It’s been a long time since I posted anything – a reflection of this being the busiest half of the year I suspect. So I thought I would dig out one of the many draft posts I’ve written but sat on (rather than published). To be honest I’ve been slightly nervous about publishing this one as it’s about ‘hypocrisy’, and it feels as though there is so much scope to say ‘physician heal thyself’. However, I suspect that all of us are hypocrites in some way or to some degree, and if so none of us are qualified to write on the subject from a perspective of perfection – and yet it’s a subject that’s still worth scrutinising. So, here goes…
More by chance than by any concerted attempt at self-improvement, my bed-time reading over the eighteen months has been a string of classic novels of their era – George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (I never read the latter at school – we must have been in a very small minority of British pupils in this respect). Between them a huge canvas of human experience is covered, from questions of gender and sexuality to race and ethnicity, politics and governance, war and peace, social conventions, history and memory. Unfortunately I don’t seem to be able to read anything for pleasure without noticing the way in which questions of faith, spirituality and religion are treated (for more on this see, for example, a series of occasional blog postings on images of the clergy in fiction, by my friend Peter Webster). Reading these books reminded me once again how frequently the theme of hypocrisy features in wider cultural commentary on religious subject-matter. Arguably George Eliot was one of a number of 19th Century novelists to help embed the religious hypocrite firmly in the modern literary consciousness, such as in Middlemarch‘s casuistical non-conformist preacher Mr Bulstrode (although Eliot was also too subtle and too ecclesiastically-literate a novelist not to be able to portray religious integrity as well – such as in the wise strength of character of Caleb Garth or in the kindly and honest curate Mr Farebrother). In Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (which I loved, I hasten to add), Bulstrode’s inter-war successor is Councillor and Methodist preacher Alfred Ezekiel Huggins, whose genuine and admirable desire to fight local poverty is overtaken by the temptations of sex and money. As a novelist, Pat Barker is much less interested in questions of religious faith but even in Regeneration there is an fleeting treatment of the religious hypocrite in WH Rivers’ cold and inflexible clergyman father (The Ghost Road is somewhat more interested in ritual and belief, but in a different way). The treatment of southern American Protestantism in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird offers case studies in both religious hypocrisy and principle: when Jem and Scout Finch ask their father why he must risk so much trouble by taking on the legal defence of Tom Robinson against all the odds, Atticus simply replies that he could not bring himself to stand in church and worship God if he did not. By contrast to Atticus’ brave and conscienable actions, there is a biting description of a missionary meeting in which (white) townswomen gather to support missionary efforts amongst the Mruna peoples overseas whilst speaking with disdain of the black people in their own town.
Of course, the religious hypocrite has been a common target for preaching and pen long before the birth of the modern novel – and rightly so. Jesus himself reserves some of his sharpest criticisms for those who speak fine words and fail to back them up by their actions. So it is a good thing for those of us who profess to follow Jesus that the image of the religious hypocrite is regularly placed before our eyes as a challenge and a rebuke. Perhaps as Christians we need to be particularly aware of the potential for hypocrisy because of the important distinction in our faith between between our identity and status as Christians, and the outworking of our lives as disciples. This is a critical distinction for Christians, but also a fraught one if we get it wrong. It is critical because we become reconciled to God not by our own actions but by God’s grace – there is nothing we can do, by our own efforts, to reach that place, and so in that specific sense, our identity in Christ is not reliant upon the goodness or otherwise of our actions. However, it is a fraught distinction because we can too easily rest content in this new identity, forget that a renewed relationship with God, a renewed heart and a renewed life in Christ invite, even demand, a transformed life. It is too easy, too scarily easy, to be the person who says ‘Lord, Lord’ but forgets that we are restored and forgiven for a purpose – to be good news in the world, and to love our neighbours as ourselves – in that sense seeking for our lives to be progressively conformed to the one who saved us. So the religious hypocrite in literature and the media remains an uncomfortable but necessary mirror in which to study ourselves.
That said, I do find myself increasingly bored, not to say irritated, by the ease with which contemporary news media and drama seem to reach for the ‘religious hypocrite’ trope. At one level I understand why this happens – amidst a dominant cultural tendency to see truth as at least malleable and quite possibly entirely relative, and in which feeling and experience are a more reliable guide than a priori authority, the person who aspires to live a life by an externally imposed standard which is beyond their natural inclinations makes themselves automatically more vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy (because they are aspiring to a standard of behaviour which is beyond any merely human capacity to live up to it). Conversely, the charge of hypocrisy is harder to make stick on an individual or culture whose core values are eudaimonic (about self-actualisation) since the only available benchmark against which to judge oneself and others is oneself (or, possibly, the agglomeration of many individuals’ journeys of self-discovery we call ‘Culture’ with a capital ‘C’). In that context perhaps the hypocrite merely becomes the person who merely professes to be concerned with discovering who they really are, but never does anything about it. Moreover, there are tragically too many examples of religious people who profess good and do evil, for the ‘hypocrite’ label to be purely empty stereotype. All that said however, I still think it is too easy and too predictable, particularly in contemporary literature and in radio and TV drama, to give a hypocritical tinge to any professedly religious character, particularly in an age when only a minority of the UK population formally and actively identify with a major religious faith (and thus professedly religious hypocrites would be assumed to be in a minority). In this, I’m reminded of Baudrillard’s essay on the permissive society ‘After the Orgy’, in which he observes that human societies have a propensity to continue to resurrect an old defeated enemy (in the case of the original essay, moral conservatism and censoriousness), and to continue to thrash it every so often, in order to reinforce importance of the new dominant values. In this sense, the continued pervasiveness of the ‘religious hypocrite’ trope may partly be a way of reinforcing a sense of a ‘world come of age’ in a post-Christendom era.
That said, I do think one form of contemporary (secular) hypocrisy has gone largely unnoticed. In any society, there will be pressure to present oneself in some form of accordance with the dominant discourse. In the very publicly religious climate of 19th Century Britain, in which George Eliot and others were writing, this took the form of concern with religious ‘respectability’ – and in that situation, ‘hypocrisy’ consisted in failing to live up to a public religiosity which functioned only as a veneer. Yet even at this time there were spheres of society where this did not apply. W.F. Hook (1798-1875), the energetic vicar of Leeds who became Dean of Chichester, noted that in the army, ‘I do not find any great inclination to treat religion with disrespect, though the temptation is to that kind of hypocrisy which induces men to appear less religious than they really are’ (quoted in Rowell, Stevenson and Williams (eds), Love’s Redeeming Work: the Anglican Quest for Holiness, 2001, p. 395). Arguably something of what Hook observed in microcosm in the British Army of the Victorian era may apply more widely in a contemporary British context which is more secular (or perhaps more accurately, a-religious/a-secular). Today, the pressure is arguably to pretend to appear less religious than one actually is. This is a real dilemma for many actively Christian young people (and some adults) I know, who are reluctant to ‘come out’ about their own faith with their classmates or colleagues for fear of ridicule or even bullying. Succumbing to peer pressure is not exactly the same as hypocrisy, but it can lead to it. But I have also encountered it in many people are not active members of any faith community and whose everyday language is quite devoid of explicitly religious content but who nevertheless, when getting to know them a little better, admit to spiritual feelings or experiences, admiration for religious ethics or even a quiet personal faith.
For them, as well as for card-carrying Christians and members of other faith communities, I would therefore love to see a few more admirable religious characters in contemporary literature and drama. Two-dimensional plaster saints do no one any favours, and religious as well as other characters should inevitably have their flaws and fragilities – but I’d love to see those balanced a little more often with an interest in how their religious convictions prompt them to do good. There are a few good examples – I love the character of Revd John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, for instance – but a few more, particularly on prime time TV, would not go amiss. But in expressing that wish, I realise that the onus is also on me, and on all who profess to follow Jesus, to do our part in doing what Jesus actually commanded. There are vast numbers of people out there doing this already (and there is strong if complex research evidence on the link between religious faith and voluntary/charitable activity), and the point is to do it rather than to shout about it. But the more we live it, the more we may provide evidence that a Christian life of goodness and integrity is not merely a fantasy but a compelling contemporary possibility that might challenge the dominance of the ‘religious hypocrite’ paradigm.