An interview with the scholar behind the James Bond Bible study
The following is a 2008 interview between Dr. Benjamin Pratt, author of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and David Crumm, editor of ReadtheSpirit.
David Crumm: Ben, to put it simply: Your new book works. It gets people talking about Bond, their faith, the Bible and their lives. I’m already seven weeks into teaching your new Bible study with a group of men and women and I’m very pleased by their reactions. They show up every Sunday morning eager to talk about these ideas. In fact, they’ve told me they’d like to spend more than the one hour we’ve scheduled for the class, which is a good sign that it’s lively and meaningful for people each week.
You’ve been road testing the book, too, with discussion groups closer to your home in Washington, D.C. I know that, a year or two ago while you were working on the book, you lectured on this at the Smithsonian. What’s your experience been?
Benjamin Pratt: Many people haven’t read the original novels and this class surprises them when they learn what Fleming really wrote in these books. I taught a series at a local Presbyterian church and I have my own collection of old paperback copies of the novels. I took them with me and offered to share them with people in the class. Most people didn’t read just one. They wanted to read several. On the Amazon page for my book, I found a review written by a woman who took that class. She’s extraordinarily well-read but she hadn’t read the original Fleming novels before the class. She was surprised and she wasn’t alone. We averaged about 50 people a week in that class.
David: We all owe a debt in this effort to pioneers who brought popular culture into Bible studies. I’m talking about writers like Robert Short who wrote about spiritual lessons in Peanuts and Mark Pinsky, who has written about the Simpsons and Disney films, too.
Ben: I think that’s true.
David: Except in this case, we’re going a lot further into popular culture to explore spiritual lessons. In some ways, this is even more provocative material. I know our class members have kidded each other about walking into church carrying a Bible and a paperback book that often shows a girl in a bikini or a smoking gun on the front cover.
Ben: (laughs) Perhaps we should warn people that they need to carry their study books in a plain brown wrapper.
David: We do have a lot of fun in class and it’s partly because this list of seven deadlier sins compiled by Fleming hits pretty close to home. People have a lot of stories to share. We should point out that your study book is a companion to the Fleming novels, not the movies. You want people to reread and reconsider the literary value of the books, which are quite different from the films.
Ben: Quite different. From the early films, the producers upped the violence and they upped the sex and they made Bond this action hero. They didn’t show Bond as the pensive character that he is in the Fleming novels. Fleming was wrestling with deep theological questions.
David: Which surprises a lot of people, I’ve found, who think of Bond to this day as a two-dimensional comic character. I know that, for a while he did appear in comic strips, but Fleming’s vision of him was far more thoughtful than we see in most of the movies.
Ben: There’s a thoughtfulness, a darkness really, that in some ways makes me think of Ian Fleming and Martin Luther 500 years ago as theological bedfellows. They were asking similar questions about the world.
David: And that’s how, as you explain in the book, Fleming decided to assemble some of the greatest writers of his era to put together essays on the seven deadly sins. He was working for a newspaper in London at the time and the newspaper sponsored this project. Then, when they were finished with the seven essays on envy, pride, covetousness, gluttony, sloth, lust and anger—Fleming argued in his introduction to the book that many of those sins actually were being celebrated in 20th century culture. If you think about it, that does make sense with things like pride and lust and anger.
Ben: He said those earlier seven sins would no longer keep people out of Heaven.
David: Right, Fleming said we all need to look deeper into the temptations that lead us astray. The most dangerous of these sins, he wrote, is accidie. It’s the final chapter in your own book as well, the sin that also is described as sloth in some cases. But it’s more than sloth, right?
Ben: Fleming used the actual word “accidie” in many of his novels. It’s more than sloth. It’s a loss of faith in the goodness of God. It’s a sense of powerlessness, of softness in our lives.
David: And it leads to other sins. I spoke with the Jesuit writer, John Dear, some weeks ago and Dear describes this kind of problem in our lives as “the death of the imagination.” Matthew Fox talks about this, too, in his new book on male spirituality. When I had our Conversation With Matt, he called it a kind of spiritual “vacuum” that a lot of people fill with “reptilian-brain thinking.” It’s as though we can no longer envision making a difference in our world so we focus on our own selfish needs.
Ben: Absolutely. Accidie is really a root of a lot of other sins, including gluttony, lust and covetousness. It’s what leads people to turn to the refrigerator to solve the ache in their belly or they turn to the store to try to buy their way out of how they feel about life. When we are in the grip of accidie, life is driven more by fear than by hope.
David: You’ve told me that in your own attraction to Fleming’s work, it was this exploration of this strange-sounding word “accidie” that was key in leading you deeper into his world. You spotted that word in a lot of his books and began to dig deeper.
Ben: I’ve often asked myself why I spent so many years exploring Fleming’s work and this is one reason. I recognized that within my own life there was a spiritual war going on and when I found this word, “accidie,” in the Bond novels it was the first time that I realized there was a word to describe what sometimes happened to me in my own life.
Another thing that attracted me to Fleming is that, throughout my life, I’ve known and appreciated many clergy, yet we have to admit that we live in a world in which clergy are no longer on the top rung of respect in the world. Many clergy are very intelligent, hard-working, gifted people, but many people no longer appreciate their gifts. That’s how I came to experience Fleming as a writer. He’s much more intelligent and insightful, even with all of his warts and his problems, but he was never valued in his lifetime for the literary gifts he was sharing with the world.
David: He suffered from accidie himself. Tell us a little more about that. Why was Fleming drawn toward that particular temptation?
Ben: Well, first of all, in Fleming’s life he experienced significant deaths of people around him with no nurturing to help him through his grief until he was nearly 20. For example, he lost his father when he was not quite 9. He had grief in his life that he never dealt with. That is one reason that he handled life as a kind of a dreamer. When the world didn’t live up to his dreams, he was left with this empty place of cynicism and grief that underlay everything about him.
David: Ultimately, you’d like to be part of a revival of his literary reputation, right?
David: That may sound unlikely to many people, but I was just in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the Writer’s Museum, which honors several authors including Sir Walter Scott. I recall that when I studied Comparative Literature and Writing in the early 1970s at the University of Michigan, we never read any Scott in any of the courses I took. In the Writer’s Museum, the exhibit on Scott pointed out that from the 1950s through the 1960s—and even into the era when I was in college—Scott was considered an utterly forgettable lightweight. There was no reason to study his writing, anymore.
Now, though, Scott is once again regarded as a literary genius. In the postmodern era, scholars now respect the many forms of “voice” that Scott explored in his novels. Suddenly, he’s a genius again.
Ben: I think about others who have written about the deadly sins through the centuries. In his lifetime, Fleming was considered a real lightweight, but he gave us a new list of the deadly sins and he wrote about them more clearly and persuasively than others have. I think what he achieved was momentous.
David: On the Bond site, we’re going to post your thoughts on the new film after it opens here in the U.S. I do know that you like this actor, Daniel Craig, who is portraying Bond now.
Ben: Yeah, he’s a good choice. I’m struck by the fact that his facial profile is very similar to Hoagy Carmichael who Fleming said was his own mental picture of what Bond looked like. The fact that you can line up two pictures–Craig and Carmichael–and it’s almost the same person. And the films are becoming more serious now.
Over the years, we haven’t seen much of the pensive and philosophical Bond, the Bond of the novels, until you get to Daniel Craig. I’m eager to see this new movie and hear from readers what they think about it, too.
David: You’ve got the welcome mat out at your Bond web site. It’s easy to join the discussion over there. There’s even a Facebook group that’s growing for the Bond Bible study. I’m eager to see what people have to say in coming weeks, what the new movie looks like—and what unfolds in the world around us, as well.