Monday, 22 November 2010

Was James Bond religious?

Recent years have brought a number of books and articles on Bond’s religious beliefs and the morality of his adventures. These include Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass by Benjamin Pratt and the paper, ‘Christian culture, morality and James Bond’ by Frank Smith. The authors tend to be religious themselves and seek to give Bond a Christian mission. A fair reading of Fleming’s novels, however, reveals no obvious religious belief.

What little evidence religious writers present to advance their case is at best ambiguous and at worst subject to biased interpretation. One passage central to the argument for a religious Bond is his discussion with René Mathis in Casino Royale on the nature of good and evil. Bond says, ‘Now in order to tell the difference between good and evil, we have manufactured two images representing the extremes...and we call them God and the Devil’ (Chapter 20). Benjamin Pratt refers to the passage, but describes God and the Devil as personifications of real presences, rather than what Fleming may have been implying – human inventions.

Then there is Bond’s feelings of revulsion after a rich meal with Mr Du Pont in Goldfinger, which Bond attributes to the ‘puritan’ in him (Chapter 2). The use of the word puritan is interesting, and Pratt cites its as evidence of Bond’s Calvinist beliefs. It could, of course, be nothing more than a figure of speech, coming to mean, more generally, someone who is strict in morals and looks upon kinds of pleasure as sinful. Given that Bond ‘takes ridiculous pleasure’ in his food and drink (Casino Royale, Chapter 8), the use of the word hardly identifies Bond as a fire-and-brimstone bible-thumper.

Ian Fleming suggested that Bond was a latter-day St George, slaying the dragon and rescuing the maiden. But to extrapolate from this, as some have done, that Fleming intended his novels to be modern parables for the Christian reader, is wishful thinking.

Fleming’s church attendance is not recorded in the various bibliographies or his correspondence to his wife Ann, suggesting that religion did not play a significant in his life, if at all. He admitted in a letter to a Reverend Leslie Paxton that he was ‘some kind of sub-species of a Christian’ (if Fleming is professing religious belief, then this is a strangely mealy-mouthed expression of it), but this follows Paxton’s sermon against James Bond. Fleming was curious about what had been said, and the admission could be little more than a friendly gesture. Much is made of Fleming’s Calvinist grandfather, Robert, but this alone is not enough to give Fleming – and Bond – a religious identity. If Fleming occasionally alludes to religious words and concepts, then their use is a product of his cultural environment and the ideas – the memes – he inherited from his parents and social network. Naturally, Bond gained a similar background.

That's not to say that Bond is not moral (his musings in Casino Royale show otherwise), but morals are not evidence for religious belief. If Bond is a Christian, then he is a cultural Christian. He may look forward to the carols in the church at Christmas, or hobnob with the vicar at a summer fête, but he’d only be reaching for his bible when he wants to retrieve the gun hidden in it.

1 comment:

  1. I took a different view on Ian Fleming, James Bond and religion in the article at my The Bondologist Blog posted below, but your article here is very interesting and certainly gives one much food for thought - a "communion wafer", if you will.