For the last couple of weeks we have been watching a BBC drama SS-GB, which is a series based on a novel with the same name written by Len Deighton. It depicts the scenes of London in particular as it might have looked if the German Nazis had won the War, with Britain falling victim to the German invasion. In addition to the presence of Nazi military personnel seen just about everywhere at their posts, we see flags bearing the Swastika icon displayed across the deserted city, and especially over the Houses of Parliament. We also see Buckingham Palace reduced to a bombed out derelict, with the King and his Royal Family imprisoned in the Tower of London. At the time of writing the series is still ongoing, and we as viewers are yet to watch the climax of the drama, still a few weeks away.
As the series depicts how Britain might have looked if Germany had won World War II - and that could have easily been the case - here I would like to be more on a personal level and depict on how things might have possibly turned out if I had not bumped into two rather insignificant-looking young men at the Strand in London one wet Saturday night of December 1972.
As I have written about before,* the year 1972 was a year of contrasts. It began with myself with a girlfriend named Sandra. Together we booked a holiday in Spain to be taken later that Summer. Also it was to be my first trip abroad without my parents, and as still a teenager, it was seen as a big turning point in my life. Then during Spring of that year, Sandra ended our year-long relationship. I was even dismissed from her parent's home in Wimbledon, after spending so much time there, even a few weekend sleepovers. Fortunately, when arriving at the home of a college friend in Southall, West London, literally in tears, he offered to take Sandra's place. So the Spanish trip with what was then package firm Cosmos was saved. But on the long term basis, my emotions over the split still hadn't recovered.
And thus I was a prime target and sitting duck for any passer-by to take advantage. As I walked along the Strand that evening feeling hopeless and looking rather like a drowned rat, the route taken was from the Lyceum Ballroom (now a theatre) where I was refused admission by two smartly-dressed bouncers, one of them looking like a burly wrestler. The venue was directly across the Strand from the start of Waterloo Bridge, and therefore a not-so-long walk across the River Thames from there to the terminus where the last train departure for home awaited.
It was whilst approaching Charing Cross Station where I was stopped by two young men in the street. They asked me what I thought about Jesus Christ. After taking on the conversation, I invited them to a pub located at an alleyway directly across the road. Inside the bar where it was warm and dry, which changed my mood for the better. Once in, I bought them drinks and once seated at table they took out a Bible. For the first time I believed, and it does look to me that from that moment in the pub, I experienced regeneration and became a child of God. Later that evening I actually paid their train fares as we, along with several others all singing and praising God whilst seated in the train out of Charing Cross Station, made the journey to their colony, which was set in a disused jam factory located just a couple of blocks from Bromley North terminus station, towards Kent. It was at this disused factory where I spent the whole of that night. What follows is now history.
But supposing that I had not met these two young men at the Strand that evening? How would things turn out? In which direction would I been heading? As a teenager I was an atheist, at least that was what I called myself. But was I really an atheist, believing that God doesn't exist? And if my own experience has any value, do I believe in the reality of atheism? Or to be more honest - a hatred for God but still with an awareness, even in the most remote corner of my mind, of his existence? I think there is just one issue which can turn a man against God or to disown his existence, and that is religion. I grew up as a Roman Catholic - a religion of Hell, Works, and Ritualism, with a lot of uncertainty thrown in. The result was believing that God does not, and cannot, love me because of all my shortcomings. As Mum used to say to me whenever I have done something amiss as a young child,
If you die now, you'll go straight to Hell.
This was endorsed by the Church in those days. A system of mortal sin, venial sin, Hell, Purgatory, Confession to a priest, Penance, the Act of Contrition, Hail Mary, the sacredness of Holy Communion, attendance to church dressed up in Sunday Best suit and tie, not daring to swear or say something out of place whilst in church, bowing to the Alter, getting wet with Holy Water, doing the Sign of the Cross - and so it goes on - no meat eaten on Friday, the necessity to say grace before meals (although at home we didn't do this, but had to at school), and of course, no contraception. All this was compounded by our rigorous school discipline, when corporal punishment was used, so it seemed, as a release of pent-up feelings in the administrator's heart. No wonder I grew up believing that God was perceived as a dissatisfied "big man" in the sky, ready to punish, and who would interpret any positive prayer as a snide way of attempting to gain his favour.
And so, like quite a number of schoolboys of my age, we denied the existence of God, and I believe that the vast majority of those who call themselves atheist had similar experiences as I did. Considering Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris as examples, I don't believe in their true denial of God's existence. Rather, all three had an inkling of his existence within a corner of their minds. This is a fact endorsed in the Bible itself, which reveals that the light of Christ shines into every man born into the world (John 1:4, 9). This is backed up by what Paul has written to the church in Rome, that:
For although they knew God, they never glorified him as God nor gave him thanks, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts became darkened.
In other words they suppress, or push away the truth, as Romans 1:18 says. Peter also says in his letter that there will be those who will deny the historicity of both supernatural Creation and the Flood, in favour of "everything continuing since the beginning of creation" (2 Peter 3:3-7). Or what we refer to as Darwinism and Uniformitarianism at present. If the Bible is true, then there is no such person who is a "true atheist". Everyone is born with an awareness of the existence of God, for it was God who has put this awareness there.
And so as a teenager I hated God and embraced Evolution. Actually I was quite a fanatic of the theory. But by the time I have reached my twentieth birthday in 1972, with having no more compulsion to dress up and attend church, and the rigorous school discipline confined to history, by then there was a dulling of my hatred of God. In other words, I began to accept his existence. But still I remained a staunch Evolutionist.
So if I had not met those two guys at the Strand that evening in 1972 - maybe because despite my drowned rat appearance, I was still allowed entry into the ballroom. Or that I argued for a time with the bouncers and the two men had in the meantime stopped someone else in the street. Or they decided to go another direction, missing me entirely. Here I try to speculate what could have happened - or not happened - in the life which might have followed:
I would have carried on towards Trafalgar Square and turned North into Charing Cross Road towards Tottenham Court Road Underground Station located at the junction with Oxford Street. Just before arriving at the station entrance, I would have halted outside The Setting Sun Club and Discotheque. With more relaxed entry requirements, chances that I would have spent the evening there instead. The probability of finding another girlfriend would have remained very slim, but not an impossibility. Then a direct tube train ride for Waterloo Station from Tottenham Court Station for the last mainline train home.
|The Strand, London. Approaching Trafalgar Square.|
And instead of moving out, "flying the nest" so to speak, chances that I would have remained at home with my parents. This was much to do with the fact that when I actually started to attend church as a true believer, most young church-going men of my age had already flown the nest, and either were co-habiting with fellow graduates or undergraduates, living on their own in a rented apartment, or were married already and raising families. Therefore I considered myself an oddball by remaining at home during the 1970's. As a result of this way of thinking, I flew the nest in 1976, then aged 23. If I had not met these guys on that fateful night, chances that I would have been happier remaining at home.
But whilst at home, I very likely would have worked hard and saved up hard. And I might have set my heart on travel. Not the package deal to Spain with my college mate in 1972, but TRAVEL. This means backpacking in mainland Europe for considerably longer than the three to four weeks. As finding a job, even as an unskilled labourer, was not that difficult, as there were plenty of those sort of jobs going around in those days. In order to travel for longer periods, the need to terminate employment most likely would have been a necessity before departure. At first, travel would have been confined to Western Europe until I have earned my parents' confidence. Frequent sending of postcards, even an occasional full-blown letter telling them where I am and what I was doing would have most likely set their minds at rest.
Long-haul travel might have been the reality some time after a couple of more years in manual work whilst living at home. Then it's off to North America, possibly South Africa, and Australia. But not just for a few weeks but for several months at a time. For example, the maximum time a tourist can stay in the USA is three months. But there was always the possibility of applying for a Work Visa at the US Embassy in London beforehand, which could have allowed me to stay up to six months in America, working on the fields picking fruit or even on a building site as a labourer. These short-term contracts would have allowed me to explore the whole of the country without allowing my funds run low.
When I was actually staying at a hostel in Sydney in 1997, there was a poster advertising fruit picking work on offer to any long-term traveller. Had I not met these young men in 1972, there would have been a good chance of fruit-picking in Australia, prolonging my visit there to maybe up to six months before moving on to New Zealand. It would have been at these workplaces where I would be totally immune to any smut or teasing. This being the actual result of working in a furniture factory immediately after leaving school in 1968. It was here where I gradually became immune to the smutty talk which continued unabated throughout the five years I worked there. Therefore I might have been ready for any flak that might have come my way overseas.
By contrast, if I had not met these two young men that night, chances that I would have remained as an agnostic rather than an outright atheist. Also my level of academic learning would not have progressed much since leaving school. Not only would the Bible remained a closed book, but my adherence to Darwinism would have remained intact. Of my travel experience, it would have been unlikely that I would have ever set foot in Israel, let alone visiting Jerusalem. I would have had no interest in religiously associated or spiritual destinations. To me, Jerusalem would have been nothing more than a reminiscence of those Religious Education lessons at school, and along with anything "churchy", I would most likely avoid at all costs. Affiliated with this, I would have never have studied history, both ancient and recent, especially which is connected with church history. Neither would I have ever looked into Geology, nor would have I gone far into Genome biology, unless there was a rise in personal interest in any of these subjects from purely a secular point of view.
I would have known nothing about the Bible, possibly not even being aware that the book is divided into the Old and New Testaments, let alone knowing any chapter and verse. Any attendance to church would remain specifically reserved for any weddings, perhaps funerals too, and always of course, smartly dressed, as I wouldn't have been able to think otherwise. Christmas and Easter holidays would have been spent at home, or even at the coast, but not at all in church. As for my personal I.Q. - this might have risen somewhat as I got older, but nothing of the rate it had risen as the result of Bible reading and familiarity with the Holy Scriptures. In short, experience has shown that regular Bible reading has raised my intelligence quotient to a considerably higher level.
Then there would have also been the possibility that in a wider search for employment, I would have eventually had to fly the nest and settle elsewhere in the UK. This of course would have compromised my travelling experience unless I ended up sharing a house or apartment with other tenants, whether married, co-habiting, or single. In a case like this it would have still have been possible to work hard, save up hard, and travel hard. Assuming that I would have never heard the Gospel in the first place, I would have never set foot at Bracknell Baptist Church in 1975, neither would I ever set foot at Ascot Baptist Church in 1990, let alone knowing anyone who attends at present.
But there is always the possibility that I could have heard and responded to the Gospel later in life. Then yes, there is that chance that I would be attending Ascot Life Church as I do at present, if I remained in the Bracknell area. Otherwise there's that equal possibility that I could be living elsewhere and therefore attend some other church, maybe far away.
Instead, I was stopped by these two young men at the Strand on that wet and dismal December Saturday evening. Therefore, my knowledge of the Bible began to grow. Also allied with reading Holy Scripture, I learnt how to read Greek as a result of a clash with some Jehovah's Witnesses over some Greek words. I have studied some history as an aid to look into the origins of various theological issues. And geology was researched to understand better the mechanics of the Deluge. And because Creationism clashed with Evolution, this opened a door for me to look into the probability of the Genome and its natural evolution, a subject which I now find rather fascinating.
And yes, talking about Jehovah's Witnesses, there is always that possibility that I could have become one of them. Then again, would I have been under pressure of personal conviction to keep on knocking on doors, only in the majority of cases having the door slammed shut at my face? Would I have found myself feeling enslaved to an American religious organisation in order to hold on to my hope of salvation, and even ending up committed to an institution, as reported that some Witnesses were actually committed to psychiatric wards? Indeed, ending up as a fully fledged Witness could have been a strong possibility.
Rather, everything has worked out exactly as God foreknew and planned. And I will forever thank him for allowing me to meet up with these two guys after being refused entry at an entertainment venue.
* To read the full account of my conversion as told in one of my archives: Frank's Christian Thoughts: 1973 And All That..., click here.