Casual Vacancy 11: Christian Hypocrites and Sympathetic Sikhs

I hope to write a ‘Seven Keys to Casual Vacancy‘ post sooner than later and a big part of the postmodern chapter will have to be a discussion of the religious content in this novel. Everyone is nominally Christian — they go to funerals, celebrate Christmas, etc. — but none are devotional Christians of any spiritual substance, no one reads scripture or self reflects outside of a secular humanist, post-Christian mind-set, and there is no solace in community, which word means only government and never anything ecclesiastic or truly communal.

The only sort of religious people in the books are the ethnic Indians who are nominally Sikhs. The husband is uncomfortable with the picture of the guru on the wall though Minda likes it. The children prefer to be pretend Christians than explain to their friends how they are neither Sikh nor Muslim per their sect’s founding vision. The wife and mother, at story’s end rejects the husband’s suggestion that they make retreat to the Golden Temple. He, the godlike character above all the strife of the book, understands the importance and necessity of religious observance, at least in times of crisis.

But as one character observes in her nightmare situation, “this is how people go religious,” with “religious” used as a synonym for “bonkers” and “addle-brained.” I’m guessing based on my limited experience (all through UK friends) and reading on the subject that this is not Rowling’s prescriptive view but her realist description of spirituality in the UK today and what sort of people it creates.

I’d love to read your thoughts on the nominal faith of the characters and their egregious hypocrisy as well. Is this a gratuitous slap at the faithful or a valid description of the barrenness of the spiritual landscape Rowling grew up and lives in? as believer or non-believer, what were your thoughts about the church and faiths depicted in Casual Vacancy?


  1. phoenixsong58 says

    It seems, from the few interviews I’ve read about this book, that JKR has said clearly that she wanted to write about what she knows, a small English village, a place like where she grew up. I think she went to church as a child, whereas the rest of her family did not(?) I think she belongs to the Church of Scotland(?) And the Harry Potter books have Christian themes. So I’d venture to guess that the characters do not speak for her, but as the people she observed in her small village growing up.

    I’m not a person who subscribes to any “this is the only way to God or heaven” philosophy. Yet, spirituality and prayer and my connection to a Higher Power are the most important parts of my life. I’ve learned from all religions. I grew up Catholic, attended an evangelical Christian church for a few years in my early adulthood, I’ve been married to my Jewish husband for over 25 years and been involved in the rituals of his religion, I’ve studied Buddhist meditation, and I’ve studied and been involved in feminist Goddess spirituality. To me all religions contain mythology that helps us understand mysteries that are too great for us to really understand with the human brain. Deep in meditation and prayer, during mystical experiences, and even in everyday life at times, we get glimpses of understanding of Universal Love and Sacred Unity. (That’s so you have an idea where I’m coming from.)

    Two things struck me from the religious perspective in the book:

    One, I really liked the part about Sukhvinder telling her class a myth from her religion. If I remember correctly, it was about a god who had been under water for three days and had come out alive, and the other children had snickered at it. Sukhvinder was too shy to stand up to them and remind them that Jesus had been dead and come back to life again after three days, that their myth was no less unbelievable. I appreciated JKR’s open-mindedness there to the fact that all humans have mythologies, but that we tend to see others’ as silly or simplistic and our own as deep and meaningful or true.

    Two, I was curious about the fact that there were no particularly religious or spiritual people in the story, i.e., as far as I remember, no one was actually praying or meditating or looking to a Higher Power for help. Particularly because the book began and ended in a church, with a funeral. Often in a book about a whole town, there is a person or group who is religious or spiritual in some way, portrayed either from a positive or negative slant, depending on the author’s viewpoint. So far, at least, I don’t think it’s JKR’s way to examine spirituality or religion by depicting religious characters or by including discussion of God by her characters. No one in the Harry Potter books was religious or discussed God. But the books were highly spiritual in nature.

    I don’t think this book was a slap in the face to believers, nor do I think that she was making a pronouncement against the church because the people considered themselves Christians but didn’t behave as followers of Christ (inclusive, welcoming to all, particularly the poor and the sinners.) I think it was more an examination of human nature, the problems inherent in human society, our blind spots and self-absorption, our abilities for goodness but also our limitations. By limitations, I think particularly about Barry, who seemed so saint-like to the people he helped, but who neglected his own family in some ways. Or about Kay, who was caring, but whose daughter also felt ignored and not considered in her mother’s life. The book contains no easy answers and doesn’t portray either “side” as perfect or right. It’s asking, how responsible are we for others? Are we guilty when others suffer? Questions I wonder about every single day.

  2. Ford : a shallow part of a body of water that may be crossed by wading
    Pagan: one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods : an irreligious or hedonistic person

    Pagford – a town where people who delight in sensual pleasures cross a body of water.

  3. Haven’t read the book yet, but I think the reason why there’s lack of spirituality is, very few people in the UK are religious except the Muslims maybe. Church attendance is low, lots of people are agnostic esp those in science.

  4. As a conservative Christian who does read Scripture and worship regularly I saw the book as a sad example of what happens to people when they don’t have God in their lives.

    I did enjoy Sukhvinder’s story that pheonixsong 58 mentions above. It caused me to reflect on my own prejudices.

  5. Hopefully I’m in good company here, going out on a slender limb….
    The title strikes me as an obvious reference to the “Casual Vacancy” of true belief in the story. The presence of the ruined abbey echoes the theme. It would strike me as very odd if JKR didn’t have more going on in her title than a mere reference to small town politics.

  6. The back cover illustration also struck me in two ways. The church stands prominently with some flying animals in the sky around the steeple. But, turn the book upside down, and the illustration becomes a bat. “Bats in the belfry.” If I remember correctly, that is a phrase indicates originally an empty or abandoned church.

  7. So, finally my answer to your question is that this book is Rowling’s vision of what happens to society when the absence of the church is taken so casually.

  8. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    Actually, the phrase “bats in the belfry” means someone who’s loopy, but yes, the back cover does look like a hovering bat. Rather than a church connotation, that suggests vampires, the walking dead, and heaven knows, Pagford could do with some new blood… It’s got no life in it.
    Am I overthinking this? I rather suspect I am.

  9. Found this quote, which must have been where I had heard this opinion before. Obviously, not a scholarly reference, but it makes sense to me.
    “07-28-2006, 07:34 PM
    In Janet Kagan’s very enjoyable SF novel Mirabile (, one of her characters makes the point that a church belfry that’s infested with bats is no longer being used, and is almost certainly decrepit. A functioning belfry would have bells, and they would be rung frequntly. This would scare off, and possibly deafen, any bats that might live there.

    So if you have “bats in the belfry”, your uppermost part is unused and in serious disrepair. :p”

  10. I found it interesting that JKR refers to “the light of God shining in every person” a couple of times in the book. She seemed to go out of her way to describe unpleasant or repugnant characters–the drug-addicted welfare mom, the creepy drug dealer/child molester, the self-satisfied, prejudiced middle-class citizens, and the sadistically violent father, and yet she made a point of raising the theme of God in everyone. I felt she was putting forth this spiritual perspective as a challenge to her readers. To me, the theme seemed very aligned with her Harry Potter theme of love being the greatest force in the universe. And I liked that she introduced the idea via a Sikh parable.

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