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Why I’ve tuned in to religious radio

A nun listens to the radio in Ecuador, ahead of a 2015 visit by Pope Francis - Credit: Photo: Martin Bernett/AFP via Getty Images

Novelist WILL SELF explains why tuning in to religious station Advent Radio has renewed his faith in the medium

The local pharmacist – who I call the fundamentalcist for reasons that will soon become clear – has some sort of evangelical radio station playing over the shop’s PA system all day every day, such that I’m forever buying toothpaste or antiseptic, or having a prescription filled while being inveighed to kneel down before the Lord and repent. So I’m always asking the employees – since some of them wear hijabs and other signs of different religious affiliation – whether they mind, and they all look a little worried and say they don’t. I’m not surprised; the fundamentalcist himself is an imposing Nigerian, who can be hectoring of his customers as well as his staff; he once – and this was before the pandemic – told me off for sneezing on the premises, which seemed a little rich considering I’d gone in to buy… tissues.

In a snarky and secular mood one day I asked him why he was a pharmacist at all, 
given he believes in an omnipotent and omniscient super-being: “Surely, if it’s His will, God will heal us when we’re ill,” I needled him, “so why all the drugs?” To which he snapped back: “God made the drugs for that purpose.” And that was the end of that – for I had to admit his certainty trumped my scepticism. 

So it was, suitably humbled, I began listening to an evangelical radio station as well: Advent Radio. I’m not sure that the fundamentalcist is a Seventh Day Adventist, but he might be given it’s the fastest-growing faith group in the world, and many recent converts are from Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Adventism is perhaps best known for celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday rather than Sunday, together with a conviction that we are living in the End of Days, as described in the Bible, and that Jesus will soon return to earth to rule over the righteous for 1,000 years before the world (together with all its pharmacies) comes to an end.

Personally, I find such certainty about the looming Armageddon rather comforting – after all, it’s so at odds with the collective denial which represses all bad news – from the next wave of Covid, to the looming climate emergency – beneath a tepid, tea-soaked blanket of keeping calm and carrying on. On Advent Radio people aren’t afraid to say that the entire creation is about to disappear in a vortex of fire, and nor are they backward when it comes to throwing themselves on God’s mercy.

The fundamentalcist may believe drugs are the necessary intermediary between human maladies and divine cures, but plenty of Advent airtime is devoted to the testimony of those who got down on their knees and prayed – often for quite complex medical outcomes like raised blood platelet levels – and had those prayers filled. Sorry, I mean “answered”. 

And in case you’re an Adventist who’s worried about how to pray, and in what spirit, there’s a phone-in every day which employs scriptural exegesis as a mode of advice. This isn’t just some facile remark about how John 3.16 rewards faith with immortality, but rather a properly-trained theologian giving a complete account of who the Pharisees were, and why it is that Nicodemus’s question leads to the conclusion that all must be born again in order to ascend to heaven. 

Alright, I’ll admit it: while I began listening to Advent Radio in a slightly facetious mode, a week on it’s beginning to win me over. Darwin’s son-in-law, the maverick scientist Francis Galton, once conducted an experiment on religious faith, by setting a Mr Punch puppet up in a sort of shrine and then praying to it for an hour every morning. He wanted to see if the action alone would induce belief – and had to terminate the exercise when he realised it did so only too well, because when he entered his club in Pall Mall and saw a copy of Punch magazine lying on the library table, he felt compelled to make obeisance before it.

I’m not quite there yet with Advent Radio – rather, the experiment is having pretty much the same effect on me as one I undertook four years ago while travelling in Armenia. This mountainous little land is full of extraordinary churches – many of them derelict. As a friend was mortally ill at the time, I decided to light a candle in every church I stopped at and say a short prayer asking for God to heal her. I wondered if, should my friend recover, I would find myself a believer.

Well, she did recover – and I did become a believer; although not in the splendour of God, only that of Armenian ecclesiastical architecture. I’m afraid it’s the same with Advent Radio: I so enjoy the intimacy of the phone-ins, the passion of the homiletic talks, the rousing gospel music and the sensible health advice (the Adventists are mostly vegetarian), that it’s completely renewed my faith in… radio.

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