Conjuring Tricks and Sleight of Hand

The Death of God – so trumpeted by liberal ‘Christian’ academics in the sixties and early seventies – has proved to be grossly exaggerated. He is not dead.

As Paul Richardson, in last month’s Letter from Australia pointed out, there is a revival of interest in religion which, whilst not yet exactly an epidemic, gives the lie to the assumptions of the sixties secularisers. The worrying thing is that God – though very much alive – seems to have gone into rather extravagant fancy dress.

In the Leeds of my carefree curate days, when the Catholic movement of the Church of England was basking in the afterglow of the ARCIC agreement on the Eucharist and John Moorman ( a gentleman among bishops when bishops were gentlemen) was caring for his clergy, I recall the first symptoms. In an ‘alternative bookshop’ (the books were ‘alternative’; the shop, alas, was operated on conventional commercial principles) I stumbled upon a volume of Coplestone on Aquinas in a section marked ‘Occult’. It was one of those swallows which mark the onset of a long summer.

Since then every reputable bookshop has gone ‘alternative’ and the catalogue of books in sections called ‘Mind and Spirit’, ‘Occult’ and ‘Hermetic’ rivals even that most remarkable growth area of them all, ‘Gender Studies’.

All these names, of course, are mere euphemisms. Just as ‘Gender Studies’ have nothing to do with Indo-European morphology; so ‘Mind and Spirit’ have little connection with anything which is either reasonable or spiritual. A pot pourri of the latest offerings will acquaint the hesitant reader with the general area.

Nostradamus is always a seller. A recent publication wittily combines two current fascinations in one title: Nostradamus: Prophecies for Women. It reveals (according to Manuela Mascetti and Peter Lorie, its authors) the fact that “many of Nostradamus’s predictions were aimed specifically at women and their changing role at the end of the millennium”.

There is a decidedly feminist trait to other contributions too. Andrew Harvey is something of a star in this rather murky world. He was at one time the youngest Fellow of All Souls’, until the gurus got him. He wandered in India, co-edited The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying with the rather more persuasively named Sogyal Rampoche, and then produced The Return of the Mother. “I have written this book”, he says, “in the name of and for the love of the Divine Mother”. But whether the Lady in question is Shiva or Kali is not altogether clear.

Hermetic Magic and A Dictionary of Mind and Spirit are both compendia for the neophyte which offer tempting glimpses into a world of power and mystery. “Now serious students can use this information as a basis for developing and enacting their own vision” says the dust jacket of one. “Invaluable to both the paranormal investigator and those involved in self exploration” says Psychic News of the other. And Brian Lane’s The Encyclopaedia of the Occult, Paranormal and Magick (Prayer Book Catholicks note the ‘K’) is sold as “an invaluable guide for those who seek an understanding of the dark arts”

Another sub-genre is the realm of Celtic Faery. The Irish, the Welsh and King Arthur come in for a good deal of attention – and generally in that order. Faery Wicca: The Shamanic Practices of the Cunning Arts is one of an impressive list of companion volumes which promise “a journey to the three levels of the Otherworld”

Fingerprints of the Gods, is an altogether more ambitious exercise. ‘A Number One Best Seller’ (in fact one of four on current display), it claims, in a wedge of pages as thick as a novel by Jackie Collins, to demonstrate beyond shadow of doubt the spooky connections between the great Sphinx and Pyramids of Egypt, the Andean temples of Tianhuanaco, the Mexican Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, the lost continent of Antarctica and the ‘ancient science of astro-navigation’.

In the midst of all the fantasy there are endearing outcrops of reality. Surfing the Himalayas, for example, is a real novel, in which an American ‘snowboarder’ (soon to be played by Michael J. Fox) meets ‘Master Fwap’, a Tibetan guru who changes his life. And Anne Walker (author of Little One – Message from Planet Heaven), is a real Jackie Collins. “Until recently …just another typical British clairvoyant…” writes The Independent On Sunday (where clairvoyants are obviously two-a-penny) “now she is the darling of the London media circuit, calling up dead relatives at private readings and heading for fame and fortune”.

Together with Tarot packs and other pieces of out-moded cultural baggage these displays of glossy paperbacks, at around ten pounds a piece, in bookstores from Dillon’s to W.H. Smith, can seem tacky or even humorous. But as symptoms they demand to be taken seriously. They are a powerful testimony to two things: the folly of the theologians and the failure of the evangelists.

The Theologians, of course, have been foolish because they have been seduced by the rationalist atmosphere of the Universities (in which their departments must vie for funding) into supposing that Man-Has-Come-of-Age; that the supernatural has been overtaken by the technological, and that the only way left for them to turn an honest penny is to admit the fact.

Man-Come-of-Age, alas, has been less than impressed by their arguments and their soi-disant honesty. His response to the first has been to descend into an underworld of pre-Christian fantasy. His response to the second has been to wonder why people should continue to draw substantial salaries for denying what they were originally employed to proclaim.

The Evangelists have failed, quite simply because they have allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by an institutional loss of nerve. Perhaps the most significant social change of the last seventy years in England has been that almost total collapse of evangelical (and evangelistic) English non-conformity, to which the great empty chapels of the industrial heartlands bear silent witness. Quite when the tide turned irreversibly is hard to say. But no one can doubt that English Christianity in its Protestant manifestations has been more world-shaped than world-shaping for most of living memory. And now a majority of Anglican evangelicals seems intent on walking the same way.

While Man- (and -Woman) Come-of-Age has been scouring the collective unconscious for something that will pass for spirituality, the would-be evangelists have been taking time off to prosecute their long-standing love-affair with the Spirit of the Age.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.