The nicest thing about playing the bass in the worship team of Immanuel was the bass itself. It was a Fender Precision, American-made, with an Amber Sunburst finish. I loved its heft, the hardwood glide of the neck, the taut metal thrum of the strings.
It had been gathering dust in the PA cupboard since the old bassist left. I was around 14 when the worship leader asked me to join the band. I quickly said yes. I’d never played the electric bass, but I’d had a few double bass lessons at school. I kept the volume low for the first few months, as I was hitting as many wrong notes as right ones. I wore the bass low-slung at first, and it made me feel cool in a way that I hadn’t felt before, though it was far too big for me, and I eventually took to sitting down on the amplifier so I could reach the lower frets.
I was grateful to be asked to join, but I was faintly embarrassed by the band. At home I listened to Christian rock music, and secular Britpop taped off the radio. There were other churches—like the Community Church down the road in Southampton—that had far better bands, with Stratocasters and fuzz boxes and fat Marshall amps. In Immanuel the line-up varied every week, but the sound was always tame and anaemic. There was a keyboard player, an acoustic guitarist or two, a drummer if we were lucky, and a clarinet player whose sprightly embellishments were the polar opposite of rock and roll.
On some Sundays, however, we made a sound in Immanuel that was unlike anything I’ve heard since. It didn’t happen every week, and only ever lasted a couple of minutes at most. It was always at the end of one of the slower songs—“Be Still,” or “What a Friend I’ve Found,” or “My Jesus My Savior.” After the last chorus, the worship leader would signal for the band to play on. We would circle around the refrain, our tone hushed, our tempo slightly slowed. And then the congregation would begin to sing in tongues.
How to describe it? A few dozen people opened their mouths and something—not English, not any human language— came out. Each person sang their own tune around the simple chords, formed of their own strange non-words. There were moments when it was all chaos and dissonance, a primordial soup of sound. Other moments, the voices coalesced into crystalline harmonies, then fell away again, only to find their way into some new fleeting form. The voices became a kind of murmuration, a spectral body in constant flux.
People believed that when they sang in tongues, the Holy Spirit sang through them. I never had the strength of belief or confidence to speak or sing in tongues myself. In the last days of my bass-playing in Immanuel, I’d look out to the sea of lifted hands and be hit with a feeling of desolation. That they might be singing to a big nothing seemed almost unbearably sad to me. But somehow the radiance of that sound survived my disenchantment.
Out of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, few have caused more disagreement among Christians than the gift of tongues. For many early US Pentecostals, the gift meant an instant fluency in foreign languages, divinely bestowed for the purposes of missionary work. Alfred Garr, an evangelist linked to the 1906 Asuza Street revival in Los Angeles, believed that he spoke fluent Bengali until the day he arrived in Calcutta.
It was there that we learned—through the likes of Tommy Tenney and Rick Joyner—to see ourselves as the lone heroes of our own epic dramas, capable of achieving awesome things if we could only stop doubting.
In Immanuel, many believed that tongues contained divine messages. After someone came up to the microphone to speak in tongues, another person would come to share a tentative interpretation—usually words of encouragement, rarely anything too concrete. When Immanuelites sang in tongues together, though, it was not the content of speech that mattered. To sing in tongues was to be untethered from language, to become pure song.
How can I fathom my attachment to this sound? Watching YouTube videos of big-shot American preachers speaking in tongues at the pulpit, I feel sickened by the smug showmanship of it. Anyone can babble like this. All you need is disinhibition, a state that might be brought on by profound spiritual experience, but which is easily accessible to those who are shameless in the first place. Here, the charisma sells the product, like the mail order qualifications on a quack doctor’s wall.
Yet the sound I recall from Immanuel—that shifting mass of voices, at once singular and plural—was a very different thing. Perhaps it was not the sound itself but the possibilities of togetherness contained within it: this momentary communion which was egoless, leaderless, utterly sincere.
My friend Dan’s story of becoming a disciple at the Synagogue Church Of All Nations had fascinated me because he’d followed to its farthest reaches a path that we’d once walked together; one that I’d only ever wandered partway down. My own teenage God-chasing had been inept, undramatic, never more than half-arsed. Yet Dan’s relentless striving towards breakthrough, his oscillation between self-belief and brutal self-reproach, felt intimately familiar to me.
This was undoubtedly part of Immanuel’s legacy. It was there that we learned—through the likes of Tommy Tenney and Rick Joyner—to see ourselves as the lone heroes of our own epic dramas, capable of achieving awesome things if we could only stop doubting, cast off the complacencies of tradition and pray really, really hard. We learned that we were history makers, and if we didn’t see dead men rise or the blind set free, it was because we simply weren’t passionate enough.
This revivalist Christianity often sold itself as an antidote to the empty pleasures of Western consumer society. What strikes me now is the extent to which it mirrored, in its endless drive for growth and sensation, the culture it claimed to oppose. I had little nostalgia for this aspect of Immanuel, but then I never really left the restlessness behind. It just changed focus, latched onto other things.
There was another side to Immanuel. Not the lonely striving of revivalism nor its mass elation, but a kind of collectivity that seemed antithetical to these things. A feeling of holding and of being held. A sense of fellowship and interdependence whose absence I felt keenly in my secular life.
By the time I was in my early teens, this state of absorption had given way to something more fraught.
My very first memories of Immanuel were of dust. In our rented meeting room in Winchester Guildhall, the morning sun would descend in diagonal shafts from a row of skylights in the ceiling. When one of these columns touched down near my seat, I would watch it closely. From a distance it seemed as solid and sharp-edged as masonry. Up close, it was an edifice made of movement: all eddy and flow, streams emerging and unravelling.
As I watched, sitting with my family, the sounds of Immanuel would unfold around me. The polyphony of familiar voices, the words now earthbound and banal, now sacred and soaring. The pulse of electric piano and shimmer of acoustic guitar. The warm and ragged song of the congregation; the words I knew by heart before I knew their meaning.
I’d sometimes track a single particle of dust as it traversed the pillar of light. Occasionally it would flash minutely as it caught the fullness of the sun’s rays. When it reached the outer edge of the pillar, it would pass quietly back into invisibility again. It occurred to me, at some point, that the shafts of light had something to do with the things that the adults spoke about: God, love, the Holy Spirit. There was no urgency to know for sure. Nothing was required of me but to sit there, held in the radiance of the voices and the songs.
By the time I was in my early teens, this state of absorption had given way to something more fraught. Often, sitting alongside my peers in the Assembly Room of St John’s, I was aware of little but the gap between what I should have been feeling and what I felt; what I should have been thinking and the thoughts that turned up. I knew that I was called upon to praise, but could rarely bring myself to do it, could not understand why an omnipotent creator would demand such displays; could not raise my hands without feeling a kind of stage fright, a sense that my insincerity would show, that everyone would see that I wasn’t doing it right.
I was tormented by new hungers. Certain Sundays—the weather warm, the room bathed in sunlight—it would occur to me, with the force of a Damascene vision, that there were knickers under every Sunday dress. I’d imagine the delicate cotton, the unfathomable wonders beneath, and as everyone rose to sing I’d stay seated, an elbow resting on a raised knee, my eyes closed as if in prayer. The more I pushed away the sinful thoughts the more relentlessly they intruded. The more I strove to feel the presence of God, the further away He seemed.
And then I joined the worship team. At first, the sheer focus required to hit the right notes made any doubts or bad thoughts impossible. Even after my growing confidence allowed for a wandering mind, I was less vexed. The thoughts didn’t go away, but I felt suspended above them, held in the equanimity of being of use. All that really mattered was that I played the bass.
It wasn’t an exciting role. It was almost boring, but without boredom’s agitation. There was a rightness in the restraint it demanded. My notes, dull and inadequate on their own, joined with the sound of the band, under-pinned the melodies. Together, we built a structure that held the voices of Immanuel and allowed them to ascend.
After I left Immanuel, the word corporate never had a positive connotation. In my late teens I’d dismiss certain bands for being too corporate, with the righteous zeal of an indie kid. A leftist student in the No Logo era, I’d learn about the insatiable appetites of multinational corporations, about the concept of corporate personhood, the concept by which companies in the US could claim the legal rights of an individual.
Yet the word always retained a shade of its first meaning. In Immanuel, our pastor Graham would often speak of the church as a body, about the value of corporate worship. I don’t recall ever hearing an explanation of this term. I absorbed its meaning in other ways.
The idea of church as body goes back to Paul. “We were all brought into one body by baptism,” he wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “whether we are Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free men… There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.”
In Darwin’s Cathedral, the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson took this metaphor seriously as a hypothesis to be tested. He explored the ways in which a religious community might work as a kind of superorganism. He showed how a doctrine—like the one laid out in Paul’s letters to the early churches—can work as a blueprint for the functioning of a group. The doctrines that persisted were the ones that helped form groups that thrived, expanded, and reproduced. Seen this way, the truth value of a doctrine was less important than the fruit that it bore: the relationships that formed around it; the things it made happen in the world.
I remembered, at the very end of the meeting, the odd tenderness of the in-between time: the minute or so after we put down our instruments and before the hall emptied out.
This idea was exciting and unsettling to me. The way it looked beyond the binary of true/untrue. The way it allowed rigor and skepticism to co-exist with a certain awe and reverence: that of a scientist marveling at an organism’s endless, elaborate ways of defying entropy.
Darwin’s Cathedral helped me pinpoint what captivated me about Paul’s letters. To read them was to eavesdrop on this extraordinary point in history: the moment in which a small radical Jewish sect in the Middle East—one among many—turned outwards to the gentile world and transformed into something that would span continents, spawn countless mutations, provide a shape and structure for countless lives.
In my post-Immanuel life, my yearning for togetherness has been matched by a need to be alone and unencumbered that borders on misanthropy. But I’ve had brief snatches of a similar feeling. Getting the vote out at election time: the doorstepping in the rain, the end-of-day meet-up in the pub, the unfamiliar optimism that lasts as long as the badge stays on.
At Moving Voices, the friendliest Open Mic night in Southampton, listening to a first-timer earnestly butcher a tune: the pained, reverent hush; the respect for the principle of song that trumps the shittiness of the actual song. And playing in bands, too. It’s probably no coincidence that some of my most enduring friendships are with old bandmates: those with whom I’ve hauled equipment, argued about arrangements, practiced songs to death, shared delusions and occasional epiphanies.
Perhaps I loved the sound of singing in tongues for its rarity. It couldn’t be replicated or faked. It could never have existed without the singers believing they were channelling something divine and eternal. When, playing bass in the band, I first started doubting its divinity, the sound became tragic and farcical. Recalling it as an adult, the question of its provenance mattered less. The beauty lay in its transience, its very human finitude. We raised our voices. Strange and wonderful forms emerged then fell away.
I remembered, at the very end of the meeting, the odd tenderness of the in-between time: the minute or so after we put down our instruments and before the hall emptied out. Some people remained in small prayer huddles. Others would start gathering up their coats. People on the floor would begin to sit up, blowing their noses, dabbing eyes, adjusting rumpled clothes. There were little exchanges that bridged the gap between sacred and mundane speech: a ‘God is good’ and a hug; a squeezed shoulder and a hallelujah like a sigh.
As I switched off the amp, coiled the jack lead and placed the bass in the velvet bed of its flight case, I’d see people heading for tea and conversation in the dining room next door. Then the stewarding team would wheel in the chair-trolleys and start stacking, turning the church back into a hall.
From Immanuel. Reprinted by arrangement with Fitzcarraldo Editions. Copyright © 2022 by Matthew McNaught.