Tuesday, 3 February 2015

When God Met Stephen Fry

The response to Stephen Fry's rant against God has been telling. What Fry said about God wasn't exactly profound. It was no more than I'd hope any articulate atheist, agnostic, or even believer would ask when faced by their maker. What he said was a pretty standard attack on the cruelty of God and has been expressed so many times before to make this latest example seem pretty trivial. The reason it isn't trivial, however, is that it was expressed by Stephen Fry and some people's response seems to be one that would prefer if we phrase the question a different way. What would God say to Stephen Fry? Would God ask: what was it like working on The Hobbit? How did you get so many Twitter followers? Are you really as all knowing as you seem on QI or do you have the answers piped into your ear?

It's perhaps a symptom of the terminal decline of intellect in our postmodern hyper-celebrity-adoring age that even a mediocre attack on religion should receive such coverage. When a philosopher makes a sustained attack on God, their words are rarely reported and, certainly, never reported at such length. Richard Dawkins is quite possibly the most outspoken, well known, and 'followed' atheist of the moment and yet even his outbursts never receive such prominence, even in the broadsheets.

Again, it would appear that we are less interested in what somebody says and more concerned with the person saying it. It's a psychological response to how we view our fellow men and women. I know it myself because I'm not immune to doing the same thing. How I think about, for example, Ralph Steadman is very different to how I think about some anonymous cartoonist whose work I find on the web and whose style I particularly like. Steadman has an authority which the other cartoonist lacks and there has to be a process of familiarisation before another cartoonist becomes, in my eyes, quite so canonical.

The same is true of writers. I might read something by Will Self and enjoy it but it means something different to an article which doesn't have such a high profile name attached. There's something in 'celebrity' or, at least, 'being known' that carries an air of authority. Stephen Fry's rant about God was an authoritative  pronouncement that is far more significant than any learned paper written by a respected but little known professor of theology. It was significant because we know everything about Fry and this latest pronouncement fits into that known background. His is a life narrative being written in the public space. This latest event is a twist in that tale.

The reasons for this are probably layered into the collective psychology our society. It has something to do with the explosion of communication that happened over the past half a century. There is simply too much communication and no single person can ever hope to hear it all. Celebrity is the function that filters out the noise. Yet lost in the noise is the articulate and sane, the wise and the learned. All we hear are the trivial but loud. And that's where the problem lies. Stephen Fry's words, whilst neither dumb nor particularly profound, were loud. They were loud simply because he is Stephen Fry. His voice booms louder than any other. Louder too, it seems, than the voice of God.

If I met God, I think my first question would be: why did you create Stephen Fry? But, then, I suspect God might be thinking the same thing.

Yet if there is a God, then perhaps it was God who brought mugging victim Alan Barnes to the public's attention. God moves in mysterious ways and, in this instance, the mysterious way was beautician Katie Cutler who set up the appeal to help the sixty seven year old after he was knocked to the ground by a mugger resulting in a broken collar bone. The fund was aiming to raise £500 but currently stands at £322,899 with 24,322 raising that money in only 5 days.

Yet God didn't work quite so mysteriously in the case of Paul Kohler who was 'savagely' beaten by four burglars. He was in the papers this last week after four Polish immigrants were jailed for the assault which left the university lecturer with a fractured eye socket, jawbone, nose and his facial bruising was so bad that he was unrecognisable.

There are, of course, stark differences between the two cases and a clear reason why Mr Barnes' story touched the nation's heart as well as its purse strings. Yet is it right to ask what kind of God would make Mr Barnes suffer a life with his disabilities but wrong to ask why the media highlighted one case over all the other sad stories that routinely pass for reality?

Nobody asks that because none of it ultimately means anything. Even the loudest bray of stupidity ends like the utterance of the wisest thinker. It's all meaningless noise and life is just one hellish lottery played by a blindfolded gambler with the odds stacked very much against him.

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