Belfast Telegraph

Whitney funeral showed the true meaning of faith

By Gail Walker

Given the fact that the Christian faith played such a large role historically in the life of Britain and Ireland in the 20th century, it's not really a mystery that those who advocate what's known as a 'secular' worldview have become so aggressive in recent decades.

It's only that century, after all, which saw the achievement of almost universal literacy in these islands and also a radical deepening of the influence of the churches in every stage of popular education.

As well as embedding the general view of people who aren't particularly religious or 'church-going', that they are still somehow 'Christian' and that the culture of these islands is a shared 'Christianity', there has also been a related rise in the number of people who, for one reason or another, have come to loathe the 'Christian' worldview and its influence in everything around them.

As they have got older, and the truisms that were old already when they were young seem still to be holding sway, it's understandable that attitudes might harden into intemperate rage and a kind of lashing out might occur.

Richard Dawkins (isn't it always?) is of an age now (70 plus) where a lifetime of observation as a scientist in several fields, measured, considered, rational, has acquired the kind of rashness and vociferousness one associates with people more accustomed to intemperateness and anger. You don't need to be a scientist to be those things; and it doesn't seem to help much either.

But there's been enough written by and about Prof Dawkins and I'm not going to add to the volumes particularly.

Except to state the obvious: how what we call 'ordinary people' do reach for basic Christian symbols and phrases in times of joy and grief. Those extremes routinely seem to call for something other than parties and tears and that 'other' tends to be religion.

I'm not making this up. You only had to look in on Whitney Houston's funeral in Newark on Saturday - and there were four hours to stumble upon it by accident! - to be struck both by the profundity of the faith and the centrality of its role.

It was moving, sad, deeply felt, hugely expressive, soaked in artistry and breath-taking human talent. It was, in a word, beautiful.

The point was forcefully made throughout the service - out of that community of faith Whitney Houston had come and now she was, as it was put, 'home coming'. Are these people 'backward'? Are they irrational? Are they deluded, drugged, drunk or just thick? Most are certainly poor.

But poverty doesn't mean stupidity, any more than education means cleverness. Though education does increasingly - was it ever really any different, in spite of the availability of basic schooling? - imply wealth.

The black community of Newark found some deep meaning in the Bible which meant, for them, the drama of Houston's rise and fall was not incomprehensible, but completely at one with their experience of being alive.

Impressive too was the absence of sanctimoniousness, the acceptance of what they call 'sinners' and a simple humility in spite of the vast wealth of some of those on the dais.

Of course, it was glamorous and starry and lasted so long even the stamina of the most resolute Ulster tin-hutter would have been sorely tested.

But it was just a shinier version of exactly the same resort to faith as occurs at moments of crisis and ecstasy in Britain and Ireland day and daily.

There was no anger. No rage. No lashing out. Just a quiet confidence in something.

As with so much in life, it wasn't the 'something' they were confident in which was impressive - 'God', or 'Jesus', or 'Heaven' - but that confidence itself, expressed in community and in love. Sometimes, I find that confidence more useful in life and better to be around than mouthy old men - atheist Father Jack - however wealthy or well-educated. In fact, make that 'always'.

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