Wednesday, 26 November 2008

blind faith

I’ve been reading Ben Elton’s books on and off since the 1980’s and his first book Stark. His latest Blind Faith is written in the typical Elton style with lots of quick fire observations similar to his verbal delivery, not much characterisation but more of a graphic novel without the pictures. Blind Faith is based in a near future world where a great flood has wiped out half the world and the story centres on one individual living in a sub tropical London half submerged under water. It’s an updated 1984 which takes a swipe at many of the features of contemporary popular culture. A world where there is virtually no privacy with everybody living their lives on line and on screen, people wear few clothes and expose their emotions as well as their flesh. In this world Elton has a dig at ‘cause’ Wembley concerts; you tubing; blogging; obesity; junk food; cosmetic surgery; the MMR crisis; bizarre children’s names; the cult of celebrity and the desire to be famous. There is one superb moment when a law is passed by plebiscite at a faith concert declaring that from now on everyone will be famous.

London is a dystopian city, overcrowded, with poor housing, the public utilities breaking down, disease rampant and people forced to be happy and engage with all sorts of communal activities, from the work ‘group hug’ to watching each other having sex on line. Privacy and secrets are seen as anti-social and everyone has the right to celebrate and be celebrated for who they are. Public emoting is encouraged as is public grieving. Some of the descriptions are pretty graphic but effectively highlight the way in which pornography dehumanises and abuses. However, the key focus of Elton’s venom is religion. The country is ruled by the Temple and the ministers of God who is called the Love. Everyone believes in the Love and life is dictated by activities demonstrating love for the Love. It’s actually a rather medieval and distorted portrayal of Christianity and not unlike Pullman’s Magisterium; there are confessors, bishops and inquisitors and heretics are burned. The flood is seen as God’s judgement on the sinfulness of the world and much of the scientific world is dismissed as belonging to the dark ages before the flood. As a consequence vaccinations are seen as evil and the child mortality rate is about one in two.

Against this background the central character, Trafford, gradually rebels. He wants to keep secrets and retain a measure of privacy. He is drawn into a secret humanist society where he is introduced to the world of books, most of which have been banned. Trafford finds joy in the novel and the use of his imagination but above all he discovers Darwin and evolutionary theory and this is his salvation. The pivotal moment for Trafford is when he has his child vaccinated in direct contravention of the laws of the Temple. Throughout the book religion is presented as irrational, contradictory, hypocritical, corrupt, self serving and destructive. Science and reason are the only things worth believing in and hold the only answer for a society heading for destruction.

And this is the problem. I don’t dispute that there are aspects of religion and faith that deserve to be critiqued and satirised and these are a legitimate target. But for Elton faith has no redeeming qualities, there is no nuance, no subtlety, just a shotgun blast that misses most of its targets. His religion is so disgusting, so bizarre, so lacking in connection with reality that any legitimate critique is lost in the gross simplicities and over blown descriptions. In short he highlights the failing of many of his humanist chums – so repelled by the thought of religion and so caught up in the attack and fearful of the enemy that he completely undermines his case. Blind Faith ends up being little more than The God Delusion for Dummies.

2 comments:

Jonathan said...

This is a great review. Really do make sure you post it on Amazon.

Tim Goodbody said...

thanks Phil,
It sounds rather derivative of a couple of things - the Christian Bale film "Equilibrium" (http://movies.about.com/od/equilibrium/Equilibrium_2002.htm)
and Will Self's "The book of Dave"
(http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/may/27/fiction.hayfestival2006)

see you
Tim