Dealing with the enemy’s cultural hegemony

by Joseph Shaw

If one is to live a Christian life, let alone evangelise in some small way, one has to recognise the unique challenges of one’s time and place. At all times and in all places there is the reality of Original Sin, one’s own sin and the sin of others. For the last century or so, we in the West have also had to live with the fact that being any kind of Christian, and perhaps particularly being Catholic, is regarded by most people as either incomprehensible or malign. In the words of Hilary Mantel, the much-lionised, best-selling author of historical fiction, which twists the narrative to demonise St Thomas More, being a Catholic is not “respectable”.

Mantel, like the author Philip Pullman, seems to have “issues”, as the modern jargon has it, with Catholic faith and culture. She has no intrinsic significance — there have always been strange people around — what is important is the use which has been made of her: she has been awarded all kinds of prizes and her repulsive novels have been adapted for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Pullman, another winner of multiple awards, has had one book made into a film and another into a play. Both writers have received the accolade of special editions of their works done for the bibliophiles of the Folio Society.

The publicity machines have nevertheless found it difficult to explain these peculiar individuals. Mantel was initially praised for the historical accuracy and realism of her work but, as real historians began to notice her material, she hastily rebranded it as a very fictional kind of historical fiction. After pocketing prizes for children’s books, Pullman decided, as his graphic descriptions of child torture began to get a bit out of hand, that this was just a misunderstanding; no, he was writing for adults.

Such U-turns would have sunk lesser folk, but the secularist establishment needs Mantel and Pullman. They possess some literary skill and their work can be used to counter-balance and even to exclude the Christian narratives given to us by writers of a previous generation: notably, Robert Bolt’s play and film, A Man for All Seasons, about St Thomas More, and the children’s books of C.S. Lewis. Literature and historical memory is being remade in the snarling image of secular modernity.

The cultural legacy of Christianity remains vast, however, and the literary efforts of its adversaries are puny by comparison. In a generation or two Pullman and Mantel will be forgotten. What we can call “classical culture” — the things that remain of interest to scholars and the general reader even after the lapse of time — has become an important field of conflict. This is a conflict between those who want to suppress all reference to the former civilisation of the West, the culture of “less enlightened times”, and those who would at least like to have it available for study and critique. Custodians of culture in universities and schools seem to have taken all too seriously the double meaning of custos, and regard themselves too often as jailers rather than as trustees. But others can still be found, including those more attuned to market forces, who will give Christian culture an airing.

In the summer, I visited the exhibition on St Thomas Becket put on by the British Museum, and was very pleasantly surprised by the open-minded and scholarly presentation of the material, as well as by the abundance, beauty, and interest of the exhibits, which included devotional items and reliquaries. More recently, I attended a recital of what may be the greatest Christian work of literature, in English, of the last 100 years: T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartetsrecited, with all the subtle refinements of stagecraft, by Ralph Fiennes. Putting on an exhibition about St Thomas Becket or a one-man recital of Four Quartets are things that can only happen if the various people involved believe that these are subjects of profound importance. They are successful in commercial terms only if members of the public agree. Both have been tremendous successes, packed out and praised to the skies by critics.

These are not, to be sure, mass-market products: the British Museum and a short run in the small Harold Pinter Theatre are, in their different ways, decidedly niche. Re-watching the film adaptations of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), The Passion of the Christ (2004), and The Lord of the Rings (2001–3), it seems impossible that such films should be made today. Even at the time, critics were astonished that Mel Gibson’s Passion was such a commercial success and I understand that this convinced the makers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that they didn’t need to de-Christianise it quite as much as they had planned. To the same era belongs an anecdote about The Daily Telegraph, whose Anglican (since, Catholic convert) then-editor, Charles Moore, decided, against some internal opposition, to do a series of features on Christianity to mark the new millennium. It was a great success. When Moore was congratulated for this in a meeting of senior journalists, it was met with a stony silence.

The stony silence is an important clue. New cultural products, like the above-mentioned films and prominent newspaper series, are not going to be coming our way again soon, not because there is no demand for them, but because the decision-makers would not want to be associated with them. Such ventures are not the way to gain status: you gain status by showing you are more “woke” than other people. It is better to be the man who lost money doing something daringly woke than the man who made money doing something reactionary: you’re more likely to be invited to the parties and given the exciting jobs. 

This explains why even successful public protests against progressive outrages don’t have a wider effect. The recent resignation of (Ms) Robin Appleby as the headteacher of the American School in London — after she insisted on lessons teaching the children that all white people are racist — will not, on its own, give much pause to the plans of other schools, and I doubt she will be out of a job for long. This kind of battle needs to be won in every single school, and will need to be re-fought every few years.

That is what it means to be living in an era in which the enemy has cultural hegemony. It is not that ordinary people are sinners: that has always been the case. The problem is that the normal incentives to do something beautiful, popular, or of genuine cultural value have been counter-balanced in a wide range of institutions by the imperatives of a hostile ideology, against which people are constantly judged. Good things can still happen: we have not yet got to the point of totalitarian coercion. But they tend to happen in niche ways or for special reasons. At this stage of his career, Ralph Fiennes doesn’t need to worry about pleasing casting directors any more. The people at the British Museum can do a good exhibition on Becket because they do exhibitions about all kinds of things all the time. In both cases their productions were not presented as being from a Christian perspective and, in some ways, the Christian confessional content was played down. But the material was allowed to speak for itself and the message it conveyed was a powerful one.