The Death And Life Of Great Britain

Only one televised event in history was worse than the London Olympics opening ceremony:  The London Olympics closing ceremony.  While the opening ceremony had some genuinely fun and entertaining moments, the closing ceremony reminded anyone familiar with British history and culture that the end has come.  The ceremony was billed as “a celebration of British music.”  Apparently the British did not produce music prior to 1960.  The high point of the evening was Russell Brand singing a song from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  That says something.

There was one other fun moment, however, especially for a Monty Python fan like myself.  Eric Idle appeared on stage, as a kind of elder statesman of the proceedings, to sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from the Pythons’ 1979 film Life of Brian (as millions sang along).  For those not nerdy cool enough to be in the know, Life of Brian is about a young Jewish man named Brian who is born on the same day, and right nextdoor to, Jesus, and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah.  As you can imagine, the film is entirely blasphemous and those of us who still harbor a secret admiration of the Monty Python films probably have loads of unconfessed sin.  At the climax of the film, as Brian hangs upon a cross, those being crucified around him break into the song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

In 1979 this film was incredibly controversial.  The film was boycotted by religious groups and banned in certain locations in the UK, as well as countries like Ireland and Norway.  It was the ultimate expression of anti-Christian, underground counter-culture.  In 2012, it is celebrated on an international stage as one of the best representations of authentically British culture.

Those of us who love Britain weep bitter tears.

What is more interesting, and especially relevant to evangelicals seeking to spread the gospel today, is that as the counter-culture has become the mainstream, it seems to have stagnated.  The critique of Christianity (and religion in general) presented by the Pythons is the same basic critique that one sees in most of Hollywood today.  Religion is silly and should be mocked until the religious people quit being so public about it all and become like the rest of us (it would also be ideal of they went ahead and replaced the bread and wine with marijuana and…actually, the wine can stay).  In 2012, we have not moved passed this stage of counter-Christendom into anything more extreme, at least not in any noticeable sense.

While Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens might have mused in their writings that religious parents engage in a subtle kind of child abuse, and that it would be best for society if we just removed all children to secular government schools, they never went so far as to seriously and publicly call for this to happen.  Comedians like Bill Maher might up the rhetoric and say that Christians who oppose gay marriage are evil, but he has not yet called for preaching against homosexuality inside of a church to be a criminal offense, and in any case he remains confined to the small, liberal bubble that is HBO subscription.  Can you imagine a film that depicts this kind of extreme anti-religious bigotry (comically or otherwise) becoming one of the top grossing films of the year?

It is unlikely that this cultural stagnation will continue indefinately, and I believe the current situation can only go one of two ways.  Either the culture of counter-Christendom will finally be given some impetus to move forward, and outright religious persecution will begin in the West, or else there will be a renaissance of religious (specifically Christian) thought in Western academia and the media.  There is evidence for both.  On the one hand, the increasingly heated rhetoric of the gay marriage debate (along with a growing number of incidents like the recent Chick-Fil-A debacle) suggests that the impetus for genuine persecution is right around the corner.  Pastors in Canada and Europe have already been fined or jailed under “hate speech” laws, and similar laws are being proposed in the US.  However, there has been a resurgence in the last decade of “high brow” Christian thought  in the universities (both public and private).  Christian apologetics is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and more programs spring up all the time.  Even more important for cultural renewal, there are serious pushes for Christians to become more involved in the arts, especially film, and to place the Church back into the historic position of “patron of the arts” and creator, rather than consumer, of culture.  We are also, as far as I can tell, winning the abortion debate.

If Christianity could be effectively wiped out as a significant cultural force in Britain within one decade (which it was), then it is possible for a reverse shift to happen in the same space of time.  True, things could simply get worse, and this is what most evangelicals tend to assume will happen.  Between our fascination with eschatology and the latest social issue that has the country “more divided than ever”, we see doom on every new horizon.  With a little hard work and a lot of prayer, though, things could also get better.  When the atheist can no longer thump the Bible-thumper in a debate because he knows more philosophy and history, or when “love” is defined not by the libertine romantic comedies of today but by the sort of Christian ethics that produced Jane Austen, the church wins.

I hold out hope that I will find my tears for beloved Britain have been premature, that rumors of her death have been greatly exaggerated.

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David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.