The headline was a catch-phrase for Monty Python, a madcap 1970s British comedy troupe that might well have written the BBC’s news coverage of Pope Francis, but the hilarity was unintentional.
(Americans who are spared from watching BBC news broadcasts may now offer up prayers of thanksgiving).
The comedy started with a tweet from a Mr. David Lammy, a Labour Party Member of Parliament, complaining that “This tweet from the BBC is crass and unnecessary. Do we really need silly innuendo about the race of the next Pope?” He missed the point. The BBC News tweet had speculated on black or white smoke from the Vatican chimney, not on the skin-colour of the next pontiff.
Then the Beeb entered broadcasting legend as the new pope emerged and the crowd dropped to its knees before him. As the Holy Father began to recite The Lord’s Prayer, the BBC translator struggled to broadcast the following:
“Our father who are in the Heaven, be your name blessed… be your will done as in earth so above….deliver us from our sins as we deliver them from, um, from the sinners…”
The BBC translator had never heard the Pater Noster, in any language. No brief phrase, even the first few words, rang any bell. It was a complete surprise to him; greater, no doubt, than had the cardinals all donned sunglasses and whipped out saxophones, strutting behind the new pontiff as he belted out Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Instead it was some obscure thing called The Lord’s Prayer. Imagine that. Who could have seen it coming?
Just as amazingly, not only did the BBC somehow manage to find such a hapless translator, but they assigned him to cover St. Peter’s Square of all places. It does remind one of the Monty Python sketch making edgy fun of The Sermon on the Mount, where a chap sitting too far back to hear thinks that Our Lord’s look-alike said “blessed are the cheese-makers.” Except that this was unintentional.
There is insufficient space in which to revisit the sins of Britain’s tax-funded BBC (i.e., financial corruption, administrative malfeasance, paedophilia cover-ups, endemic sexual harassment, rigged competitions, self-admitted distortions in political, economic and scientific reporting, obstruction of justice and a breathtaking anti-American bias – with examples of each in just the past few years).
More interesting overall (and raising pertinent questions for America) is the vast ignorance of, and disinterest in, religion by media elites.
Those of us unlucky enough to watch BBC coverage of the London Olympics heard, while the athletes prayed, broadcasters cringe or presumably cock their heads and stare uncomprehendingly as if they were dogs watching television. Fraser Nelson (who provided the BBC quote above) observes in Britain’s venerable Spectator:
…when runners would pray on the start-up line, or at the finish, the BBC commentators maintained a baffled silence…The American commentators were able to explain it all to viewers, putting the athletes – and their incredible stories – in to perspective. The runner Lopez Lomong…was a Somalian refugee saved by Catholic missionaries and taken to America. So if he looked as if he was giving thanks, this is why. When Mo Farah prayed after winning, the BBC commentators pretended it wasn’t happening.
Among Britain’s trendy Chattering Classes, including media folk, it is impossible to discern those who detest and scorn religion from people who are just blankly ignorant about it altogether. It is simply not discussed “in decent company,” period. I wonder if, over a polite chatterati supper in London, it would be a bigger faux pas to raise the issue of faith (in any but the most condescending sense) or just to shift onto one cheek and break wind; the reactions would be about the same.
Not that it matters, really, what percentage of British chatterati hate religion, versus those who know nothing about it, versus others intimidated into silence. It means that faith is now as homosexuality used to be, “the love that dare not speak its name.” And over time, since it shall not be discussed, fewer people will bother to learn about what still affects most of the world’s population in one religion or another.
Even at the most superficial level there is something disrespectful and impolite here. I know nothing about NASCAR racing (and I aspire to live out my life in blissful ignorance of it), but were it important to my dinner companion I would feign interest, struggle to ask an intelligent question, or just nod silently as he spoke. Polite Britons, of whom there are many even among the chatterati, would grant the same courtesy to anyone, on any topic, except religious faith when elites begin coughing and try desperately to shift the conversation onto any other subject (up to, perhaps, another guest’s son in some Nazi youth movement). This shows the combined effect of social opprobrium and ignorance within a powerful social stratum.
At a deeper level, at least to believers devout in any great faith, there comes a kind of internalised wounding insult born of disregard, captured by the Great War poet, chaplain and priest Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy:
When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.
To dismiss, or condescend to discuss, anything as central as a religious person’s faith must be recognised as the insult that it is. Devotion gives no one a right to monopolise conversation, but turning off a brief discussion brusquely, as with a monkey-wrench, mocks a person’s essence as surely as denigrating or studiously ignoring his race or occupation. Yet that is the Progressive way, at least among certain UK metropolitan elites.
On a level greater than either manners or belief, a lack of religious knowledge leads to cultural illiteracy. Its symptoms are more vexing than a translator at the Vatican unfamiliar with a central Christian prayer, or his equally clueless editors.
I once worked alongside of a part-time BBC News editor, a studiously hip American expatriate who had been raised by devout atheists. Her atheism, as such, bore no animus but she was unlettered in any element of Christianity – from belief to practice to history and iconography – as any Jivaro Indian of the Upper Amazon but without a good excuse. She could, no doubt, work out that the woman in blue with the halo, clutching the Infant, was Christ’s “mum,” but what the three blokes in crowns were doing on the same Christmas card may have exceeded her cultural grasp. The tripartite construction of a Renaissance painting, and its relation to something called the Holy Trinity, could just as well have been discussed in Klingon or presented as a quadratic equation. For all I know, she or someone like her, or Mister Lammy the parliamentarian, could have assigned the BBC’s translator to the Vatican and sat in the newsroom, sharing incomprehension as the garbled translation beamed in by satellite.
My conversations with this benighted woman surprised me again and again, driving home how Christian reference, imagery and iconography remain central to educated conversation in the West, starting with the meanings of words, the backgrounds of proverbs, of art and music, architecture and literature, history and high culture overall. In talking with her I learnt to footnote even commonplace spoken references, as I sometimes do when talking of relevant Western matters to intelligent friends who are Afghan Muslims or Nepali Hindus, and as they do so patiently with me.
But Western ignorance of Christianity, writ large, is more disturbing than T. S. Eliot’s complaint about losing the Classical languages and mythological references that until even recently united the heirs of Rome and Athens. Believe in Christianity or not: a failure to understand its basics is the death of Christendom as a shared culture, leaving, say, Italy and Germany or Mexico and America with little more in common than consumer spending.
Do American media-mavens share the religious ignorance, indifference or even the animosity of British broadcasters? Does the better Olympic coverage, mentioned by Mr. Nelson, suggest that US media elites are more supportive of faith, or in better touch with their religious audiences? I no longer know enough American journalists to guess. I do recall that, in 1972, three-quarters of the US electorate voted for Richard Nixon while the same percentage of American media elites backed George McGovern, as left-wing a presidential candidate as there had been thus far and maybe since. It suggested a culture of media elites very different than that of the general public, but then and now each may have been sympathetic to religion, in culture or in belief or both.
Sparing us the usual conservative clarion-calls for deep-seated and widespread Christian renewal (which I doubt can happen), my recommendation is a more modest one. We need religious education in all schools, to impart culture rather than to evangelise. It does not occur in Britain’s militantly secular and intellectually stripped-down curricula, but it may in American public schools.
In North America or Europe, religious cultural education would be predominantly Christian for the bulk of our cultural references stems from Christianity. But we would be improved, enriched and delighted to also learn something of Judaism, Islam and other major faiths and cultures. Whether this would make young believers better appreciate the faith of their parents, or find another that suits them without resorting to mere consumerism, I have no idea.
But at least it would broaden our cultural references, preserve some patrimony and make life easier for BBC translators and their misfortunate audiences.
Stephen Masty is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and has been a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He has spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he is presently a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.