Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

If you didn’t sing that title as a hymn, it’s highly unlikely that you were forced through a Christian (Catholic) education, as I was/am. Books about religion aren’t normally my forte, but this is wonderfully written.

Religion seems to be a whole other character. Going to a Catholic school – and typing this will probably have me crucified – I have religion assaulting every sense. There’s a crucifix in every classroom, a statue of Jesus in reception, a Mass at Christmas and Easter, reconciliation sessions. And personally, as someone who does not believe in organised religion, this isn’t the best environment. Reading Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical novel, about various members of the same, deeply religious family, made me think about my own choices.

Not change them, but think more about my motivations. It’s true that I was largely swayed by the poetry of William Blake and RE lessons, but now is not the time.

It starts with John, a character a little younger than me, who is pressurised to become a preacher. I think he’s gay – there are hints in relation to another young man – and his home life is shit. The narrative moves on to his father, his mother, his aunt, and culminates in an account of John’s ‘seeing the light’. Or not. It’s a confusing, mesmerising description, that dips in and out of reality. It’s what I imagined when singing those hymns about emerging from the ‘valley of darkness’, or if I were to have a fit.

I enjoy books that describe the histories of their characters; I find that it is easier to sympathise (or not, as the case may be) if I understand what they have been through. Go Tell it on the Mountain has taught me that every action is somewhat defined by our actions in the past. We do one thing, believe that we have overcome that vice, that sin, and move one step forward. We are then pulled back under, and move three steps backward.

I’d recommend this one even if you’re not remotely religious. It gives an insight into those who truly, with all their souls, believe in a higher being, and are prepared to worship them, weeping and dancing and singing. I have the utmost respect for those who are prepared to dedicate their time on earth to something – or someone – who may, or may not, exist.

This is transcendental. Contrasting human desires and sins with a ‘duty’ to follow the narrow path to God. Beautiful.

Yes, I am alive and kicking. These past couple of weeks haven’t been the best. I’m still reading, but I only finished the one above a week ago. Poetry and wine recommendations are needed urgently. 

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