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10 January 2000

Bigger than the Dome or Mr Tony

What has all the fuss been about these past few days? Michael Bywatergoes back to the greatest mirac

By Michael Bywater

May we stop talking about the “New Millennium” now? Apart from anything else, it’s an abominable prolepsis, tempting fate or stupidity. With our record, it might well turn out to be the New Couple Of Years, and then . . . bang. Millennium? Just wait and see.

Meanwhile, best to look back. Best to look back, first, to New Year’s Eve. At the great and the good queueing glumly in the damp for a glimpse of Mr Tony’s blandulated Pantheon. At the Wheel, slowly spinning, empty as a new Labour “initiative”. At the River of Fire, in the end, after all the hype, as thin and pointless as one of Juvenal’s whorish wives pissing on the Altar of Chastity.

Best to look back, too, at the Daily Telegraph‘s Shock Horror New Millennium Christianity Poll. It’s horribly relevant. All of us who live in the west are, like it or not, the children – native, adopted, lured away by the sweeties of justice, modesty and life everlasting, or even just gagged and abducted – of Christendom. We inherit Christendom’s morals, its ethics, hopes and proscriptions. We – Jew, Muslim, Zoroastrian or Shinto – inhabit a country where Christianity is welded into the fabric of the government: where the head of state vows to preserve it, where the law recognises it as the only religion that can be criminally insulted, where judges pray to its god, where its festivals are public holidays, where, no matter how secularised, its view of the world – both this and the next – informs all our public institutions and private customs, from sexual morality to blood donation.

And yet (murmurs the Telegraph sadly) we are prodigal, ignorant, ungrateful sons-of-bitches. Two-thirds of us (it sighs) don’t know what the turn of the millennium marks; the great majority of those describing themselves as Christians don’t believe in the Devil, the Second Coming or Hell (although, curiously, more believe in Hell than in the Devil, which makes one wonder who they think is running the joint). The only two things a majority of self-describing Christians agree on is that people “still respect the Christian clergy” and that “Christianity and the Church will still exist in a thousand years’ time”.

And 86 per cent of them have a Bible at home.

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From the dry figures of the Telegraph poll, a curious picture emerges. Two curious pictures: first, that of the Telegraph readers themselves, anxious, decent, upright, hopeful of pleasing: a rather first-century Roman life, defending their cultural magisterium against multicoloured incomers with odd accents, outlandish habits and alien gods.

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And, second, that of the self-professed Christians, holding fast to the status of their wizards, their institutions, their perfecti and their elect, yet curiously ignorant, dismissive or misconceiving of many of the theological tenets of their faith. A people that still believes in its social prestige (or at least its good name) yet perceives it as stemming from the form of Holy Writ, rather than its content: a “people of the Book”, as the Muslims would have it.

The Book is a worry. In the celebrations of this misdated millennium (four years too early if you believe the astronomers; five, if you believe the arithmetical pedant who wrote to me arguing that there would be no Formula One racing next year because the shrieking Murray Walker had squealed that this year’s races would be “the last of the millennium”) the Book has loomed large. It has been quoted from, pointed to, sworn upon, even, by a process of hideous Procrustean abuse, set to “music” by Sir Cliff Richard. And yet it was originally no more than a loss-leader, an advertisement or position-statement for an oral religious tradition in fierce competition with countless others.

The Bible, in truth, upon which Christianity in general (and Protestant Christianity in particular, and fundamentalist evangelical Christianity to a hair-raising degree) depends, was a confection, a collection, a spin-doctored satura of texts by divers (and often anonymous) hands which rose, or were lifted, to the surface of a bubbling cauldron of competing accounts and admonitions. It was – is – a retrospective justification, designed both to make orthodoxy possible, and to promote endless discussion as to what orthodoxy might actually be. Standing in London on New Year’s Eve, as Mr Tony rose transfigured upon the airwaves, a cynic might feel that the underlying message of the New Testament – and its yoking with the now-renamed (re- christened) Old Testament – was no more than the hoary showbiz motto: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”, aka it doesn’t matter what they’re saying as long as they’re talking about you.

More than any manifesto, more than any consultation document or sound-bitten hand-out, the Bible is the ultimate performative text. It is the story it tells. More important than the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the inlibration of God in the Bible. It stands in relation to religious belief like a sort of inverted Epimenides’ Paradox. Epimenides says: “This statement is false.” The Bible says: “This statement is true.” If Epimenides falls because of too much information – a head-on collision of propositions – then the Bible, in the end, perplexes because of too little. There is nothing to test it against except itself. We know the Bible is the Word of God because it says so in the Bible; and that proposition inhabits a mindspace where our everyday, cooking-logic axioms fail to grip. God Space, to a believer, is like Godel Space to a mathematician: something you come to terms with once, then try to stop worrying about.

But the turn of a millennium – even though Jesus didn’t come again, just as the world didn’t end and the bug didn’t bite – is no time to stop worrying about the very thing the millennium commemorates, particularly for anyone who sets himself up as a satirist, a commentator or, Lord save us, a cultural critic. And one thing is evident: the press in general, from high to low, has made little or no attempt to set the millennium celebrations in context. There have been occasional readings of the spectacle, but they have all been either sighing, or politically opportunistic. All thin.

Before we can look towards the future, as Mr Tony urges us, perhaps we should work out where we are now; and given the absolute disintegration of any coherent public system of public ethos, we have to come to terms with the truth that, like mariners before Harrison’s longitude machine, we have only dead-reckoning to guide us. Fortunately, we have a good reckoning of our starting-point, 2,000 years ago. Not one of the unmissable public cultural artefacts; not a Wheel or a Dome or a Zone or an Initiative, but a book, A World Full of Gods, just published by Keith Hopkins, professor of ancient history at Cambridge.

A book? In the third – insha’Allah – millennium? Well . . . yes. A grand tour d’horizon of the establishment of Christianity in a world of pagans (and disgruntled – rightly so – Jews). A book about magical effects, about sex, eating habits, heresies, the validity of miracles even if they didn’t happen, first-century conjuring tricks, St Augustine’s sexual regrets, Jesus’s twin brother, time travel, obscene brothel-paintings (wilfully?) misrepresented, literacy rates in the Roman provinces, talking donkeys, faintly dodgy-seeming German academics, the lust of snakes for humans, the sublimatory powers of Martyr Acts, an innkeeper who turns men into beavers, the Acts of Thomas, and quite a bit more sex.

It would be curious if, at least for as long as the figures “2000” look peculiar as you write them in your cheque-book, one were not to wonder how this lumbering, inspirational, minatory, straddling thing called Christianity got hold, and kept hold, among the competing claims of other religions, of the pagan Romans. It would be odd not to give at least a nod to what the hell has been going on, even if it is now in decline (though not in America, where the figure of Death has recently been making a comeback, scythe and all). And there couldn’t be a better guide than Hopkins. He goes for the nub of it all when he writes:

“Miracles occur, not when someone reportedly sees them, but only when we hear or read about them – and believe the story. The miracle takes place in the believer’s mind. That is the miracle . . . [and] more importantly, each reading of hearing by believers repeats the miracle.”

In there is the seed of the Book’s essence, and the reason for its triumph for so long.

Hopkins’ question – how was this Son of God distinguished from all the other Sons of God, whether they were emperors facing ex officio apotheosis, or itinerant magi fully equipped with fine conjuring skills, all busily turning water into wine, multiplying loaves and fishes or raising people from the dead (though the cynic might think that a conjuror’s raising himself from the dead was a master-stroke, as well as saving on the expense of a stooge) – might strike a flat-arsed NewBrit Relevance Assessor as a bit of an airy thing to be occupying oneself with. Are there not other calls upon our energies? The National Health Service? The homeless? Globalisation? Social justice?

Nuts. It’s every bit as interesting, I’d contend, and gratifying and, damn it, relevant a use of our time as figuring out how to get on to the Internet so that Californian porno merchants can rip off your credit card. And thank – who? – that we still have ancient historians who can get to grips with these questions on our behalf. If, like Hopkins, they have been given – and have taken – the time for a breathtaking range of reading, have synthesised the results with panache (although sometimes exasperating) and an intermittently wilful subversion of the conventional academic register (though always faultlessly documented), then that says more about all concerned than any empty Wheel or gridlocked Dome. And if we wonder what we have achieved at this turn of the millennium, perhaps the best thing of all is that we haven’t entirely stopped thinking about the stories we tell ourselves on cold winter nights, when even the thought of Mr Tony isn’t quite comfort enough.