Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Eurovision heresy

According to one of the most famous opening sentences in English literature, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." And I reckon L P Hartley pretty much nailed it with that line. Our personal memories of times past and of our own former selves are limited, imperfect, distorted versions of what we actually thought, knew and felt in the past. And if hindsight rewrites even our own experiences, imagine how heavily it edits the thoughts and motivations of others in the historical past.

It's almost impossible, for example, to get into the minds of the people who argued so bitterly and passionately over the theological disputes that divided the early Church. There were heated debates about whether Jesus was wholly human, wholly divine, or a bit of both. Those who subscribed to the "bit of both" hypothesis argued endlessly about whether the divine bit and the human bit were separate, or all mixed up together, or whether the human bit or the divine bit was dominant, or whether the two bits lived together in perfect harmony. And you probably wouldn't have wanted to get those guys started on the nature of the Holy Spirit, or indeed on how any member of the Trinity related to the other two bits, or even whether there was such a thing as a Trinity.

There were epic spats, like the famous one between Arius who believed, not unreasonably, that God the Father must have existed before His son, Jesus, and Athanasius who argued that Father and Son had both been around for, like, ever. Eventually Athanasius's formula became the official version and Arianism a heresy (although a popular one with the Goths, back when Goths were fearsome conquering barbarians rather than pale, misunderstood teens with black eyeliner). Such spats escalated from name-calling and shunning to the eventual killing of heretics in the name of Very Serious Theological Differences, which almost nobody cares about any more.

Modern non-believers obviously don't care about the exact nature of a man's relationship with a supernatural being (or, as some heretics seem to have believed, supernatural beings) they don't believe in. Ditto people of different faiths, who don't accept the underlying premise that Jesus was - in whatever sense - the son of God. Ditto most modern Christians, for whom these questions are now settled and who are perfectly happy to just repeat the formula of the Nicene Creed at the appropriate point in the service, rather than pausing half way though to wonder what the "begotten, not made" bit even means.

Now that the battle to define Christianity has been won, a few theologians and historians take an academic interest, but that's about it - the differences that once brought furious mobs out onto the street, sparked outraged denunciations and even provoked people to kill the theologically unsound are just curious footnotes in the history of ideas. A few people know about this stuff, but nobody cares any more.

If you want to get a hint of the passions that these debates once stirred, you have to leave discussion of Christ's personhood and the nature of the Holy Ghost behind and be controversial about something people still actually care about. To get a taste of how early Christians felt about heretics, well, think about how British fans of Eurovision and the late Sir Terry Wogan, along with the British media and Twitter, all feel about Christer Björkman right now:
The producer of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest has accused the UK of not taking the annual event seriously enough – and even going so far as to blame Sir Terry Wogan for the public’s attitude.

Christer Bjorkman launched the astonishing attack while attending a lecture in London, telling iNews that the nation should stop making fun of the contest and try harder, if they ever wanted to win again.
Sir Terry Wogan’s gentle humour, loved by millions of television viewers and radio listeners, was not to the liking of the executive responsible for the Eurovision song contest.

Christer Bjorkman, the producer of the programme which has been a fixture on television screens for decades, said the show’s credibility was ruined by Sir Terry, who died in January, aged 77.

Sir Terry, who hosted the broadcast for 28 years, refused to take the show sufficiently seriously for Mr Bjorkman’s tastes.
BBC defend Sir Terry Wogan for his 'unique sense sense of humour' after Eurovision attack

The BBC have swooped to defend Sir Terry Wogan after Eurovision boss Christer Bjorkman hit out at the late star, claiming his sarcasm had tarnished the competition.
British veterans from the international song contest leapt to the late presenter’s defence and said Swedish producer Christer Bjorkman should get a sense of humour
The Mirror

To know what anathema and excommunication feel like in the 21st Century, just admit to being unamused by the British sense of humour* and by Sir Terry's genial banter, or to enjoying the Eurovision Song Contest in an unironic way.

We may not give a stuff about the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son, but woe to anyone who dares to question our national self-image as a unique island of subversive hilarity just off a continent of stereotypically humourless, rule-bound foreigners. To judge by all the pompous lectures Mr Björkman is being given about the urgent need to get a sense of humour, I think he just hit a nerve, threatened our complacent sense of our own identity and essential rightness and questioned the idea that there is only one way for right-thinking people to look at things.

There's no Inquisition for such modern heretics - just the self-stimulating vortex of trial by tabloid and Twitterstorm - but, just like their forbears in late antiquity, they're still reviled for outraging the propriety of received opinion.

*As personified by an Irishman - matters of faith and identity have little in common with logic and consistency.