Sunday, March 24, 2013

Cheesus.... or Jesus? A Response to Giles Fraser.

I entered pretty late into the furore surrounding Giles Fraser's latest article for The Guardian, only picking up on various exchanges about it on Twitter, yesterday evening. Nevertheless, having now read the article I decided to make a couple of observations.
First off, let me point out that I have no axe to grind... I respected the moral principle behind his resignation from St. Paul's Cathedral and I'm sure we have our differences on the theological spectrum... but in a broad church you take those things on a case by case basis... or at least,  I believe spiritual maturity requires us to do so.
I believe Fraser was attacking the superficial spirituality and language of cliché that sometimes plagues the Church. Quite why he singled out the evangelical wing of the church on this issue is beyond me... perhaps *he* had an axe to grind, perhaps not. Nevertheless I think his article comes across as portraying a syllogistically flawed argument, something like this:

Some Christians are evangelical
Some Christians are clichéd and superficial
Therefore all evangelicals are clichéd and superficial.
As a teenager, the youth group I was a member of had a pretty evangelical outlook. As we grew in faith and maturity... we recognised that some of the terminology was clichéd and a little alien to the outsider: Terms like "saved", "washed in the blood of the lamb", "slain in the Spirit", were among these. Whenever a brainstorming chart was being used in a seminar/preaching session, you could bet your bottom dollar that among the first responses would be "Jesus", "the Bible" or "peer pressure".
Never once would I have said that all my contemporaries were superficial Christians. It is just that sometimes, just sometimes if you hang around the same people often enough you pick up the trappings of a language. This is true in all walks of life.  It doesn't invalidate the principles behind the terminology, it just means that sometimes the terminology is unhelpful.
Fraser takes issue with the term "personal relationship". I get where he's coming from on this... the term is used so very often that it has become a bit of a cliché. However it is not like the word "Inconceivable" in The Princess Bride. In most cases people who invoke the term know *exactly* what it means and how important it is.  What is important though, is that the principles behind what a personal relationship with God means, and why it is so vital in Christian development are equally covered.
I dare say I have an evangelical outlook, I try not to use the terminology when I preach or talk... but I hope to God I get the principles across.
I don't like the idea that Fraser implies that I see Jesus as "buddy Christ". Yes I, do see him as the closest companion in my life journey... but if that truly means anything it has to have an effect on us and not just be a term. It leads to some pretty strange emotional places. For the apostle Paul it meant contemplating the desire to lose his own salvation if it  meant that others would gain it (he obviously knew that was not a place he would or even could go to, but it was a feeling he was expressing). For a friend of mine (and indeed myself), it sometimes means getting worked up when seeing a representation of The Passion - yes, theologically you know the crucifixion is the absolutely essential and inescapable destiny of Jesus... and you know that your own salvation (and that of others), depends on it happening... but as a developed Christian one who truly has a "personal relationship" with Christ... you kind of get pretty upset when you see someone representing him suffering.
This week, on Maundy Thursday... I'll be making my annual midnight pilgrimage up a local hill. I go there every year because I remember that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus's friends fell asleep and left him to suffer in anguish on his own... as he awaited the inevitable fate that awaited him. 2,000 years after the event, this does not sit well with me. There's precious little I can do but that which I can... I do. So just for an hour I try and get myself as close to the events as I can. I head out onto a remote hill overlooking town - in the cold... alone and vulnerable, and I read through the gospel accounts and I pray for Jesus.
As I said... "personal relationship" when genuine can lead you to strange places.
And as a Christian I have to say, I know how shockingly poor and bankrupt a Christian I can be sometimes... I know how dependent on God's grace I truly am. I have no place or time to patronise people because I know only too well how pitiful I am. I'm just as broken and in need of God's compassion as everybody else on this God favoured planet.
But this was not all Giles Fraser said and its not the part that upset most people I conversed online with.
He went on to suggest that the evangelistic position is one that somehow hardens a person against empathy towards the suffering of others.... but this is utterly wrong. I'm not saying this is not a possibility... but I will say that in my experience most evangelicals I know are most passionate about the concept of personal relationship because of tragic cost - always the tragic price that Christ paid and often the tragic cost of personal circumstances that the nearness of Christ's presence helped them through in a very real way.
Fraser suggests that the newly enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury - Justin Welby may be "inoculated" against evangelical cheesiness because he has suffered the bitter blows of personal tragedy, yet in the same paragraph expresses the fear that this merely masks a latent evangelism picked up from Welby's theological heritage.
I am greatly encouraged by Justin Welby (not least after meeting him last week). Aside from Fraser's comments, he's not without his critics in the evangelical wing either and personally I see this as a good thing. He strikes me as a man willing to listen and share the concerns of all those he is pastorally responsible for, not least those he theologically disagrees with. He seems assertive about his own beliefs and doesn't fall into the pitfalls of aggression or passiveness. This is what the church needs - to openly talk about its disagreements in a frank uncondemnatory way... and I suspect Welby may have a gift for this.
I'm reminded of the parable Jesus told a Pharisee named Simon, after receiving his criticism for being anointed by a "sinful" woman. The point that Jesus drove home was that the amount of affection we display is a response to the amount we realise we have been forgiven. This isn't just about sin though, is it? Jesus does not merely promise forgiveness... but life in abundance. When we are in the midst of the fiercest storm and the deepest spiritual need... He is there. When we have known times in our lives where clinging to that promise has meant absolutely everything to us... it fundamentally changes us and makes us more loving to those on the outside.
I know that thus far, I have by God's grace avoided the most tragic of personal circumstances... but I also know that there was a very long, dark time in my life when I felt trapped in a situation and had nobody I could talk to about it. In those times I know God did not give up on me and I know in the fullness of time it was He who directly delivered me out of that place. That experience and the knowledge of the patience and love of God for me during all that time changed everything for me... and having been faced with the insufficiency of my own ways, I know that my debt to Christ is immeasurably supermassive and that tempers any illusions I might ever had of being somehow superior.
In conclusion, it is not our various theological positions that define the depth of our relationship with God and our compassion towards others... it is our understanding of how dependent we are upon the vast storehouses of all that God provides in the harshest and fairest of seasons alike.
One more thing. Giles Fraser expressed fears for Justin Welby on the basis of his spiritual history with Holy Trinity Brompton. Let me redress the balance by reminding you of another part of his history.  For many years, Welby was on the frontline of the Ministry of Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral. Perhaps then, it is fitting that following the fallout this article has caused... whatever our views, we contemplate together the litany of reconciliation... and remember that when we judge one another we mar God's image within us and need to be reconciled to one another... and to Him:
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God...
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
Father Forgive.
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,

Father Forgive.
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Father Forgive.
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,

Father Forgive.
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,

Father Forgive.
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,

Father Forgive.
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Father Forgive.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

If you wish to read more of what others have contributed, I am adding links below that I have discovered on the topic that provide additional commentaries:

God and Politics UK
Peter Ould
Hannah Mudge

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