Thursday, 29 November 2007

A Marriage Made in Hell?

Scots are ascetic, Calvinist people. You can tell by our dress, our food, our temperament. Plain, unadorned, drab even, at first glance, this grim picture is leavened with an irony and self-deprecation that brings colour to our culture and saves us from ourselves.

Perhaps things are changing now: the glitz of a Glasgow night out, all fishnet tights and sequined tops, bespeaks a society unafraid of enjoyment though still too repressed to be capable of it while sober. Yet Scotland is still very much a product of, and prisoner of, mentalities ushered in during the Reformation. Mentalities which have affected Scottish cultural life in myriad different ways.

George Mackay Brown called us the "Knox-ruined nation". Works of religious art, rivalled only by those existent in Flanders, were destroyed by the iconoclasts in the mid 1500s. Along with them, he says, went a tradition of song, theatre, and story-telling going back to pagan times. After Knox, many argue, Scotland lost its medieval Catholic colour and staggered out of the Reformation in mournful black.

Like a modern-day Iraq or Afghanistan our nation turned its back on the 'heretic' past to embrace the austerity and uniformity of fundamentalist Protestantanism - an ideology that eschewed the power of images or words to bring our fallen humanity closer to God and scorned its ability to comfort in times of need. And it is only in recent times, when the Kirk lost its moral and social authority, that Scotland has opened up to change.

This is one, perhaps even the prevailing, reading of the legacy of the Scottish Reformation on Scottish culture. But is Scotland really as artistically stunted as some critics have suggested? Richard Holloway, former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh and patron of the Scottish arts set out to explore this question when he gave the St Andrew's Day lecture on "religion and art: a marriage made in hell" at Scotland House last night.

I was aware of Bishop Holloway's rather unconventional approach to religion. After all, he famously said that the Bible was an anachronism that needed to be updated to reflect liberal humanist ethics. He has led campaigns to ordain gay priests and ensure equality for all in the church, regardless of sexual orientation. He is a member of the BMA steering group on ethics and genetics and come out in favour of embryo research. He likes High Anglican traditions and incense, for heaven's sake. So I rather expected he would second Mackay Brown's point.

He started as if he were going to do so, by claiming that Scotland had never understood the basic distinction between the artist, and their often dubious morals, and the majestic sublimity of their work which, despite its lowly origins, could speak the language of beauty and truth. 'Love the sinner, hate the sin' wasn't in vogue in Knox's fire and brimstone sermons. Scots were taught humanity was weak, fallen, and above all, never to be pitied by an angry God demanding vengeance. Art could not mediate the divine, or even reflect its atributes. And therefore it too, must be corrupted and ultimately without value.

Yet, Holloway postulates that it is precisely the overwhelming rejection of human comfort, beauty, and weakness by Scotland's established church which led to the development of a strong, counter-cultural literary movement - one which had many adherents in a population with few other outlets for imagining. It led to the Scottish enlightenment, to David Hume and Walter Scott, to a 'literate, argumentative nation that exalted words, and still does'.

What Scotland's great writers did, he feels, was make room for weakness, for comfort, for hope while still retaining the Reformation sense that life was destined to be miserable, difficult, and short. That is why so much of our literature, labeled 'miserabilist' by some, is in fact infused by the empathy which comes from those who are used to suffering, who know they have fallen, who have sympathy for the failings of others - of artists whose lives were often broken and difficult.

In this respect, he argues, the Reformation had misunderstood its own sacred texts. Jesus preached compassion and mercy, not fear and terror. Scottish literature was simply reclaiming the moral ground that the official religious authorities had squandered - and it was its compassion that made it morally valid.

To that extent, Holloway believes, art and the Bible share a common purpose: to explore the tension between good and evil, between despair and hope, that is an integral part of human existence and needs to be explained somehow, whether through poetry, myth, or sacred writing.
Although he believes personally that the Bible is a human creation which reflects the values and (often misogynist) expectations of its time, putting him at odds with more mainstream literalist Christians), he also argues that the overarching themes it addresses - the themes, after all of all great literature - are universal and relevant to all human beings.

As such, he says, it makes no difference whether ethics are explored in the Bible or any other artistic work. The important thing is not the origin, divine or otherwise, but its usefulness to making our lives, and the lives of others, as beautiful, just, and fair as they possibly can be.

To which all I can say is 'Amen to that".

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