THE whirligig of time sweeps away even jokes about the incomprehensibility of sermons, so that the jokes themselves become as opaque as their subjects.
When, in Beyond the Fringe, the preacher says: “Life is rather like a tin of sardines . . . we’re all looking for the key,” his audience will have known — for they lived in the dark ages before ring-pulls — that sardine tins were opened by first prising up a tongue of metal, then sucking the blood from your thumb where the tin had sliced it, and, finally, pushing the bloodstained metal through the slot in a metal key, and turning it until all of the lid was wound on.
The joke just doesn’t work today: you’d have to explain, as well, what sardines are — and, nowadays, sermons, as well.
So, the Telegraph’s report of a sermon delivered to the royal family at Sandringham was truly bewildering: “The Bishop of Blackburn, the Right Revd Julian Henderson, confessed his motoring sin during his sermon at St Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, in front of a congregation including Prince Philip and Princess Anne.
“The Bishop was preaching about the supreme authority of Jesus and comparing it to the authority of other leaders and even objects such as speed cameras.” I wonder what the Queen made of it, as the sermon wore on and she realised that she was being compared to a bright yellow box that squats by the motorway waiting to photograph a passing bishop.
THE flattery of President Trump, by contrast, knows no bounds. He has been photographed holding God and Donald Trump, a book by the publisher of the magazine Charisma.
It was reviewed with some subtlety by Amy Sullivan on the Politico website: “While some conservative Christians speak about Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton as the work of God, it seems the real divine intercession was in clearing the GOP field for Trump.
“The unspoken assumption for each of the religious figures Strang [the author] references — from Franklin Graham to Robert Jeffress to Kenneth Copeland — is that God would only want a Republican president, and so if Trump captured the GOP nomination, then ipso facto he must be God’s choice. And the more unlikely the selection, the better proof it is of divine intent. . .
“There will be no point at which Trump’s most loyal evangelical and charismatic supporters declare they have had enough. Because to do so would be to admit that they were wrong, that God wasn’t behind Trump’s election, and that their Holy Spirit radar might be on the fritz.”
This captures, I think, something important about the part played by theology in political argument: it makes it very much harder to back down from a position.
This is not because you believe crudely that “God is on your side,” but because theological reasoning knots concepts together in a way that nothing else can. It turns both the Queen and Jesus into speed cameras. It knits high principle into low politics. It sacralises quite ordinary concepts, and then you cannot compromise about them.
The mistake that rationalists make is to suppose that this is obviously or always a drawback. Sometimes, contests are won by sheer irrational refusal to give up. It doesn’t always work, or we would all be always irrational. But, often, the only thing that will counter that kind of faith is an equally theological unreason on the other side.
WHICH brings me to Melanie Phillips, who, in The Times, fulminated about the Government’s attitude to Islamic extremism.
She took up the case of Neena Lall, the head of St Stephen’s, Newham, a very good primary school in the East End of London, who had attempted to ban girls of eight and younger from wearing the hijab (News, 19 January). A remarkably vicious campaign, in which her head of governors appeared in a video as Hitler, was mounted against this decision, which was then rescinded, and the head of governors resigned.
The Guardian reported this as the result of “pressure from parents”. For Phillips, “The reason for this abdication of responsibility is cowardice. The government is too frightened to deal with those who either promote or wink at non-violent Islamic extremism. Why is it so frightened? Because its deepest fear is that such groups or individuals may have a critical mass of support.”
The two explanations are hardly mutually exclusive. There are large numbers of Muslim parents in some areas of Britain who want their local state schools to have an Islamic character. One reason for this is that they feel alienated from the society around them; being attacked as extremists is hardly going to diminish this alienation.
It’s one of those cases where the application of principle on either side can only make things worse.