King's Evangelical Divinity School

21 March 2012

An English View of "Chosenness"?

There's a great documentary series currently on BBC television entitled How God Made the English. The first part - A Chosen People? - is still available on BBC iPlayer (be sure to view it quickly before it is removed). It's documentary-making in its prime and rousing stuff if you are English, offering fascinating insight in how England has proved adept at constructing powerful and enduring myths. In the programme the presenter explores how the English captured, internalised and actualised the biblical concept of the Jews as God's chosen people for themselves, so that the English became the new chosen people. This English sense of "chosenness" went on to shape and drive English identity, confidence and self-perceptions. The result is a sense of immense self-confidence (even superiority), all the stronger because it was perceived as having divine backing.

Yet this English sense of "chosenness" and superiority is quite at odds with the Jewish understanding of the concept expressed by the rabbi interviewed in the film. For him, being chosen brings with it considerable responsibility and consequences, neither does chosenness mean exclusivity or superiority over others. Chosenness is for a purpose, not a means in itself. This understanding is far removed from the historical English version explored in the documentary promulgating supreme self-confidence and a sense of superiority (I'm reminded of that saying, "An Englishman will treat you as his equal if you will treat him as your superior".)

This raises an interesting question. To what extent is this latter understanding of chosenness driving a rejection of the Jews as God's chosen people by some English churchmen who are vocal on these issues? In other words, is it their Sitz im Leben, their life context and setting as Englishmen, which has shaped their (mis)understanding of the concept of chosenness through the lens of an English sense of superiority (even arrogance), rather than an Old Testament understanding of chosenness (including all its duties, responsibilities and consequences)? I am asking the extent to which a specifically English preoccupation with and expression of supersessionism might have been brought about by a post-imperial rejection of English nationalism.


Stephen Kneale said...

I watched that documentary and wasn't wholly convinced by it, if I'm being honest. An interesting perspective but I'm not sure how far it was really borne out in reality.

The most obvious example of chosenness rhetoric, which wasn't touched in the documentary, would be British Israelism which has been pertinent for some Northern Irish Protestants, especially those in loyalist circles. This form of 'chosenness', one would assume, would inoculate against anti-semitism and anti-Israel sentiment. It appears that it, like much else in Northern Ireland, is really a means of identifying those who are 'in' and those who are 'out' and thus those who are the target of aggression.

I suppose BI didn't take hold in England so much (perhaps as a result of existing supercessionist feeling?). I'm just not wholly convinced by this idea of English 'chosenness' in the sense the documentary seemed to suggest.

Paul Grobler said...

As much as the Afrikaners have been at odds with the British in the past, this concept of choseness and superiority filtered through in some Afrikaans circles with much the same confidence and sometimes arrogance as a result.

Soupy One said...

" is it their Sitz im Leben, their life context and setting as Englishmen, which has shaped their (mis)understanding of the concept of chosenness through the lens of an English sense of superiority"


I think you have hit the nail on the head.

In my experience there is a form of projections from Western thinking, which is imposed on Jews/Israelis, along with very crude notions of imperialism/colonalism, etc etc

That's what we find a lot today.

jill w said...

This touches on why it's well time for British Christian 'mission' works to shut up shop in Israel (having done impt foundation work, in some ways during the last century).

Israelis believers need the freedom to develop without such constraints of attitude/self belief as you discuss above.No doubt these are being (mostly) unconsciously laid upon them, for what are thought to be the 'best' of reasons!

I'm afraid that Brits still think 'they know best'!

Darrell Young said...

As an US American I find this subject interesting (I did not view the documentary). We were brought up to view America as chosen, maybe not with that language. But we were special because we were good, and we were good because we were special. And of course there is a large and serious group of Christian Americans who think America has been "blessed" by God because of its support of Israel. For them, America's choseness is directly linked to Israel's.

Darrell Young

Anon said...

Calvin, another thought from an young follower of your blog: it's always fascinating material.

Could my feelings of 'superiority as an englishman' (jk) also be attributed to maybe the Protestant/Catholic or Anglo -Spanish War of late 16th Century.

The feeling was prevalent that God was on Queen Elizabeth's and Englands side and 'victory' by British weather/coastline and ships against the Spanish Armada was a huge confirmation of His 'supposed' preference at the time. It must of had a huge influence on the nations psyche of self importance.

May I also note that as a nation, England has a father heart, but like most fathers gets it wrong!