October 2002

The way of the world

Mark Lawson

We are called to bring the gospel to our culture, but what is that culture like? Mark Lawson is a Guardian columnist who presents the cultural discussion programmes Newsnight Review on BBC2 and Front Row on Radio 4. Here he looks at some examples of our culture and concludes that ‘the general trends in society are clearly problematic for religion.’

Five years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that the public reaction to the death of Princess Diana held possibilities for religion. Churches filled as the news of the Paris car-crash came through and the laying of flowers and candles at sites associated with the princess did certainly suggest a hunger for spiritual expression and ritual which churches might be able to fulfil.

Even at the time, this seemed to me unlikely. While there clearly was a cult of Diana, it had an odd theology: the focus of the faith was a woman of great wealth and hedonism who was killed during a period in which she was expressing her sexual freedom after a divorce. Quite how Anglicanism – and even Catholicism – hoped (in that popular phrase of the time) to ‘tap into’ a spiritual outpouring which reflected the reverse of almost all their key beliefs was never made clear.

Five years on, the churches are as empty as they ever were and even Diana herself leaves a surprisingly small dent in either the collective memory or the reputation of her in-laws who, in those September days only half a decade back, must have occasionally considered buying one-way tickets to Monaco.

The princess’s failure as a poster-girl for religion is not, in retrospect, surprising. While Diana had favourite hymns – some of them sung at her funeral – she was in her later life a classic example of the post-Christian smorgasbord-believer: embracing every new fad from astrology to colonic irrigation. Like many of her mourners, Diana was ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’: a key distinction because the former is rather easier than the latter. She was a perfect illustration of Chesterton’s dictum about the end of belief in something being followed by belief in anything.

There have been other subsequent eruptions of church-going which might also have been tapped into. But it now seems that churches are a kind of car-wash for the spirit: people head there when – after Diana’s death, 11 September, the abduction of Holly and Jessica – they can suddenly taste the dust. But it’s an occasional transaction in response to a temporary unsettlement. Newspapers sell many more copies after catastrophes but most people still like to read one in between. The same has never been true of service-sheets.

The wrong shape
That example – of an event which at first seemed hospitable to religion but proved useless – is a good example of the ways in which modern culture can frequently be the wrong shape for conventional faith.

If we look at politics, for instance, it can be seen that the most significant development in British and American politics in the last ten years has been the retreat from belief among both politicians and voters. In most recent western elections, people who don’t particularly believe in anything have been apathetically voted into power by people who don’t really believe in them.

The ideologues Reagan and Thatcher were followed – after the wishy-washy transitions of the first George Bush and Major – by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, two leaders who lacked identifiable core beliefs beyond a feeling that their own election and then re-election would be better for their country than the choice of someone else.

Sensing that the electorate has little faith in their ability to enact specifics – beyond the sustenance of low income tax – neither Blair nor Clinton tried to do very much. Blair faces a theoretical crisis in his failure to keep promises about improving the NHS but, even in this, the generally depressed expectations of the electorate may be his friend. For few really believe that the other lot are more likely to fix it. Clinton and Blair redefined the jobs of president and prime minister as a matter of looking the part on state occasions and not bothering the population very much.

It’s an irony that, in both cases, their most deeply held beliefs are probably religious but modern political protocol dictates that they are relatively discreet about these. However, it’s clear that an age of low belief in general must be a difficulty for religion. If the governing assumption is that politicians don’t really believe it but are saying what people want to hear, then the same scepticism is likely to be extended to all authority figures including priests.

The history of Clinton also isolates another central problem for faiths in this sceptical age. There are various ways of interpreting the fact that a president was able to survive, and with raised approval ratings, an adulterous relationship with a young employee. Either hypocrisy is now simply expected from authority figures or society has become tolerant of almost any private sexual expression short of paedophilia. Neither of those positions would be helpful for the Church.

While the apparent support for Clinton was partly hostility towards the media and invasion of privacy, priests and preachers today face the fact that there has probably never been a society which took so seriously the biblical injunction: ‘Judge not that ye be not judged.’ The difficulty is that, for most people now, that conclusion has been reached from a humanist perspective.

Tolerance is probably the quality most publicly prized in modern life. The decline of the Conservative Party in Britain, though undoubtedly driven by legislative exhaustion and self-immolation over Europe, was in large part due to its reputation for censoriousness: towards single mothers, homosexuals and families of mixed culture or composition.

The political consensus is that, unless the party can lose this association with judgementalism, it has no future. Clintonian campaigning – reproduced in a slightly anglicised form by Blair – was based on what’s known in America as ‘big tent politics’: the idea being to construct an electoral marquee so wide that someone on the left of the right could happily stand alongside someone on the right of the left. Such blurred coalitions are currently at the heart of all political thinking.

But how big can a Church’s tent become before it’s just flapping in the wind? How religions which are predicated on rules and on an ultimate day of judgement should proceed in cultural conditions which resist any form of discrimination or condemnation seems to me their biggest challenge.

From the certain to the relative
The rhetorical shift from the certain to the relative is already, I think, reflected in the public speeches of religious leaders. I’m completing this piece on a Saturday morning when the two-week-long ‘missing persons’ inquiry into the disappearance of the ten-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman has become a murder inquiry, with the arrest of two suspects and forensic evidence that they were killed.

When the girls first disappeared, phrases appeared in the media which have been familiar for at least five decades. Newspapers and television stations reported that ‘prayers were being said’ in local churches for their safe return. The Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, involved because the girls had been supporters of his club, recorded a message that he was ‘praying’ for their safe return.

While the word ‘praying’ in such expressions can now carry the secular meaning of ‘hoping’, this was still on the surface the language of the ages. The vocabulary notably changed, though, when it became apparent that Holly and Jessica would not be found alive. The local vicar, interviewed on television, commented that nobody ‘standing on the edge of this darkness’ could have any perception of what the girls’ parents were suffering.

‘The edge of this darkness.’ It’s my feeling that, even ten or twenty years ago, local priests and vicars on television, or in the pulpits of their own churches, would have suggested reassuringly that the girls were with God or in heaven. Now I feel a reticence even in the professionally religious about such reassurances, which may sound simplistic or glib. This may be a false perception but I’d be surprised if a number of priests reading this have not noticed a shift in their bereavement counselling from statements to questions.

The same was true after 11 September when the more basic religious simplicities – in forums such as Radio 4’s Thought For Today – were questioned by executives and listeners: the Christian response complicated, in any case, by the fact that, to the hijackers and many of their sympathisers, their actions were justified by Islamic Scripture although, in reality, such teaching was a perverted reading of it.

In this context, a retreat from religious certainties in the West may be healthy but the risk is that – rather as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have made political leadership ceremonial rather than legislative, succeeding largely by engineering a certain national background mood music – priests become moderators of a vague debate rather than key speakers in it.

Fear of making judgement
The pressure towards inclusivity – and the fear of making judgement – are also the dominant trends in the world of the arts. The success of a product is decided almost entirely by its profitability. Novels, films and television programmes which, a decade ago, would have been commended for their quality or seriousness are now treated as failures because their lack of large audiences opens them to the charge of ‘elitism’ or ‘difficulty’.

Yet the arts offer to politicians and all others in what may be called the persuasive industries a crucial warning about the risks of putting instant popularity and accessibility before all other virtues. A production of Ibsen, Strindberg or Chekhov at the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company is now regarded as the ultimate middle-class night out.

Yet, when those plays were first staged, the response from the middle classes of the day was incomprehension, derision, hostile notices, riots in the theatre and state censorship. Huge swathes of work now regarded as great – in painting, theatre, music and literature – were unpopular when first made public.

Proceeding through opinion polls is dangerous and yet we increasingly live in a percentage society in which rapid, ecstatic feedback has become the measure of success.

Schama the monarchist
There’s one interesting – and relevant – exception to that rule. During the Golden Jubilee celebrations earlier this year, I was surprised by how many friends and journalistic colleagues – who had always professed to be republican – suddenly abandoned their opposition to the monarchy.

They were led – and influenced – by an interview with Britain’s leading populist historian, Professor Simon Schama, whose remarkable History Of Britain series on BBC2 gave encouraging signs that the public will still accept serious thinking and information in its culture.

Schama, assumed in the academic community at least to have sympathies with the anti-monarchists, was hired by the BBC to serve as first pundit-in-waiting to David Dimbleby during both the Queen Mother’s funeral and the Jubilee coverage. The Guardian interviewed the historian in advance, perhaps hoping to establish him as a hypocrite for taking part in such old-fashioned occasions.

The Professor, though, came out as a monarchist. His line was that, while you wouldn’t make Britain a monarchy if you were designing it from scratch in the twenty-first century, the Crown was its tradition and had historically worked pretty well and so there was no reason to abandon it. A surprising number of left-wing commentators subsequently echoed this view.

Schama’s argument is clearly flawed: precisely the same reasoning, for example, could have been used to continue the apartheid governments of South Africa or segregation in America. Even so, this Jubilee summer did contain a message on which historians of both State and Church might reflect.

Having long been told that the only hope for the Royal Family was to become a sort of New Crown on the model of New Labour, the Windsor dynasty in fact restored some of its reputation and much of its public support through the invocation of the unchanging traditions of the past and the sheer sweep of continuity. This fact may be unpalatable to many liberals – it was also the precise opposite of the outcome I’d been predicting as a columnist – but an honest examination of modern culture requires that it is acknowledged.

Hard and unpopular
Beyond that one exception, however, the general trends in society are clearly problematic for religion or, at least, a faith which invokes traditions and rules. In all the areas discussed above – from politics to popular culture – there are overlapping tendencies: to shape the institution to suit the narrowest requirements of the widest number of people, to avoid statements or demands which might seem hard or challenging, to favour inclusivity over the application of qualifications or rules, to promote rapid gratification over the eventual revelation. The distances between, say, Nye Bevan and Tony Blair, Anthony Burgess and Nick Hornby, The Beatles and Pop Idol are a result of similar journeys from hard thought to soft populism.

Religions, though, often need to say hard and unpopular things. This isn’t to suggest that because an opinion is controversial it must be correct and clearly all teachings should be re-examined for evidence of sexism, racism or other prejudices.

But nor is it the case that a view which is widely disliked or questioned is automatically incorrect. In both politics and art, the governing belief of the culture is that anything unpopular or difficult is wrong. The current climate of thought might be summarised as the Easy Culture and religion, theology and faith aren’t easy.

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