THE Revd Jonathan Aitken had a memorable article on the website Unherd about how to survive the lockdown, based on his experience in a single cell in HM Prison Belmarsh, 20 years ago: “The discoveries of an isolationist journey can be delightful.
“The first priority is to create a schedule and find the self-discipline to stick to it. . . I was, for example, receiving around 50 letters a day from well-wishers. Remembering that Lord Curzon, while Viceroy of India, had dispatched over a hundred letters a day written in his own hand, I somehow tackled my correspondence with punctual diligence and no laptop.
“I would also spend two or three hours every day learning Greek . . . the subject I had lazily skipped at school. I knuckled down to learning it with a single text book, Wenham’s New Testament Greek. . . Forty years out of the classroom, I discovered that my powers to recall sonnets, soliloquies and limericks were not too rusty. I polished them up and increased my repertoire, declaiming the words through the bars of my cell into the sky.”
Just as I was thinking that all his sound advice could be boiled down to one maxim — make sure your parents send you to Eton — he shoved a twist that brought in a different perspective. “A few days ago, with high fever, breathing difficulties and dreamy excursions in and out of consciousness, I wondered whether, as a 77 year-old asthmatic and ex-TB patient, if T. S. Eliot’s ‘eternal Footman’ might be holding my coat.
“So I prayed — but in a new way. Instead of the predictably self-centred, ‘O Lord please save my life!’ requests, I offered instead prayers of gratitude for a wonderful rollercoaster ride. And then I offered prayers of surrender: ‘Lord it is you who decide the hour of our death. I gladly and totally surrender my life to your will.’”
And then he recovers, feeling, at last, that he has got the point of his relationship with God.
AMERICAN Evangelicals have fewer inhibitions about selfish prayer. I have been quietly collecting the most egregious examples of the prosperity-gospellers, not least because they still form a powerful political constituency. The line between politics, religion, and show business is at times quite indiscernible.
Take the enormously successful Dallas-based preacher Joel Osteen, a man who looks like Tony Blair reincarnated as a failed estate agent. The gossip site TMZ reported his Easter concert in terms that would be entirely appropriate to a film opening: “Sources close to Lakewood Church tell TMZ . . . Joel’s total viewership this past weekend was a whopping 11.73 million people across multiple platforms like his own website, Facebook and YouTube. And yes, that’s a new record for Lakewood.
“The staggering numbers cover 3 webcasts across Saturday and Sunday. Osteen’s service clearly benefited from Mariah Carey and Tyler Perry’s guest appearances. Of course, it was Easter . . . so that alone brings a boost.”
Osteen’s was an almost entirely virtual service. The congregation was absent, though I imagine there must have been a sizeable technical crew.
Elsewhere in the US, the ling in right-wing religion was that the whole pandemic was a hoax that need not worry true believers.
Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network had a quick round-up of reassurance: “Evangelist Kenneth Copeland has spoken another word he says the Lord gave him for this Passover and Resurrection Day: ‘This disease, called COVID 19, will be over much sooner than you think. Christian people all over this country, praying, have overwhelmed it.’
“Pastor Hank Kunneman, senior pastor of Omaha’s Lord of Hosts Church, spoke prophetically last week . . . and said the Lord’s message is ‘Rejoice, for this that they call a virus shall not have the last say or shall not have its way, for I am the God who sets forth things in motion.’
“Jeremiah Johnson, prophetic author and founder of Heart of the Father Ministry in Lakeland, FL . . . added, ‘Let’s agree as a nation that God is going to intervene in the month of April’.”
These are messages that will, quite literally, kill people, but that is also their importance. The arguments about lifting the lockdown and balancing the deaths caused by poverty in the future against those caused by the virus and the strain it puts on the healthcare system are, on one level, a matter for detailed technocratic judgment.
But whichever solution a government chooses will also rely on political consent. Very few people are at present prepared to say that Granny’s life is worth less than her grandchildren’s jobs, and that the virus should be allowed to rip through old people’s homes (and the carers who work there) if that is the only way to save the economy.
But many more would like to believe that such horrible choices aren’t real, and that the virus will go away “like a miracle”, as President Trump once promised. The culture war here is being fought with real bodies, and, of course, Christians are prominent on both sides.