From one extreme to another: what does a long-time evangelical Christian do when he turns to atheism? What one of them did was write a really clever novel that has creative fun with all the familiar tropes of Christianity.
A Brief Eternity, by Paul Beaumont, is an enthralling novel. The opening scene, a parody of The Rapture that takes place in London, is engagingly cinematic. The action and the surprises never slow down, right to the final (very final!) choices that have to be made by the protagonists. Believers, hang onto your sense of humor if you can.
Beaumont (http://paulbeaumont.org), who lives in London, has spent his career in industry and currently works for the renewable energy sector. He writes with clarity, intelligence, and a sly sense of humor. It’s the details that make this novel fun: Jesus smokes out of sight of his followers, some of those consigned to hell undergo a very strange trial so they might have a second chance, and a bullying angel shows up if a man dares have a woman in his room (much like a motel room with a spy camera forever watching). And, unsurprisingly, endlessly praising the Lord while in Heaven begins to lose its orgasmic quality quickly enough.
INTERVIEW WITH PAUL BEAUMONT:
Q: When you were a Christian (for 25 years!), did you really evangelize, and if so, in what way?
Yes! I was an evangelical Christian and evangelism is central to the modus operandi of that particular brand of the religion. Most of my activity as an amateur evangelist took place in my first few years as a Christian, when I was still enthusiastic for the faith. During my summer holidays I went on various ‘missions’ including, one year, to a beach mission in Frinton (a small, old-fashioned holiday resort on the wind-swept coast of south-east England). While I was there I ‘converted’ a boy who must have been only 9 or 10 years of age. This is the experience that informed the childhood conversion of Jerry in A Brief Eternity.
My other student evangelistic efforts included door-knocking (literally, knocking on the doors of other students and talking to them about religion); inviting friends to the University mission; inviting them to evangelistic services at church; and casual conversations about God to all and sundry.
In the early years of my married life, my wife and I ran the church youth group for teens, most of whom were from church families.
As I got older, and gradually more disgruntled with Jesus, my evangelism tailed off. None of my non-Christian friends were ever converted, nor were those of my wife. In fact, in all my time as a Christian the only person I ever influenced to become a believer—apart from the young lad at Frinton—was my sister, who is still involved in her local church (where her husband is the vicar!). I have no idea if Frinton-boy remained a Christian, but I doubt it; he was very bright.
Q: Any event in particular that caused you to finally make the break?
Not a single event, but certainly a concentrated period of examination.
My wife and I had been drifting for a number of years, becoming more and more disillusioned with the faith. Among its many promises, evangelical Christianity teaches that a personal relationship with Jesus is available to all who seek him. Well, we both sought him, gave our hearts to him, but neither of us could honestly say that we knew him. I assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that my wife had, like me, realised that whatever else it was, Christianity was certainly not about knowing Jesus in any tangible way. However, she had been brought up as a Christian (whereas I had been converted as a teenager) and such was her attachment to her inherited belief that she could not easily give it up.
This difference between us began to push us apart and eventually developed into a full-blown marital crisis. Faced with the real possibility that our marriage would fall apart I determined to win back my wife’s attention by demonstrating that I could help her find God and provide the ‘spiritual leadership’ that she craved.
So, I committed myself to searching and reading once again. I went back to the Bible and other spiritual books, but I read authors with a different view as well, including Dawkins and Dennett and Hitchens. Once I started to confront the questions raised by intelligent atheists—questions that I had buried in my own mind for so long—I couldn’t stop. My faith quickly and completely unravelled.
When I discussed my doubts with my wife, neither of us could point to any events in our lives, or those of any Christians we knew, that would enable us to bolster our disappearing faith. Quite simply, we were unable to say, “Even though we cannot answer these difficult questions, we know we have experienced God in our lives.” So much for a personal relationship with Jesus!
My story is part of a series featured by the Rationalist Association in their Apostasy Project.
LEARNING TO WRITE
Q: How did you learn to write so well? Did you do a lot of revising before you got A Brief Eternity accepted? By the way, did Dangerous Little Books edit much? They seem really cool.
Thank you! I was privileged to have a good education, so that’s where it started. Most of my career writing had been of a technical nature. My creative writing skills were developed through two distance learning courses that I took with the Open College of the Arts. These taught me how to write a novel, and the experience was particularly enhanced by one of my tutors, Liz Kay (author of The Divide) who remains, to this day, my mentor.
I revised the manuscript many times before it was ready—especially the early chapters—but once I started to send it for consideration I changed it very little. Dangerous Little Books (who are really cool!) made no changes whatsoever beyond the minor errors that were picked up by their final editing and proofreading process.
Q: Did you know the end from the beginning? It was a surprise to me, and a very good one.
Thank you again! No, I did not know how I would end the book when I started writing it. I expected that I would plan out the entire novel before writing it but my first OCA tutor (the playwright Joanna Laurens) advised against this and told me to simply start writing. This turned out to be good advice, although I did have to plan more carefully towards the end in order to ensure the threads came together. I was very pleased, not to say relieved, when I worked out how to end the story!
Q: Do you have other ardent atheists in your life these days?
I know plenty of atheists and plenty of Christians, too! Quite a few of my family are Christians, which makes for some interesting discussions, and my longest-standing friend is a Bishop in the Church of England. I have recently started to become involved with the ‘godless congregation’ movement called, the Sunday Assembly. There are lots of atheists to be found there but, to be honest, I have good friends right across the spectrum of belief, which is just how I like it.