Skip to Content

Why has religion become ‘the Great Taboo’?

Jane reflects on the writing of These Fragile Things.

It is not often that I find myself in tune with former Tory shadow MP Ann Widdecombe, but I found myself sympathetic to the views expressed in ‘Are You Having a Laugh?’ her examination of the treatment of Christianity in popular culture (and in comedy, in particular.) Or if not her views, certainly those of journalist, Cole Moreton, who described very aptly the point at which a joke becomes very uncomfortable, at which you are left feeling guilty for having laughed; perhaps even reflecting that, actually, it wasn’t very funny after all. What contributors to the programme disagreed on was when they crossed that line. Surprisingly, it was Steve Punt who advised that he finds the final scene in the Life of Brian “jaw-droppingly offensive,” whilst Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, feels it is “authentically Christian.”    

And yet the film that caused so much controversy upon its 1979 release – so much so that the Catholic Film Monitoring Office declared that watching it was a sin – seems relatively mild today. The majority felt that the Python team’s treatment of Christ was respectful and that it explored ordinary human absurdities and the desperate need of people of the day to have something to believe in.

As Steve Punt pointed out, the irony is that the jokes in the Life of Brian only work for people acquainted with the New Testament. “Blessed are the cheese-makers,” would be completely lost on someone who did not know the original Sermon on the Mount. Children growing up today, for example. Those who will not feel quite so lost with the statement, “Religion is what we used to think before we discovered mental illness.” (Frankie Boyle).

Apparently, it is not fashionable to “do faith.”  As Tony Blair said, “You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people so think you’re a nutter.” For this reason, even the contributors to the programme who didn’t find the ‘jokes’ very funny, could see good reason to view the treatment of Christianity in comedy with some positivity. At a time when “God is the great taboo” the fact that faith is used as fodder for jokes helps to keep religion alive, because it is at least being talked about. And while that is the case, there is less of a possibility that it will be seen as what Rowan Williams described as “the preserve of oddities, minorities and foreigners.”

Asked why he doesn’t mock other religions to the same degree that he does Christianity, Steve Punt responded with the very valid argument that he simply wouldn’t be entitled to. He was brought up C of E and attended a church school where there was an assembly with a religious theme every day.              

I shall borrow his answer if asked why I wrote These Fragile Things. Having experienced a Catholic upbringing, and now being a lapsed-Catholic, I felt I was entitled to…

But entitlement is not all. I too felt that my own small reaction to the Richard Dawkins school of atheism is required. I can appreciate the fact that it emerged in response to radical creationism, but that is a belief only a small minority subscribe to, certainly in the UK. For my own part, I lean in the direction of Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, who thought that she had “finished with religion” but “found herself in television” and encountered Judaism and Islam for the first time, then began to study the history of religion.

Archaeological discoveries have already disproved some of what I was taught as ‘truth’ – for example, the discovery of numerous human bones with holes through them does away with the idea that Jesus was unique in being nailed to the cross. But the relevance of what hasn’t been found is also significant. Could it be that it was intended that far less of the Bible be taken literally?   

Belief, Karen Armstrong explains, is only a very recent religious enthusiasm, emerging in the 17th Century. The Credo did not mean “I believe” but I embrace. For four centuries, we have superimposed modern thinking on ancient manuscripts; stories intended as illustrations are treated as fact. No wonder there is confusion, to say nothing of conflict.

Karen Armstrong celebrated an award-win with a call for the creation of a central charter of compassion. Compassion was also my intention when starting out with Judy Jones and her family on their journey. I hope that I have not overstepped the line – the line that seems so difficult to agree upon – at which I cause any of my readers discomfort. But if I do, I hope it is reaction that proves faith still matters.