One could almost feel sorry for the commentators as they struggled to fill in the minutes and hours of the late Princess of Wales’s horse-drawn funeral procession through the streets of London. What more was there to be said that hadn’t been said a hundred times over? What further platitudes could be uttered about the tragedy of Diana’s death, the sympathy we all felt for her sons, the rift with the Royal family, the role of the paparazzi (great word that), and the massive show of public affection and grief.
It was a tough day for commentators. And it still is, at least for the Christian commentator. As the weeks pass, and the wave of public emotion subsides, what perspective can we bring to it all that reflects God’s wisdom?
Superficial observations spring quickly to mind—the tragedy of a life cut short, and two young boys left motherless; the hypocrisy of the media in funding and supporting the paparazzi who had some role in her death, and then indulging in a frenzy of tasteless adulation and wall-to wall emotion in its aftermath; the extraordinary canonization of Diana that has already occurred, in which her positive attributes and good works have been magnified (along with her sufferings), so as to place her above criticism.
In one sense, there is little to be gained by analysing the Princess herself. It matters not what you or I or any human court decides. Her appointed time has come to stand before the Judge of all, who gives to each person according to what he or she has done. In that court, only one opinion matters, and it is not Elton John’s. We can mourn Diana’s passing—and who cannot feel sorrow at her ugly death, and compassion for her sons—but we cannot pass judgement on her life, not least because we actually know very little about her.
We would do well to remember that the ‘Diana’ we all feel we know, and who formed such a part of so many people’s lives, was largely a fiction. Her life was a fairytale in more ways than one—a shimmering image of style, beauty, gossip and myth, constructed for us by the tabloid media for its own commercial purposes, and in which the Princess herself was sometimes an accomplice and sometimes a victim. Who knows what she was really like? Who knows whether she really was passionately interested in the land-mines issue, or whether it was simply the perfect public relations exercise to revive her flagging public profile? Or was it both?
It’s a reminder of what a strange world we occupy. Through our continuous consumption of the popular media, we live in an unreal virtual world, created by the image-makers and spin-doctors. We are heartbroken at the death of a woman on the other side of the world, whom we do not know, have never met, and who has nothing to do with our lives. Yet we do not know the name of our next door neighbour, awkwardly nod to him as we park our car, and would neither know nor care if he died tomorrow. In the modern world, it is possible to live an almost disembodied existence, and feel more affinity with the semi-fictional personalities of media-land than with the real people who live all around us, and who are as lonely as we are.
This cannot but strike us as another example of how out of touch our world is with reality. Having abandoned God, the source of all reality, we really haven’t much clue any more about what matters and what doesn’t, who is virtuous and who isn’t, and what is tragic and what isn’t.
As we bring the wisdom of God to bear on the whole messy tale of Diana’s brief life, the tragedy is in fact even more stark. Beyond the tragedy of the early death of a young mother lies the tragedy of human sinfulness and its consequences—and I am speaking not so much of Diana’s sinfulness as the world in which her life was formed: the world of the British aristocracy and the jetset. The Book of Proverbs warns repeatedly of the disaster which follows when God’s ways are abandoned in favour of adultery, drunkenness and selfish indulgence. Diana’s short life was a case in point. Her own family was divided and ruined by unfaithfulness and divorce. Her marriage into the house of Windsor brought little improvement. Her husband failed miserably to keep his marriage vows—to love, honour and cherish. Her own broken marriage followed the sad pattern of all the other broken marriages in the current generation of royals.
This is not to say that Diana was an innocent victim. By her own confession, she behaved foolishly and immorally. And we will never know to what extent she charted her own course through the life that led inexorably to the Ritz Hotel on that fateful night.
Nor is it to say that the decadence we see in high society is anything more than our own sinfulness writ large. Theirs is the glamorous lifestyle to which most of the world aspires—which is why we buy so many magazines with Diana on the cover. It is not that their hearts are any more sinful. Perhaps it is simply that in their wealth and social mobility their sin has more opportunity for blatant public expression.
All the same, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the decadent world of high society is not a healthy place to be. Faithlessness, adultery, opulence and privilege make a dangerous cocktail. It is a tragic world, where ruin, despair and death follow inevitably from the sinfulness of human folly. Never was any part of our world more in need of the repentance and forgiveness of sins that comes through Jesus Christ.
This whole perspective was of course entirely missing from the blanket media coverage, and this hardly surprises us. However, what should surprise and appal us—although it may not—is that this perspective was also sadly missing from the sermon-less, gospel-less, content-less funeral at Westminster Abbey.