Losing their religion
There's a swarm of Fringe comedy shows this August with stand-ups reflecting on their heavily religious teenage years. We hear about their conflicted views and what made them leave the faith
This article is from 2016.
A black Christian, a gay Baptist and a radical evangelist all walk into a bar. Well, they had to, they were booked to do a stand-up gig in there. They're not the only ones either: this year's Fringe programme reveals a clutch of comedians whose shows are inspired by their childhoods growing up in religious households.
Shazia Mirza returns to the Fringe for a ten-night stint, continuing her quest to make sense of her experiences as a British-Asian woman raised in multi-faith Birmingham by a Muslim mum who is now 'strongly anti-burka'. Tom Ward was raised by a fundamentalist Christian dad and Catholic mum who banned Christmas and fashionable trainers in the house. His show Sex, Snails and Cassette Tapes looks at how he found personal salvation through girls, surf-rock bands and charity shops. Elsewhere, Ali Hassan examines his Muslim heritage in Man Interrupted, if only to answer his four children's knotty questions about modern-day Islam.
And who knew that Katy Brand, star of Katy Brand's Big Ass Show, was once a radical fundamentalist Christian? 'My local church seemed really cool and vibrant to me as a 13-year-old,' she remembers. 'It was one of those Church of England ones that got hit by a trend which came over from America in the 90s, and suddenly we were speaking in tongues and praying out demons.'
It didn't hurt that Brand had a crush on the worship leader, and there was a gospel rock band that she could sign up for. 'I felt like a celebrity,' she winces, before confessing the whole thing gives her 'the massive, deep cringe' now. 'Suddenly I felt important and I could show off. We'd go into supermarkets on Saturdays and preach, and I'd tell all my friends they'd go to hell if they didn't go to church … Looking back, I was an obnoxious dick.'
She's grateful that her self-imposed radicalisation was short-lived, but now, as stepmother to a teenage daughter, she can see exactly why it happened. 'Teenagers are ripe for radicalisation,' says Brand, whose young dabblings in the right-wing waters of Christian extremism provides an inspiration for her debut stand-up show, I Was a Teenage Christian. Her parents were laid-back and liberal, so she imagines her attempts at rebellion were probably 'Saffy Syndrome', like Julia Sawalha's militantly sensible, teetotal 16-year-old bookworm in Absolutely Fabulous.
'You feel valuable, which is appealing,' Brand explains. 'Plus, maybe you're interested in the afterlife and ghosts and mortality at that age too. It all depends what religion gets you first really: it could have been dangerous. If I'd been 13 during the Crusades, I'd probably have been off on a horse, slaughtering people.'
Like Brand, it was the social aspect of religion that sucked comedian John Pendal in. As a shy, awkward child of devout Baptist parents whose lives revolved around prayer meetings and church trips, he was bullied at school. After attending a holiday camp for fundamentalist Baptists at Butlins when he was 16, and joining the church's theatre and youth group around the same time, Pendal suddenly felt popular. 'I was allowed onstage, with a mic! As the bullied kid, it felt like heaven. Religion did a lot for me; god was like this invisible friend when I didn't have any.'
Pendal became involved with his church in Watford, and enjoyed feeling respected in the Baptist community. Until, that is, he mentioned to a church leader that he was turned on by a muscly male bodybuilder he'd seen in an episode of Neighbours. 'The church sent me for counselling. I was told "gay" didn't exist. They tried to convince me there were no homosexuals in Africa. I was very confused and considered abstaining from sex, like celibate Catholic priests do.'
It wasn't enough though. When Pendal formed a platonic friendship with a gay man from the Metropolitan Community Church – dubbed the 'Inclusive Church' because of its doors-open policy to the LGBT community – he was kicked out of his youth group and stonewalled by many old friends. 'I got handwritten hate mail from members of my old church, saying I was on the path to hell.'
In fact, those formative experiences within the Baptist church sent Pendal on a very different path. In 2003 he entered the 25th 'International Mr Leather' contest in Chicago, and became the first Brit to win. 'The contest involved me giving a speech, so I basically got up and joked that I'd been raised in the strict teetotal bubble of the Baptist church, then got kicked out for going for a drink with a man. It got a huge round of applause and I won.'
Winning meant he spent eight years touring the world, giving speeches to the BDSM community, and discussing kinks and fetishes. It was a perfect training ground for stand-up comedy and supplied plenty material for his debut show, John Pendal: International Man of Leather. 'I had no self-confidence in my looks: I still don't. But coming out aged 22 – whilst in the Baptist church, and with everything that's happened since – has definitely given me an outsider's view on the world, which every comedian needs.'
Pendal now has 'mixed feelings' about his religious upbringing. On the one hand, he made friends through his church, but is deeply confused by certain hypocrisies. 'I still never buy lottery tickets: the indoctrination is so strong! But after being condemned by the very people who had welcomed me, my faith was gradually kicked out of me.'
Religion also remains a double-edged sword for Njambi McGrath, a Kenyan-born comedian who has lived in the UK for over 20 years. The Kikuyu tribe that her family belongs to was heavily influenced by Glasgow-born missionary Doctor John Arthur, who brought Church of Scotland teachings to Africa.
'Dr Arthur labelled many ethnic practices as "morally repugnant" and banned our traditional clothes and jewellery,' says McGrath. 'But he also spoke out against female genital mutilation and helped it become a criminal offence. Some girls began performing circumcisions themselves; the psychology behind that is incredible, but as we know, cultural and religious beliefs can become so deeply ingrained.'
McGrath has first-hand experience of the complicated, controversial effects of Christian evangelism: her mother was ordered to spend time in 'The Room' below their church, as 'purification' and punishment for the sin of divorcing Njambi's father. Her Fringe show, 1 Last Dance With My Father is McGrath's attempt to confront her past, and the father who beat her.
'It's hard for me even now to condemn god: I grew up surrounded by Sunday school, religious songs, morning prayers, evening prayers that went on so long your dinner was stone cold! I used to read the bible before bed. But seeing preachers behaving like Casanovas, impregnating teenage children, taking bribes: I became totally disillusioned.'
For Katy Brand, it took something far smaller to call her faith into question. Being asked to sign an anti-Harry Potter petition finally pushed her over the edge. 'It just seemed totally absurd and childish. I don't approve of censorship (maybe if I thought Harry Potter was really shit I might have), but when they tried to pressure me into signing that, my eyes rolled into the back of my head. Since quitting, I've not been back.'
That said, she admits to still being fond of her unofficial uniform as a Christian radical. 'Jeans and a fleece are still a natural choice for me.'
Katy Brand: I Was a Teenage Christian, Pleasance Courtyard, 6–29 Aug (not 15), 4.45pm, £10–£13.50 (£9–£12.50). Previews 3–5 Aug, £7.
John Pendal: International Man of Leather, The Stand 4, 5–28 Aug (not 15), 4.45pm, £8 (£7). Preview 4 Aug, £7 (£6).
Njambi McGrath: 1 Last Dance With My Father, Laughing Horse at Espionage, 1–27 Aug, 2.30pm, free.
Shazia Mirza, The Stand 5, 5–13 Aug, 6.15pm, £9 (£8). Preview 4 Aug, £8 (£7).
Ali Hassan: Man Interrupted, Gilded Balloon at the Counting House, 6–28 Aug (not 15), 9.15pm, £6–£7 in advance or Pay What You Want. Previews 3–5 Aug, £5 (or PWYW).
Tom Ward: Sex, Snails and Cassette Tapes, Pleasance Courtyard, 6–28 Aug (not 15), 9.45pm, £8–£9.50 (£7–£8.50). Previews 3–5 Aug, £6.