Themes and Thoughts
Food From Thought

Christian Culture

Defamatory – re-interpretation. The Fate of Christian Culture in an Anti-Christian World

It is a while, now, since I have begun noticing the secularising of Christian culture, in the form of “re-interpreting” it, to fit it for “modern man”. By this means, any work of art which is clearly great and rewarding, but is to a greater or lesser extent Christian, can be made to bear a secular meaning, so that people today who want to enjoy it can do so; this is most obvious, perhaps, in Western music.

I once heard that even The Dream of Gerontius (Newman/Elgar; 1900) could be valued by secularists – and this is a work concerned with the journey of a dying/dead man towards God’s judgement seat.

For a long time, musical masses have suffered this fate, and a development of this is where a secular composer has taken the established Christian form, and written a secular version which is not at all what the original form was. Thus, Brahms’s German Requiem (1865-8) is not a real requiem, a setting of the liturgical text (as Verdi’s was), and Delius’s Mass of Life (1904-5) is not at all a real mass, as such as Bach’s were.

Then, there is a more recent variation, where a “Mass” incorporates authentic Christian liturgical music plus religious music/texts from the traditions of some other religion (e.g. Karl Jenkins’s Mass of the Armed Man (2000)).

Here, the composer seems to be reflecting on the present age, in its use of pick-and-mix multi-faithism. Perhaps an authentically post-modern approach is also seen in the writing of “Christian” works by composers who deny theist belief themselves; however, while these composers are actually hearing/playing the work in question they may fully believe in its religious meaning, but not at other times – I have heard John Rutter (whose distinguished career has been devoted to performing, and writing, church music) suggest precisely this.

Perhaps Post-Christian, rather than Post-Modern, is the appropriate description for Howard Goodall’s Requiem: Eternal Light (2008), which strips the (traditional) Catholic requiem of its specifically-Christian beliefs in original sin, and eventual judgement, producing something more “modern” by which all we need is peace and rest (this process could be said to have started with Faure’s requiem (1887-90), in which there is no Dies Irae movement – but some of the Dies Irae language of judgement is inserted into the Agnus Dei); today, obviously, belief in human sin is not popular.

But recently, an even more acidic and anti-Christian approach to culture has been observable: the re-presentation of works (which are themselves devoid of any particular ideological position) to contain a subtle slur against the Christian Church/Christian believers.

Thus, on television over Christmas 2009 there was a (BBC) version of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw (1898)In it we were shown scenes in some kind of asylum in which the young governess of the story was being treated (or was it incarcerated?), and, gratuitously, there was the sight of an unpleasant ranting preacher-person castigating an unfortunate inmate.

At the end, this preacher accompanied the young woman to a black maria, while quoting words similar to those preceding execution. The first scene showing the preacher was gratuitous because it played no part in the story even as it had been re-cast. Now, James was no Christian believer I understand, but I seriously doubt that he chose to pepper his work with un-missable defamations of Christians (and certainly he did not do it in this work).

Then, at the same season, there was a television version of  John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, thoroughly updated with references to global warming, fossil fuel exhaustion, etc. (yes, the BBC again). In this, some survivors of the triffid take-over disaster were sheltered in a convent; but the mother superior turned out to be a very wicked person who was feeding the refugees to the carnivorous plants, in order to save her own skin (nasty people, these Christian nuns).

In Wyndham’s 1951 book, there is indeed a group of survivors who are led by a rather severe Christian woman, Mrs. Durrant, who sees the disaster as retribution for social wickedness; but her bad behaviour is limited to just a few stern lectures, and some of the survivors leave, and then chose to return, to her informal community (which is not that of a religious order).

In a brief sentence, finally, Wyndham’s principal character mentions the fact of the plague having visited Mrs. Durrant’s community (as many other places); instead of leaving with others, however, she stayed to tend the sick, finally succumbing herself – not an un-Christian thing to do.
The drama series Lark Rise to Candleford is perhaps more typical of the treatment Christianity, and Christians, receive from television today. Based on books by Flora Thompson (1939, 1941, and 1943), the TV series (2009, 2010, etc.), unlike the originals, is a soap-opera-like collection of stories and characters. In this, the token Christian, Thomas Brown, is shown as bumbling, fanatical, and sexually repressed at best, and angry and judgemental on occasion (i.e. a “bigot”), fitting the usual stereotype, ubiquitous on British television (by contrast, paganism is represented by Queenie, the village wise woman, whose notions are serious and subtle, and whose actions are sensitive and goodly).

And I’m wondering where this kind of re-interpretation will end. Will there be specifically-anti-Christian versions of Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen, and Chaucer …? (Milton has already been “shown” (by Christianity-haters such as Phillip Pullman) to be in reality sympathetic to Satan, and antipathetic to God (an idea that has a long pedigree, of course)).

It all reminds me of the re-writing, which apparently occurred in the USSR, of various texts, to show the moral inferiority of the West, and the superiority of Communism. (Of course, these TV writers/producers are very careful only to aim their slurs at Christians – only hit the softest targets – not the members of any other religions, who would soon sort out them, perhaps with violence; do media people have principles and beliefs they would risk their own necks for?). It would be difficult be in view of the wealth of the nightly evidence, to reject the idea that defaming Christianity/Christians is a principal concern of British television.