it's terribly like taking a parish funeral," said the Vicar of St Martin's, the Rev Nicholas Holtam, yesterday. Parish clergy are legally obliged to bury anyone, however bad or atheist. It is part of being the Church of England, and a part which even atheists might miss. The urge to mourn and celebrate survives the death of God; so does beauty. Kingsley Amis loved St Martin's in the Fields as a building. How generous of the church to lend its high windows to his memory.

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