On holiday earlier this week in Scarborough, I came across a copy of the Ethical Record, the monthly journal of the South Place Ethical Society. This Society, which has been patronised in the past by humanist luminaries such as A J Ayer, Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf) and Sidney Webb, is an educational charity “whose aims are the study and dissemination of ethical principles based on humanism and free thought, the cultivation of a rational and humane way of life and the advancement of research and education in all relevant fields”.
This particular copy of the journal had an article aimed at disabusing members of the Society from thinking that the UK had once been a group of Christian islands. After all, the writer pointed out, look at the origins of the days of the week: cobbled together from Norse pagan mythology – how Christian is that, I ask you? And what about Christmas and Easter? Really a celebration of the winter solstice, followed by a spring fertility ritual.
What the writer hadn’t realised, obviously, is that it is part of the genius of Christianity to adopt “nature” and transform it into something of grace. So of course, from a philological point of view, one might recall the merely pagan origins of the names of the days of the week while at the same time rejoicing at the new life breathed into the calendar by the Christian liturgical year.
I thought of this narrow and abridged interpretation of our country’s history by the Ethical Society when pondering Danny Boyle’s spectacular showcase of “Great Britain Limited” in his Olympic opening ceremony last week. Jim White in the Telegraph described the film maker’s quirkily brilliant imagination as “ninety minutes of dazzling theatre, dance, film and music; a mash-up of our cultural history delivered at breakneck speed.” Yes – it was all that, and it even made Boris Johnson cry. Yet at the risk of sounding like a beggar at this rich feast for the ears and eyes (if not the mind), I want to add that you can’t separate a country’s cultural history from its spiritual history, especially if this goes back for nearly two millennia.
Danny Boyle comes from a working class Irish Catholic family, was educated by the Salesians and thought about becoming a priest in his youth. Now he describes himself as a “spiritual atheist”. How can you be both? I don’t think the famous thinkers and writers I listed above would have described themselves as “spiritual humanists”. Danny Boyle’s problem is that atheism on its own sounds stark, boring, even ugly. Adding the word “spiritual” gives you an extra dimension: soulfulness, creativity, the divine spark of the imagination, which he brought to such zany triumph in his introduction to the Olympics.
What could Boyle have added to his island story that might have acknowledged the deeper underpinning of our cultural heritage? It’s hard to suggest anything that wouldn’t appear comic or naff, or simply struck a wrong note – but here are my thoughts. Perhaps the evening’s early theme of our “green and pleasant land” to the accompaniment of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” sung by choir boys could have included a nod to the legend of Joseph of Arimathea coming to Glastonbury, especially as a Glastonbury-style tor was included in this tableau. OK, it is only a story – but a pious, ancient, Christian one.
Much has also been made of Boyle’s working-class and therefore Left-wing roots. But being a socialist in the past was never seen as incompatible with being a Christian. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was a working-class man whose Christian faith led him to devote his life to the poor. When the theme of the Industrial Revolution was being played out in the stadium, why could we not have thrilled to the sight of a Salvation Army band, something odd, loveable and quintessentially English?
If the band had played that great Christian hymn “Abide with Me” (which was actually sung at the end of the evening as 50 dancers dramatised the conflict between life and death) it would surely have stopped the entertainment feature of the night in its tracks for a brief moment? Boris Johnson might even have wept.
And another thought: there was Rowan Atkinson, running along a beach while the theme tune of the film Chariots of Fire was being played: what about a mention of the real Eric Liddell, a devout Christian missionary in China, who wouldn’t run on the Sabbath because it was no longer part of the pagan calendar but the Lord’s Day?
These isles are full of noises, as actor Kenneth Branagh, aka Isambard Kingdom Brunel, intoned; they are also full of wonder, as Danny Boyle tried to suggest in his idiosyncratic kaleidoscope. Let’s just not forget that the greatest wonder of all, which has changed history itself, is our Christian inheritance.