As it was told in days of old…in the Church

Of all the confusions befuddling the people of Britain (mirroring those in the rest of the Collective West), one that seems to be most widely criticised is the wanton destruction of our literary culture in schools and universities.

However much ordinary people may have been induced to feel they ought, morally, to be supporting BLM or Trans rights in sport, the abolition of Shakespeare, Larkin, Wilfred Owen, or Thomas Hardy in favour of “LGBT voices” seems to most people to be a step too far. That doesn’t prevent it happening, of course, because the radicals have the power and intend to use it, so that the indoctrination of children and young people into the “decolonization” agenda continues apace.

The question of flags operates at a more emotional level. Whereas pretty ordinary people – even those who don’t read much Shakespeare or Larkin – recognise that they are read because they are good, whereas some Lesbian author from Togo seems to provide no interest whatsoever, nobody can actually say that the Union Flag is actually good, though some may say it’s a nice design.

But the few progressives offended by the joyful display of Union flags during the Platinum Jubilee, moaning that they made London Streets resemble the Nuremberg rallies, were rightly vastly outweighed by those who saw a rare outpouring of national pride and unity, centred on the faithfulness of the longest reigning monarch in history.

On the contrary the much-photographed display of Pride flags in Regent Street, at pretty much the same density as the national flags last month, do make people think of the Nazi rallies. Whilst most people could not express why they feel there is a big difference, the likely reason is that the Pride flags are banners of occupation, hoisted over the people rather than by the people.

Let me try to put some shape on why the suppression of our culture, and particularly literature and music, matters so much. The core reason is that all human communities hold together through stories. We can trace this back to the dawn of human existence: it is said that the very oldest stories can be traced back across European cultures to, possibly, 30,000 years ago. Whether that is true or not (and how astonishing if it is!), we know that Australian aboriginal tales go back at least several thousand years, and possibly tens of thousands. It is the telling of these “dreamings” amongst the community by authorised story-tellers which teaches each generation who they are, and how to live.

Every culture has the same kind of foundational stories, though as they become literary societies, the content, media, and complexity of the stories becomes wider. For the ancient Greeks, Homer (or whoever it was) sang the Iliad and the Odyssey at festive gatherings to the music of the lyre, and those song-cycles became the foundation for all Greek art, decorating pots, generating plays and even passing to other Greek-influenced cultures, so that they are found in Roman mosaics and Virgil’s poetry, and even in English poetic re-tellings.

At this point I can’t resist inserting a clip from my own past (1959) which illustrates such a culture-forming process, in this case fictional, at work… and yet the Norse mythology being imitated also forms a part of Britain’s own cultural identity. If you don’t want the whole episode, just listen to how the introduction conjures up a nation’s sense of moral self identity through a virtuous national hero.

The Saga of Noggin the Nog – hooray for Smallfilms

Britain, of course, has its own national myths, notably the story of King Arthur, which appears, already much recycled, in some of our earliest literary works (Geoffrey of Monmouth, born c1095), and recurs in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur around 1485, in Spenser’s paean to Elizabeth 1, The Faery Queene, and in poems, adult novels (such as White’s The Once and Future King), children’s stories and films too numerous to mention.

All the serious literary treatments of Arthur express something about the current state of Britain compared to this legendary ideal. King Edward III (1327-1377) is believed to have commissioned the great Arthurian round table now hanging in Winchester Cathedral as part of a projected Arthurian revival, and he was no decadent romantic, but one of our ablest kings. Around this time English was replacing French as as the court language, and it is no coincidence that this period also marks the true start of England’s literature, especially in Chaucer and Langland. To revive Arthur was to revive England.

Once a national literature exists, it both reflects and forms the national character, as well as the language, in a way that is obviously a lot more complex than the men of the Northlands recounting the old tales round their great log fires. Only the highly educated specialist can be familiar with more than a small fraction of the riches available – and no single person can encompass it all. But that’s OK, because literature is a corporate, not only an individual, resource. To cover Shakespeare at school opens the door to a great library, to which one has the key even if one seldom avails oneself of it. Yet many an engineer or postman will be found to have dipped in adult life into the the classics they dismissed as tedious at school.

The complaint that Shakespeare (the test case, I suppose, for “dead poets” at school) uses archaic language is an Aunt Sally, especially for reasonably able students. It’s a whole lot easier reading Shakepeare with a handy glossary than it is some French text. Even Chaucer’s Middle English is still within reach of modern people. My English teacher introduced me to Canterbury Tales in the third form, and in adulthood I’ve read it three times, with more pleasure each time. Anglo-Saxon is more of a challenge, but Seamus Heaney did a great job on translating Beowulf for us all.

All this should make it clear that there is only one underlying motivation for suppressing the literary culture of a nation, whatever the “useful idiots” say about inclusivity, diversity or decolonizing. And that purpose is to destroy the nation as an entity: once the men of the Northlands stop telling the tales of Noggin the Nog, it will not be long before the great log fires burn dim, and the nation falls apart. Newly-minted stories will then be imposed from above, like the ever-changing Pride flags over Regent Street, by and for the benefit of the powerful.

Now, I want to go on to apply this lesson to our churches, members of which will, I think, largely agree with the dangers of abandoning our national culture, but who seem blind to the deliberate abandonment of Christian culture, which has exactly the same formative and preservative role. Evangelicals (but not, sufficiently, a good number of Charismatics) maintain the centrality of Scripture to the identity of the Christian “race,” as Homer was foundational to the Greeks.

But just as Homer generated an entire body of art and literature, Christianity too has 2,000 years of similar cultural heritage and interpretation in its writings, its art and its hymnody. Furthermore, it is a culture that has grown up around the whole world, though until recent times predominantly in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas… that is to say, in languages and art-forms easily accessible to us.

This, I think, is why I react negatively to fellow Christians saying young people nowadays don’t know old hymns, don’t like slow tunes and so on. It is also why I can’t stand The CCLI (copyright body) sending me e-mails with the Top Twenty Worship Songs from this years albums. Quite apart from the questionable commercial model of much “Contemporary Christian Music,” and the even more questionable theology behind the market-leaders Hillsongs and Bethel, the very idea that the ideal is for our worship songs to be up-to-the-minute unwittingly serves the same deadly agenda as decolonizing English literature. It robs us of the links we have to a cultural heritage that grew naturally from the Apostles’ teaching, and which ties us into the universal (small “c” catholic) Church of Christ. It separates us from the protection of our ancestors, and indirectly from our continuity with the future, since this year’s songs will be forgotten as quickly as this year’s acceptable woke speech.

If kids can’t read and appreciate Shakespeare – as is inevitable in view of their youth and immaturity – the role of schools is to initiate them in both, a process once called “education.” Likewise, churches ought to realise that their God-given role is to teach Christianity’s culture, not simply to echo what the world already drums into children. Even Deuteronomy stresses the constant education of the young in the revealed truth of God by their elders, and for the same reason – the rest of the world will be feeding them Satan’s lies.

Many strands of Christianity in the world are fully aware of this. I loved the enthusiasm with which Russian Orthodox folks, on a video, sung the Easter liturgy in Mariupol after its recent liberation. It is in Slavonic, which is traditional and unifying (as was Latin in the Catholic West), but takes some study to understand. When you’re that enthusiastic, you’ll be willing to study a little.

There comes a point, as the history of the Reformation reminds us, at which traditional language becomes a hindrance, being no longer “understanded of the people,” and I don’t know if that’s a problem in Orthodoxy or not.

But it’s certainly more significant than the pretended inability of British Christians to cope with a few “thees” and “thous” in old hymns or prayers, seemingly necessitating the re-writing of truly poetic hymns into unwieldy and often ungrammatical modern forms. When the issue is incomprehensibility, then careful updating is indeed necessary. When it is simply a matter of “being relevant,” then I suspect that the spirit of progressive deconstruction is at work – it is the entire culture that is being attacked. People really do come to believe that only now do we understand the faith properly, even as the churches continue to empty!

It is a practical problem, of course, to know just what to take from the old, and what to take from the new, to create a living tradition encompassing both young and old. But schools, before they go woke, manage to teach both the “greats” of literature and representative lesser mortals. Even the Classic FM classical music radio station is able to be popular with quite ordinary folk by playing both the well-known and more obscure composers. It’s quite possible to throw in some Wesley, some Baxter or even some seventh century gem, unapologetically, with the Graham Kendrick and the Stuart Townend songs, and create a culture of Christian culture in your locality. After all, aren’t churches supposed to be about teaching?

We should never forget that, purely on statistical grounds, it is probable that most of the wisest, most godly and able Christians over 2,000 years lived in the past. They have left us many resources to consolidate our faith and our sense of being one Church, just as the secular literature has passed on what it means to be British in a way that the Post-moderns simply cannot conceive, because they have blinded themselves with critical theory.

Before too long, churches even might be the only places where people can find genuine culture. Perhaps, as described in Rod Dreher’s Live not by Lies, churches might do expository sermons on Sundays, Bible Studies on Wednesdays, and Milton, Michelangelo and Mendelssohn on Fridays. Can you imagine churches being the primary centres of learning? If not, I can point you back to a guy named Bede.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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