issue 157 | March 1986
Faith in the world
Faith and Faithfulness
Faith and Faithfulness may reach only a limited readership. But it makes very clear that, in the course of trying to heal its own splits, the World Council of Churches has come to an increasingly serious engagement with the political realities that split society at large. Groping their way through the theological thickets that keep the churches apart, they are finding common ground in addressing the problems of peace and justice which the presence of delegates from developing and socialist countries forces on their attention.
Those for whom Christianity equals at worst Inquisition and at best still the 'pale Galilean' would hardly be converted by this book, which, in grappling with the subdivisions and sophistications produced by 20 centuries, is necessarily far from the rousing simplicities of the Gospels. Those in greater sympathy with Christian thought might well agree with me that Kosuke Koyama's essay 'The Ecumenical Movement as the Dialogue of Cultures', a powerful blend of personal, historical, poetic and theological perspectives, goes a long way to encompassing the breadth and depth of the struggle for reconciliation.
Christianity in America puts these intelligent, humane and humble endeavours in perspective. Seen against the diversity and weirdness of mass manifestations of the same religion they look particularly frail - and perhaps, therefore, the more authentic. The opposed bigotries and exclusivity of the mainstream churches are frightening enough, but what of the Moonies, what of the 'electronic church'? Historical outlines of the fortunes of Christianity in America since colonial times are interspersed here with articles, long quotations, charts, and marvellous photographs that often throw ironic light on the restrained statements of the text. Objectivity, ever a deceptively placid lake, is occasionally disturbed by an evil-looking tentacle of prejudice. Many of the specialist contributors must be members of particular denominations, and it might have been better for them openly to 'declare an interest' and prove themselves as human as those they are writing about.
To read such a book through is always to experience a sense of powerlessness. To be an atom in history, how unbearable - and how inescapable! Out of what ancient photograph will we one day scowl or leer, holding our banner for what forgotten cause? And yet if fastidiousness prevents our entering the fray, are we content to remain among those who silently permit injustice? It is ironic that for all the acrimony of the debate between them, those whose Christianity leads them to engage in the world and those who feel they should withdraw from it are equally helping to shape the course of history.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the argument between Christians over the ethics of nuclear weapons. The real scandal of disunity among Christians is not how they differ about the nature of certain bits of bread, or even about dead bodies coming back to life, but that a book called The Cross Against the Bomb had to be written to answer a book called The Cross and the Bomb. I suppose this is the proper moment, having pontificated about declaring interests, to say that I'm on Robin Gill's 'side'. I was already persuaded of his book's main thesis 'that the possession and use of nuclear weapons are inherently evil and that it should not be the role of Christians to justify them'. I should perhaps also add that I don't now find myself able to be a member of any church, the nearest thing I can find to one being the Christian section of the peace movement.
This gratuitous piece of autobiography is partly to explain my feeling about Robin Gill's book, which is that it would have been better if, like the book it answers, it had come from various hands. Gill refutes the sophistic statements of the bishops and generals ably enough. But a number of voices blending their variously modulated versions of faith, hope and love would have given warmth and richness of tone to contrast more tellingly with the thin, loveless chorus of the others. Such a book is still called for.
Screen and screenability
Framing Science: The Making of a BBC Documentary
Even professional scientists get a lot of their knowledge of scientific issues from television. The rest of us rely on it even more for our acquaintance with complex issues - such as the area where plant science meets up with Third World development.
A Horizon programme lasts for under an hour. This is long by TV standards but it can only convey directly about as much information as a two-page article in the New Internationalist. But even more than a printed article, a television programme conveys values rather than facts, distilled from images and attitudes among the producers and other personnel making it as well as the people you see on the screen.
The strength of Silverstone's book is that he sees this very clearly. He spent over two years following the producer of a Horizon programme on the Green Revolution from the BBC offices in London to film locations worldwide, and he tells a fascinating tale of the attitudes and constraints which shaped one important piece of TV about development issues.
To an outsider, two things stand out about the process of making the programme. One is the sheer scale of the resources mobilised. A reasonably skilled print journalist could have written several books or several hundred articles in the time Martin Freeth, the producer, took over his one programme. Second is the way that the attitudes and perceptions go on altering at a very late stage in the programme-making, with changes of mind about the basic story to be told even after all the filming has been finished. In this case the programme was rebuilt and made more 'political' and less 'scientific' at the very last minute because of objections from Nova, Horizon's US affiliate.
But Silverstone is a media academic, and it shows in the way he tells this story. He is not interested primarily in the contents of the programme, but rather in the way in which reality is 'mediated' into television. While he questions the leading role of star scientists in the programme, like Green Revolution originator Norman Borlaug, he is less concerned about the way in which rival directions for development science are presented. For instance, the Horizon programme as transmitted had little on the destruction of old types of plant by the Green Revolution forms, while being strong on the way in which the new forms fail to work well outside the experimental plots of Western-oriented research institutes.
At its best, television on science and development can solve these problems and encapsulate complex issues creatively for a mass audience. At its worst, it is mystification laid upon spurious objectivity. How about a good analysis of some of the rather ropier TV science which is consumed by even larger audiences than Horizon?
Goodbye to All That
I was brought up to the exquisitely lethargic strains of Rupert Brooke. In my early adolescence, war was fused with romance; both were purged of indecencies and disconnected from the messy realities of the flesh. The war I knew about was Rupert Brooke's war ('If I should die, think only this of me.') where honour was a public school's code of conduct, patriotism meant dying proudly with a smile on your lips, and where the only sadness permitted was the sweet nostalgia for England. The soldier was hero: middle-class martyr transcending suffering for The Cause.
The poems of Owen, Rosenberg and Sassoon from the trenches of the First World War pulled my adolescent yearnings down into the mud for the rats to pick at. And Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That, with its ghastly understated realism, spiked my queasy romanticism. Published in 1929, its inaccuracies and exaggerations angered many, but Graves always defended himself on the grounds that this was how the Great War felt to its participants. In some senses, the book has become dated, yet its cool, restrained rendering of Graves' experience helps to make the hideous experience of war imaginable even from a I 980s armchair.
Graves was no adolescent's hero. In Goodbye to All That he readily admits that he enlisted for hasty and inglorious motives: he was dreading going to Oxford University and thought that a year or so billeted in an English barracks would provide a temporary escape route. He was almost immediately sent to France and in 1916 was so severely wounded that he was left for dead.
Graves writes about the war with great cruelty. There is a feeling of his eyelids being peeled right back, of an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with war that leaves no room for judgement or even emotion. Disfigurement, death, the stench of rotting corpses - these are simply facts to be reported. Walking along, he will suddenly come across a dying man and 'the cap he had worn, splashed with his brains'. Or he will mention, as a macabre joke, how he found two rats scuffling over a severed hand on his bed.
The attitudes in which hundreds of the dead stiffened (bandaging friends' wounds, crawling, cutting wire), the way in which Graves himself shot a naked German innocently washing, the brief précis of friends' deaths; all these things are recorded with clinical precision and in peculiarly public-school language. Decency and jollity among the chaps are the agonisingly inane tatters of past lives that tangle with the horror. Realism is pushed beyond its limits:
Going and coming, by the only possible route, I passed by the bloated and stinking corpse of a German with his back propped against a tree. He had a green face, spectacles, close-shaven hair; black blood was dripping from the nose and hair. I came across two other unforgettable corpses: a man of the South Wales Borders and one of the Lehr Regiment had succeeded in bayonetting each other simultaneously.
Graves' growing distaste meant that the ending of the war was not a triumph or pure release. When Sassoon wrote 'And everybody suddenly burst out singing! And I was filled with such delight! As prisoned birds must find in freedom', Graves sourly commented 'But "everybody" did not include me'. His Goodbye to All That is a final rejection of British society: he left in 1929 and never really came back.
Ultimately, Graves' refusal to pass comment on the First World War and to make connections frustrates me. His friends were the pacifists and poets who did so much to disrupt the glazed ardour of patriotism - yet he kept his distance. And more troubling still is what he himself terms his 'Protestant morality of the English governing classes'. He was an officer and a gentleman whose rebelliousness, generosity and obsessions merged with an implicit conservatism. The formal polish of his writing contrasts with the modernism of someone like Isaac Rosenberg, the son of an itinerant Jewish pedlar, whose war poems have the bitter, trembling solicitude so absent from Goodbye to All That.
Graves remained the archetypal Englishman of the upper middle class who saw no reason to be or believe anything else.
But perhaps I am being unfair. Goodbye to All That will remain a testimony to the horror of war and to the daily courage of ordinary men. When he quoted Duhamel in the book - 'It was ordained that you should suffer without purpose and without hope, but I will not let all your suffering be lost in the abyss' - Graves was simultaneously fulfilling that pledge.
Goodbye to All That