The PM, The Bible and Cultural Christianity

This year has seen the four hundredth anniversary of the Authorised Version of the Bible marked with a good deal more publicity than ever attended its orignal publication.

Yesterday, in a speech delivered to clergy in Oxford, the Prime Minister added his voice to the many who have spoken up over the last year (read it here). I tend to avoid political comment on this blog, but given that the Prime Minister has wandered into my territory, I reckon I can make a few comments on what he said, or as Mr Cameron puts it…

I certainly don’t object to the Archbishop of Canterbury expressing his views on politics. Religion has a moral basis and if he doesn’t agree with something he’s right to say so.

But just as it is legitimate for religious leaders to make political comments, he shouldn’t be surprised when I respond.  Also it’s legitimate for political leaders to say something about religious institutions as they see them affecting our society, not least in the vital areas of equality and tolerance

So, what do I think of the speech?

It is good to see the Bible being discussed in the public arena. Famously, Tony Blair “didn’t do God”, so it’s good to see a politician who is prepared to speak out on these issues. Whatever the merits of the content of his speech (and they are mixed, at best) the fact that the Prime Minister has got people talking about the Bible is something we should be grateful for.

The Bible is not primarily a cultural artefact. Like many commentators over the past year, Mr Cameron has made the mistake of seeing the Bible primarily in cultural terms. In his speech he makes great play of the way in which the King James version expresses itself more poetically than the Good News Version. This is an old argument and I’m not going to go over it all again, but the original Greek of the New Testament was not high flown and elegant (some early Church writers said that the Greek of the New Testament was significantly inferior to Homer’s classical Greek). The point of the Bible is not to express amazing art (though it does that) but to be understood. It is fine for an Eton and Oxford educated Prime Minister to say that he prefers the KJV, but modern versions of the Bible are far easier for normal people to understand – and understanding is what counts.

The Message of the Bible has shaped our society. Mr Cameron was right to point out that the political life and institutions of our country have been shaped by values derived from the Bible and Christian faith. (If you are unconvinced by this give The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization a read.) He was also correct to suggest that we shouldn’t use the Bible to insist that one political approach and mindset is correct. Scripture has been mis-used to defend apartheid and slavery in the past and I’m sure that our generation can find ways to justify wrongdoing in politics today.

The Bible is not a book about Values. Though the Prime Minister had a number of good things to say, his speech was undermined because, for all of his classical education, he doesn’t really understand what the Bible is about. He never mentions the central narrative of the Bible: God reaching out to reconcile a fallen world and a fallen humanity to himself through the death of Christ on the Cross. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the words cross or crucifixion never get a mention.

Mr Cameron, says “… we are a Christian country and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so”. What exactly does this mean?

Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.”

Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love…

…pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities…

…these are the values we treasure.

Yes, they are Christian values.

And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.

In the Prime Minister’s view, a Christian country is one which shares a set of moral values. They are good moral values, ones that it is hard to argue with and which, as he points out, are shared by most faiths. However, as a “a committed – but  vaguely practising – Church of England Christian” he clearly does not grasp the central message of the Bible and the Christian faith; the message of reconciliation to God and the creation of a radical new society.

The sort of cultural Christianity which Mr Cameron advocates in his speech, has a fine moral code and no-doubt leads to the production of great works of art and literature, but it falls a long way short of the counter cultural message of the Bible. Without the cross, Christianity has nothing to offer the world other than nice sounding words and unattainable aspirations.

David Cameron has done us a great favour in bringing the Bible into the public discourse, but though he has much to say that is interesting and of some value, he ultimately misses the point, which is sad. We need to continue to pray for him and all of those in authority.

Much of the online comment on this speech has been rather disappointing and simplistic. However, I would recommend comments from Simon’s Blog, Creativity Defines Me and A Faith to Live By.

Edit: since I posted this, Archdruid Eileen has published a wonderful commentary on the same subject.

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