27 January 2017

The Economist: Right Wing Movements and Medievalism


This tendency to romanticise and even glorify the Middle Ages was already at work within the Christian Right during the 1990s and certainly received a boost in the climate created by the 9/11 attacks.

Bolstered by the work of 'historians' such as Alvin Schmidt and Rodney Stark, the Crusades were revised, defended and even praised. This ideologically driven revisionist project was greatly facilitated by (and cast in light of) the perceived threat of Islamic terrorism.

Between the spectre of Islam and the growing power of Western Secularism the Middle Ages began to be viewed wistfully as both a paragon and an inspiration.

The writings and thoughts of Dominionist theologians regarding the Sacralisation of Medieval Society began to wield a great influence within Right-wing and specifically Christian thought. Books like Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth were already a subject of discussion and no doubt received a boost by both 9/11 and Hollywood.

The movie industry certainly bears some of the blame for its romanticised and fictionalised depictions of the Middle Ages... and historical events in general.

I've written before about the cultural impact of the Lord of the Rings movies and with particular reference to their timing. The Fellowship of the Ring was released in December 2001. Ground Zero was still smouldering, the Taliban was near defeat, and bin Laden was holed up in Tora Bora. It was an exciting time in terms of news, and certainly a time of great angst. The themes of the movie seemed to resonate with the zeitgeist of the moment.

A grand sweeping narrative of good versus evil, dark bestial threats from the East, the remnant West holding on in the face of demonic hordes, a forgotten past, internal threats, enemies within and turncoat allies all seemed to fit the moment. Whether Tolkien's themes actually find analogy or not is for another discussion, let alone whether the West's perception of itself is remotely accurate could also be legitimately explored.

Speaking of analogy one is reminded of the modern perception as WWII Britain being the feisty little island antagonist countering the might of the German hordes. While Britain was by 1940 in seriously military jeopardy, people tend to forget the British Empire ruled over ¼ of the Earth's surface and population. It had militarily conquered races, realms, kingdoms and had the blood of millions on its hands. The idea that it was somehow this little bastion of peaceful virtue standing against immoral aggression is pure mythology.

The Agrarian-Romantic and often Antebellum sensibility within some Christian circles, also represented in the Wilson-Jones Angels in the Architecture work found resonance in Peter Jackson's interpretation of the traitor Saruman as the cold and destructive industrial innovator. Jackson probably meant to critique modern industry on a more environmental basis. It is very doubtful that he meant to provide fodder for the Right, let alone the Christian Right.

Tolkien's chapter, The Scouring of the Shire may (depending on one's interpretation) have been expressing anti-industrialism in the sense of anti-modernism and his obvious appreciation of the Merrie Olde England which had all but passed away. Tolkien, growing up at the very end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century witnessed the final phase of destruction for the old English village. Tolkien's affection for the Medieval in his portrayal of The Shire is not at all the same as the Postmillennial and Theonomic sensibilities of Jones and Wilson. Both camps might express a certain affection for Christendom but the motivations and visions are somewhat different. The English village its values and culture are a far cry from American Dominionist narratives regarding Southern purity and bliss vis-à-vis the North and Industrialisation.

Ironically the Tolkien narrative which seems to resonate with so many Calvinists and Evangelicals is actually more accurately and contextually tied to Anti-Protestant social criticisms. The Ulster Protestant firebrand Ian Paisley did not share their sensibilities in his very Whiggish Protestant, very Weberian critique of Catholic-Republican Irish 'backwardness' and agrarianism.

The Theonomic wing of the Reformed movement has long flirted with Romanism and thus it is no great surprise it has also been the source of numerous defections. But I digress.

The Dominionist and in particular the Agrarian and often Neo-Confederate wing of the movement found something to appreciate in the way Peter Jackson combined elements from the Scouring chapter (which the movie excised) and his portrayal of Saruman's Isengard-Uruk Hai project.

While Lord of the Rings is fantasy the milieu and ethos of Tolkien's tale obviously evokes the Middle Ages and re-casts many familiar themes.

Just a few years earlier another 'historical' movie, but one almost as fantastical as Lord of the Rings was Mel Gibson's Braveheart.

How many Christians praised and continue to praise Gibson's William Wallace biopic unaware that the movie is historically speaking complete rubbish. And this is particularly true with regard to their oft-quoted and emulated favourite scenes. The Wallace story is actually very interesting and yet rather unlike Gibson's Scottish historical amalgam and romantic re-write of history.

What I appreciated about The Economist article was the point regarding the myth of homogeneity. The Middle Ages are complicated and while yes, on the one hand there was this thing called Christendom, on the other hand it wasn't what it's been made out to be. It wasn't all that glorious. From the perspective of New Testament Christianity it was abhorrent.

A historophile to the core, I find the Middle Ages fascinating. As a Christian and one interested in the history of the Church I am also inevitably if not necessarily drawn to the Medieval period. And yet as one who's hermeneutic is informed by Scripture as opposed to the sensibilities and impulses of Sacralist Christendom my interpretation and reflection on the period is quite different than the assessments of the Christian Right and its desire to reconstitute and revivify the so-called Christian West.

While many of the characterisations of the Middle Ages as 'Dark' are indeed caricatures, it used to be understood by Protestants that the period was worthy of condemnation due to the fact that for centuries the Gospel and certainly the Word of God were suppressed and obscured. The Crusades were certainly not something to be celebrated but were rightly viewed as an unfortunate episode, shameful and distinctly un-Christian.

Since the Gospel has be redefined by Dominion theology, the Middle Ages have now become a praiseworthy if slightly flawed expression of the Ideal they seek and certainly something to celebrate and emulate.

There is a glorious history to be found in the Middle Ages but you will be hard pressed to read of it in standard histories, let alone conventional Church histories. There were thousands of Christians that were part of an underground movement. The castles and cathedrals were not part of their world. Those were the tokens of the Anti-Christ system which oppressed them, the very system now praised and emulated by the modern Protestant Church.

The Middle Ages are of great interest but I am not encouraged by these faux-re-enactments and expressions of bourgeois boredom and decadence. The cultural and theological basis of this 'revival' is actually a cause for concern.

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