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Victorian Poetry, Social Justice, and New Media Satire of Christian Culture

March 9, 2011

I spend most of my time reading and writing about Edith Nesbit. Most Brits remember her best for her novel, The Railway Children. The stage-play adaptation has seen sold out runs in York and London for the last three summers and will be staged this summer in Toronto, starring Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City). My focus though, is on Nesbit’s larger body of work, including her supernaturalistic novels and religious poetry.

I’ve been thinking lately about the way poems like Nesbit’s “Inasmuch as ye did it not” and Woodbine Willie’s* “When Jesus Came to Birmingham” serve as critiques of the failure of the local church to serve the needs of the community, especially those most vulnerable. This is not their only purpose nor is it, in my opinion, their most significant literary contribution.

It could be partly a case of hyper sensitivity, but it strikes me that many of the issues facing the church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (as expressed in its literature and poetry), particularly in terms of its wealth compared to the rest of society, are finding new forms as governments (at least in Britain) cut spending on services for the homeless, the infirm and the elderly. An excerpt from “Inasmuch as ye did it not” reads:

What’s the good of your churches,
When these have nowhere to sleep?
How can I hear your praying
When they are cursing so deep?

Although they may seem wholly unrelated, it strikes me that projects like  Jesus Needs New PR, Church Marketing Sucks, and Stuff Christians Like are actually performing a similar function even though the tools are vastly different and the agenda less focused specifically on social justice. The use of biting satire or piercing comparisons highlighting hypocrisy, the inane, a seemingly humorous theological error expressed hyperbolically, or lack of compassion among Christians for each other, makes for good copy. There’s a kind of nerdy Christian humor requiring one to “get” the in-joke, to see the layers of irony and levels of meaning. One concern I have with these kind of projects, however, is that there is sometimes a pseudo-intellectual hipster judgment of those who may be less artistically literate but still sincere about expressions of their faith.

Nonetheless, there’s something about the way poetry and visual images (and commentary on visual images) have the capacity to set up striking juxtapositions that challenge our preconceptions of the status quo. Ultimately though, it’s also important that deeper theological problems are explored.  Speaking truth is important, but so is the awareness that while using sledgehammers to knock down the walls of canned cliches, it’s also important not to hit those comfortably protected by the walls with shrapnel in the attempt to expose them to the light (and beauty) of truth with its nuances and textures.

I wonder whether it is unhelpful that our memories are staggeringly short when it comes to critique of the public perception of the church, particularly its role in the promotion of social justice.  I’m not criticizing the enterprise as much as pointing out some earlier corollaries. But I do wonder, is it really Jesus that needs “new” PR? Or is it that local Christian churches need to worry less about public relations for its own sake and concern themselves more with living as those saved, who are commanded to care for the widows, the orphans and, by extension, the most vulnerable in our communities?  For it is from living alongside others that we come to understand how they view the church, as well as their opinions of Christians, God and the Christ they perceive we (as Christians) to represent, not just in order to explore “brand” awareness, but because we are commanded to love our neighbour.

Image Credit: Christian Dior Spring 2010 steampunk inspired collection via Style.com and Synesthesia Garden;

*Woodbine Willie’s real name was Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2011 10:15 am

    Thanks, Anna, for this post. I think it’s always good to be reminded of what has come before us.

    A question for you – Was Nesbit operating from within the church community or outside of it? What I find interesting about the modern satirists you mentioned is that they aren’t lobbing critique from the perimeter but are rooted within the church body. And in my experience, the people who find what they do interesting and funny are also members of the church body (evidenced by their use of insider language, etc). Do you think that the orientation of the one offering criticism makes a difference in how it’s received? Or is that irrelevant?

    • Anna Blanch permalink
      March 9, 2011 10:41 am

      Thanks for your comment and questions Sara.

      You make a good point in observing that the contemporary critics and satirists to which I refer are within the body of the Church. I think it is relevant to how it is received and I think the orientation is important. On principle I take no issue with the communal-consciousness of the church offering internal critique. It is quite refreshing actually. Sometimes having a lightness or sense of humour can be helpful in cutting through pride and self-defensiveness (ultimately sin) and challenging us all to be reflective about what we say and do. I do think that sometimes in a rush to be witty or pithy we can trample over people, and that’s not particularly loving (or helpful) in the long run.

      G.A. Studdert Kennedy (to whom i referred to only briefly) was famously an Army Chaplain during WWI (that’s where he got his nickname for handing out cigarettes to the troops) and it is generally agreed (though not much criticism has been written about him) that he was writing from within the body.

      To say this about Nesbit is slightly more controversial, but I have come to the conclusion that she saw herself not as an outsider on these matters. The Victorian church was alot more diverse than we realise. The majority of Victorian Britains were not churchgoers, or were only at Easter and Christmas. Church solemnisation of weddings was starting to gain in popularity (especially following Queen Victoria’s White Wedding). Nesbit really held the belief that if you did not act upon your beliefs then maybe you didn’t really believe. There’s alot more to say about this and Nesbit (a whole PhDs worth) but in short – I think yes, she was writing as an insider in this case.

      I do think that while orientation is relevant, it is important to lack self-defensiveness about how those outside the church view the church. This is not to be self aggrandizing in looking for praise but to be realistic about the command that we should be ready with an answer for what we believe and to take seriously the role of the individual Christian and the church community as ambassadors for Christ.

  2. tim permalink
    March 10, 2011 2:56 pm

    One word:
    Colbert

  3. March 11, 2011 2:42 am

    I always have mixed feelings about satire, whether it’s aimed at political movements or religious institutions. On the one hand, there’s nothing like humor to get a person’s attention, and people will often listen to humor even when they would not listen to a more direct critique. I think it was Martin Luther who said that the devil cannot bear to be mocked. Couching social critique in short jokes is a good way to ensure that some people listen. On the other hand, overindulgence in satire tends to foster a sense of superiority (call it pride, if you will) in the satirist, as well as in those who do not think the satire is aimed directly at them. There is always the danger of promoting cynicism instead of prompting serious moral reflection. That doesn’t mean that I object to satire per se, only that there are some inherent moral dangers for many of those involved.

    • March 11, 2011 8:30 am

      Steve,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I share your concerns. In many that’s where I was coming from when I wrote:

      “One concern I have with these kind of projects, however, is that there is sometimes a pseudo-intellectual hipster judgment of those who may be less artistically literate but still sincere about expressions of their faith.”

      I didn’t want to assert pride on the part of the satirists, or somehow sit in judgment of them. But you make a valuable point about the moral dangers of satire for the individual and the community of the church. It is a difficult tightrope to walk.

      • March 11, 2011 5:38 pm

        No, I don’t want to accuse anyone of pride or arrogance either. Motives and attitudes are very difficult to ascertain in other people. But having done some amateur satire myself, and then assessed my own motives in retrospect, well, I know what can happen. Moral indignation can quickly transform into mere, dismissive ridicule. Satire can be very effective in bringing about material change, but we are not called to save the world at the expense of our own souls.

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