Religiosity and Art
Over at The Guardian, novelist Sarah Perry (After Me Comes the Flood) reflects on growing up in a Strict Baptist home in which there was no modern culture but a wide selection of classic literature:
Though we by no means resembled an Amish cult, there was an almost complete absence of contemporary culture in the house. God’s people were to be “In the world, but not of the world”, and the difference between those two little prepositions banished television and pop music, school discos and Smash Hits, cinema and nail polish, and so many other cultural signifiers I feel no nostalgia for the 80s and 90s: they had nothing to do with me.
Aside from the odd humiliation at school (asked which film star I fancied most, I remembered seeing Where Eagles Dare at an uncle’s house and said, “Clint Eastwood”) I don’t remember feeling deprived. Because beside the Pre-Raphaelite prints that were my celebrity posters, and the Debussy that was my Oasis, there were books – such books, and in such quantities! Largely content to read what would please my parents, I turned my back on modernity and lost myself to Hardy and Dickens, Brontë and Austen, Shakespeare, Eliot and Bunyan.
I memorised Tennyson, and read Homer in prose and Dante in verse; I shed half my childhood tears at The Mill on the Floss. I slept with Sherlock Holmes beside my pillow, and lay behind the sofa reading Roget. It was as though publication a century before made a book suitable – never was I told I ought not to read this or that until I was older. To my teacher’s horror my father gave me Tess of the D’Urbervilles when I was still at primary school, and I was simply left to wander from Thornfield to Agincourt to the tent of sulking Achilles, making my own way.
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There were ancient books too, all gilded spines and Gothic script: a ghoulish child, I loved the woodcuts in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and could tell you now precisely how Cranmer was tortured, and how his bones cracked in the flames.
Above all – committed to memory, read aloud at mealtimes and prettily framed on the dining-room wall – was the King James Bible. It was as constant as the air, and felt just as necessary, and I think I know its cadences as well as my own voice.
It’s a wonderful short reflection that goes against the accepted argument that “narrow” religious beliefs and practices always starve rather than nourish the intellect and artistic sensibilities. It’s also an encouraging reminder of the benefits of memorization and recitation.