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Response to Review no. 115

I am extremely grateful to Gerald Parsons for what is overall a generous and flattering review of my book . I am more than happy that he has left no stone unturned in his investigations and am immensely grateful for the insights he has offered upon my work. I would merely wish to highlight two areas which I would seek to amplify and, at least in part, provide some defensive rationale for the shape of the book.

Gerald Parsons has some doubt about the value of my sections that deal with the issue of blasphemy and theory and suggests that this space might more profitably have been used for further consideration of some cases that did not make it into the book. In some respects I agree with this judgment and it would have been nice to add material where he suggests. Some areas where he would also want extra coverage (material related to the Gay News case) were, alas, victims of space. However I was also supremely conscious that the subject of blasphemy has interested historians and practitioners of cultural and literary studies with very different theoretical agendas. Too often they locate blasphemy as a form of cultural transgression and focus mainly upon its ability to destabilise establishment and ruling cultures. It can sometimes seem as though the process of this destabilisation is the end in itself and that blasphemy is merely a tool for creating multiplyingcultures where meanings, truth and reality are constantly in flux.. The attempts by past societies to stabilise meaning and give absolute definition to the opinions involved in blasphemy are frequently seen as monolithic engines of oppression. Within this analysis attempts to stop blasphemers in their tracks appeared to be, simplistically, part of a premeditated cultural project with powerful agencies at its disposal.

These, it seemed to me, were dangerous themes which ran through the postmodern, Foucauldian and post-colonial approaches to the subject and some were implicit in the work of David Lawton in his book ‘Blasphemy’. In this work blasphemous incidents are selected for the theoretical ‘mileage’ they contained rather than relevance to any history of the subject. I thus wished to provide an answer to views that see blasphemy simply as ‘heroically transgressive’ or still worse ‘playful’ and wanted to prevent the real effects of a real historical phenomenon being forgotten. Thus, it seemed to me to be imperative that the paradigms of interpretation offered by these theoretical approaches be engaged with in an area that, if left to their own devices, they would rapidly colonise as their own to the exclusion of empirical investigation.. Nonetheless I hope that my criticism of these approaches has been both fair-minded and helpful to proponents and opponents of such views.

Gerald Parsons is also quite right to draw attention to what could be construed as a misleading title of the book which he feels should chronologically end with the ‘Gay News’ case. He suggests that the epithet ‘to the present’ should thus contain coverage of the issues provoked by the Salman Rushdie affair. I must plead that my selection of the material for coverage in this final section was an extremely difficult decision to make. The book is a history of blasphemy as defined by a Christian constitution and contains a history of the offence from the medieval period with more detailed coverage since 1789 and this presentation of a coherent history remained uppermost in my mind. Whilst the Salman Rushdie case clearly raised issues about how far this state of affairs could remain credible, moves to preserve the status quo through inaction made themselves the strongest answer to the claims of multi-cultural, multi- religious Britain. Increasingly the Salman Rushdie affair appeared to me to be more about multi-culturalism than blasphemy and some areas of the book do allude to some of the pertinent issues, albeit in the context of the history that has gone before. Coverage of the Rushdie affair is by no means in short supply and the text indicates where interested scholars should begin their search amongst a considerable range of work from a variety of perspectives. Rather than add to this I felt it was more important to investigate areas where society was still producing and nurturing arguments for the Christian blasphemy law as outlined in the earlier sections of the book – an area entirely lacking in relevant coverage. My decision to do this was, I felt, partly vindicated by the furore which greeted the release of Nigel Wingrove’s film ‘Visions of Ecstasy’ which occurred after the Rushdie affair. Consideration of this area involved investigating the legal and cultural debates that focused around Britain’s entanglement in aspects of the European legal process.

Thus I considered my coverage had been consistent and justified the title ‘to the present’.