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
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"
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.