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'I’ve always been interested by the spooky and strange'

Peter Laws is a writer, speaker and Baptist minister whose debut novel has just been released. Purged is a dark crime thriller which follows an ex minister turned atheist who helps the police solve religiously motivated crimes. It specifically explores the subject of baptism.
 
Peter writes a monthly column in the print magazine The Fortean Times and also hosts the popular podcast and YouTube show The Flicks That Church Forgot, which reviews scary films from a theological perspective.

 

PurgedCan you say a little more about Purged – what’s the premise?
It’s the first in a series of novels featuring Matt Hunter. He’s an atheist ex-minister who now works as a Professor of Sociology in London. As well as writing books debunking the Christian faith he uses his Biblical training and theological skill to unravel the more unusual murder cases. In Purged, he’s on the trail of an evangelical killer who happens to be obsessed with baptism.

 
Why did you want to explore baptism?
Well, I’m a Baptist minister myself, so I know how much our tradition values it. I’ve taken part in many baptismal services too, which are sometimes described as one of the pinnacles of the spiritual life.

Yet, I’ve heard other mutterings too. Fears that the person who was baptised may fall away from their faith, later on. Particularly with young people who, let’s say, get baptised before going to University. There’s a worry in some people’s minds that the closeness to God seen at baptism may well drain away somehow. Or they might even turn away completely one day.

The killer in my book worries about ‘backsliders’. So he helps the newly baptised avoid this risk by…ahem…helping them enter heaven a little quicker. Baptists hinge their name on this ritual but we could also be accused of devaluing its power when we say it’s purely symbolic. The killer in Purged thinks in more black and white terms: he values baptism over all else, and sees it as a genuine vehicle for grace.
 
 
 
It’s gripping and fast paced, as well as being dark and unsettling ­– who is it aimed at and who do you think will enjoy it?

Well, the publisher I’m with is a traditional, secular publisher, so the outlets for Purged (and its follow up) are aimed at the general mass market. So you’re more likely to see it in Waterstones as opposed to St. Andrews Bookshop, for example. That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to see it in Christian bookshops, but the nature of the story is pretty grim. I haven’t pulled any punches with the darker threads of the book, so I guess that might alarm some Christians who prefer their fiction at a PG level. I respect that, but that’s simply not the story that came to me.
 
Also, it’s suited to the mainstream market because while it explores religious themes, it’s not trying to guide the reader to make a commitment to God. It’s not like The Shack, for example. So it makes sense for Purged to sit along side more mainstream crime thrillers. The crime fiction genre is one of the most popular in all book selling, and that genre can be notoriously dark and unsettling. I’m okay with that, and frankly, so are many Christians. I meet countless churchgoers who enjoy reading murder mysteries or watching intense crime dramas on TV, so I reckon Christians and non-Christians will enjoy it. So far, that’s been the response anyway. It’s been positive from both groups, which really pleases me, I’d just say if you prefer your fiction light and breezy, you should stay away. Though, I’ve been pleased to see a bunch of reviewers mentioning the humour in the book, and one pointed out a sense of ‘goodness.’ A few have said they laughed out loud, as well as getting creeped out.  

 
The main character is an interesting figure, an ex minister turned atheist. What was the thinking behind that, and what did that allow you to explore?  
I wrote one draft in which Matt was still a serving minister, but I quickly changed it to an ex-pastor. I just wanted his worldview to be complicated. That's more interesting to me. Not that church ministers aren’t interesting when they’re still in post, of course! But I was more drawn to the idea of God being a painful part of Matt’s life. That faith was a relic of his history, that was hard to shake. Also, his trajectory to losing faith was one that I think many current Christians are experiencing today. He had doubts but felt unable to be open about in church circles, for example. I bet Baptist pastors and congregations have lots of doubts they’d never dream of sharing with each other, just like Matt felt he couldn’t. It’s like this conspiracy of silence. Of pretending we have it all together when we don’t.  Also Matt became more and more uncomfortable with some of the more traditional doctrines of the church as well as facing some personal suffering. For him, this lonely road led him to reject God.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people in our churches who are heading on the same road Matt travels because we hide doubt and don’t always allow open questioning of classic evangelical stances. Because the moment we ask a controversial question we can be labelled ‘dodgy’. For me doubt isn’t a sign of the ship sinking, it’s just a key way that we assess and weigh up the mysteries God asks to grapple with. It baffles me why churches would expect people to always have stock, clear answers on every single issue, but they seem to think that way, sometimes.

I’ve also witnessed a kind of closet liberalism in many churches (for want of a better term) where some Baptists (clergy and non) are not actually that bothered about hot topics like homosexuality or who question the idea of eternal, conscious hell. Yet they’d never admit this openeness out loud, for fear of being labelled a heretic. As a result, they generally assume that they’re wrong and must either follow the party line or reject Christianity. Matt chose the latter. I just wish we were more open about this early on, even if our views feel controversial. It’s a bit like what the Fransican monk Richard Rohr talks about. We often think spiritual maturity is getting more and more black and white in our thinking but I tend to think the older we get, the more grey we can be on certain specific issues. For me, that’s not a signal to hit the panic button, it’s just being drawn deeper into the mystery. 


How do you think Christians will react to Matt Hunter?
Well so far, the book’s been mainly read by people outside of the church. These are reviewers from magazines, radio shows or blogs etc. I’ve been delighted to find that so far, they’ve all loved the character. They mention their relief that Matt is not preaching at them, in fact it’s almost like the opposite. Yet it’s obvious he still has a deep attraction to the idea of faith.

However, some Christians have asked me (and almost assumed) that Matt starts off atheist in the book and turns back to God at the end. It’s no spoiler to say he doesn’t. I didn’t want to write a book where things tied up neatly. I think many Christians would prefer that and assume that would get the ‘gospel’ across better. For me though, I’m not writing a 400 page religious tract. It’s a story, of one man who finds himself in creepy situations, and book two sees that continue. If they both sell enough, there will be an ongoing series. Who knows what his belief trajectory will be in the future (not me, that’s for sure) but for me that journey he takes, either toward or away from God, is a platform for spiritual reflection.
 
Certainly, readers are going to notice that there’s a clear thread of the supernatural in Purged. This will continue and be expanded on in the next book, particularly asking the question if there are dark forces that cause the bad things in the world, e.g. Satan, demons etc. Yet I hope the book stands as simply a crime thriller with no supernatural explanation too. I suppose that’s why some retailers and critics are describing the book as a thriller tinged with horror: it opens the door to other worldly explanations, but you can ignore them if you prefer.

Peter Laws

 


You’re open about stating you have ‘a fascination for the macabre’. Where do you think that comes from? 
I’ve always been interested by the spooky and strange. In fact, I was fascinated by gothic stories and reports of the paranormal long before I ever set foot in a church. Not all people are interested in this subject, but millions of us are. You see it in a parent and toddler group, where you advertise an Alpha course and some twiddle their thumbs. Then a child minder mentions their house might be haunted and everybody is transfixed. I don’t think we help anybody by swinging in and cutting down those interests as if they are devilish. Being intrigued about death and what’s after is a normal, human interest. I’m meeting more and more people who have left organised religion because this interest was mocked or outlawed by their fellow Christians. 

 
How do you reconcile this fascination with your faith – and what’s been the reaction from other Christians?
Put it this way…I met Dracula decades before I met God and so ironically I found that horror and scary stories were one of the few places in culture that took the supernatural seriously. And a film like The Exorcist genuinely scared me growing up, but it intrigued me spiritually too. It was a film where the devil and God were real, and where the clergy and the Bible were the only answers to the problem.

Or another example would be me as a non-Christian watching endless vampire movies in which the only real source of power was a crucifix. This sort of stuff appeals to the human fascination with the shadows, but it also offers hints of light too. Not all Christians accept this and I’m cool with that. I respect their position. But there are millions of people out there for whom these things really matter. I want to meet them where they’re at, because frankly, where they’re at is where I’m at! Just an average bloke trying to get to grips with the terrors, wonder and hope of everyday life.
 

Likewise, what’s been the reaction at, say, horror screenings, when people discover you’re a minister?

I’ve seen jaws drop. I mean, literally. A very few are shocked and think that I might be there on some sort of mission to rescue them from the dark. But they quickly realise that I’m a fan, just like them. So it’s been fun, for example, to be asked to give a ten minute talk at a Leicester Square movie premier of a demonic possession movie. The movie's PR company were aware of my podcast and YouTube show and wanted me to talk on the subject before the premiere. This was part of a festival called Film4 Fright Fest which attracts some really hardcore horror fans. While there, the organisers kept saying from the stage that I was ‘one of their own’, even though I’m very open about my faith. For me, that’s very satisfying, that these guys are meeting a Christian and not running away!

 
You preach regularly. Do horror and the macabre find a way into your sermons?
Nah, not really. I tend to preach sermons on more mainstream topics, though I do like to explore unusual angles to Biblical passages. I did once preach a sermon called Gospel of the Living Dead, which listed all the people brought back to life in the Bible. I was also recently asked by a church to speak on the subject: Jesus Loves Zombies! But the vast majority of my sermons are totally unscary, because I know that not all people are interested in those things.
 
At the moment the Baptist Union have allowed me to concentrate on my writing, so I don’t actually look after a congregation. That means that on Sundays I’m able to travel around and lead various services at churches. I’ve been the speaker at church weekends, and away days etc. If anybody out there, from any denomination, is looking to fill their pulpit one week then tell them to get in touch!

 
And what are you working on next?
I still present The Youtube show and Podcast, The Flicks That Church Forgot which explores the spiritual themes in horror films. I also write a monthly column for the print magazine The Fortean Times, which explores strange phenomenon. It’s in most newsagents.
 
I’m also currently writing a non-fiction book for another publisher. That’s called The Frighteners and will be out in hardback in the UK and US next year. It’s basically me on a Louis Theroux-style quest to understand why human culture (including some parts of the Bible) are drawn to the strange, morbid and scary. I’ve been interviewing psychologists, anthropologists and other experts while also meeting self-proclaimed vampires and collectors of true crime memorabilia. I’ve been werewolf hunting in Hull, trekking the snowy streets of Transylvania and exploring fear for a BBC documentary which is out next year.

In October, I’ve even been invited to Germany to board a vintage schooner ship, to recreate the journey Dracula made from Transylvania to Whitby! That’s with a bunch of Norwegians who will be in character for the full trip. I’m not sure which character I’ll be yet, but I’m hoping it’s somebody posh so I don’t have to spend the trip scrubbing decks!
 
I appreciate that the journey I’m on is a bit left field and not without controversy, but what I find especially exciting, and rewarding, is when you realise that God can use our passions, however bizarre, to bring a little colour and light to the world, but crucially to still leave room for mystery. I think it’s in the mystery that we ask some of our most Godly questions.

 

 

For more about Peter, visit his website: http://www.peterlaws.co.uk/

Related: 
Where the sacred and scary meet: Is God really in the unexpected places …like horror films?
A grisly fascination: Why the British public is gripped by murderers and their horrific crimes (Daily Mirror)

Peter appeared on the BBC Radio 4 show Midweek on 15 February. Catch up here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08dmkg3


 
Baptist Times, 16/02/2017
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