Protestants don’t do culture. Well OK, even as sweeping statements go, that’s a bit too sweeping. (The point is, it wasn’t meant as the literal truth.)
Of course, it’s an exaggeration, but exaggerations have to start with a grain of truth.
Derry was able to carry off the “City of Culture” title with credibility. Could any other town have got away with it? Can you imagine Belfast, or Lisburn, or Newtownabbey, or Coleraine as a city or a town of culture?
Some Protestants talk about, “our culture,” when they mean parading with marching bands. Culture in its usual, high-minded sense is for others, seems to be the implication.
Literature is disconcerting when you’ve a literal mind. If you only ever read the bible and you cling to the idea that “bible believing” means accepting every word of it as the literal truth, then why would you want to be taken out of your comfort zone by imaginative writing?
“The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people act on moral convictions different from your own,” said the distinguished literary critic, Sir William Empson. (Empson was a professor of English at Sheffield University. He retired in 1972 and died in 1984 at the age of 78.)
If Empson was right, then you’d want to be careful about reading books, going to plays, encouraging visual art or enjoying music. Don’t they say the devil has all the best tunes? The last thing you’d want to recognise is that “other people act on moral convictions different from your own”.
On the controversy about The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), Newtownabbey Mayor Frazer Agnew said there was “a need to defend Christian values”. Maybe so, but it’s not up to mayors or councils to do the defending. That’s the churches’ job. In a free and tolerant society there should be separation of church and state at every level. Local councils aren’t there to “defend Christian values” or to impose religious views. Ironically, those who seek to impose their views in this way are outraged about other countries where Christians are denied freedom of thought and worship.
“Is an unwillingness to allow others to express a different point of view motivated by love of what you hold dear, or by fear of being annihilated? We say it’s the former, but I’ve a sneaky sense it’s often the latter,” wrote the comedian Nuala McKeever on this issue.
But let’s get back to Protestants and culture. Perhaps I should be more specific. After all, weren’t Protestants, like W.B. Yeats and John Millington Synge, central players in Ireland’s great literary revival of the early twentieth century? Of course they were, but they weren’t of the fundamentalist, evangelical variety with solid working-class roots. In the south there really wasn’t such a thing as a Protestant working-class. The anti-culture bias belongs to northern working-class Protestants of the narrow, staunchly evangelical variety. It’s a depressing phenomenon.
The other lesson to be learned from the kerfuffle over the play is that in the modern world, censorship doesn’t work. The scale of the task is so enormous, would-be censors can’t win. Even if you could draw a cultural curtain around the six counties, or the 26 counties, or anywhere (except in places like Afghanistan or North Korea) would it work in the age of global communication?
Ah well, it’s appropriate that a play about the bible was born-again. It has to be one of the greatest comebacks since Lazarus!