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Sayings, doings, and a plastic Jesus

15 November 2013

“Plenty of whipping and busty female angels”: James Hider’s piece in The Times

I AM pretty certain that The Times has not found "the world's first religious theme park" - there are the various creationist attractions in the American south, to say nothing of Dollywood, for followers of Diana of the Ephesians - but who cares, when its report from Buenos Aires contains these two wonderful paragraphs?

"Modelled on the Jerusalem of Jesus's day, Tierra Santa looks like a cross between Disneyland and one of those mock-ups of an Iraqi village that the US Army builds in the deserts of New Mexico to train troops in Gulf warfare.

"The centrepiece of a show that features a son et lumière Nativity, plenty of whipping and busty female angels clad in low-cut evening gowns, is a 40ft-high (12m) plastic Jesus who bursts out of the fibreglass hill of skulls every hour, oblivious to jets landing next door."

A similar difficulty with reality is present, if less obvious, in the coverage of the Roman Catholic bishops' questionnaire on sexual attitudes. The Times, again, had a leader on this, which at least acknowledged the problem: 

"In the developed world, at any rate, the [Roman Catholic] Church's doctrines con­cerning sexual and personal morality are now completely out of kilter with how people actually live and think. The teaching that masturbation is 'an intrinsically and seriously disordered act' has somehow survived the Kinsey era, but not in any practical way.

"Much more serious for the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world are the Church's continued and strenuous opposition to divorce and, above all, to 'artificial' birth control. This doctrine has led to the moral authority of the Pope being used, among other things, to try to stop the use of condoms as a way of controlling the spread of Aids.

"The result in Europe and America has been a marked division between what is taught to Catholics and what they actually do. In other parts of the world the consequences have been, arguably, far worse in terms of disease and over-population."

This is fine as far as it goes, but it does not, I think, emphasises enough that the divide is not between what Roman Catholics are taught and what they do - after all, there is a considerable gap between what Jesus taught and what almost any Christian actually does - but between what they are taught and what they believe is true and moral.

Professor Linda Woodhead's data suggests that the proportion of Roman Catholics under 50 in Britain who agree with the official teaching on abortion, euthanasia, and contraception, and who self-report as attending church weekly, is two per cent, or one in 50 of notional RCs. That is what really threatens the survival of churchgoing, because while parents will happily transmit hypocrisy to their children, in the sense that "this is what we ought to do, even though we don't in fact do so," they will not transmit obligations that seem to them not so much impossible to live up to as meaningless and just plain silly. 

Talking of which: the Pilling Commission. Jonathan Petre, who remains one of the most thorough and scrupulous reporters in the business, had a story saying that it would suggest that gay clergy be no longer quizzed about their sex lives if they enter civil partnerships. 

"They will argue that gay clergy should not be treated any differently than other clerics who do not face intrusive questioning about their sex lives - and that they should be able to follow Church teachings without having to make a solemn vow.

"But the move is likely to provoke fury among conservatives, who will regard it as another step towards the acceptance of actively gay clergy by the Church. 

"The most depressing aspect of the story, of course, is that one sentence is entirely and incontrovertibly true - whatever happens "is likely to provoke fury among con­servatives".

It is very likely to provoke fury among their opponents, too. It really is a nice question whether the RC model of publicly asserting absurdities does more to discredit Christianity than the Anglican model of publicly arguing about them. 

And so to Lucy Kellaway's column in the Financial Times, where she considered self-deprecation: "The more ludicrous the self-dissing is, the better it works. Think of some of the modern-day masters: Tony Blair, Boris Johnson or Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"When I interviewed the latter recently, he told me that he was hopeless compared with his predecessor, that he was boring, not terribly holy, had a second-class mind and that he got terrified before big speeches. In a way it was all hogwash. Yet it made me putty in his hands.

"Self-deprecation is only dangerous if there is any chance at all that the person you are talking to might agree with it."

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