mardi 13 juillet 2010

The mysterious workings of Jehovah

The Jehovah's witnesses came today. Or rather I came upon them as they were rather snoopily examining all the names on the buzzer board at the foot of the flats "for Romanian names." I came up behind them and asked them if they were looking for someone. They said, "O that's a pretty accent, where are you from?" To which I replied (not yet knowing they were Jehovah's witnesses) "It's a secret. In fact, I'm Belgian." I get rather tired of having an accent when I speak French. I suppose I should work on it. It turns out one of them speaks Romanian, so they are looking for Romanian names on buzzers to practise on. Or at least that's what they tell me. I suppose they could be Petainist collaborators identifying immigrants. That's me. British, in France, slightly paranoid. They looked harmless enough: two French ladies in their late middle years, smiling, un-botoxed.

I like it when the Jehovah's witnesses call, because it is an opportunity to get them to mend their fundamentalist ways, in particular their strict adherence to the Bible as the source of authority on all things, which if it was ever a good idea, even some thousands of years ago, is certainly not today.

My method is as follows: I explain to them that I was brought up a Quaker, which some of them have heard of, and some not, and that the one thing that Quakers and Jehovah's witnesses certainly share is being pacifist. Furthermore I add, with my greatest charm, when I lived in London, the Jehovah's witnesses were just about the only people who would come and knock on your door for a chat, an action which increases conviviality, however misguided the ideas which give rise to the behaviour. A woman from the council did come to suggest I make compost once, but I'd already been making my own for about five years at the time. I lived in a safe Labour seat in London, so certainly no political party ever darkened my door, ever. You have to go out for your politics in London.

Anyway, having gained the witnesses' attention, and assured them that I am friendly--the amount of surly knockbacks they must receive on each evangelical canvassing session must be considerable--I improvise.

Tonight, I satisfied myself by saying I certainly have a bible upstairs--in fact I have several--but I also have a koran, and several hundred other books besides. But I like the Jehovah's witnesses' action, because it makes me think "If you could only have one book, what would it be?" And to consider the days when books were so precious that the average number of books owned by an ordinary person would be approaching zero. "Religion is the scaffold of thought," I say, because I honestly believe that without religion in the past we would have no intellectual heritage today. The French are very keen on harking back to the Greeks and the Romans (wisely leaving out about 15 centuries of medieval stasis til the Renaissance) but anyway, it's a long story, but religions that today insist on the primacy of a single text, without weighing it against others, or considering how texts come into being and are valued, are basically just adding to the smokescreen, not trying to blow it away.

So that's me and the Jehovah's witnesses. I am always very nice and polite, and so are they, and usually they end our interview by giving me a leaflet, emboldened with biblical citation, and sometimes illustrated with pictures of nice multiracial gatherings with a lion lying down with a lamb in the background or somesuch. They definitely have a house style.

I'd like to know more about what leads Jehovah's witnesses to their faith. I suppose in entering such an out group, and believing so strongly in heaven helps certain kinds of humans to deal with being human better than if they were not Jehovah's witnesses, and so, I suppose, good luck to them. Apart from the nagging doubt that their canvassing is designed to detect and exploit minds less robust (hah!) than my own. Knowing that they must have doors slammed rudely in their faces pretty often, but dealing with them in a convivial manner myself gives me a rosy internal glow of virtue, and so for me anyway, they are very good, and a welcome element on the social scene.

I'd quite like to quote from their leaflet to round off this post, but it seems to have disappeared into the literary compost with which I surround myself, or perhaps it's still in my shirt pocket, which is next door, and the baby is now sleeping and a bit poorly, so I'll just have to content myself with quoting my favourite line from the bible, which is this: Ecclesiastes 1:18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

Sorry about that.