Losing our religion

Who knows about classics and the Bible these days?

Jeremy Paxman observes that during his 16 years as host of University Challenge, he has found that contestants "know less and less about classics and the Bible, and more and more about science and computing".

Who can doubt it? But this modern lack of awareness of two fields that were regarded as essential to a good education for so long is little noted -- even though it must count as one of the greatest transformations in our culture in the past half-century.

When Enoch Powell made his infamous "rivers of blood" speech in 1968, he could have assumed that the wider audience would know that the quotation was from Virgil's Aeneid (Mary Beard analyses the reference brilliantly here).

Similarly, Tony Benn could still be certain that a sizeable number of his potential readers would understand why he titled his 2004 memoir Dare to be a Daniel; that they would be aware of the Old Testament prophet of that name, if not necessarily the Salvation Army hymn.

But that would have been the older proportion. For younger browsers, the first Daniel to come to mind would probably be the Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe. Benn acknowledges as much in his book: "I often forget that few people now have a biblical background or knowledge of the different Christian traditions. Biblical and religious references that slip into my speeches and articles are not necessarily always understood."

To lament the passing of these corpuses of knowledge out of the realms of popular discourse and their retreat into the citadels of scholars is not to make any comment about levels of religious belief: after all, a classical education was never intended to encourage consultations with oracles or sacrifices to Zeus. It is, instead, to mourn the breaking of a connection with millennia of history, references to which were the common currency of art, literature, music and even conversation.

Is speech the poorer for our no longer being able to assume familiarity with the works of Homer and the precise gradations of office in the Roman senate? Yes, I think so. More serious, though, is that a proper understanding of much of the fine art produced in Europe over the past 2,000 years is simply not possible without knowledge of the Bible. This not just about the subject matter, but about the positioning of people, objects, shadows -- all allusions lost on those unversed in Christianity.

Likewise, the joys of Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requiem are severely impaired if one does not know why, as the countertenor aria has it, "He was despised, despised and rejected", or what the sounding of the trumpets in the "Dies Irae" -- the Day of Judgement -- are heralding. Questions of rights, philosophy, the existence of evil -- all these matters are frequently approached afresh, which may be a good thing in itself. What is less commendable is the latter-day ignorance about the Christian and classical thinkers who spent long decades pondering and writing about them. There just might be something to be learned there.

I am not suggesting that all need attain the easy expertise in the classics of a Boris Johnson or the ability to cite Old Testament chapter and verse possessed by my late grandfather, a Methodist who frequently spent a good couple of hours debating scripture on the doorstep when Jehovah's Witnesses came to call. But for these vast libraries to slip from the mind within a generation or two, and for no one to call "Stop!" and urge us to consider what we are losing, feels like carelessness of monumental proportions.

Does it really not matter that we no longer know what, until very recently, our ancestors took for granted?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Could Jeremy Corbyn still be excluded from the leadership race? The High Court will rule today

Labour donor Michael Foster has applied for a judgement. 

If you thought Labour's National Executive Committee's decision to let Jeremy Corbyn automatically run again for leader was the end of it, think again. 

Today, the High Court will decide whether the NEC made the right judgement - or if Corbyn should have been forced to seek nominations from 51 MPs, which would effectively block him from the ballot.

The legal challenge is brought by Michael Foster, a Labour donor and former parliamentary candidate. Corbyn is listed as one of the defendants.

Before the NEC decision, both Corbyn's team and the rebel MPs sought legal advice.

Foster has maintained he is simply seeking the views of experts. 

Nevertheless, he has clashed with Corbyn before. He heckled the Labour leader, whose party has been racked with anti-Semitism scandals, at a Labour Friends of Israel event in September 2015, where he demanded: "Say the word Israel."

But should the judge decide in favour of Foster, would the Labour leadership challenge really be over?

Dr Peter Catterall, a reader in history at Westminster University and a specialist in opposition studies, doesn't think so. He said: "The Labour party is a private institution, so unless they are actually breaking the law, it seems to me it is about how you interpret the rules of the party."

Corbyn's bid to be personally mentioned on the ballot paper was a smart move, he said, and the High Court's decision is unlikely to heal wounds.

 "You have to ask yourself, what is the point of doing this? What does success look like?" he said. "Will it simply reinforce the idea that Mr Corbyn is being made a martyr by people who are out to get him?"