Saturday, 18 December 2010

White Magic

When I started this blog, I hoped to write more about Eastern Orthodoxy. It is ironic that Brits are bombarded with anti-Christian propaganda focussed largely on fundamentalists in America, when the very liberals who shudder with horror at Palin's support for Intelligent Design or 'The Decider's' Methodist faith, share so many of their basic tenets: that there is little room for beauty or culture, that poor people should fend for themselves, that white people who speak English should enjoy a special place in the world, there is no alternative to liberalism or fundamentalist protestantism, an open horror that Russia's president is surrounded by 'cowled figures' (to quote a certain New Atheist, who presumably thinks 'dog collared figures' would be a lot less offensive).

However, I think it is more difficult to write about being an Orthodox Christian, largely because it is a very complex faith with a strong apophatic tradition. I believe in Christ the Redeemer, the Holy Trinity, His Resurrection. But I have no interest whatsoever in trying to draw lessons in biology or physics from the Old Testament or in feeling superior to other people based on faith.

For me Orthodoxy is something to be experienced, like art or scenery and I expect the same is true for Christians in other Apostolic traditions. Perhaps it is for this reason that I find this story a profound work of Christian art, perhaps as much for what isn't in it, than what is. There is no good v evil plot, no hero, no miracles. I especially love the following exchange:

'Besides, you have no business to be an unbeliever. You ought to stand for all the things these stupid people call superstitions. Come now, don’t you think there’s a lot in those old wives’ tales about luck and charms and so on, silver bullets included? What do you say about them as a Catholic?’

‘I say I’m an agnostic,’ replied Father Brown, smiling.

Another exchange illuminates Chesterton's outlook:

‘Oh, yes,’ replied Father Brown, ‘I believe in the Devil. What I don’t believe in is the Dundee. I mean the Dundee of Covenanting legends, with his nightmare of a horse. John Graham was simply a seventeenth-century professional soldier, rather better than most. If he dragooned them it was because he was a dragoon, but not a dragon. Now my experience is that it’s not that sort of swaggering blade who sells himself to the Devil. The devil-worshippers I’ve known were quite different. Not to mention names, which might cause a social flutter, I’ll take a man in Dundee’s own day. Have you ever heard of Dalrymple of Stair?’

‘No,’ replied the other gruffly.

‘You’ve heard of what he did,’ said Father Brown, ‘and it was worse than anything Dundee ever did; yet he escapes the infamy by oblivion. He was the man who made the Massacre of Glencoe. He was a very learned man and lucid lawyer, a statesman with very serious and enlarged ideas of statesmanship, a quiet man with a very refined and intellectual face. That’s the sort of man who sells himself to the Devil.’

Chesterton's Stuart sympathies weren't popular in Edwardian England, nor would they be popular now. Despite the raw bigotry of the Whigs, the Orangites and Hanoverians, it is the Stuarts who are hated for their lack of regard for Parliament and the Protestant faith. There is no irony that William of Orange was a friend of Parliament and he signed orders to authorise the massacre of an entire village. Human ethics can, and will, justfiy anything. So much for the Glorious Revolution, which militant atheists probably admire as much as any Orangeman.

No matter how much Britain has changed, or tells itself it has changed, Chesterton's Stuart message* has probably never had as hostile an audience as the current neo-liberal media coalition.

Still, maybe the ever more evident bankruptcy of this ideology will lead to British people casting it off forever.

(* It has to be added that Chesterton was far from being an angel and did demonstrate signs of anti-Semitism; but even then, his romanticism and Christian distributism were very interesting ideals).


  1. Great post. I often like to think of modern liberalism as Puritanism without God. It is a shame we seem increasingly forced into a Manichean choice between secular puritanism and religious puritanism. Apostolic Christianity is a potential antidote to this problem, but I have my doubts about the Anglo-Saxon world. Look at all the ink spent lambasting the Catholic and Orthodox countries of Southern and Eastern Europe for not getting with the globalization program and adopting a culture of hardheartedness.

  2. @John
    Thanks for your comment. I share your views on puritanism. However, as for the Anglo-Saxon world, I do think it is more complex than people think and that there is more populist support for left wing causes than is often credited.

    For me it was an act of God that the Stuarts came to the British throne. It was an act of the devil that 'The Glorious Revolution' drove out the proper monarchy. But I do think that the Civil War was won by a hair's breadth by the Parliament.

    Whilst that is history now, I still think that there is an energy and an open-ness in both British and American society which could lead to a new kind of cooperatism or social democracy, no matter how depressing the current status quo is.

  3. Interesting to see a positive view on GKC, whom I wrote on extensively during my degree (which was English). The New Statesman carried a rather tunnel-visioned review by John Gray of a biography of him. Admittedly he is right to highlight "The Man Who Was Thursday" as his greatest fictional work, yet he misses so much by focusing so relentlessly on the problems of his politics (which do indeed at times resemble a state-less, individualistic Big Society).

    He is an important figure in a fascinating time - needs to be viewed in the context of Morris, Wells, Wilde, Shaw, Kafka, Joyce... he decries modernism whilst displaying it in TMWWT. His view of socialism as grey bureaucracy (in contrast to his idealised, colourful past) is almost a polar opposite of Wilde's in "The Soul of Man under Socialism". His "The Napoleon of Notting Hill" is a neglected classic, adapted by Ealing for "Passport to Pimlico" (itself a response to Attlee era socialism).

  4. @Tom
    Thank you for your comment. I discovered Chesterton through the writing of Jorge Luis Borges; he seems more admired abroad than here.

    Personally, I didn't like The Man Who Was Thursday so much (though it had some wonderful lines). I think Chesterton's highly stylised writing is best suited to short stories.

    Still, I'll have to try and read more of his novels and non-fiction.

    William Morris is another largely neglected figure, whom again I came to through Borges (though Borges would have little truck with his politics).

    I think that the left really has to rediscover Morris and his ideas of culture for all rather than recycling gossip.