‘All crimes are vulgar, all vulgarity is a crime,’ declared Wilde through half a dozen of his protagonists (Oscar was ahead of his time in practising responsible recycling).
If we accept this definition of vulgarity, then Melvyn Bragg is a serial offender. By devoting his career to carrying ‘culture’ to the masses he has contributed to reducing everything to mass culture. The result is enduring, emetic, all-conquering vulgarity – just the ticket for the BBC and other broadcasters.
As his recent article in The Times testifies, Lord Bragg has now directed his attentions, unencumbered by any conspicuous knowledge of the subject, towards Christianity. He must have surmised correctly that vulgarity would be a deadlier weapon against it than hysterical hatred, à la Richard Dawkins.
Specifically he set out to correct all the wrongs the church has perpetrated upon women in general and Mary Magdalene in particular. To that end Bragg decamped for Israel, spent a couple of weeks there and solved all the mysteries by neatly blending Ernest Renan and Dan Brown with a dollop of anti-misogynist self-righteousness. The resulting concoction is revoltingly rancid, but then Bragg’s taste buds have atrophied by now, if he ever had them in the first place.
‘Was Mary Magdalene a saint or a prostitute?’ he asks in the first sentence, establishing his ignorance from the start to avoid any subsequent confusion on the reader’s part. Clearly, according to Bragg she could not have been both. Presumably he thinks saints don’t just imitate Jesus Christ – they are Jesus Christ, born without sin, untouched by the original Fall.
Elementary knowledge of Christian hagiography, not to mention history, shows this simply isn’t, nor can be, the case. People achieve sainthood by the grace of God and until they do they remain fallible and, quite often, fallen. St Augustine, for example, sowed a lot of wild oats in his youth, and quite a few other cereals as well. So did St Francis. St Margaret of Cortona was a right slapper as a girl. St Paul prosecuted Christians. St Peter betrayed Christ himself – thrice.
Such is the auspicious beginning of Bragg’s article. From then on it’s all either Renan or Brown, with a bit of Richard Dawkins to spice things up (though Bragg tries to dissociate himself from the latter’s ‘glib criticism’). Thus Bragg-Renan: ‘The gospels are – minus miracles – reasonably convincing accounts of a unique man.’ Thus Bragg-Brown: ‘…evidence may lead one to the conclusion that she [Mary Magdalene] was his [Jesus’s] wife.’ Thus Bragg-Dawkins: ‘[Pope Gregory’s] superb and effective act of misogynist propaganda.’ ‘Celibacy… has led the organised church into so many abuses and crimes and distorted lives.’
Gospels without miracles wouldn’t be gospels – they owe their very existence to a miracle, and Christ is ‘a unique man’ precisely because he isn’t just a man. To say that he is means accusing the evangelists of lying.
Bragg himself points out that the gospels ‘were written at a time when fictional, that is mythological, writing simply did not have this kind of detail.’ I wonder if he ever asked himself why. He probably didn’t, for the only persuasive answer would have been that the gospels, miracles and all, are true, and this answer would be unacceptable to an ideological atheist like Bragg. Well, he’s a Labour peer after all. Comes with the territory.
It’s not celibacy but the fallen state of man that has led some members of the ‘organised church’ (as opposed to a disorganised one?) to naughtiness. Yet clerical and monastic celibacy also focused men’s minds on serving God, rising above their collective and individual sinfulness.
As to Mary and Jesus having been an item, one wonders why Lord Bragg had to travel as far as Israel (sorry, Palestine – ‘Israel’ is only favoured by the BBC in negative contexts) to uncover the relevant evidence. He should have rung me instead and I would have recommended such unimpeachable sources as Holy Blood, Holy Grail and indeed The Da Vinci Code. Add to this a brief scan and loose interpretation of a couple of apocryphal gospels, and he could have saved the BBC the price of airfare.
It takes ignorance elevated to the level of worship to suggest that the entire history of the church has been devoted to suppressing the importance of women. Has Bragg actually read the gospels? If he had, he would have noticed that women, including Mary Magdalene, come across much better than men. St Mark’s gospel in particular holds women up as examples of true discipleship, contrasting their role to that of men.
Not only did Jesus first reveal himself to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection, but she was also among the women who witnessed the crucifixion: ‘There were also women looking on afar off: among them was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome.’ Not so the male disciples: ‘And they all forsook him, and fled.’
In apostolic denominations the Virgin is worshipped side by side with her son, and Mary Magdalene, ‘the apostle to the apostles’, isn’t far behind. Misogyny? Personally, I think the church ought to be charged with misandry – and Bragg with what Oscar Wilde defined as a crime.