THE cultural distance between traditional Christianity and the contemporary media landscape occasionally jumps into my face as if I had trodden on a rake.
One instance last week came when I was trying to interest someone in the fact that the Pope had said that women ought to be able to breastfeed in the Sistine Chapel. It was completely incomprehensible to her that there might ever have been objections to it.
THEN there was a snide little picture caption in the Mail Online’s story about university students’ being given trigger warnings before studying images of the crucifixion: “Spoiler alert: There have been many reconstructions and portrayals of the crucifixion but none of them end well for Jesus.”
I don’t know why this last upset me; I suppose it is just such a blatant invitation to take your seat in the arena and lap up the spectacle of the torture below. The blood of the martyrs really brings the clicks in.
The oddest reaction was that of the conservatives who thought they were protecting Christian tradition by deriding the demand as political correctness. If the crucifixion is not something almost unbearable to contemplate, it has lost its Christian meaning. But this is all part, I suppose, of the way in which what is now called Christian conservatism is seldom either.
THIS brings us elegantly to the Trump inauguration. It is a tribute to the power of hatred in human affairs that a number of conservative Christians are deciding that, if the liberals fear him, he can’t be all bad.
But, then, there are already nearly half-a-million pages indexed by Google which offer an answer to the question “Is Barack Obama the antichrist?” Without extensive sampling I can confidently assert that few of them answer “no”.
But the movement of the prosperity gospel into the Trump inauguration — it was announced last week that the televangelist Paula White would be saying prayers at the ceremony on 20 January — seems to me another significant step in the replacement of Christianity in the United States by something else: it bears the same name, but has a rather different message from the religion as it has been understood in Europe and the Middle East for the past two thousand years.
The central idea of this new version is that you serve God by growing rich, and that misfortune is a consequence of spiritual mistakes. The claim that this world is a place where virtue is rewarded and vice is punished is more of a betrayal of Christianity than it could ever be to put trigger warnings on the crucifixion. It’s not even entirely consonant with the narratives of the Old Testament.
It isn’t worldliness exactly. You’d have to be very unworldly to take the glittering promise of Trump Towers at face value.
THE Washington Post had a piece on the phenomenon by Dr Michael Horton, a theology professor at Westminster Seminary, California: “Televangelist [Paula] White has a lot in common with Trump. . . Both are in their third marriage and have endured decades of moral and financial scandal. According to family values spokesman James Dobson, another Trump adviser, White ‘personally led [Trump] to Christ.’”
At this point I think about the horse led to water, but the piece continues: “Like her mentor, T. D. Jakes, White adheres closely to the Word of Faith teachings. Besides throwing out doctrines like the Trinity and confusing ourselves with God, the movement teaches that Jesus went to the cross not to bring forgiveness of our sins but to get us out of financial debt, not to reconcile us to God but to give us the power to claim our prosperity, not to remove the curse of death, injustice and bondage to ourselves but to give us our best life now.”
White says emphatically that Jesus is ‘not the only begotten Son of God’, just the first. We’re all divine and have the power to speak worlds into existence.”
SOMETHING not quite in the papers is OFSTED’s attack on fundamentalist religious schools. Sometimes these are Christian: the Telegraph reported an damning OFSTED inspection of the Luton Pentecostal Church Christian Academy, which teaches creationism as scientific fact. The headmaster had earlier complained that he was being picked on just to gratify the Muslims.
This time, the inspectors raised the matter of the seven-foot boa constrictor that he kept in his office. “Mr Oakley declined to comment on his exotic animals,” the Telegraph report concluded.
That’s good, but not as wonderfully compressed as two paragraphs in the Daily Mirror’s report on the vicar whose wife ran off with an actor: “Rev Short said at the time: ‘There is a lot of anger towards Green, but as a Christian I have to forgive.’”
His ex-wife Helen, 58, said: ‘What goes around comes around.’”
This gets a place of honour in my forthcoming collection of whole novels contained in two sentences of a news report.