And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?. . .
So sang the Dockhead Choir in a beautiful performance of England’s unofficial national anthem Jerusalem to open the 2012 Olympic Games.
Sir Hubert Perry’s musical rendition of the 1808 poem by William Blake found a fitting setting in the idyllic English countryside, masterfully recreated within the Olympic Stadium by the artistic genius of Danny Boyle. With over one-seventh of the world’s population tuning in, the thirtieth modern Olympic Games opened with a stirring celebration of the natural beauty of the British Isles and hymns that evoked England’s Christian past.
As the opening ceremony moved beyond the first act, Danny Boyle’s masterpiece of public spectacle took an unintended tragic turn, highlighted by the chorister’s question in the opening hymn: “Was the holy Lamb of God / On England’s pleasant pastures seen?” I was curious to see how Danny Boyle would answer this question in the remainder of his lively romp through British history and culture. Boyle was himself raised Catholic in a devout, working-class Irish family, but he eventually lost his faith and became a self-described “spiritual atheist.” How would he portray the Christian heritage of his native land? Would the holy Lamb of God be seen on England’s pleasant pastures? As we were led, act after act, through a dramatic portrayal of England’s industrialization and modernization, Boyle’s answer was a disappointing “no.”
Perhaps I am a bit too cynical, but I found that watching this sketch of England’s cultural “progress” was like watching a grown man regress into teenage immaturity. Beautiful countryside was ripped apart to make room for smokestacks and mills, all to enable the development of rock music, teen romance, Harry Potter, Facebook, socialized medicine, and Sir Paul McCartney. Is that it? Is that all England has to offer the world? What happened to building Jerusalem? What happened to “the Countenance Divine?”
The tragic omission of Christ in Boyle’s spectacle called to mind a recent address to the Napa Institute given by Archbishop Chaput in which he cited the professor of political science, Robert Kraynak of Colgate University:
[D]emocracy—for all of its strengths—also “has within it the potential for its own kind of ‘social tyranny.’” The reason is simple: Democracy advances “the forces of mass culture which lower the tone of society . . . by lowering the aims of life from classical beauty, heroic virtues, and otherworldly transcendence to the pursuits of work, material consumption, and entertainment.” This inevitably tends to “[reduce] human life to a one-dimensional materialism and [an] animal existence that undermines human dignity and eventually leads to the ‘abolition of man.’”
England does have a real reason to rejoice and a true heritage to celebrate. The reason is Christ and the heritage is that of a Christian people. England has countless examples of classical beauty, heroic virtue, and the blessings of God. While England’s heroism was celebrated in moments of the ceremony, such as Boyle’s tribute to the soldiers of the two world wars, such moments were overshadowed by the climax which showcased England’s contribution to banal pop culture. If the audience of over one billion viewers was left unsatisfied and wondering why, they would do well to heed the words of Pope Benedict XVI given at his audience with HM Queen Elizabeth II two years ago: “let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’”
Let us pray that England will remember her Lord whose name has been hallowed in her land for so many centuries:
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
Image: Lighting of Olympic Ring