The headline on my column today may seem totally at odds with my evangelical Christian faith on the doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ.
But it has become one of the ironies of my personal spiritual journey that I was to find an unusual defence in the writings of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Che Guevara.
Such exams were relatively easy to pass in the junior Sunday school as the questions would be about Moses, Joseph, Adam and Eve. In short, you could ‘wing’ the exam and claim your prize.
However, once you entered the senior Sunday school, you were confronted with memorising and understanding a very (well, for me!) challenging document known as The Shorter Catechism of the Presbyterian Church.
Now, on paper, it should have been relatively easy to pass the annual Catechism exam - just spend time to revise and learn the questions off parrot fashion, such as what is man’s chief end? It is to glorify God.
Given that in the Sixties, there were very few people alive or sane in my dad’s rural Presbyterian congregation who could remember a family in the Manse, it was unthinkable about a minister’s son committing the cardinal sin of failing a Catechism exam.
Unlike the junior exam, you could not bluff the Catechism exam. Like preparing for either your primary school poetry reciting exam or an elocution test, there was only one solution - take time alone and learn the words.
Because I did not become a ‘born again’ Christian until I was 12, the theological relevance of the Catechism - and especially the exam - was at the bottom of my agenda.
I certainly did not appreciate the amount of personal devotion time required to prepare for and pass this exam. So when my parents packed me off to the Manse’s ‘big living room’ to revise my Catechism, it was editions of my weekly Topper comic which were smuggled in instead.
Needless to say, my exam was an unmitigated theological disaster! I simply couldn’t answer any question the Presbyterian elder asked me! Even the notion that I wouldn’t be receiving a prize for this disastrous performance on Children’s Day in June did not bother me.
But then the elder reported to dad as to how badly I’d done in the exam! Word spread around the congregation faster than an Australian bush fire - the minster’s son failed the Catechism exam! I had effectively committed a virtually unpardonable sin.
Clearly my failure had been a huge embarrassment to my parents and the church gossips had clearly equally had a field day taunting my parents about my lack of Catechism knowledge.
Reality had sunk in - the good old days of the junior Sunday school in Clough Presbyterian Church in north Antrim and my earlier days in the nursery Sunday school at Westbourne Presbyterian Church in east Belfast were over. I was in serious trouble. Hell beckoned.
However, in my naïve mind at that time, my main worry was that my parents would cancel not just my weekly Topper comic, but also their promise that I could also have The Victor comic as well!
It was a mistake that I would never repeat. If memorising the Catechism kept the Catechism ‘police’, or the Catechism Constables as I liked to brand them, off my back, then I would learn the litany.
The process was simple - learn the questions, recite them off parrot fashion; elder tells dad I passed, I get prize, happy days and no one jibes at mum and dad! It was only when I became a ‘born again’ Christian that I began to appreciate the value of what I had memorised in the Catechism.
It is only in writing these reflective articles that I can truly appreciate, too, what my parents did to protect me as a minister’s son from the church gossips. In another way, I was protecting my parents in return through my ability to recite perfectly the Catechism.
It was a tactic that I was to carry into my days in the Boys’ Brigade and the annual Scripture exam. Based on the flak which I had endured for failing that Catechism exam as a primary school child, I fully realised the implications for dad and myself if as a young Christian and BB member that I bottled the Scripture exam.
During my BB days, I won four company section cups, four Scripture badges and three Ballymena Battalion prizes in those exams. Such victories kept the ‘tut-tut brigade’ temporarily off my back. I also had to apply similar diligence to my Religious Education (RE) exams at Ballymena Academy. Again, imagine the disgrace if a Presbyterian minister’s son failed a school RE exam?
Whilst I had the privilege of being taught by some superb RE teachers at Ballymena Academy and I enjoyed the RE classes, I decided not to take RE for O Level for fear of flunking the exam!
However, although passing the Catechism exam and later the BB exams kept the gossips at bay, it was only a temporary measure. What it could not save me from were people who would ask me a deep theological or Biblical question and if I could not give an immediate coherent answer, they would respond “You’re a minister son, you ought to know the answer!”
I was not being asked these questions to help or advise people, but merely to try and embarrass me in front of my peers. Ironically, at the same time as these ‘challenges’ began, I was becoming very politically active as a Young Unionist, the junior wing of the UUP.
Whilst I was a Right-wing Unionist ideologically, I also read the writings of Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin and Che Guevara under the banner of ‘know your enemy’.
It was by chance that Marx and Trotsky came to my aid in my running battle with the Catechism Constable brigade! A smart-assed Presbyterian elder approached me at a church youth mission and in front of my peers asked me a question about Biblical matters with a clear view to giving me a dressing down for being a minister’s son who couldn’t answer properly.
I’ve no idea what deep theological query the elder posed, but the key line was: “Should you not know that as a minister’s son?” My retort was in a calm voice: “But according to Leon Trotsky ….” I then came off with a few revolutionary quotes which bore no relevance to the elder’s query!
But it had the desired effect. The elder was visibly flabbergasted at the minister’s son quoting revolutionary communism and walked away without another word.
My chums laughed; they knew I had not recanted my Christian faith, but was merely returning the serve to an elder who had tried to embarrass me in front of them. Indeed, I recall that one of my ‘born again’ Christian friends, who had no interest in politics, actually said they would become a Trotskyite if this elder pulled a similar stunt on them!
Thankfully, my quoting of Marx, Trotsky and Lenin at such elders merely shut them up and did not fuel any speculation that the minister’s son was really a closet communist who had formed a revolutionary socialist cell in the congregation!
In later years, I have used ‘The Red Card’ purely as a protection ploy to deflect criticism from people who want to ‘get at me’ simply because I’m a Presbyterian minister’s son by birth. Perhaps, too I admit, some of this is pure provocation at the ‘tut-tut brigade’.
I constantly greet a number of this brigade with the words “Hello comrade!” I wear Communist Party badges on my denim jacket, and even sport my tee-shirts bearing the emblems of the hammer and sickle, or Che Guevara!
At first reading, as I come 61, this may seem rather childish. But as a Presbyterian minister’s son, my spiritual journey has taught me that sometimes even the most infantile gestures can act as a Christian suit of armour against the ‘tut-tut brigade’.
I wonder what Marx and Trotsky would make of how a ‘born again’ Christian is using their ideologies!
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com
Sorry to see this string of pieces come to an end John. I think many people got a lot out of them.ReplyDelete
with regards to dress code, a friend who was active in the days of the late and great Pat Ward would oft times quote Pat's advice on same; 'dress like a tourist, not like a terrorist'. No denim nor combat jackets to be worn in his company!