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Misled by a sure and certain hope

05 December 2014

"My life in Hell": Meghan O'Gieblyn in The Guardian

"My life in Hell": Meghan O'Gieblyn in The Guardian

THERE are some serious stories this week, some interesting ones, and some that are just flat out weird.

The weirdest of these is undoubtedly that of the Wald family, of Hamilton, Ontario, who were firm in their hope of the resurrection. They were so firm that, when Peter Wald, the family patriarch, got an infected foot as a result of his diabetes, he refused to go to hospital. He lay in his bed until he fell into a coma, convinced that God would cure him. Some days later, his wife, Kaling, "noticed his stomach bloating and signs of rigor mortis on his forehead", according to the Hamilton Spectator.

"She then left him - his body covered with two blankets, his head with a toque - in the bed and padlocked the bedroom door.

"Kaling sealed in the door and the vents with duct tape to protect her family from the smell of the cadaver. And then for six months, life went on and they prayed for their dead husband and father in the bed upstairs as they awaited his return."

The Walds had five children living in the house, together with seven other adults. They formed a kind of evangelistic community, distributing tracts and food for the homeless. None of their neighbours, who were told that Mr Wald was "in God's hands now", had a bad word to say about them. The corpse was discovered only after about six months (the state of the body precluded greater precision), when they were all evicted for non-payment of mortgage arrears.

Mrs Wald was eventually sentenced to 18 months on probation by a sympathetic judge. The family moved to another town, and she told the Hamilton Spectator: "It was unusual, yes . . . and we won't do that again. . . Laws exist and we know that now." She remains convinced, however, that there have been many documented cases of resurrection around the world.

I have certainly been told such stories in a respectable Clapham kitchen by a woman active on the hairier fringes of the Charismatic movement. But they were all supposed to have happened in Africa. They didn't happen in the developed world, she explained, because we don't have enough faith. The Walds seem to have tested that particular theory to destruction.

A LONG PIECE by Meghan O'Gieblyn, in The Guardian, originally published in The Point Magazine in Chicago, described growing up as a believer in hell. "I got saved when I was five years old. . . As a home-schooled junior-high student I actually didn't know any unbelievers. In my mind, the 'lost' consisted of a motley minority of animal-worshipping tribesmen, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and our Catholic neighbours.

"It wasn't until I started going to public high school that I began to feel a gnawing guilt, spurred by the occasional realisation that my evolution-touting biology teacher, or the girl who sat next to me in study hall reading The Satanic Bible, was going to spend eternity suffering." So, of course, she loses her faith as a young woman.

What lifts this essay above the norm is the way in which she still misses parts of belief, and, in particular, the notion of sin: "Part of what made church such a powerful experience for me as a child and a young adult was that it was the one place where my own faults and failings were recognised and accepted, where people referred to themselves affectionately as 'sinners', where it was taken as a given that the person standing in the pews beside you was morally fallible, but still you held hands and lifted your voice with hers as you worshipped in song. . .

"And it's precisely this acknowledgement of collective guilt that makes it possible for a community to observe the core virtues of the faith: mercy, forgiveness, grace."

It's been a long time since anything that grown-up was written about fundamentalist Christianity in the British press.

TWO sidelights on Pope Francis's speech comparing Europe to a grandmother. The first was a report of the speech he gave on the subject in October to European bishops, from La Repubblica: "The Europe of today has been invaded. It may be the second invasion of the barbarians, I don't know." There's a quote inexplicably missed by the Daily Mail.

The second was a defence of Europe taken from The Financial Times: "The Pope drew attention to the chilling fact that the Mediterranean is becoming a 'cemetery' for migrants.

"But we should allow for the possibility that it is not just the prospect of black economy work that draws them. Perhaps some of those who risk their lives in tiny ramshackle boats believe the continent's liberal values are worth having. Europe may not be the best of all possible worlds, but for many, it might be the least bad of the worlds available."

Which is, I suppose, an old grandmother's version of optimism.

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