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June 01, 1997

  • Positive Confession (or how Nineteen-Eighty Four Changed My Life)
  • I read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1988. I was eighteen and in my last year of high school. I had bought the book with a WH Smith voucher which I had recieved as a school prize for creative writing and intended to use it for a term paper on dystopian novels.

    I never ended up using it for that purpose and instead ended up reading it a few months later when I was on a between-term skiing holiday with a youth group in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. I was stuck indoors the last day of the holiday and I picked it up on a whim.

    I didn’t put it down for another six hours.

    A bit of background is needed at this point. I had spent most of my adolescence attending a charismatic “church”. The use of inverted commas around the word is very deliberate, as I would now be more willing to call it a cult. This “church” modelled itself around people like Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Hagin, proponents of the so-called “Health and Wealth Gospel”. Simply put, health and prosperity are divine rights, so long as you have the right faith. The “right faith” meant never entertaining or speaking negative thoughts, and instead constantly quoting scripture (they call this “Positive Confession”). It also meant tithing and giving money “to God” (that is, to the church, its pastors or whatever evangelist happened along, etc.) Ill health and poverty, it was explained, was due to the devil or a lack of faith.

    As might be expected, this “church” was run on a theocracy—that is its “pastors” were God’s annointed and beyond reproach. God led the “church” through them and we, as congregants were sheep. As one such sheep—a teenager who had gotten caught in the usual traps of seeming acceptance and love—I placed great trust in these people, and they in turn told me who I could be. The times I was not this person caused me great anguish when God’s annointed chastisted me for it.

    By 1988, I was beginning to realise that a lot of things which were said to me did not make sense. I began to realise that the Gospel I was participating in was insular, irrelevant, and didn’t speak to the needs of people. I began to see the disparity between the urban poor of Toronto and the people in my “church” who believed that God would give them fancy cars one day. I began to see the disparity between the working class members of my congregation and the upward mobility of the pastors. I began to have doubts, after a sick visitation with a terminally ill five year-old, that the devil or a lack of faith had much to do with his bloated, cancer-ridden body. I began to recognise the spurious, self-serving, irrationality that hid under the veneer of this so-called “Christianity”.

    In the midst of this, I read Nineteen Eighty-Four

    All the trappings of the book were in my life in some form or another: Big Brother, the looming theocratic pastors; the Thought Police, the willing network of sheep who were willing to help the pastors keep “strays” in line; the Three-minute Hate, the hate of “the world” stirred up so often in prayer; newspeak, the reductionist language of “Positive Confession”. Even more than that, there was Orwell’s brilliant prose, which created an incredible atmosphere of gloom and paranoia, both subtle and overt. I knew all Orwell wrote to be true. I could see myself as Winston Smith. It wasn’t hard—I had lived within that world of paranoia, self-deception and deliberate confusion for years. I had spent my entire adolescence trying to equate 2+2=5.

    I was profoundly shaken by the book’s ending. I knew that Winston Smith and Julia would be killed, that much was inevitable. It was the totality of it, however, that I didn’t reckon. How, after a futile rebellion against Big Brother, Winston Smith’s spirit, mind and body are all crushed utterly. The triumph of Big Brother at the very end is horrifying because in each of us there is the realisation of how true it can be.

    Within six months of reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, I left that “church” and went to an evangelical Bible College—my own fragile rebellion as it was a place the Pastors did not approve of , not being “spirit filled”. I was even more miserable because by that point I could see Big Brother hard at work even there. Eventually, I left evangelical Christianity altogether. I still see Big Brother and his ilk in other places, other movements, but never to the extent that I did in 1988.

    It is not often that a book makes one see the dystopia that they are living in, yet this is precisely what George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four did for me. I have re-read it many times, and come to appreciate its other merits, not the least of which is Orwell’s masterful prose. However, nothing has ever compared with the first reading. I owe this book a great deal, not the least of which is the confidence it gave me to scream at Big Brother, “No, 2+2=4”.

    June, 1997

    © 1997 Graeme Burk

    This article first appeared in Movement the magazine of the British SCM

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