News that Hollywood is to make the first feature film of Milton's epic "Paradise Lost" fills me with mixed feelings: eager anticipation and foreboding. If the last such blockbuster, "Troy," is anything to go by, then promises by the movie mogul Vincent Newman that his version will be faithful to the original should be taken with a pillar of salt.
The fact that Milton's subject (if not his interpretation) is at least as Jewish as it is Christian may also generate new tensions between church and synagogue of the kind familiar from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Indeed, I bet that some investors are banking on an almighty Judaeo-Christian bust-up.
Yet one criticism that is certain to be leveled at the film here in Britain is almost enough to win me over to the idea. Every time English literature or history gets the Hollywood treatment, some British commentator uses it as an excuse to sneer at the vulgar American appropriation of "our" national treasure.
This blinkered reaction makes me angry even when, as has occasionally happened with World War II, the movie receives a makeover aimed at the American public that writes the Brits out of the script. Hollywood is also frequently guilty of projecting political correctness on a cinematic scale.
However, Hollywood is also the greatest engine of popularization on earth, and the aesthetic defects of its productions matter less than its unique ability to make the world pay attention to big historical, theological, or cultural themes.
In any case, one era's kitsch is another's classic. Many of the great silent movies were damned in their day by the equivalent of the academics who now make a living out of interpreting them. In the case of "Paradise Lost," the spectacular engraved illustrations by the French artist Gustave Dore were hugely popular among Victorians, then despised for the next century or so. Vulgarity is a matter of taste, and taste never stands still.
Moreover, what the anti-American critics are either too ignorant or too mendacious to mention is that, for centuries, the British have been doing their own appropriation of other literatures. And Milton is an excellent example.
For what is "Paradise Lost"- and, for that matter, Milton's other masterpiece in verse, Samson Agonistes - if not a highly idiosyncratic appropriation of Hebrew scripture? It is impossible to understand not only Milton but a great deal of the greatest literature, art, and music produced in the English-speaking world between the 17th and 19th centuries without grasping that the English saw themselves as the new Israel. As Milton put it, in his time God revealed himself "first to His Englishmen."
From at least the time of Milton's hero and employer, Oliver Cromwell, the English identified so strongly with the biblical Israelites that the Old Testament was treated as a kind of national epic. What sustained their zealous sense of mission, which transplanted liberty and the rule of law across the world, was the belief that England had inherited Israel's messianic purpose. And Cromwell's decision to invite the Jews back into Britain, some 350 years after their expulsion, was a direct consequence of this philo-semitic puritan culture.
The most momentous outgrowth of that culture, however, took root on the other side of the Atlantic. For the colonies that would eventually become the United States have preserved that awareness of divine mission far more explicitly than the mother country. Milton's epic, like the oratorios of Handel, belongs as much to the Americans as to the English. And "Paradise Lost" belongs as much to Jewish as to Christian Americans, too.
What has all this to do with present-day politics? Quite a lot, actually. Here in Britain, we are losing the automatic sympathy for the Jewish people that was unconsciously inculcated by a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. Even literature that derives from biblical sources is deemed too demanding by our educators to be taught to most children. And ignorance of ancient Israel has consequences for modern Israel.
There are many other reasons why, as the chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, Sir Jonathan Sacks, pointed out a few days ago, Israel is being turned into "the scapegoat of the 21st century." But the gradual disappearance of a common moral and theological framework, based on the Mosaic Law, has more to do with this phenomenon than we care to admit. Jews are discovering that a post religious, relativistic, antinomian society may even be less hospitable than a Christian one.
This week there was a reminder of what we have lost. Parliament was surrounded by hymn-singing Christian protesters against the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which is more or less explicitly designed to protect Muslims. The protesters, anxious that their preaching may be criminalized by the bill, are making common cause with many others, including comedians, who fear for freedom of speech in relation to Islam.
On Tuesday, one of the most learned legal minds in the land, Lord Mackay, put his finger on the internal contradiction of this bill. It would, he said, allow Prime Minister Blair to be prosecuted for denouncing those who preach "a perversion of Islam" by justifying terrorism, while giving these Islamists the protection of the law. Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, also attacked this attempt to suppress religious debate, though he comes from the opposite end of the Christian spectrum compared to Lord Mackay, a hard-line Scottish evangelical. But it is Jews who are most worried about this bill, fearing it will curtail their freedom to defend Israel and to resist the tide of Muslim anti-Semitism.
As Wordsworth put it, "Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee." Long before he turned to epic poetry, Cromwell's Latin Secretary wrote "Areopagitica," the first and best defense of the freedom of the press, concluding with this prayer: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."