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Scripture cited for a purpose

06 February 2015

Nick Spencer on the politicians' use of it

Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English political discourse since 1968
James G. Crossley
T & T Clark £70
Church Times Bookshop £63 (Use code CT478 )

RUMOUR has it that, when they first enter Parliament, new MPs are provided with a pocket Bible rather than an old-fashioned cyanide pill, and are told to wave it about and quote from it liberally in public if they ever wish to commit career suicide. This is a caricature, perhaps, but Alastair Campbell's endlessly quoted aphorism will be chiselled on the theo-political tombstone of our age (in spite of its quite different original intention).

James Crossley's careful study of how the Bible has been used in recent English "political" discourse (I'll come back to the inverted commas) shows that modern politicians do sometimes get down and biblical, even when there is apparently so much to lose from doing so. His main focus is on the "changes in dominant politicised assumptions about what the Bible 'really means' in public presentations in English culture since the 1960s" (italics original).

His central contention is that the "radical Bible", familiar in political and public discourse for generations, gave way, like the rest of the country, to Thatcherism and its heirs, with their "liberal" and "neoliberal" assumptions, and Bibles.

He does this through some fine close readings of a range of political figures from Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, through Margaret Thatcher, to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Michael Gove, in the process making a valuable contribution to the growing literature on Christianity and contemporary politics. The book is beset by two problems, however.

The first is that the Bible isn't used that much in contemporary political discourse (Thatcher is the exception here, and even she was sparing once she was in power). As a result, Crossley includes chapters on Monty Python's Life of Brian, the independent music scene in Manchester, and Jeffrey Archer's The Gospel According to Judas, none of which fit comfortably in a book on expressly "political" discourse.

The second is related to the first. Again with the possible exception of Thatcher, none of the figures whom Crossley studies was, or ever claimed to be, theologically, let alone hermeneutically, literate. Most were political either above or before they were Christian. As such, to expect them to do anything more than baptise their existing political commitments with scripture seems a little unfair. If the Bible has drifted on the tide of late-20th-century liberalism, it is less because of what it says and more because most of the vessels in which it has travelled have, theologically speaking, often been quite shallow.

Nick Spencer is a director of the think tank Theos.

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