Reading: Immanuel by Matthew Mcnaught

“It feels right to recount the history of Immanuel using ‘we’. But soon in the story, the pronoun starts to break up.”

Immanuel is about two churches: one in Winchester entangled to the other in Lagos. It’s the story of the traces left by those churches in Matthew Mcnaught’s life, and in the lives of his old friends.

While I was reading the book, NASA released the first set of images taken by the James Webb telescope, a set which included this image, entitled Deep Field: SMACS 0723. As they say, it is a long exposure of a patch of sky which is about the size of that covered by a grain of sand when held at arm’s length* from the eye. In it we ‘see the light from’ galaxies which are billions of light years away. That is, we see them in the same way we might see a cloud of dandelion seeds as captured by a smartphone camera, except, because of conceptual changes forced upon us by concrete experience of the world, the act of seeing changes in quality. We are seeing light paths, some of which have been bestowed curves due to the distortions of space around incredibly massive objects, other light paths whose time of origin was consistently 4.6 billion years ago. They bear a constant relation to us of appearing-4.6-billion-years-ago, because they are 4.6 billion light years away from us (though getting further). They remain in the sky, yet we know that many of them have long since dimmed, and maybe died – we are seeing their trace. These are facts of a quality that goes beyond our life. Time and space, tangled together in an Einstein knot, more fiendish than a Gordian knot, because although an emperor could cut the latter, the Einstein knot cannot be cut, even by an empire as powerful as that of the United States.

The North American Space Agency spent 10 billion dollars to be able to take that photograph**. Money to build it was granted by a congress of nominal Christians, whose faith is always underwritten by imperial and material concerns. This same congress had also raised to the highest court in the land several nominally Christian judges with evangelical support. Thus the release of this spectacular photograph coincided with a ruling by that court which removed the defence of abortion from the law of the land, setting off trigger laws in many states that will inflict further suffering via sanction upon those who will nonetheless suffer through the uncomfortable procedure, because it is necessary to them. At the base of this was a metaphysics, that is, a set of ideas which are not guided by science, nor pragmatic living and governing, but by text raised to an eternal principle – by word become political flesh, by disciple speak as Matthew Mcnaught calls it (to twist or extend his usage slightly). And that’s not to bring up a background of white conspiracism about a great replacement, fragile minds worrying about the changing demographics of the country. For a long time, US aid to charities has been conditional on whether they support access to abortions – they withheld aid from those who promoted access, which increased abortion numbers in the process. It turns out that people who don’t like abortions don’t much like promoting contraceptives either. It is a policy that has backfiring built into its very bones. All of this is the deep field of religiosity.

Another American state organisation, flush with puritan-imperial concerns, and driven by disciple speak***, is the International Monetary Fund, designed to integrate the global economy into the American financial system (which means open for American investment – that is, for dollar investors to reap the rewards.) Put bluntly, they do this by making loans, the conditions of which then force a country to restructure its economy such that it cannot hope to pay the loan back without further restructuring, and further integration. The conditions require a stripping back of the state, which was already poor to begin with – hence the need to take a loan – and this destroys any ability to make enough money to repay it, leaving the country vulnerable to financial shocks driven by the IMF which can pull support and force other countries to do so. And it’s working well! According to the IMF itself, Nigeria will soon spend 100% of its yearly income as a state, servicing its debt. Their preferred solution to this is that the Nigerian government remove the fuel subsidy it provides. Last time they tried that it triggered a crash, close to 100% inflation and country wide protests, but it would aid in achieving America’s foreign policy goals; in this case, more, and therefore cheaper, oil on the global market after the supply shocks driven by Russia’s war and the pandemic. Never mind what happens in Nigeria! And this too, is the deep field of religiosity.

“The currency was radically devalued. State services collapsed. Much of the emergent middle class was plunged into poverty.”

In Lagos, gated communities alongside extreme poverty have spread, and are described by Matthew Mcnaught as he goes to witness an evangelical Church in that field of its sowing, after recounting the traces it left in his friends. If you have read the history of Christianity, for example in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s epic three thousand year tome, you will already know that economics and politics drive changes in religious demographics – they are the main thing that does. The fields of ruins built by the restructuring of the Nigerian economy, and the weakening of the social and civic state, are a fertile ground for cults and megachurches to grow in, sowed with the seed of evangelism – the same effect can be seen in the United States itself, and it is spreading. Until I picked up Mcnaught’s book, I had never really placed evangelism and modern England together in my head, despite growing up in a ‘lapsed Methodist’ family, once-removed from weekly church going. I understand that my own grandma now ‘sees the light from’ visiting Nigerian evangelical pastors from time to time in her Sunday Methodist service stream on her TV. And she gains some solace from their consolation, I assume.

*

“The older I’d got, the less I’d felt my journey away from church as an uncomplicated liberation”

It’s hard when writing about faith, as an atheist, not to stack the text up front with fact after fact. The facts and the faith slip and stick between each other, as if drenched in honey. Dare I state a fact, though I know it will slip off? Maybe an an article of faith is better? Here we go (you can tell me which I went for): Modern faith which undertakes not to be irrational can make no conclusions and must defer indefinitely – conclusivity has rightly been ceded to other technologies of knowledge, science in the broadest sense. This means faith, as inconclusive, is empty of content, and is rather a kind of impetus. A contentless impetus – like kind of holy decisionism – need not receive any respect from us. All of this philosophy hovers over the real, displaced and ignored by many.

But then, the fact of community does deserve respect. It is real thing that provides solace and support in this sometimes harsh world. In this sense, religious community is tolerable, more than. But it runs into the same problems as any worldly political community. That is, corruption, obsession, herd mentality, and in-group/out-group thinking. The narcissism of small differences, and the strange need to keep its claws in its members (as Matthew learns from his friends when their own attempt to confront the cult leader results in a clandestine flight from Nigeria) – that is, its inability to leave us alone, as Hitchens would say. On top of these, it has the constant temptation, first, to think that it alone is special and not under the sway of those defects, and secondly, to stop thinking (why should it; it has all the answers to hand). Nevertheless a religious community is sometimes better than no community.

Another thing that deserves respect (in the same way that any literary text does which engages deeply with living) is mythology. Those structures that give us ways of thinking about our humanity, productive folk-psychologies, which are also beautiful stories. Another sense in which religion could be considered benign or helpful, would be as a kind of mythology fan club, a holy book club. But like any fan club, some of its members can become monomaniacal, intolerant of criticism, or disdainful of alternative readings. Many read horoscopes, read the mythology of stars, whilst bracketing their truth – simply using them as a kind of decision process, a geomancy.

Matthew Mcnaught’s book exists in this post-religious, post-cult space – specifically, in his case, but also generally, in the sense that we live in a post-god space. (The light from god is still visible, though only as a trace, the origin long having dimmed…) He sees the potential positive of community, and succumbs to that temptation not to condemn tout court. It is a book that reads with a smoothness which nonetheless bears the complexity of something long thought through, and has an anger so light and hesitant it almost feels judgement free – but I think it is there. Matthew sets out to confront the tangle he escaped from – and he makes a valiant attempt and with his friends, manages to land a body blow on culthood – on the elements of religion which escape community, and mythology.

He sees how his friends are manipulated and exploited by hypocrites. The origin of the word hypocrite is the ancient Greek word for actor. These people play the part of god, and use the authority which this gives them to exploit their followers to make money. The materialism of a church is the only consistent part of their practical theology. It’s the rock upon which it is built.

*

For a while, I have dreamt of a key that would be a rationalising key for the lock of religious thought – a hammer that would crack the nut of disciple speak – a third testament, almost. Matthew talks of deprogramming in his book, his friends speak of ‘ten signs you are in a cult’. It could take the form of a text, or some other form, such as a paralyzingly complex scientific image of the early universe, replacing the beyond-machine of religion with the beyond-machine of stellar time. But the end experience would be to have all of your religious assumptions shaken. Among the honey logic of religion and conspiracy, it would slide like a hot spoon and scoop out that sweetness to reveal the empty glass of the jar, ready to fill with other things (or not – minimalism of the soul is also a respectable ideal.) As text, Matthew’s book might take its place as part of it, alongside MacCulloch’s history of Christianity, Hitchen’s ‘God is Not Great’, and perhaps Robin Dunbar’s ‘Human Evolution’.

“It felt good to be a superorganism.”

Matthew has a measuredness and meekness which is directed through deep allegory in anger. He must step carefully in the ruins of lives. My lack of meekness is evidently because my experience with church was unobjectional and short. The priest came to our house one day, and I sat with my mum and we faced him down. We don’t believe anymore. He was a nice man, and seemed to care very much. And he was genuinely sad to see us leaving – although I cannot hope to remember exactly, child as I was. I had no particular passion – and therefore my relationship to my old church is not that of, literally, ‘survivor’ like Matthew’s friends, but rather like that of someone reminiscing about an old book club.

After reading the book, the mystery of what went on at Immanuel has been circled around and outlined, but I am left unable to describe it precisely. I know that music is important. But there is lack at the heart of all these traces. Matthew is never clear exactly about his church. This gap in the text aligns with the metaphor of something missing, at the centre, which often appears in early 21st century narratives of secularisation – but a black hole is not something missing. Maybe the gap is the space for that heart of a heartless world, that is, a community in a world infected by disciple speak. But then, maybe not – maybe it’s just constitutive of human subjectivity to be a little to have a contentless impetus, whatever you want to call it, a lack.

The lack, here, which faith is a displacement of, not being an absence, but something that has slipped and shifted, been bent by immense gravity, some kind of infinite knot in us, of us. That faith that can say nothing, and yet expects something to be said, leaves galaxies in the shape of a question mark. And yet, remove that curve and there is a solid black hole sitting on the line.

* Whose arm!?

** Money well spent IMO

*** Ideology, see Stiglitz

I requested and received a free review copy of this book from Fitzcarraldo editions. You can get it here.

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