Monday, May 13, 2024

Culture Club

What do you mean "we" kemo sabe

Can you like Christian art without being a Christian?

It depends what you mean by "Christian Art".

You might like stories. You might think that the Christian stories are good stories even though they aren't true. You might think that Christian art is good art because of the way it tells those stories.

On the other hand, you might believe in art for arts sake. You might admire the formal beauty and technical skill in a painting, and not really care whether it depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus or a bowl of bananas.

So the question is "Can you enjoy the Christianity in Christian art without being a Christian?" Or, put another way, "Did you enjoy that painting of the Crucifixion because of the subject matter or in spite of it?"

I think that a Merchant of Venice is quite a good play and Siegfried is a very good opera. There is no doubt whatsoever that Shylock and Mime are appalling caricatures of Jewish people. [Note 1] But I don't think that liking them makes me a Cultural Anti-Semite. I like Talons of Weng-Chiang, but I am definitely not a Cultural Racist. [Note 2]

Some people think it is okay to like works which contain bad ideas. Others not so much. They say that if you like the work you are colluding with the ideas in it. Or else they say that the bad idea poisons whatever good qualities the work might have had. Or that any painting of a bad thing is a bad painting by definition.

Can you like Christian ethics and not be a Christian?

It depends what you mean by Christian ethics.

Do you mean specifically Christian ethics -- things which Christians approve of but which the rest of the world doesn't?

Or do you just mean ethics, the things which pretty much everyone in the human race would sign up to? Love and kindness and sunshine and fluffy animals?

Is there even such a thing as a specifically Christian virtue? I suppose you could say "forgiveness". Someone like, say, Lord Longford, who visited prisoners and made friends with even the very worst serial killers because he thought God loves everybody was practicing a very specifically Christian form of goodness. Not everyone thought it was admirable.  A lot of people thought that if he visited murderers in prison he must be in favour of murder. 

I don't think only Christians can forgive. I don't think only hippies can be peaceful and only punks can be anarchists and only Romans think that suicide can be honourable. But I'd get what you were saying if you said that someone had "hippy morals" or "punk politics". If I said that Richard Moore -- the Irish guy who reached out to the British soldier who blinded him with a rubber bullet -- was following "Christian principles" you'd know what I meant. (I have no idea if Moore is a Christian.)

Last Easter, the caretaker Prime Minister -- a practicing Hindu -- said that Jesus embodied "compassion, charity and selflessness" and that these values "are at the heart of British values" and that they inspire us to "build a society based on respect, tolerance and dignity for all."

Jesus was definitely compassionate and one definition of "charity" is "love in the Christian sense" -- "love for the unlovable".  Another definition of charity is "giving money to good causes" and not everyone in Sunak's party is in favour of that, particularly if the good cause involves, say, life-boats. In the past, Sunak's party has been less about selflessness and more about how greed is good. And some of his supporters might say that compassion was weak, soft, and indeed woke.

I personally don't have any objection to tolerance and dignity. Respect I'm a bit vaguer on: it depends on who you are respecting. But I don't think that they are particularly British values. I don't think that if you asked a French person or a Chinese person what they thought of when they thought of English people they would say "Well, they are very tolerant of gypsies and drag-queens and they are especially concerned about the dignity of refugees and homeless people, even smelly ones." They would be more likely to say that the English are particularly keen on good manners, apologising, queueing, and not cheating at cricket.

It could be that we British wait our turn and don't argue with umpires because King Charles is head of state and also head of the Church and because in the olden days most people went to Church on Sundays. I don't know if that's actually true, but it sounds like the sort of thing that might be.

Can you be a Christian and not believe in Christianity?

It depends what you mean by Christianity.

It also depends a good deal on what you mean by "believe". I think even that little word, "be" may give us some trouble.

Does Christianity mean "the kind of thing we find in the Gospels" -- the stories about Jesus being born in a stable and feeding the five thousand and walking on the water?

Or does Christianity mean "all of the many and various and very complicated doctrines and dogmas that the various Churches have wanted you to sign up to?"

Does saying "Yeah, that story, I like it, and I think some of it is true, probably" make you a Christian?

Does saying "I reject the idea that Jesus is coequal with the Father and assert that he is a subordinate divine being begotten in time?" make you not a Christian?

What do you call someone who thinks that Christianity is a lot of ethical platitudes but doesn't particularly think about miracles and theology and scripture? 

"A member of the Church of England".

What do you call someone who thinks about miracles and theology and scripture literally all the time, but doesn't believe in any of them? 

"A Church of England Bishop".

Okay, that's quite cynical. But the truth is that churches have always admitted people with quite a wide range and degree of beliefs. The Church of England is intensely relaxed about people who assert their belief in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of the Body in church on Sunday morning but say that it's a bit more complicated than that in a television studio on Monday afternoon.

There was a moment in the 1990s when all the evangelicals were going on and on about meta-narratives. It was just about the same moment when all the university English departments were giving up on structuralism. (I don't know if this is true but it sounds as if it ought to be.) The argument runs roughly like this:

"The Bible tells the story of the history of the world: Creation, Fall, Flood, Exodus, foundation of Israel, deportation to Babylon, building of the temple, coming of Jesus, foundation of the Church, destruction of the temple, large blank space, Second Coming. But the majority of people in the West -- including some who were Christian enough to put themselves in physical danger in order to tell other people about Jesus -- never truly thought of themselves as part of that story.  The story they thought they were a part of was the one that was told at English public schools: Cavemen, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Ancient Britons, Normans, Tudors, Reformation, Spanish Armada, Christopher Columbus, Glorious Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Queen Victoria, British Empire, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill, VE Day, Winston Churchill, BBC. Christians ought to believe that the story of the West is a minor sub-plot in the story that runs from Eden to Armageddon; where in practice they believe that Christianity is a fairly significant sub-plot in the story of the British Empire and the United States."

Is there some way of saying "I think of myself as part of the Christian meta-narrative, but I don't think it's literally true?" Liberal Jews have a lot of practice in this kind of thing.

Can you be an atheist and a Christian? 

Should we be surprised that the World's Most Famous atheist is a Cultural Christian?

It depends what you mean by "culture".

I suppose that most of us would take "culture" to mean either "books and arts and literature" or else "the customs and traditions and manners that a particular group of people have in common". New plays are reviewed in the culture section of the newspaper. English culture expects you to use knives and forks rather than chopsticks, and says that black ties are appropriate at funerals. So being a Cultural Christian probably just means watching Carols From Kings and picking Bach's St Matthew Passion when you're on Desert Island Discs. Or else it means eating turkey on 25th December and giving the grandkids chocolate eggs on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. "I'm not a Christian myself, but of course, my background and traditions are Christian" is an astonishingly uncontroversial thing to say.

Rachel Johnson (who has a brother called Boris) is a very much better interviewer than James O'Brien. O'Brien's technique is to repeatedly harangue his subjects, asking them the same question over and over again regardless of whether or not they've answered it, and to pretend to be cross regardless of what answer they try and give. Rachel Johnson's technique is to fein naivety (or possibly to be really genuinely naive) and ask the interrogatee politely to please explain what he means. Had O'Brien been set on Dawkins, YouTube would today be full of thirty second clips saying DAWKINS TOTALLY OWNED BY GENIUS DISC JOCKEY and WOKE CREEP CANCELS HEROIC SCIENTIST.  Which would have been more entertaining, I admit. As it was, we sat in on two people having a polite conversation. I don't think it will ever catch on.

And in fairness, real life Richard Dawkins seems a lot more pleasant, urbane, and willing to have a conversation than the Richard Dawkins who wrote the God Delusion or the Richard Dawkins who dog-whistles on Twitter.

So, what does this new, more pleasant Richard Dawkins mean when he says he is a Cultural Christian?

He means a cultural Christian as opposed to a believing Christian, or simply a 'believer'.

When Rachel Johnson says that her own non-belief sometimes wavers, Dawkins asks her directly if she believes that Jesus' mother was a virgin and if he rose from the dead, adding "I don't think you do". She says that the former is a biological impossibility but that she would like to believe in the latter. She thinks Jesus was real, felt The Force very strongly when she visited the holy sites in Jerusalem, and has heard, but misunderstood, the theory that the "Virgin birth"  was a mistranslation. Dawkins thinks that both the resurrection and the virgin birth are simply nonsense.

So: the thing which distinguishes Cultural Christians from Believing Christians is the miracles. But aren't some actual Christians also skeptical about those points? Didn't David Jenkins famously think that the virgin birth and the resurrection were not literally true? Was he a Cultural Christian? Does that mean the New Atheists and the Sea of Faith group are going to get together and split the difference? If I wanted to be very cynical indeed, could I say "There you are: Catholic Modernism and Liberal Anglicanism and the German Demythologisers were always just basically Atheists: Richard Dawkins says so"?

So: how do these Cultural Christians differ from common-or-garden atheists?

1: They like hymns

They also like Christmas Carols, parish churches and cathedrals. Dawkins says that he would be sad if we lost the old churches. It isn't exactly clear if he means "lost them as living places of worship" or "lost them as preserved relics of a by-gone age". I myself think it would be a shame if we bulldozed Stonehenge, but that doesn't make me a Cultural Druid.

Tim Minchin, in his very good song White Wine In the Sun says "I get freaked out by churches; some of the hymns they sing have nice chords, but the lyrics are dodgy". He also says that he has "all the usual objections" to Christian education but that he "quite likes the songs". 

I think that the Younger Richard Dawkins would have said that there were really no such thing as Christian songs. I think he would have said that Olden Days writers and musicians just happened to have been Christians -- or just happened to have had Christian patrons -- and just happened to put Christian words to their tunes. If atheists had been paying their wages they might equally have just happened to write atheist songs. I joked at the time that he seemed to think that you could take "Oh Sacred Head Sore Wounded, With Grief and Pain Weighed Down" and replace it with "Nucleotides Only Vary Slightly And Only In The Nitrogenous Base" and it wouldn't make that much difference. But the Older, Mellower Richard Dawkins seems to acknowledge that Christianity is a component of Christian culture. At any rate, he doesn't get freaked out by churches.

2: They feel comfortable with the Christian ethos.

"Ethos" is a bit of a slippery word. It is etymologically related to "ethics". When I Googled it I found a private school saying that it wanted all the kids to flourish and fulfil their potential; and a software company saying that it liked to solve clients' problems and allow employees to explore innovative approaches. Liking the Christian "ethos" might mean feeling at home with stained glass windows, crib-scenes and robed choirs, and feeling less at home with shrines to Ganesh or statues of the Buddha. Or it might mean that you are used to living in the kind of country where most people are, or used to be, Christians. A country where we still say "god bless you!" and "goodness gracious!" and have silly traditions connected with Patrick and Valentine. That's not the same as being a Christian, but it's quite a long distance from finding Christians creepy and dodgy (like Tim Minchin) or saying that they are poisonous, violent, irrational, ignorant and hostile to free enquiry (like Christopher Hitchens).

3: They see a sharp distinction between English Christianity and American Christianity.

I don't think that the Younger Richard Dawkins ever thought that the average Anglican Vicar, conscientiously dispensing moral guidance and spiritual comfort to his flock, was poisonous or violent or ignorant. But I think he would have said that this made it worse: the nice moderate Christians provide cover and credibility for the gun-touting child-beating abortion-banning evolution-denying Trump-voting hellfire-and-brimstone American preachers. But the Older Richard Dawkins sees them as two quite separate things. Sure, he thinks the Virgin Birth is a silly idea. But he thinks Creationism is pernicious nonsense. And he thinks that Creationism is a specifically American problem. 

It's almost like English Christianity doesn't quite count as a religion. It's almost as if what he wants is the Church of England, but without the God part.

"We are actually a Christian country", says the World's Leading Atheist.

"We are a Christian country in that sense...."

"It would matter if we lost our beautiful cathedrals or parish churches"

We. We. We.

"Cultural Christian" means Cultural Christian as opposed to Believing Christian.

"Cultural Christian" means Cultural Christian as opposed to American Fundamentalist Christian.

"Cultural Christian" means Cultural Christian as opposed to someone who is creeped out by Christianity and thinks religion fucks everything up.

But mostly, "Cultural Christian" means Cultural Christian as opposed to Muslim.

And that, of course, is the point.

Asked if he thinks that it is a bad thing that fewer and fewer people are going to church at Easter, Dawkins says that he is "horrified that Ramadan is being promoted instead."

"Being promoted." He's not horrified that Muslims celebrate Islamic festivals. He's not horrified that Christians are becoming less and less observant but Muslims are still showing up to Friday prayers. He's not even horrified that some Muslim Billy Graham is trying to persuade Christians to get up out of their seats and give their lives to Allah.

Do Muslims proselytise? I've been approached by Christians who think that the world is going to end almost immediately, Christians who think it's important to go to Church on a Saturday instead of a Sunday, smiley American Christians who think that Jesus was a Red Indian, but never by someone trying to persuade me that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger.

By whom is Ramadan being promoted so horrifyingly? 

Last month, on the date of Islamic Eid, someone put a quote from the Hadith on the departure board at Kings Cross Station. Not instead of the train times, you understand: in that little space where news headlines or messages of support for the King or the England Women's Football Team are sometimes displayed. This got conflated with Lee Anderson's nasty rhetoric about London's mayor being secretly controlled by sinister Islamist forces, and with wilder conspiracy theories about London being a no-go zone operating under sharia law.

Richard Dawkins doesn't say anything like that. But he does say that he prefers Christianity to Islam. 

And it's not just a mild cultural preference, like preferring mince pies and Easter eggs to chumchums and globjamons because that's what he grew up with. Christianity, Christianity itself, is a Good Thing because it provides a "bulwark against Islam". Christianity is a "fundamentally decent" religion while Islam is not.

What's the difference? Islam, he says, is "fundamentally hostile to women and gays". But he has to go back and qualify this. Christians have also had problems with women ("female vicars and bishops"). But the misogyny and homophobia of Islam is written into its holy books. He has to go back and qualify this again: he's talking about the religion -- the Koran and the Hadith. He isn't talking about individual Muslims.

My understanding is that the Koran specifically states that the Sin of Sodom was homosexuality; where the Bible doesn't say what it was. On the other hand the Koran doesn't specify any punishment for homosexuals, but the Bible mandates the death penalty. True, the unequivocal Christian prohibitions form part of (what Christians call) the Old Testament. The Younger Richard Dawkins would not have thought this made much difference. The Younger Richard Dawkins used to cite nasty passages of Scripture -- a verse in Deuteronomy about executing insolent children -- as evidence that Christians in particular and religion in general, was horrid. 

Both sides of the argument are prone to cheat on this point. You don't have to be Christopher Hitchens to see a problem with Christians who assert that the Bible is the absolute and infallible word of God, and in the next breath saying that none of the problem passages apply any more. But it's not very helpful for a smart atheist to pull an obscure passage out of Deuteronomy and say "if you are a Christian, you must, by definition, agree with this verse, and if you don't agree with this verse you obviously aren't a Christian". A certain kind of annoying atheist likes to quote that scene in West Wing when the President challenges a Christian who hates gays "because the Bible tells him so". If you follow the Bible so closely, he asks, can you tell me what would be a good price for my daughter when I sell her as a slave? And should I personally execute the intern who came into work on a Sunday or merely report him to the religious police? It's quite funny, but it doesn't really prove very much. 

If you pointed out to the Younger Richard Dawkins that both Christians and Jews have a fairly complex and critical relationship with the text of their respective scriptures he would probably have accused you of obfuscation or blamed you for committing theology. It has even been suggested that his quip about not needing to know how St Paul interpreted the Old Testament to be certain that God doesn't exist implies that he read my book, although unlike Dave Sim, he never sent me a postcard.

But here is the older Richard Dawkins, looking at actual Christians and declaring them to be mostly harmless, despite what their holy books say; but looking at the holy books of Islam and declaring Islam to be malignant, despite the fact that most actual Muslims are perfectly innocuous. If we are allowed to draw a distinction between English Christianity (benign) and American Christianity (malevolent) why aren't we also allowed to distinguish between the good Muslims in this country and the bad ones in, say, Saudi Arabia?

There is a case to be made that Christianity has proved culturally more adaptable than Islam. Most Christians regard their texts as foundational documents, whereas many Muslims regard theirs as the irreducible truth. There is a case to be made that the literalist interpretations of Islam happen to be the ones currently making the biggest noise on the world stage. Not even the most conservative Christians advocate the imposition of Mosaic law in a modern judicial setting. (Nor, indeed, do the most conservative Jews.) But there definitely are powerful Muslim nations which operate a sharia code based directly on the Koran. Ergo, right here, right now, Islam is more scary than Christianity.

But if that's your case, you could have expressed it more straightforwardly: "Religion is harmless, although in my opinion silly. Fundamentalism is very dangerous." You could even say "Muslims are more inclined than Christians to be fundamentalists" or "Islam is prone to fundentalism because it believes it's scriptures were directly dictated by God." It's not that hard. 

Clever sixth formers, and, in fairness, stupid R.E teachers, used to say that Religion is bad because Religion causes wars. One of the wars they used to say that religion caused was the civil war in Northern Ireland.

The Younger Richard Dawkins made a very fair point about sectarianism. No, he said, the thugs in the IRA and the thugs in the UDA were not actually fighting about faith. No-one has ever put a bomb under a police car because of a difference of opinion about the immaculate conception or the ontological status of the Eucharist. The Irish were killing each other over nationhood and traditions and community and very possibly because Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. But (the Younger Dawkins said) religion was the vector along which that hatred was transmitted: it ensured that people went to different schools and different churches and had different holidays and ate different food and supported different football teams. There is a very old joke about an atheist Jew who visits Belfast, and is asked if he is a Catholic Jewish atheist or a Protestant Jewish atheist. [Note 3] I think the Younger Dawkins made a very valid point. But the Older Dawkins seems to think that it makes a big difference whether you are a Church of England Atheist or a Muslim Atheist.

The person who says that Christian values are values that "we" all share sounds more liberal than the one who says that his God is the best God and anyone with a different God is going to hell. But in fact, the English have generally been quite cool with religious pluralism. I am church and you are chapel and she is synagogue and they are something really quite peculiar -- but we're all British and can play in the park together.  Yes, the guy who thinks he's found the only true God, or the only true God has found him, may spend his spare time knocking on people's doors and standing on street corners and putting tracts through strangers' letterboxes, but he's still British, even if he is a bit annoying.

But once you start to talk about "our" Christian values, you imply that "they" have different, non-Christian values.  And it's only a hop, skip and jump from saying that Christian values are British values to talking about "true Britons" and "real Americans" and saying that the Other Lot don't count.

There was some enjoyable comedy on the Interwebs the other week because a right wing lunatic had asked an AI bot to sum up Britishness, and the AI bot had come up with a picture of Jesus in a nightshirt leading a cohort of crusader knights through a landscape with St Pauls Cathedral and the London Eye clearly visible, along with (for some reason) some muppets and some pterodactyls. For the headbanging right, Christianity is not so much a faith as an identity card. 

I wish Rishi Sunak had had the courage to say "I'm a Hindu and I don't have any idea what your lot are doing with the eggs and the bunnies and the dead guy and the cross -- but you probably don't have much idea what my lot do at Diwali.  And that's what's so great about this country! We're all perfectly free to do our own thing, or nothing at all. Happy whatever!"

"My religion" can be a very good thing. "Our religion" is very dangerous indeed. Cultural Christianity can easily become a badge which says "One of us: not one of them".

We love the merry organ and the bells across the snow
We love the Church of England, although we never go
And we love the dear old Bible, with "Jehovah" and "begat
It's not that we believe in it or anything like that.
          Sydney Carter

[1] I have recently learned that it is NOT anti-semitic to write stories featuring hook nosed goblins who love gold and control the banks, because in real life Jewish people are not in fact goblins and don't control the banks.

[2] "As a matter of fact, Andrew, the fact that you like Talons of Weng-Chiang means that you quite definitely are a cultural racist. And the fact that you have read Those Shitty Wizard books makes you a cultural TERF:"

[3] I am also fond of the one about the Englishman who, threatened by a paramilitary of uncertain denomination, decides it is safest to claim to be Jewish. "Gosh" says the man in the balaclava "I must be the luckiest Arab in Belfast."

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

Conscious Uncoupling

I like to spend some time every day reading. I am currently working my way through the complete poems of Alan Ginsburg, reading The First Kingdom for the fifth time and reading a book about television by that guy who wrote the good book about folk music. 

I like to spend some time every day writing: that's the only way I can justify not working full time, and indeed, continuing to exist at all. I am not a very quick writer: I generally have to free-write at random; select the sensible bits; edit them into a pattern, and then revise three or four times. 

I have a couple of schemes to promote books about my better chunks of writing (Jesus and Spider-Man) in various ways. Editing a podcast takes much longer than you would think, even when you take into a count that editing a podcast takes much longer than you would think.

I hold a season ticket for the Everyman cinema and like to see as many movies as possible: big geeky ones and proper serious grown up ones. Last week we saw Ralph Fiennes pretending to be Macbeth; next week we will finally get around to seeing Jim Moriarty pretending to be all the parts in Uncle Vanya. For a long time I thought that Waiting For Godot and Hamlet between them said everything that there was to say about anything, but I have more and more added Uncle Vanya to the list. I want to see Civil War at some point.

Bristol and Bath are very well supplied with live theatre: in the next ten days I am hoping to see a rap musical about the American constitution and a play about everyone being very repressed and hot in the Deep South. I forget if it's the one about the cat or the one about the tram. There is also a one man show re-imagining Lear's fool as a VR influencer, or something. 

I like to go t o live folk music  -- there was a Bristol Folk Festival last weekend and a Bristol Sea Shanty festival next weekend  and a gig I really ought to go to on Thursday. (The Buffalo Skinners, since you ask, with a local trad fiddle outfit called Freedom For Travelling People and another local punky folk outfit called Poor Old Dogs.) And to my utter and complete astonishment, I have actually started to sing myself, for certain values of singing, at pub sing-arounds and shanty sessions, and the applause seems in some cases to have gone from "polite" to "enthusiastic" although there may also be some element of "ironic". But that involves spending evenings in pubs drinking beer. One suffers for one's art. 

I also like to watch television programmes. I finally got to the end of The Bad Batch this week. I was kind of hoping there would be a Big Reveal and that everyone would die. Neither of those things happened, but it was very exciting: the action scenes are as good as anything in the movies. The is now a new thing called Tales of the Empire. Tales of the Jedi was very good indeed, although probably aimed a little too firmly at people who care about the lore, such as myself. I can't see that I will have a slot to sit down and watch any of that until this time next week. I am very keen to find out if The Three Body Problem is any good; and would ideally like to catch up with the last two iterations of Star Trek (Discovery and Strange New Worlds). The cartoon I watched a couple of episodes of and didn't find that funny. 

I occasionally like to drink coffee and even beer with human beings as well. 

I think I have currently got about as close to a lifestyle that works for me as I ever have. But like Christopher Robin, I don't do as much Nothing as I used to. Unless sitting in my chair reading 1960s beat poets and obscure graphic novels counts as Nothing, which I think it does. 

I have said several times that it is a Bad Idea to read a book or watch a movie simply in order to make snarky remarks about it on a blog; although in fairness I have a morbid fascination with Rings of Power and will probably not be able to look away from the next series. (It's so bad it's bad, as they say.) But I never went to see the second and third editions of the Abomination (i.e Abrams' Trek parody) and have avoided various evangelical Jesus TV shows that "everyone" is talking about. 

To come to the point: I am not saying that I will never watch the new Disney time travel show. Almost certainly, sometime in the next three to four years, I will. 

But it is very unlikely to be the next thing I watch.

And the fact that I feel the need to tell everyone this rather proves that the whole thing as got a bit out of hand.