My new novel, The Covenant, is out now and religion is at its heart. It’s ironic that I am, and have always been, an avowed atheist, since religion fascinates me (I even studied it at university). That’s as well because there’s no escaping it in The Covenant. It’s a story focused on the family that produced John Owen, who rules the roost at the cottage of Cwmderwen in A Time For Silence.
John Owen is a Godly man. He comes from a Godly society. A chapel society, Calvanist in its strict purity, and inclined to be more concerned with sin than with divine love and with exclusivity based on precision of belief (everyone else being Wrong).
There is a joke that a Welshman is cast up on a desert island. Years later, a ship comes by to rescue him. The crew discover that he has built himself two chapels during his long lonely stay. “Why two?” they ask and he explains “This is the chapel I go to and that’s the one I don’t go to.”
The Owens attend the chapel of Beulah in the village of Llanolwen, and their beliefs are rigid but very sincere. Thomas Owen, master of the household, is a deacon of the chapel, entitled to a place on the big seat below the pulpit, but their religion does not stop at the chapel door. It is embedded in the stones of the cottage of Cwmderwen. Their days begin and end with prayer, and their beliefs govern even their relationships with one another. “Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands.” “Children obey your parents in the Lord.” “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
The one book that rules all is the family Bible where their births, marriages and deaths are recorded. Their religion is what their lives are all about. It is what gives meaning to the title of the book.
A covenant can be a legal thing, a binding agreement between two parties, usually associated with property transactions, and property is a central theme in my novel. But more significant are the covenants of the Bible, the sworn promises made by God in the Old Testament, to Noah, to David and especially to Abraham when he shows himself ready to sacrifice his son. “By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee.”
The new covenant of the New Testament created by the shedding of Christ’s blood (another son sacrificed) is the subject of a sermon that the family sits through in chapel at the start of the book. It’s a real sermon (the minister at Beulah had lost the will to live and has resorted to buying copies of sermons, in this case from some preached during the great revival of 1859).
“‘The blood is the seal of the covenant of grace to thee. It must ever be the telescope through which thou canst look to see the things that are afar off.’
Leah wondered what it would be like to look at the world through a telescope filled with blood.“
John Owen’s grandfather, Thomas, is sustained through thick and increasingly thin, by his adamant belief that there is a covenant between him and God, bestowing the land of Cwmderwen upon him. It is a sacred trust that hangs around the necks of the family like a millstone. Both Thomas and his wife Mary are genuinely pious, but while Mary’s beliefs are more comfortable with the New Testament image of a loving Saviour, Thomas becomes ever more entrenched in a belief in the vengeful God of the Old. It isn’t difficult to paint their brand of religion as an unforgiving obsession with hell fire and eternal damnation, but I hope I’ve allowed in one or two characters who give voice to a more sympathetic message.