A Sermon

Many years ago I listened to Dr G V Bennett, Chaplain of New College, Oxford give a sermon where he touched on James Bond as a way of illustrating the point he wanted to make about how it was important to be able to differentiate fact from fantasy in our lives. Over the years I had remembered the occasion but had little recollection of the details but then recently, while working through another lockdown, I found a copy of the sermon tucked deeply away among some files.

His use of James Bond to illustrate his point was only one part of what message he was putting across, taking up but a single paragraph:

What in the books had an air of plausibility, in the films has been taken to its proper conclusion: they are fantasies, ways of escape. It is a myth world, in which the hero is the measure of all things. he is socially assured; he is victorious in every fight; he is always successful at attracting the opposite sex. It is a world where human relationships have no depth. The villains can be bumped off without pity – because they are not really people at all. James Bond himself has no wife, no children, no home. His many women have no desire for marriage, they never reproach him for his out-and-out selfishness. As we read on, we escape from our real world into a dream-world. It is pleasant enough for an evening’s reading but how mad if we governed our lives in this style. We may like to imagine ourselves happy in Bond’s freedom from all ties, his right to be happy suiting himself; but our world is one of real people: people with feelings, hopes and fears, people who want to be loved and cared for. In our real world qualities are demanded of us which James Bond is totally devoid.’

Gareth Bennett was a Church of England priest, a Fellow of Modern History at New College and it would be fair to say that he was on the conservative wing and a traditionalist. On the other hand he was not blind to the need to embrace a changing world and the changing lifestyles of the young. He was known to enjoy his comforts and certainly was no ascetic and there was a worldly charm to him. His sermons too were beacons of clarity whether you agreed with them or not. Often they might touch on the loss of identity in the world – among individuals and institutions; that both had forgotten their values and their history in pursuit of the newly fashionable. Above all he believed that people should live by a set of principles that they would be prepared to stand-up for rather than bending in the wind.

He committed suicide after he had been hounded by the media; he had written what should have been the anonymous Preface to the annual Crockford’s Clerical Directory, where he had critiqued the Church of England and, in the words of the BBC, made an  ‘an unprecedented attack on the Archbishop!’ There was a lot more to this episode, irrelevant to this piece but it made me wonder if his viewpoint about Bond was typical of the time.

It is well known that Fleming came in for some criticism across the 1950s and 60s from other writers and commentators about the sadism in the novels and Bond’s treatment of women. Just one example of many (and they are much covered elsewhere) was his friend Malcolm Muggeridge, who had worked for the SIS during the war. Despite their mutual connections, Muggeridge was less than complimentary about Fleming, writing in his diary after one evening with the couple that it was ‘difficult to see why Ann fell for him’, adding that Ian was a ‘slob’ who treated her with ‘old-fashioned playfulness, with remarks like “Now don’t you go worrying your pretty little head about that”, which, oddly, she appeared to like’.

Muggeridge later angered Fleming’s family by publicly attacking him within a few months of his death, calling him an ‘Etonian Mickey Spillane’ and describing Bond as nothing more than the author’s ‘squalid…glamorised view of himself.’

And does the Church of England have a point of view? In a recent edition of the Church Times (24 September 2021) a measured view is offered. On the one had the author writes ‘Fleming’s extremely popular hero still represents, for some people, much that is reprehensible — “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” whose boyish charms are lost on Judi Dench’s M in Goldeneye.’

Then the article goes on to say, ‘Assimilating vestiges of political correctness does not make Bond a “new man”. If living, as personified by him, is all about danger and adventure, then few of us match that definition. And is it an existence without need of God? In the films, religion is often depicted as superstitious nonsense.’

At the same time it is acknowledged that the Bond character is rooted in some Judaeo-Christian values, and that he struggles to come to terms with events that are clearly outside of Man’s control.

It finishes off by saying, ‘At a deeper level, it is our own accidie — which the playwright Arthur Miller described as periods of stupefying spiritual and psychological stasis — that is under scrutiny in the books and films.’

And that to me seems to accord with what Bennett was telling us as we sat in the chapel.