God must have an extremely thick skin. I do hope so anyway. I just had a shocking insight into the sort of thing He probably has to put up with all the time.
The incident in question took place at a Neil Diamond concert in Birmingham. I had not gone to the National Indoor Arena prepared for an epiphanic moment of spiritual revelation. Which just goes to show that life’s mysteries are revealed to us when we least expect them. Sometimes while singing along to ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Forever in Blue Jeans’. To say the crowd that night was enthusiastic would be an understatement. Before it began, we Mexican waved around the stadium. As Neil launched into our old favourites, we were on our feet dancing, swaying, singing along, arms punching the air.
Then, right at the end of the two-hour set, the man in spangles sang a song about God. ‘Put your hands in the air with me!’ he said, a big innocent smile on his face. Ten thousand sets of arms fell in unison. Neil carried on singing, ‘I’m a man of faith!’ And 10,000 people sat down in their seats for the first time since the concert started. The man next to me actually folded his arms to emphasise his non-compliance and made a face like he was chewing a wasp. Only one woman a few rows from the front stayed standing, waving her arms ecstatically. Her neighbours looked at her as if she was giving off noxious fumes.
Neil persisted. ‘I’m a man of God,’ he sang, as the rest of the crowd of baby boomers stared back accusingly. Suddenly I found my right arm sneaking its way upwards. I nudged my mother sitting next to me. ‘Wave for Jesus!’ I whispered. She agreed. We are not the most religious family on earth. But we do know our manners. The crowd’s attitude to God was just plain rude.
On the way out of the stadium the overheard conversations were bizarre. ‘Well,’ harrumphed one woman to her female friend, ‘I suppose they think if they convert one person it’s worth it.’ This was convoluted logic. The singer was playing to a crowd of sixty-something white people from the Midlands. I don’t suppose it even entered his head that they might be in need of conversion to his way of life. It was not as if he had rocked up at Birmingham central mosque and tried to brainwash the city’s Muslims by sneaking some Judaeo–Christian scripture into ‘Thank The Lord for The Night Time’. It probably didn’t even occur to the boy from Brooklyn that the sort of people who go to pop concerts in this country are now overwhelmingly godless. And I don’t think I had fully grasped it either. When did we collectively decide that God was an acute embarrassment never to be mentioned in polite company or rock stadia for fear of putting people off their night out?
I know we don’t want to go to church any more and I sympathise. Religions have never done the man upstairs any favours. The last time I went to my local they were still singing the Latin Mass and a priest in a black tassled hat spent most of the service telling the children in the front row that they were going to hell. It was terrifying. I kept looking round expecting to see Gregory Peck standing in the doorway as the choir struck up a chant of ‘Ave Satani’!
And it’s not just we Catholics who put people off faith. My great-aunt Wynne was a Christian Scientist. She was very taken by the idea that it was impossible to get ill. This worked all right for her, until her son Karl contracted measles. The school rang to tell her he was in the sanatorium covered in spots. She was furious. ‘How dare you! My son does not have measles. Can you imagine God with measles?’ The headmaster assured her that, irrespective of whether he could envisage the Almighty in a state of rubellic fever, her son was in quarantine covered in red blotches and would remain there until she kindly came to pick him up. Poor Karl never did get his measles treated. And Aunt Wynne went on giving God a bad name long after she emigrated to Australia to spread her message of impracticality and unnecessary suffering there.
But, given a choice, I think I still prefer even her brand of rigidly unyielding belief to no belief at all. Especially now we’re facing recession. After all, who perfected the art of being happy without material possessions? That’s right. We’re all going to be needing a way of life which makes sense of having nothing soon. Good job He doesn’t bear a grudge.
Melissa Kite is deputy political editor of the Sunday Telegraph.