Monday, 28 February 2011

The "Oscars" and some G.K. Chesterton

Have you ever wished you could find a hole in the ground and disappear into it? I do, ever more frequently these days; perhaps it's the onset of complete 'fogeydom,' the end of the Church as we have known it, or only that end of winter feeling we often experience just before the beginning of Lent. But whatever the cause, a cave would do fine, despite the return to cold weather today.

At times like this I almost agree with a friend who argues that the Christian faith, at least in its unreformed exuberance of pilgrimages and outdoor processions, and its ordered succession of fasting and feasting is more suited to a mediterranean climate. Whitewashed churches and sermons of interminable length seem somehow more at home in the gloom, cold and damp of a  northern european winter. Although, before the middle of the sixteenth century we seemed to manage things quite well, and there was a (historically quite short) period when it seemed the Anglo-Catholic movement could achieve a re-enchantment of our social and religious culture - now all consigned to the might-have-beens of history, more's the pity.

But our contemporary "culture" seems to have invented a new late winter / early spring secular feast, Oscar Night. I'm told that the sort of people my internet provider wants me to read about on its front page actually go to parties which show the proceedings on large screens, a sort of Hollywood anteroom for those who will never get there in person.
 It is good to see British success again in the film industry (we're good at acting, certainly) even if the kind of success is rather predictable, confirming long-standing American misconceptions about Britain being a stiff upper lip theme park, peopled with ineffectual but well-dressed folk with good manners and impeccable breeding. Yeah, right.....
Still, it's probably better to watch the modern British genuflection to the culture of Californian hedonism than Canon Giles Fraser being interviewed by Ruth Gledhill on the subject of  why the Church should celebrate same sex relationships. Here
Neither, and they are fairly closely related, is the kind of re-enchantment which commends itself particularly.

"What was the matter with the whole heathen civilisation was that there nothing for the mass of men in the way of mysticism, except that concerned with the mystery of the nameless forces of nature, such as sex and growth and death. In the Roman Empire also, long before the end, we find nature-worship inevitably producing things that are against nature. Cases like that of Nero have passed into a proverb when Sadism sat on a throne brazen in the broad daylight. But the truth I mean is something much more subtle and universal than a conventional catalogue of atrocities. What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was coloured by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions. Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex. For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication. The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago.
It was not so much that the pagan world was wicked as that it was good enough to realise that its paganism was becoming wicked, or rather it was on the logical high road to wickedness. I mean that there was no future for "natural magic"; to deepen it was only to darken it into black magic. There was no future for it; because in the past it had only been innocent because it was young. We might say it had only been innocent because it was shallow. Pagans were wiser that paganism; that is why the pagans became Christians. Thousands of them had philosophy and family virtues and military honour to hold them up; but by this time the purely popular thing called religion was certainly dragging them down. When this reaction against the evil is allowed for, it is true to repeat that it was an evil that was everywhere. In another and more literal sense its name was Pan.
It was no metaphor to say that these people needed a new heaven and a new earth; for they had really defiled their own earth and even their own heaven. How could their case be met by looking at the sky, when erotic legends were scrawled in stars across it; how could they learn anything from the love of birds and flowers after the sort of love stories that were told of them? It is impossible here to multiply evidences, and one small example may stand for the rest. We know what sort of sentimental associations are called up to us by the phrase "a garden"; and how we think mostly of the memory of melancholy and innocent romances, or quite as often of some gracious maiden lady or kindly old person pottering under a yew hedge, perhaps in sight of a village spire. Then, let anyone who knows a little Latin poetry recall suddenly what would have once stood in place of the sun-dial or the fountain, obscene and monstrous in the sun; and of what sort was the god of their gardens.
Nothing could purge this obsession but a religion that was literally unearthly. It was no good telling such people to have a natural religion full of stars and flowers; there was not a flower or even a star that had not been stained. They had to go into the desert where they could find no flowers or even into the cavern where they could see no stars. Into that desert and that cavern the highest human intellect entered for some four centuries; and it was the very wisest thing it could do. Nothing but the stark supernatural stood up for its salvation; if God could not save it, certainly the gods could not. The early Church called the gods of paganism devils; and the Early Church was perfectly right. Whatever natural religion may have had to do with their beginnings, nothing but fiends now inhabited those hollow shrines. Pan was nothing but panic. Venus was nothing but venereal vice. I do not mean for a moment, of course, that all the individual pagans were of this character even to the end; but it was as individuals that they differed from it. Nothing distinguishes paganism from Christianity so clearly as the fact that the individual thing called philosophy had little or nothing to do with the social thing called religion. Anyhow it was no good to preach natural religion to people to whom nature had grown as unnatural as any religion. They knew much better than we do what was the matter with them and what sort of demons at once tempted and tormented them; and they wrote across that great space of history the text; "This sort goeth not out but by prayer and fasting."  
G.K. Chesterton  from 'Saint Francis of Assisi' (chapter 2)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments will not be published