The one about the actress and the bishop

Did you hear the one about the actress and the bishop?

Believe it or not, I thought of the subject for this blog before I thought of that old cliche of the beginning of a joke, but when I did, I did allow myself a chuckle.

Two things in the news this week caught my attention, one of which Facebook’s algorithms picked up as ‘trending’, the other was buried in a British newspaper and probably went unnoticed by most people who saw the other news item.

Last week, I wrote about perspective, and what can happen when one’s perspective changes. But what happens when the change is more akin to a conversion close to a Damascene level?

Let’s start with Pamela Anderson. To quote the Wall Street Journal, she is a ‘model, author and actress.’ And the reason the WSJ has suddenly shown interest in her is because she has co-authored (with an orthodox rabbi, Shmuley Boteach, so I suppose this could actually be ‘the one about the bishop, the actress and the rabbi) an opinion piece on the dangers of pornography. They say they have ‘often warned’ about this subject, although I confess that this was the first time I had seen her say anything on the subject and a search via Google (yes, you have to be pretty careful what settings you apply for that search) did not yield anything. And of course, this is quite a volte-face for her, given she has made a lot of money from her willingness to be photographed and filmed over several decades in various states of undress, where Baywatch was on the tame side. And of course that has led to the expected questioning of her motives at this stage in her career when it does not seem unreasonable to imagine that her options for that particular line of work must be diminishing, notwithstanding a perhaps final appearance in Playboy only a few months ago. But does that mean she is not sincere in her current view? I can only assume the rabbi believed her to be so before he joined forces with her. And it has generated a good deal of publicity, for which both her fame and previous occupations are to thank – a rabbi writing an article tends not to attract a great deal of interest.

Of course, that changes if the rabbi or another religious leader is disavowing his faith, or saying something which goes against what he ‘should’ be saying. That becomes newsworthy.

The other story this week was the death of David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham. He was the first of the ‘barmy bishops’ I became aware of a long time ago, but he was not alone in airing his personal questioning of the traditional Christian accounts in public, with the probably inevitable media furore. Closer to home, Richard Holloway was another bishop (also ‘barmy’) who rose through the ranks of the his church, becoming Bishop of Edinburgh and the presiding bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church for eight years. He has since become more widely known because of his changing views on God and religion, and his exploration of what faith and morality mean in a world view that does not include, or in some cases, no longer includes, a supernatural deity. He has done this through a good number of books since resigning as bishop, adding to all the works he authored with a more traditional Christian perspective in the many years prior to that. This has led to him being a staple feature at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, usually surrounded by a small group of admirers somewhat older than more common groupies, and he crops up on Radio 4 from time to time. He has also been a consistent advocate of progressive causes, including LGBT inclusion long before that became a more popular position, and we can add chairing the Scottish Arts Council and the BMA’s steering group on Ethics and Genetics to his activities.


So two very different changes in perspective, one appearing to be more of a sudden conversion, the other a decades-long process of challenging and thinking.

At the end of the day, we cannot know what motivates such public changes of viewpoint. I worry that there is often an expectation of consistency of belief and viewpoint, with accusations of U-turns (the standard description applied to politicians) and vacillation when somebody comes to a different conclusion for apparently good reasons, such as new information coming to light, or evidence demonstrating the error of an opinion previously held.

That they are played out at all in the public sphere makes it harder to change an opinion. Most of us can do so in private, perhaps looking sheepish when we realise we have got something very wrong, but usually without any wider publicity of our folly. And when it comes to a slow change of view, or a maturing outlook, the changes can be largely imperceptible, even to ourselves. Why it is not acceptable to say ‘I used to think X because of ABC and now I think Y because of DEF’ escapes me. We teach our children that they should learn from their mistakes, knowing that we have done so ourselves countless times, but a change of viewpoint seems to be used too often to cast doubt on someone’s integrity or competence. I would much rather someone engages with a topic and changes their view as a result rather than stick with ‘this is what I believe’ no matter what.

So, did you hear the one about the actress and the bishop? Both of them had a change in view. We can agree or disagree with the viewpoint, but maybe let’s focus on what they have to say and form our own view on that, rather than worry about their motivation, which none of will ever really know. If nothing else, the publicity might generate some meaningful discussions, and I for one found Richard Holloway’s thinking helpful when I was wrestling with some difficult questions. I might even go  back and re-read them again now. I’m sure to learn something, and I know I will agree with some things and disagree with others. I just can’t remember if they are the same things as last time I read them, but I doubt it. Otherwise I would have stopped thinking.

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