Thursday, 16 February 2017

Dorothy L. Sayers, Justin Welby, and the Mysterious Disappearance of the Public Intellectual Christian

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been bemoaning the rise of "populist politics", and not-so-subtly linking Donald Trump, Brexit and Fascism (he talked of "a nationalist, populist, or even fascist tradition of politics”). What is the cause of all this sordid right-wing frightfulness?...

 “Almost certainly there is no simple explanation, almost certainly the impact of globalisation economically, or marginalisation politically and of post-modernity culturally have some role to some extent." No mention of a natural aversion to being bossed around by unelected foreign socialists, or of the public having mass immigration thrust down their throats without anyone bothering to ask them whether or not they actually want it, and, of course, nothing about about Europe's Judeo-Christian culture and its liberal values (which depend on that Judeo-Christian tradition) being challenged by the rapid encroachment of an alien religion, many of whose adherents evidently hate the West and all it stands for, and some of whose adherents seem eager to kill us in the name of their deity. Now, I'm as eager as the next man to discuss the cultural impact of post-modernity, but I'm not sure it should necessarily be one of Archbishop Welby's priorities.

In case you imagine that Justin Welby is just another whey-faced leftie prelate eagerly sticking his nose in where it has no place being rather than tending to the spiritual wellbeing of his flock - well, you'd be right:
“In a recent meeting with some economists we reviewed the very serious and ultimately unsustainable balance of payments deficit, the appallingly low levels of investment by the corporate sector, the near absence of research and development funding, the dreadful levels of educational aspiration amongst those who have the least opportunities, the growing demands of care for an older population to a degree that will put massive strain on government funding, the skills gap, the lack of progress towards our goals of a carbon neutral economy, and so on and so on.”
And these are his concerns...why? What, precisely, do the balance of payments deficit, low levels of investment by the corporate sector and the goal of a carbon neutral economy have to do with the spiritual purpose of the Anglican Church? Was Welby appointed because of his economic expertise? And what does the American government's decision to place a temporary halt on immigration from a handful of notoriously terror-exporting countries in the Middle East have to do with the leader of the Church of England?

Of course, the Archbish knows that the "Muslim ban" will have "terrible results" (did God tell him this?), and, after warning the White House to stop "dissing communities" (i.e. attempting to protect American citizens from Muslim terrorists), promised to use President Trump's visit to Britain to "persuade him to change his views." Again - why is this his business? If Trump had placed a travel ban on a number of Christian-majority countries, okay, a word might have been in order. But the ban is on people from countries where Christians are routinely slaughtered. So it is utterly and completely none of his frigging concern! If Welby's main interest is in spouting left-wing dogma rather than the Christian variety, and if his primary concerns are (1) the ability of Muslim foreigners to travel to any country of their choice and (2) this country's economic prospects, he should resign from his current job and seek election under the banner of the Labour Party or the SWP or the Green Party - and leave being an archbishop to people who demonstrate at least a passing interest in spiritual matters.

I was reminded of Welby's inane witterings last night while reading a biography of the detective story writer Dorothy L. Sayers (Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds). In 1936, Sayers, the daughter of an Anglican rector, was invited - pretty much out of the blue - to write a play on a Christian theme to be performed at Canterbury Cathedral the following year (the equivalent play two years previously had been T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral). The resulting The Zeal of Thy House proved such a success (it was subsequently staged in the West End) that she was invited to write another play for the Canterbury Festival two years later. From the moment she started to write the first of the Canterbury plays, she never penned another detective story: instead, she became one of Britain's leading Christian public intellectuals, writing stage plays, books (The Mind of the Maker), radio plays (The Man Born to Be King - a series of twelve plays for children), essays, and a stream of articles on Christian subjects for newspapers and magazines.

Refreshingly, what Sayers rejected was the attempt to reduce the central message of Christianity to a sort of namby-pamby "kindliness":
"I do feel that if one has to write a play on a religious subject, the only way to do it is to avoid wistful emotionalism, and get as much drama as one can out of the sheer hard dogma. After all, nothing can be more essentially dramatic than Catholic doctrine; but it is all lost if one surrounds it with a vague cloud of let-us-all-feel-good-and-loving-and-God-won't-mind-anything-much."
The extraordinary reaction to The Zeal of Thy House of the clergy, the public - and even the stage-hands -  convinced Sayers that the Church's over-emphasis on the "Human Jesus" had blinded people to the most important aspect of Christian dogma - i.e. Christ wasn't just a really, really nice, gentle man who wanted us all to be really, really nice to each other (a sort of early version of Justin Welby); he was both man and God: "That attractive and picturesque figure [the "Human" Jesus] has almost succeeded in pushing the Divine Logos off the stage altogether, with the result that God the Father appears as the villain of the piece."

Discussing how to portray Jesus for a younger audience, Sayers wrote: "Even for children I do not think one can quite reduce the Christian thesis to a doctrine of universal kindliness...When I was a child I liked a bit of mystery and the sense that there was something larger than life..." God, yes. And the same is true for adults - I suspect we all crave the sense that there's something larger than life. Take the dog-collars, mitres, robes and whatnot off most senior Anglican clerics and it's like listening to some dreary Shadow Minister for Employment droning on about the need for a new job-creation initiative in the North-West, or a primary school teacher pleading with a class full of savage junior hoodlums to quieten down, hold hands, and be jolly nice to each other.

The problem with the seeming determination of senior churchmen - Anglican and Catholic - to ignore religion altogether is that there are other religions only too eager to fill the vacuum Welby and his chums have left behind - and some of their leading figures have absolutely no interest in encouraging their listeners to get together with Jews and Christians for a mass sing-song of "Imagine" or "Kumbaya". In the old days, the vacuum left by clerics obsessed with politics was routinely filled by public intellectuals such as Chesterton, Belloc, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis... and Dorothy L. Sayers. But now? I can't think of any. There are plenty of public intellectuals only too eager to share their (invariably left-wing and atheistic) political views, of course - but if I want to hear leftie nonsense, I can always listen to a politician. Or a BBC journalist. Or a clergyman.

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