Some years ago I was attending an open air, all-day festival in a giant park in Manchester, as you do. It was, for lack of a better description, a Christian rock concert. Now that may be a slightly strange choice of event for an atheist, but the headline act was a band who had flown over from the US specifically to play this gig, hadn’t been in the UK for a good few years, and are a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine.
A few of my friends, who are Christians, were attending, and they invited me along. Most of the day consisted of generic, recycled bands that sounded suspiciously similar to other, more popular, secular artists. Then, after hours of unmemorable music, the headliners came on.
Yes, they were cheesy.
Yes, I enjoyed it.
The band put on a great performance, and I found myself cheering along amongst all the religious fervour. It didn’t matter to me that they were singing about God; I was just enjoying some fun music in good company.
At rock concerts there is a universally accepted symbol of appreciation, and it’s one you’ll instantly recognise. Make a fist, then raise your index finger, and finally raise your little finger. You can keep your thumb tucked in, or splay it out to the side, it doesn’t matter. As long as your middle and ring fingers are touching your palm then you’re doing it right. Raise it to the sky or point it in the general direction of the stage, and you’re there.
All around me there were arms held aloft, index and little fingers extended. Half the crowd, myself included, were raising this shape to the air in appreciation of the band’s performance. The singer, in response, made the same symbol back to the audience. Mutual respect, all in a gesture.
As the last note of the last song rang out, the lights on the stage cut to black and the sky behind erupted in a massive firework display. It was in impressive finale to a memorable performance, as long as you forget that you’d already forgotten what came before. We all stood in awe, watching these explosions of light, then applauded at length.
It was about nine o’clock when the fireworks finished. Like I said, it was a Christian concert. It was still vaguely light, being the middle of summer. A few of my friends were near me, and we turned to make our way out of the park, planning to meet the others back at the cars.
As I spun round I found myself face to face with a girl who looked incredibly concerned.
‘You know that’s the Devil’s symbol, right?’ she asked.
Not a hello, a greeting, nothing, just straight in with the Devil. I raised my hand in a fist, then pointed my index and little fingers to the sky.
She had the expression of someone who is genuinely worried about whether you are going to die within the next few minutes. Her eyes were wide and sad, her mouth curling down slightly at the edges.
‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘that’s the Devil’s symbol. I saw you doing it earlier.’
I could have told her I don’t believe in the Devil, or God, or any of that stuff, I was just there to watch a band, but that usually results in a lot more conversation that I felt like having at that point, so instead I went for a different tactic.
‘You know,’ I said, ‘this is a sign of respect and appreciation. It’s a positive thing, nothing to do with the Devil. It’s a way of showing the band that I enjoyed their performance, but in a visual way, to compliment the cheering and shouting.’
‘No, it’s the horns of the Beast.’ She shook her head and smiled a little. I suppose she thought I was being naïve. ‘What you are doing is glorifying Satan. That’s idolatry, one of the Ten Commandments.’
‘Really? It is really?’ I probably said that a little too sarcastically, as she looked a little hurt. I laughed gently to try and dissolve the tension. ‘Look, I’m just saying that it’s a sign of respect, that’s all. It’s positive. Not everything is the Devil.’
‘It’s a pagan symbol.’ She shook her head again, her eyes betraying her concern for my eternal soul. ‘It’s evil, you shouldn’t be doing that.’
I decided to gloss over her misguided accusation of paganism being evil. It was obvious that there was no diffusing the situation. Admittedly, when you go to a religious event, you expect to hear about that religion. You can allow for preaching as you willingly attended. That being said, the last thing I wanted to do was escalate the conversation by stating my lack of faith. There was only one option left to me. I tried to be clever.
‘Let me tell you something,’ I said. ‘Two thousand years ago, after the death of Jesus, the early Christians would draw a fish symbol on the walls. You probably know already, but fish spelt out in Greek Aramaic was Ichthys. Each letter represented a word, and so Ichthys actually said Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.’
She nodded; her face a mix of worry, recognition, and confusion.
‘That symbol,’ I continued, ‘was originally a heathen symbol. Pagan, if you will. It meant The Great Mother; it represented the womb, and was linked to fertility.’
Her confusion gave way slightly to curiosity. She obviously hadn’t heard that part of the story before.
‘Before that the fish was an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph.’ I was on a roll. ‘Now, I’m sure you’ve read the whole section of the Bible about how the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews, yeah?’
She smiled slightly and nodded at me.
‘The Hebrews,’ I said, ‘ended up in Israel, and one of their kind, Jesus, started Christianity.’
‘What’s that got to do with it, though?’ she asked.
‘The early Christians adopted a heathen symbol that was once used by their oppressors. They used this sign, this representation of fertility, as a declaration of faith, a show of defiance, and even a form of worship. It’s called assimilation; Christians do it all the time.’
Her defensive look was back, she’d figured out the point I was making.
‘Why not adopt this symbol?’ I raised my index and little fingers again. ‘Why not use this as a sign of appreciation, respect, defiance? You could even use it as a form of worship, just like the fish.’
‘But it’s the Devil’s symbol,’ she said.
‘So was the fish.’
She thought for a moment. It was dawning on her, slowly.
‘So we use it,’ she said, ‘but in our own way?’
‘Something like that.’
‘I still think it’s a sin,’ she said, ‘but I do understand your point. I’ll pray for you.’
And with that comment she smiled, her face a lot less concerned for my soul than it had been, then turned and walked away.
I suppose you can’t win them all.
The point I was making to her, though, can be applied to writing. That’s not to say I’m endorsing cultural appropriation at all. I’m not, and wouldn’t ever. Instead, I’m suggesting stylistic assimilation: if there is something you like about a different genre or style, why not use it in your writing? Why not be the person that changes things?
Before Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood there were only a few True Crime writers, most of whom delivered facts and details rather than a narrative arc. Capote took this format, but incorporated investigative journalism, writing the story in what he called a Non-Fiction Novel. No one had done that before, not like he had, and it changed the literary landscape forever.
Chuck Palahniuk has spent the last few decades dropping short, sometimes irrelevant factoids into his stories, something that had previously only really appeared in textbooks.
You know the film Alien? Well, is that science fiction or horror? Is it sci-fi that incorporates horror, or a horror story that includes science fiction?
Why not use that mind-set next time you write something? Assimilate different styles into your story; include ideas you wouldn’t normally use. Experiment in new and exciting ways. Above all else, keep an open mind.
And whatever you do, never argue about the devil, even if you’re right. You just can’t win.
© 2016 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.