Press Column Tuesday, 08 April 1997
Press Column Tuesday, 08 April 1997
Michael Bywater is the last word in urban, neurotic sophistication, a columnist who is almost the only good reason left for reading the Independent on Sunday. His territory is the familiar wasteland of S&F (two gerundives that encompass the subject matter of all lifestyle journalism) but his life is richer and more depraved than anything most journalists can enjoy or admit to: "The builders are beating hell out of the house next door in a riot of thick-lipped cursing and terrible arse-cleft, making it smart for a lawyer to live in.
"To keep out the racket of thrashing destruction, two little Japanese plugs in my ears are playing Jill Feldman and Isabelle Poulenard singing Couperin: the Easter day motet Victoria Christo resurgenti, and it’s almost unbearably beautiful, so that I want to pause it to stop it ending, to get my breath back, to burst into tears, to smile like a fool, to die. It’s not just their two voices twining around each other like every cheap lesbian sex-show fantasy you’ve ever had (which isn’t as many as me, I bet), nor is it the drenching beauty of Couperin’s music, saturated in absolute grace …"
From here he drifts into a fantasy about Jesus on the cross, crying out "My God, my God…" which, he points out, is the first line of Psalm 21. And imagines the disciples picking up the rest of the song that Jesus, dying, cannot sing "One by one they join in as they Davidian poem builds from despair through defiance to a shimmering golden chorus of utter triumphalism. The poor dumb xenophobic illiterate Roman squaddies on guard-duty must have been scared silly, thirteen hundred miles from home in a strange rock-strewn country with alien gods and disobliging women. What was going on with these sodding barbarians? What the hell was it with them?
"What was it then? What is it?"
"Perhaps the trouble is that we only acknowledge two categories of phenomena now, distinguished by the scientific test: is it provable? Most of the things which are important to us are unaddressable that way. Is lunch true? Is music true, or the scent of a warm friendly woman, or a comfortable bed late at night, or finding yourself smiling when you thought you wouldn’t do it again? Above all, above all is love true?"
This quote has gone on too long: it is very difficult to stop quoting Bywater, but it incomparably the best of the agnostics-for-Jesus crop this Easter. The fact that magazine production schedules meant it appeared the Sunday after Easter is irrelevant.
His conclusion, that truth is irrelevant to all the interesting questions, made an interesting contrast to Alasdair Palmer’s piece in the Sunday Telegraph, commenting on the survey which showed that religious belief among scientists had not declined since 1910. "God disproves scientific theory", as the Daily Telegraph put it.
Palmer was in no doubt about the conflict: "The book of genesis portrays in particularly stark from the insight that Science and religion are mortal enemies….The allegorical interpretation protects religion from science only by ensuring that religion does not say anything true about the world. But if religion is not about the world, what is it about?"
It is pleasant to reflect that the Daily Telegraph believes religion should triumph, and only its Sunday sister believes it should not. But of course, without science, there would be no video cameras, and without videos, what would the Sunday papers have to write about? The News of the World carried a curious commentary on its dirty vicar story of last week. The "naked spanking romps", it said "were captured on video installed under the supervision of Gillian’s estranged husband, a religious studies teacher, who needed evidence for his divorce case." "Installed under the supervision" is their way of admitting they fitted the camera — and since when has video evidence been necessary to get a divorce?.
But the most interesting science and religion story came from Sydney, Australia, Professor Ian Plimer, the head of earth sciences at the university of Melbourne is suing a creationist who claims to have found Noah’s Ark on Mt Ararat for engaging in conduct which is "misleading or deceptive within the meanings of the Trade Practices Act."
The creationists retort that if this case is allowed, then all Christianity is threatened under the trades descriptions act: "It is not inconceivable that a court, confronted with a string of ‘expert witnesses’, could find the resurrection of the dead was impossible, therefore anyone selling a Bible and saying its contents were true would be liable." This seems to me to be leaving a considerable hostage to fortune. There is a very great deal in the Bible which is more vulnerable to expert witnesses than the resurrection: the birth narratives, for instance. But it is one of the fascinating quotes which exposes a whole thought world when you look at it long enough. Perhaps most significantly for the newspapers, it appeared on the Internet first. That is the only place where people are given the time and space to spread themselves revealingly. Most of the time, the result is a tedious drone. But it does let the sheer strangeness of other people’s beliefs come through. We’re so used, in this business, to homogenising and sanitising quotes so that they make sense to the reader that we miss the way in which quotes that jar are often more informative.
Journalism has a lot in common with tourism: both are in the business of making accessible by betraying. Both pander to universal human needs. A column like this ought to switch constantly between the viewpoint of the grockle and the snarling native. But the two can never really be combined. To see what Christianity looks like to the outside world, consider Tuesday’s Times, where two stories are juxtaposed: the restoration of rural churches with lottery money, and a call for the cancellation of third world debt by the Catholic bishops. English Heritage is more important by eleven paragraphs to three. I have no doubt this accurately represents the balance of interest in newspaper readers — except, perhaps, in the Financial Times.
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