Sunday, July 15, 2007

Language, religion and politics

This post has been sitting in my drafts for some time as I kept reworking what I meant to say. I finally found my way in through reading this interview with Christopher Hitchens posted on the Drink Soaked Trots. In it he is reported as saying,

But if you don’t know what’s in King James (Bible) and how it sounds, you won’t understand a lot of what’s in Shakespeare or Milton or John Donne or George Herbert, to name only a few examples. Enormous numbers of phrases in common use would be opaque to you. You wouldn’t know where they came from. They would be empty.

Look, religion was our first attempt at philosophy. It was the first and the worst, but it’s still part of our history and tradition. As it is, children don’t know where anything comes from—they don’t know the literary canon or the historical record. So I think to be religiously literate is very important.

I still agree with Norm here and here and here that there is sufficient empirical evidence to question any notion that religion is necessarily a force for evil. Those who are driven by religion to virtuous and courageous acts may really be acting on a universal and fundamentally secular moral conscience, but their rationale is religious and religion may have been a key factor in transforming them from passive dissidents into active resistors. However Hitchens is absolutely right about language, literature and culture.

This is illustrated by a recent article by Madeleine Bunting. Despite her remarkable tolerance for radical Islam, she is less forgiving of Christianity in politics. Writing about Gordon Brown, she gets it spectacularly wrong when she says, 'religion has re-emerged as a central inspiration of political rhetoric'. Sorry Madeleine, It has never gone away.

Probably the most original and impressive piece of social history I have ever read is Jonathan Rose's wonderful The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. The book is a celebration of working class autodidact erudition and also discusses the political significance of literary language. If you were to identify the sources of popular literary tastes they would lie with Shakespeare (and Rose documents the vast working class enthusiasm for Shakespeare in the 19th Century) and the King James Bible, both masterpieces of poetic English language and, amongst much else, moral discourses. Lyrical language fired the popular imagination and embodied a morality which found its expression in early socialism. Rose argues that the failure of the Communist Party to gain much of a foothold was due to its abandonment of literary language in favour of the obscure jargon of a middle class elite that had no resonance with a working class schooled in Milton and Bunyan. "Where Marxists defined exploitation in purely economic terms, Labour socialists, brandishing their Everyman's Library volumes, promised beauty in life, joy in work, a moral vision in politics" (p.299). Ironic when you think how much Marx himself, and his children, adored Shakespeare.

In terms of contemporary mainstream politics, whereas Blair was all New English Bible, written in ugly modern English for Anglicans who actually believe in God, Brown's language is closer to the King James version, a bible for people who just like the sound of religion rather than religion itself. Whether Brown is trying to merely recover the sound of ethical socialism or ethical socialism itself is a moot point.

And, of course, we need that language, that emotional and ethical engagement with beauty. Compare the lyricism of Blake with the barbarities of post-modernism and see where each will lead you. And what do those who apologise for terrorism do? What do those who see the oppression of women as acceptable in different cultures do? They overwhelm our emotional moral revulsion with carefully constructed rationalisations that twist what we know to be wrong into something that can be accepted as right, or at least convenient. Language misused can be egregiously deceptive.

If this emotional, lyrical and moral language is rooted in religious traditions, it doesn't mean that religion is the sole possible vehicle for morality. I haven't read Hitchens' book yet but from the interviews I have seen he seems to be right in the tradition of the 19th Century Freethought movement, in that he is arguing that what is damaging is the religious mode of thinking. Given the quality of his prose he is well placed to contribute to the development of a secular ethical language and to address the issue raised by Sam Harris in his book, "The End of Faith".

We live in societies that are still constrained by religious laws and threatened by religious violence. What is it about us, and specifically about our discourse with one another, that keeps these astonishing bits of evil loose in the world? … Mitigating this problem is not merely a matter of reining in a minority of religious extremists; it is a matter of finding approaches to ethics and to spiritual experience that makes no appeal to faith, and broadcasting this knowledge to everyone.
(pp. 223-224)

So what would such an ethic look like? Harris again;

We do not know what awaits each of us after death, but we know that we will die. Clearly, it must be possible to live ethically – with a genuine concern for the happiness of other sentient beings – without presuming to know things about which we are patently ignorant. Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass in the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would anyone want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?

A secular politics that celebrates life is more lyrical and beautiful than a religious one that worships death and seeks to impose a state of utopian misery by the use of extreme violence. In reality, the devil most certainly does not have the best tunes.


Francis Sedgemore said...

I couldn't agree more, Peter.

Well, apart from your reference to ugly modern English. The metre of the King James Bible is certainly impressive, but there are some excellent modern translations of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and from a literary perspective I actually prefer some of them.

The one with which I'm most familiar is the New Jerusalem Bible. This is the authorised version for Roman Catholics in England. It can be a bit 'scholarly' in places, but the beauty of the psalms comes through very well, as do a number of other books.

Secondly, while you cite the influence of popular literature (the Everyman Library), you fail to explicitly acknowledge the Christian Socialist roots of the Labour Party. I'm not sure if the CP "abandoned" literary language, as such, but they certainly failed to capitalise on it. Why I do not know, as many of my old Party comrades revelled in Milton, Bunyan, Blake and the rest. They had literary culture oozing out of every pore of their beings.

But these minor criticisms aside, yours is the best article on this subject I've read in a long while.

Terry Glavin said...

". . .yours is the best article on this subject I've read in a long while."

Seconded from the floor.


Anonymous said...

Christians do not 'worship death', they venerate the 'risen Christ Jesus'. Everything else I have read on this thread is well expressed, generous and thoughtful. Many confuse the Old Testament as being 'The Bible' for Christians. This catalogue of prejudice, wrong doing, ethnic cleansing and downright perversion (and occasional forgiveness) is for many simply an (overlong) prelude – hence 'Christ the Redeemer'.

In the 17th century the Putney Debates were carried on by frequent quotation and counter quotation of obscure Old Testament texts – but that was the Puritans for you. Yet Cromwell invited the Jews to return and Bevis Marks Synagogue was the result. Even more remarkable in some ways was Gerard Winstanley's 'Declaration of St George's Hill' (1649?) which was once called "the Communist Manifesto written in the language of the Bible." Incidentally, some of the preamble sounds suspiciously similar to a later, more well known Declaration ...

Christian Socialists gain inspiration from the teachings of Jesus, not Leviticus (which should be read in its entirety). Jesus was careful to make plain He came from the line that included murderers, courtesans and other sundry deadbeats. But His message is simple – we can find redemption and he used the parables drawn from ordinary working life to illustrate this. Scandalously He spoke to to women with whom He was not related; frequently, something our misogynist brethren have to explain away. But it is good to have a thread on Christianity which is not simply angry and resentful. Incidentally, I wish politicians would follow Jesus' advice and not flaunt their belief about in public. Actions not public pieties.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan Rose's book is an inspiration and one I turn to frequently. I agree with you on the language and would add that of the Book of Common Prayer. I would say that it is the same in spades for music, whether the 1610 Vespers or the Kaddish.

The Plump said...

Thanks very much Francis and Terry for your kind words, very much appreciated. And to you larkers from a different perspective. And Ferens, you are dead right about the Book of Common Prayer and music.

Francis. It is interesting that there has been a lot of focus on the significance of the Christian Socialists, but the Freethought movement was also important but has been neglected by historians. However, the biggest influence of Freethought was on Anarchism. Louisa Bevington made her name with an attack on religion, Henry Seymour started out in Freethought, as did people like Dan Chatterton.

Larkers, my reference was directed at the current terrorist cult of Islamism rather than Christianity. However, Christianity has had its moments, as a glimpse at the role of the Catholic Church in the Spanish Civil War would confirm, let alone Mel Gibson's awful snuff movie. What you write reminds me of another obscure 19th Century figure, the Christian Anarchist, J Morrison Davidson. He hated the establish church as it concentrated on Christ's death and thus obscured his life and teaching, which was not other worldly, was decidedly radical and also inspired radical movements and popular rebellions. That theology played a central role in the English Revolution is now historical consensus. However, I am concerned about your depiction of the Old Testament as it smacks of Christian anti-Semitism. This has a long and murderous history in this country too and is another stain on Christianity, despite Cromwell.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to reality!!!!
I read 'God is not great' recently-ok BUT Chris Hitchens makes two BIG mistakes. Any ideas????
Have a good break, see you soon

Anonymous said...

"However, I am concerned about your depiction of the Old Testament as it smacks of Christian anti-Semitism."

I personally cannot see that, but the point is taken. However, I believe the Evangelical (Alliance or not) Christian concentration on Old Testament texts is no guide to Christainity. There is in my mind a distinction to be made between the New and the Old Testament. Simply bound together does not, to me, make them one and the same text. The anti-Semitism of the church is part of a wider anti-Semitism which must be faced. We may wish history away but we cannot.

In my tradition our ritual is cited in the service booklets as "following the Jewish practice."

But as for literature, I believe the Authorised Bible (King James Version), which is itself something like eighty per cent Tyndale's Bible, to be a magnificent achievement, a bed rock of English language, thought and expression.

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