Dear Stephen Fry, I like you, from God

Stephen old boy. God here – you know, the Almighty one, the Alpha and Omega, the LORD – or ‘the Maniac’ if you prefer. ;)

Forgive me for popping up unannounced – dreadfully rude. (The poor chap whose blog I’ve hijacked will be horrified – he likes to talk about me… on and on… but frankly he doesn’t have a clue, and the idea of me actually talking back…!!)

Anyway, I deliberately chose a blog no-one reads, so this can just be our secret eh? Some of my followers would get so cross if they thought I was talking to other people, except maybe to tell them to repent.

Now I’m not always a huge fan of the internet – far too many abysmal ‘Christian’ sites that aren’t – but I must confess I do like YouTube. Cats falling off sofas, How Harry Potter should have ended, Daleks singing ‘Let it go’ from Frozen – what’s not to like?

Lots of your stuff there too of course – my favourite still the ‘Bishop and the Warlord’ song with Hugh, though Gabriel preferred you both in Jeeves and Wooster (he says Jeeves reminds him of me. Cheeky).

And perhaps most entertainingly, that brilliant recent interview with Gay Byrne, in which you kindly and amusingly mentioned me. I know we’ve both already seen it (well, we were both there when you recorded it), but it’s well worth watching again, if only for Mr Byrne’s face after you’ve said your piece – priceless:

 

Knee-jerking

So you know the only thing that really upsets me about that interview? The knee-jerk response of so many of the people who think they represent me. Of course, it’s touching when your children stick up for you, but you know, I’d rather hoped some of them might have learnt a tiny bit more by now. I thought I’d spelt it out fairly clearly: ‘Love your enemies… turn the other cheek… don’t repay evil for evil…’ I even gave a personal demonstration, publicly forgiving the guys who were nailing me to two planks. But still so many of my followers just blindly hit back the moment anyone disses me, as I think the word on the street has it.

They think they’re defending me, but really they’re mostly just defending their own beliefs, which feel under threat, thus threatening their whole view of themselves and the world. Or else they’re simply feeling offended and responding aggressively. These are perfectly natural human reactions, but not really what I’ve been trying to teach them. (And as an aside I do wish they’d stop clinging to some of these beliefs, most of which are deeply unimportant and some just frankly a bit silly. As if what a person believed about me was really what mattered.)

(I like you)

I’ll let you into a secret. I completely love everyone of course – it’s my nature, whatever some think about me being all angry and smitey. And you can generally find some good in everyone if you look hard enough. But I must confess that I often like atheists rather more than some of my own devoted followers.

I like your honesty, your straight talking. I like that you call a spade a spade, and that you call me to account for the wrongs and evils and injustices of the world.

It may surprise and (I hope) annoy you that I don’t find your words particularly offensive. For sure, your arguments don’t really do justice to the brains I gave you, but then reason isn’t at the heart of this argument is it? It’s passionate and heartfelt, and that’s far more human (and divine) than cold logic.

I love your honesty in admitting that your atheism is as much about hating me for the ills of the world as it is about intellectual arguments explaining why I almost definitely can’t exist. (I don’t exist by the way – existence is a property of the natural order, but maybe now’s not the time for metaphysics.)

And God knows, I mean I know, you have more than enough reasons to hate me and the Bible, given your sexuality and the way the church has treated gay people just for starters. I’d probably hate me if I were you. The thing is, I kind of am you… incarnation and all that… but maybe that’s for another time…

Well said, Stephen

Anyway, I so much prefer good, honest hate to weak-tea indifference and apathy. On balance, I may even prefer it to unthinking faith. I have to confess that I like a good tussle sometimes, and I don’t always win – where would be the fun in that? That’s one of the things I always liked about the Hebrews/Israelites – never afraid to argue the toss with me.

So I hear what you say, and my response is ‘Bravo Stephen, well said! You’re not far from the Kingdom’. Because in a way, you’re absolutely right. The world is both splendid and an absolute disaster, and it certainly does look whoever’s in charge has either been asleep at the wheel or else is a selfish egotistical maniac who delights in inflicting suffering and sorrow. And I’m not rushing to defend myself here, because frankly I don’t need to and you make a point worth listening to.

My only real complaint is that you’re not bringing your complaint directly to me. Come and shout at me – swear if you like, I’m okay with that. Just talk to me.

But until you do, I’m afraid I’m not going to offer justification here for the way the universe is. Because it’s the kind of thing you can only begin to understand in the context of a conversation, a relationship. Just giving you a rational, intellectual argument won’t help.

Anthropomorphic projection

Now while I’m still in secret-revealing mode, I’ll spill another. I don’t actually talk like this. I don’t generally talk at all, at least not in human language. Because I’m not actually human (well, again, there’s the incarnation thing, but let’s not complicate matters).

But you guys will insist on anthropomorphising me as though I were just some giant invisible parent/judge/headmaster/prime minister in the sky – nice or nasty depending on your experiences of life, religion and authority figures, and how literally you’ve been taught to read the Bible.

And of course that’s precisely what you do in your interview with Gay – talking of me as though I were some bonkers human dictator making a mess of running the world but expecting everyone to praise him for it.

To be fair though, I did kind of start it. To relate to you wonderful and infuriating people I’ve had to take on some human characteristics; to communicate with you I have to adopt a human persona and voice. (Incarnation again – sorry – keeps coming up.)

But then of course people make assumptions, and it all starts to get a bit messy. So, for example, to Old Testament prophets I spoke in language and pictures they could understand. But these tend not to sound so great now, when put into a 21st-century Western context.

The trouble with the Bible

So I have to confess that occasionally I half wonder if the whole Bible thing wasn’t a tiny bit of a mistake. For as soon as things get written down, people immediately start to misunderstand and misinterpret them, and use the written word to bash themselves and other people with. And when people think they’ve got the very Words of God, I’ve found that a fair number of them will just switch off their brains and their consciences and do unspeakable things, imagining that ‘scripture’ commands or sanctions it. It categorically doesn’t. I never meant the Bible to be read that way, but humans are phenomenally good at getting things round their necks.

Take the whole homosexuality thing – those parts of the Bible that seem to condemn and prohibit who you are. I’m not going to try and justify those verses, but I’d really hoped it was clear from the context that they were only ever intended for a very specific community and time, at a particular early stage of human social and ethical development. But maybe best not to get into this one now – another time maybe?

Then there’s the whole hell thing. Seriously, has no-one heard of metaphor or hyperbole?

I really don’t want people just to slavishly follow every word the Bible says. I want them (and you) to engage with it, wrestle with it, argue with it – and with me. I’m desperate for honest relationship, not slavish devotion. I’m really not asking everyone to say ‘thank you’ to me all the time for the pain and mess in their lives.

So keep up the honesty, and try to forgive my followers if you possibly can. Some of them really are quite decent sorts when you get to know them. Speak to you soon, I hope.

– G

PS Belated Happy Darwin Day for 2 days ago. The good fellow sends his love – he does like to watch QI.

Posted in Anger at God, TV and film | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

“I am” part II – the simplicity of God

Sorry if it all got a bit abstract last time – I get carried away with theology sometimes, which is dangerous for an amateur. ;)

So last time I said that God is both unknowable yet makes himself known; that though he is outside the categories of existence he still relates to us personally. Now for another mystery – the simplicity of God.

God’s simplicity

We imagine God to be immensely complex, beyond all comprehension, and of course in a sense he is. We’ll never be able to understand all of God or contain all that he is in our finite minds. Yet (paradoxically again) “I am” is also incredibly, almost childishly simple.

God is ultimately simple because is utterly one, and at one with himself; utterly united; utterly complete and perfect and whole. Much of our complexity as humans stems from our brokenness, our dividedness, our dis-integrity. God is a seamless, integrated whole.

To express this, Aquinas came up with the doctrine of divine simplicity, which roughly says that all of God’s attributes are aspects of the same unity. There is no division or competition between his mercy and his justice, his love and his holiness, his sovereignty and his self-giving, his divinity and his humanity. He simply is, and all these things are expressions and manifestations of that ‘is’.

God is Reality

‘I am’ also expresses a solidity, a reliability, a steadfastness and substantiality. This is not a God who shifts and changes, or an insubstantial spirit who is hardly really there. He is real, is Reality. He is one who can bear our full weight, the weight of all our lives, all our griefs and hopes and sins and troubles; the weight of the whole universe. We can trust him, rely on him, rest in him, put all our weight on him, cast all our burdens on him. God is.

‘I am that I am’ or ‘I am what I will be’ also acts as a salutary reminder that it is God – not us – who defines who God is. We can’t decide what kind of God we want to serve, what kind of being we want him to be. He is who and what he is; he is full Reality and he defines reality, and we dispute or argue with that at our own risk. If the kind of life we lead causes us to crash up against that reality, we may find it has hard and sharp edges, and we’re likely to cause ourselves suffering as a result.

We cannot shape and mould God to our ends or co-opt him for our agendas; he is himself and he won’t be manipulated or used. He cannot be blackmailed or bribed, bullied or browbeaten (I know; I’ve tried).

This is perhaps one of the meanings of the second commandment, ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’. God’s name is the expression of who he is. We cannot take his name and use it for our own ends, or to justify our own causes. God defines himself and he guards his name – his character – jealously.

So we do not name God, but rather his name names us and gives us our identity, our life, our being.

God is God

God is not a proposition to be proved, nor an equation to be solved, nor a particle to be discovered. God is not a fact to be learnt, nor an object to be scrutinized and analysed. God is not an interesting idea nor an intellectual puzzle to be discussed and debated. God is not a material source to be exploited nor a power to be harnessed. God is not an exciting experience to be had for the seeker of thrills, nor an artefact to be collected by the connoisseur of rarities.

God is God. God is glorious, living Reality to be encountered, embraced, experienced, engaged with; to be known, and known by; to be lived in, founded on, related to, shouted at, grappled with, hated and loved.

God is. We can’t understand God, we can’t define God, we can’t manipulate God, we can’t own or tame or box God. God is always more, always greater, always better and fuller and freer and lovelier. God is unexpected and surprising and paradoxical and counter-intuitive and amazing.

Yet God is also knowable, because he makes himself known. Not comprehensible, not explicable, not expressible, but knowable.

Above all, God is. Everything else flows from that one simple, central, indescribable reality. God is. I am who I am.

And because of that, we who are made in his image – which is all of us – can ultimately be who we are.

Posted in Bible, Theology | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

“I am who I am” – Naming the unnameable God

So a small question for you – who is God?

Last time we looked whether God might ever say “I am Charlie”. This time I’d like to look at an almost equally famous and maybe even slightly more important “I am” that God apparently did once say…

Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’
God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM [or I will be what I will be]. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:13-14)

So then, who is God? It’s a fairly fundamental question, not just to theology but (I’d argue) to everything. But as we might expect, it’s not one with a simple answer. Or rather, it’s one with so simple an answer that at first sight it seems meaningless.

God tells Moses that his name is ‘I am’ (or ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I will be what I will be’). What on earth does this enigmatic statement mean? What can we usefully learn about God’s nature and character from such a tautology?

The basics: Shut up – I’m God

On the most basic level, it sounds like a simple rebuff: ‘Stop asking questions that you won’t understand the answer to’. Viewed this way, it could be a bit like a parent’s answer of ‘because’ (or ‘because I say so’) to their offspring’s ‘why?!’ of protest, or to a toddler’s endless unanswerable ‘why?’s for information.

Or similarly, it could be a reminder of who’s in charge, who’s setting the terms of the conversation: ‘I’m the Daddy; there’s a time for discussion, but now’s the time to listen.’ Or in other words, ‘I’m God; you’re not; that’s all you need to know for the moment’.

If so, it wouldn’t be the only time in the Old Testament that God speaks in this kind of way. ‘Be still and know that I am God’, as the author of Psalm 46 puts it – or to paraphrase slightly, ’Shut up – I’m in charge’. It’s essentially what Jesus said to the storm on Lake Galilee – ‘Peace! Be still’. I’m God – quit messing about and arguing back.

Or look at God’s climactic speech to Job. Job spends chapter after chapter complaining against God, and demanding that God answer his charge. But when God finally does, he doesn’t give an answer. Instead, to paraphrase again, God says something like ‘Look Job, you haven’t got a clue, and you wouldn’t have a chance of understanding if I did explain. I’m God, I’m beyond awesome, so stop wasting words and get on your knees.’

Who is God? He’s God. What else do we need to know; what else could we actually understand? He’s the Boss, the Daddy, the Head Honcho, the Big Cheese, the Numero Uno. Of course he’s a lot more than that, but that’s the basics; Theology 101.

But I think ‘I am who I am’ actually means a whole lot more than that…

The paradoxical God – unknowable but known

For starters, God’s self-revealed name is a whopping great paradox. One way of reading it is ‘My name is No name’. Or at least God is The One Beyond Naming – literally the Name above all names. No name is great enough for God, no name could be adequate for his beyond-describable Reality; no word or words can sum him up. He is ineffable.

“Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not” is the title of an Arctic Monkeys album, but it could equally be a gloss on “I am that I am”. We try to describe God, to list his attributes, and in some ways we have to, but we have to know it’s never quite right, never quite the whole truth – because anything we can imagine must be lesser than the full reality of God.

So some Christian mystics have instead opted for the ‘Way of Negation’ – approaching God through what we can’t say or know about him rather than what we can; through his unspeakability and unknowability. By this idea, we’re only really able to speak of God in terms of who and what he is not rather than who he is. So in this sense, and in line with my fave philosopher-theologian Peter Rollins, God’s “I am” rather becomes “I am (not)”.

All our theologies and doctrines are wrong to an extent; they must always fall short of the reality. Whenever we try to say something about God, we can’t help but misrepresent him because God is always better and greater and more real.

In this sense then God is unknowable – we certainly can’t comprehend the fullness and wonder of all he is, nor ever put it into any kind of description or explanation. Yet, paradoxically, he is also knowable, for he makes himself known to us. Though he is beyond naming or knowing, he gives us a nameless name by which we can begin to know him.

And crucially this knowledge of him cannot be merely intellectual, for ‘I am’ is not primarily an intellectual statement. Rather it has to be personal (not to mention poetic and paradoxical). This is the kind of truth, the kind of knowing, that matters most. God makes himself known to us personally and experientially even if we’ll never understand him intellectually. Our best response to God then is not analysis but awed wonder at his utter God-ness.

Personality and presence

The more we look at the phrase “I am”, the more meaning we find in what at first looked meaningless.

So the ‘I’ implies personality and rationality – and indeed relationship (for the ‘I’ is addressed to a ‘You’). God is not an impersonal force; he is a thinking, speaking, feeling, acting and relational being. (It also sidesteps the gender question; God is ‘I’ not ‘he’ or ‘she’, though I’m using ‘he’ throughout for convenience.)

And the ‘am’ further implies that God is current and present; he is here, now. He is in the present tense, in this moment, acting and speaking and calling – to us. It implies reality and presence; that God is real not merely imagined, and God is truly with us.

‘I am’ can also paradoxically imply that God has always been. As Jesus put it, ‘before Abraham was, I am’. It breaks the logic of grammar and time, because God is greater than these things – than anything in the universe, including time and space and existence itself. He could equally say ‘before time was, I am’.

When atheists say that God does not exist, we can actually agree. God does not exist, for existence is an attribute of contingent things, of created beings, of substances we can describe and quantify, things which have beginnings and ends. The infinite God stands beyond or behind all this. God does not ‘exist’; he IS.

So above all, God is; he always is, always has been; he alone is the eternal, pre-existent one upon whom all else depends for being and existence. No one else can simply say ‘I am’ and that be enough, because only God is the source, the ground, the necessary being; the beginning and end.

The Unnameable God?

There is a tradition that we should not speak or spell out the name of God, or YHWH – “I am”. This may come partly from the old, magical idea that to name something gives you power over it. And while I don’t accept this idea, I can see something in it. Once you name something, it’s all too easy to feel that you really know it or understand it or have a handle on it. Something named easily becomes something tamed, something familiar, something owned even. And surely God can never be that.

Yet at the same time, God does make himself close and even familiar to us, does put himself in that place where we can relate to him and so disrespect him. In some senses, perhaps he even chooses to make himself undignified and vulnerable to us. It’s another of the odd paradoxes of God that we’ll probably never understand – the sovereign servant, the vulnerable almighty, the familiar unknowable. He is who he is and who he will be, not who we think he should be… of which more next time.

To be continued…

Posted in Bible, Theology | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Jesus is Charlie?

The ‘Je suis Charlie’ slogan and hashtag can hardly have escaped many people’s notice this last week. It arose in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, as a sign of support and solidarity – of personal identification with those murdered by Islamist extremists, and alignment with their values against those of their killers. Since then it’s gone viral and been picked up by millions around the world.

Now when I first saw it I briefly misread the ‘Je suis’ as ‘Jesus’. And looking again it struck me that, run together in the hashtag #jesuischarlie, it could equally be read as ‘Jesu is Charlie’. And of course, that got me thinking…

Obviously on one level this is just a random and slightly silly bit of wordplay. ‘Je suis’ could always be re-read as ‘Jesu is’, and I’m fairly sure that’s not meaningful. E.g. ‘Je suis un haddock’. Not that anyone would actually say that. Unless they were a haddock I suppose.

And yet, I wonder if God does sometimes speak – at least to me – through mishearings, misreadings and even terrible puns. There are certainly plenty of examples of the latter in the Old Testament prophets. I forget the details but I think it’s in the first chapter of Zechariah where God asks the prophet what he sees, and it’s a bowl of ripe figs, which happens to sound like the Hebrew word for ‘destruction’ or something cheerful… look it up for yourself if you’re interested ;) .

So, running with this for the moment, is there any mileage in the idea that ‘Jesu is Charlie’, or indeed in similarly misreading the other recent imitative hashtags ‘JesuisJuif’ (I am Jewish) or ‘JesuisAhmed’ (after a Muslim policeman also killed by the same gunmen)? I think there just might be.

The principle of identification

So primarily it’s the principle of identification. All around the world ordinary people are choosing to identify with and stand alongside the cartoonists massacred by radicalised jihadists. Surely it’s at least a possibility that Jesus might choose to do the same, to say with all these others ‘I am Charlie’?

For identifying with us is at the very heart of what Jesus does; it’s even arguably core to who he is. We recently looked at incarnation and some of the reasons why the Almighty God might have chosen to become ‘a slob like one of us’. And chief among these reasons for me is complete identification with us at the very deepest level.

And perhaps Jesus identifies with us first and foremost not in our strength but in our weakness, our sorrow, our brokenness, our vulnerability; not so much in our success (though he does that too) as  in our defeat and failure and loss, even our death.

There’s the deeply challenging story of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, where Christ proclaims “whatsoever you did to the least of my brothers, you did it to me”. Again, it’s total identification, and above all with the ones in greatest need. It seems that if we feed the hungry, care for the sick, or champion the oppressed we do it not only for Jesus but somehow to Jesus. And conversely if we reject them we reject the Jesus who not only loves them but in some mysterious way is them. And indeed is us. And is Charlie.

Jesus is – a blasphemer?

Many of course would look askance at the idea that the holy Lord Jesus really identify with cartoonists who penned profane, obscene, even in some views blasphemous, drawings. But I think Jesus may not be so fussed about blasphemy or profanity as many of his followers are. And I believe that Jesus identifies with us in all our humanity, even in our flawed and sinful humanity. ‘He who was without sin became sin for us’. Though Christ himself is sinless, he identifies with sinful people, if not perhaps with everything they think, say or do.

I’ll admit that I’m not completely comfortable with all of the ‘blasphemous’ Charlie Hebdo cartoons. To me they do seem unnecessarily offensive, and frankly just a bit juvenile and facile – some of them make Viz look like the last word in sophistication. But nonetheless I’m still broadly happy to say ‘I am Charlie’, because I’m not identifying with everything the cartoonists did or drew but with their core humanity, with their right to live and to speak and write and at times to be stupid and offensive, in common with all humans.

And I suspect that Jesus too would be happy to identify with them. Jesus after all was notoriously short – even downright rude – with religious authorities, with religious hypocrisy and bigotry. It was in many ways this tendency to offend religious sensibilities, and to say things deemed as blasphemous, that got him killed. In this sense at least Jesus really could say ‘I am Charlie’. Perhaps he might even have done a stint at the magazine had he been on Earth today.

Jesus is – a jihadi?

But what of the final unthinkable – could Jesus identify with the Kouachi brothers and other jihadist killers? This seems a huge stretch. Still, cautiously I’d have to say yes I think so, in a particular sense. For again, Jesus identifies with all of us as people, in our flawed and broken humanity – however bad we are, however vile our attitudes or violent our actions. That does not mean he condones those attitudes or actions.

For me this is part of what the cross is about – Jesus identifying with us at our worst. Again, he who was sinless ‘became sin for us’. On the cross he took on all our vileness and violence, became for a time both the recipient and representative of it. And in that darkest place, rather than cursing those who beat and killed him he forgave them. He loved his enemies even as they tortured him, and he calls us to the same hard path.

So I do not believe Jesus would say ‘I am Charlie’ in an exclusive sense that means ‘I am not those who are against Charlie’. Jesus is all of us, in his incarnation and crucifixion. I do not believe Jesus takes sides in our conflicts; rather he seeks always to reconcile, to resolve, to restore relationship.

The only way of peace ultimately is through forgiveness and reconciliation, not through further violence and vengeance, a cycle which never ends. I don’t know what this path of peace looks like when we’re dealing with radicalised extremists who only want to kill, not negotiate. But I believe we cannot ever afford merely to vilify and hate, nor must we divide the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’, or ‘I am Charlie and you are not Charlie’. That is not the way of Jesus.

But then, maybe I’m just a haddock.

Posted in Heresy/blasphemy, Incarnation, World events | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

2014 – review of the year

So, a slightly belated Happy New Year to you all. Before we move on to new things, how was 2014 for you?

For me it was a fairly challenging year that I’m not entirely sorry to bid farewell to. Continuing government cuts meant some unsettling changes at work, and I’ve been further inducted into the Dark Arts of Marketing. And the protracted saga of selling our home of 13 years, buying and moving into a new one felt a bit like pulling teeth and took the best part of the year. I also took a year out of regular church commitments, and my attendance became sporadic at best – which I attempted to justify here

Highlights of my year included pilgrimages to two places of personal spiritual significance – the Harry Potter Studio Tour (only half joking ;) ) and the lovely St Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron, North Wales. This was the church of 20th-century poet-priest R.S. Thomas, and it’s a beautiful place where you kneel at the altar to hear the waves breaking and the cry of seabirds. I’ve decided I want to be buried there, though hopefully not for a few years.

I also happily rediscovered live music, both rock and classical.  The former took me to the very civilised On Blackheath festival in September (Frank Turner, Athlete, The Levellers, Imelda May). The latter saw me at the London premiere of UK composer Jonathan Dove’s brutal-beautiful choral work in commemoration of WW1, For an Unknown Soldier (my write-up here if you’re interested).

2014 news round-up

Meanwhile the earth limped on, somehow managing to evade Armageddon for another year. And out in the wider world, there were one or two news stories that even the most hermit-like of us are unlikely to have missed.

The Middle East and Syria continued to be a horrific bloodbath, with no obvious solution in sight. Islamic State and Ebola reared up in competition to be humanity’s deadliest scourge. We had the tragic suicide of Robin Williams – which who among us can afford to condemn?

On a happier note we landed the Rosetta probe on a comet – a remarkable technical feat, albeit raising questions of how much money it’s justifiable to throw at scientific missions.

Apparently we had a World Cup (which I happily missed completely), ending in defeat for the host nation, and locally a Scottish Independence referendum with an arguably similar result.

In the smaller Christian world, Vicky Beeching came out as gay, and Archbishop Welby confessed to having doubts. And possibly the best Pope of all time continued to be a thorn in the flesh of his own Catholic establishment.

Business and finance news… sorry, I neither know nor care. Except that the financial crisis has continued to hit the poorest hardest, and some of us are starting to wonder if there’s any alternative to unfettered capitalism.

Book and film of the year?

So what was your book, album, film or TV series of the year? Though I haven’t finished it yet, my book choice will probably turn out to be Lamentation, the latest in C.J. Sansom’s superlative series of Tudor detective mysteries with their hero the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake. The danger and atmosphere of the troubled period grab you by the throat, and the plot revolves around heresy hunts and religious tensions between traditionalist Catholics and reformist Protestants in the last days of Henry VIII.

Film of the year… I’d hoped it would be Hobbit 3, and it had some great moments, but I got bored by all the CGI silliness and computer-game fighting.

TV series – spiritually speaking, it would have to be Rev, or (at the risk of losing all masculine credibility), Call the Midwife. I’ll add Doctor Who and Sherlock in too from sheer personal bias.

Music – I’d hoped that the new U2 album might deliver something good, but looks like that didn’t work out. Bastille and Biffy Clyro have been my bands of the year, and for classical I’ll shout out for Jonathan Dove again.

Blogging on

Meanwhile, this blog has been going exactly 4 years now, and I thank you all very sincerely for bothering to follow it. I’m well aware that blogging always runs the danger of being merely a vanity project, so please nudge me if I’m getting self-indulgent.

Over the last year we looked at a range of subjects, including whether God has a perfect plan for your life, whether and how we can hear from God, and what to do with our uncertainties. I also investigated the cheerful topics of suffering and sin, and revisited the ever-uncontroversial subject of homosexuality.

I rather ironically ended up arguing with atheists under a post titled ‘Stop arguing with atheists!’ And the other most active post this year has been an old one, ‘Hating God’, which appears to have attracted a sizeable new audience of people feeling aggrieved with the Almighty.

Looking ahead… a recently reduced commute means I can’t blog as much, which may come as a relief to many. But as always, I’ve got a massive backlog of posts awaiting the cold light of day. Here’s a short selection if you’d like to see any of them move up the publication schedule:

  • Series on the Bible, inerrancy and other fun stuff
  • The myth of redemptive violence
  • To believe or not to believe?
  • Why I gave up trying to save the world
  • Why doesn’t God just make everyone Christian?

In the meantime I wish you all an excellent 2015. Please keep commenting – it gets a bit lonely otherwise! ;)

Posted in TV and film, World events | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Christmas round-up

Well, here it is, Merry Christmas… the annual season of shopping madness, mass consumer frenzy and over-indulgence, family re-unions and soaring divorce rates, TV re-runs and daft specials, terrified turkeys and terrible jokes, oh, and some kid in a manger.

In the news, it looks like Pope Francis has set a new standard in painful Christmas get-togethers with his papal address to the Vatican Curia… good on you, Frank… I have a feeling it’s what Jesus might have done, never one to mince his words…

And in a small ray of Christmas hope, apparently the annual London homicide rate is set to fall below 100 for the first time in over 40 years, clearly proving that we’re getting better as a species… if we could just ignore reports of Islamic State brutality and all the other litany of human inhumanity which doesn’t stop for Christmas.

And as it is the season of repeats and unwanted gifts, I’m hereby generously bestowing on you all my previous posts that have anything whatsoever to do with the Christmas season:

Merry Christmas and bah humbug
A jaded look at the festive season, and why I both hate and love Christmas. Join me in a spot of seasonal bah-humbuggery.

Questioning Christmas – the gospel accounts
Why are Luke and Matthew’s nativity narratives so utterly different?

Questioning Christmas – was Jesus really born of a virgin?
And does it really matter? I investigate, and conclude quite possibly to the first, and probably not to the second.

Questioning Christmas: The Star of Bethlehem
What was the star that Matthew’s Magi followed – supernatural, astronomical, astrological, theological or all of the above?

Incarnation and imagination – and a defence of Christmas carols
Why it’s okay for carols to be historically inaccurate.

The nightmare after Christmas – the dark side of the Nativity
The other side of the festive season – massacres, mental illness and another mother called Mary.

The horrors and joys of Christmas music
In which I lambast Christmas tunes and then add to the horror by contributing a couple of my own.

TEL-approved Christmas music
And finally, a fine selection of seasonal alternatives to ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’, mainly classical if you like that sort of thing.

Merry Christmas one and all!

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The Incarnation: Why did God become human? (part II)

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” John’s gospel
“What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us?”
Joan Osborne

Last time I looked at some of the reasons why God may have chosen to take on human flesh. I finished by saying that for me the real point of incarnation is not so much God trying to understand humanity but rather God identifying himself with humanity.

‘One of us’ – identification and indignity

For in the Incarnation, God really does become ‘one of us’. He identifies with us completely, in all our weakness and suffering and brokenness. We might not ever exactly describe Jesus as a ‘slob’ as the Joan Osborne song suggests. Yet in one sense in the Incarnation he does become just like us, ‘warts and all’, or ‘with nothing attractive in his appearance’ to paraphrase Isaiah 53.

Indignity is inherent in incarnation. I’ve written before of the ‘blasphemous’ nature of the Incarnation. The Incarnation meant that God actually had to urinate and defecate, to fart, to have his nappy changed and his bottom wiped. God had to live with all the imperfections and indignities of human flesh, human body and human brain. For many this is too shocking to contemplate – God should remain perfect, unsullied and aloof. But that’s not the Christian God.

Could Jesus have sinned?

At this point then we have to ask ourselves, could Jesus actually have failed? Could he really have sinned, and wrecked the mission for which God sent him? Just how human was he, and how real were the temptations he faced? Was there ever any genuine possibility that the ‘Second Adam’ might have gone the way of the first?

I don’t know the answer to this. I can only affirm with classic orthodoxy that Jesus was (and presumably still is) truly and fully human, as well as truly and fully divine. How those two natures interact and intermingle with each other is a mystery I can’t pretend to fathom, any more than I can understand the dance of the Trinity. Theologians talk of homoousios (one substance), but I confess this means very little to me.

My own tentative understanding of Jesus’ humanity and divinity is that he was an ordinary (yet somehow sinless) human completely filled with the living Spirit of God. He did not have special powers of his own; everything he was able to do and know and see came from his perfect, unbroken, intimate connection with the Father by the Spirit.

The God who is more than close

Incarnation is such a vital element to Christianity. To me it’s perhaps the key thing that sets Christianity apart from other worldviews.

I fully accept that other religions and belief systems can have a true sense of the divine, and genuine contact with God. I think such a sense is inherently built into us as human beings, perhaps by evolution but also by God (and these two aren’t in opposition). And of course other belief systems have avatars, incarnations of some aspect of deity. But I think only in the Christian story does the fulness of the transcendent God of eternity actually enter into space-time and into human history, becoming one of us, showing us what he is really like and what he really means and wants.

And incarnation does not just bring God quite close, or make him a bit like us. Used in its broader sense, incarnation also means that we can actually have God living in us here and now. So this isn’t God’s one-off once-for-all Incarnation as a human in Jesus Christ, but rather his multiple incarnation in each one of us by his Spirit. In this incarnation God works in and through us, transforming us and transforming the world through us. This incarnation is how God redeems the world. And it brings God as close as our heartbeat, as our own thoughts.

There is of course a connection between the two kind of incarnation. God’s incarnation in us is made possible by Jesus’ own incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension.

Some Catholic and Orthodox mystics talk about Mary being the prototype Christian, because she was the first to bear Jesus within her – something we must all do in a more ‘spiritual’ and less physical sense.

So did God really become human? For myself, I’m sure he did. But why did he? There are many possible answers. But whatever God’s reason or reasons for becoming one of us, I’m very glad that he did.

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The Incarnation: why did God become human? (part I)

For me there are only two absolutely crucial miracles in Christianity, and they’re interlinked – the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Christ.

In the first, God enters space-time and history and takes on our human nature, ‘humanising’ the deity. In the second, he ‘deifies’ our humanity, conquering death and lifting up humanity into the divine and imperishable nature. ‘God became man that man might become God’, as someone clever somewhat controversially put it. (Athanasius, Google tells me.)

For me, the Incarnation of Christ is the core of what Christmas is about spiritually. It’s not about whether there was a real star of Bethlehem, or an actual stable, or why Matthew and Luke’s accounts are so different – interesting though all these things are. It’s not even necessarily about the Virgin Birth, important though that is. For it is possible (in theory at least) to have the Incarnation without the Virgin Birth.

So what is the Incarnation about and why did God do it?

Getting down and dirty

In the Incarnation, God puts his money where his mouth is. He doesn’t stand on the sidelines calling orders and instructions; he enters into our mess and takes it on himself. To misquote Tom Wright, God rolls up his sleeves and gets his hands dirty (or even bloody) and his boots messy.

God is no aloof sovereign or absentee landlord; he gets right in amongst the soil and muck of his creation. It’s how a true parent trains their children. It’s the demonstration of his care. ‘For God so loved the world…’

Prophets and priests could at best point us to God and his law, and admonish us for our failures. Only the Incarnate God could actually show us God, could be God to us and with us. And at the same time only God in human form could give us a model of perfect humanity to look to and follow. Only he could model true worship, true prayer, true love, true goodness, true faith, true sacrifice – and this is precisely what Jesus did.

In all this, Jesus is the true Israel; he is what Israel was always meant to be and does what Israel was meant to do. In his own bodily life he represents the temple of God’s presence; he acts as priest, as intercessor and mediator between God and man; he perfectly fulfils the divine-human covenant.

Redeeming human nature

There’s an argument that only by becoming or taking on ‘flesh’ – earthly human nature – could God redeem and ultimately glorify our nature. Again, only by God becoming human can humans become divine, or Christlike.

So depending on your theology of the atonement, only the perfect human could offer the perfect sacrifice (I’d prefer ‘make the perfect self-offering’) on behalf of humanity. Or only the perfect human could perfectly fulfil the requirements of the divine law and covenant. By doing so in his own person, Christ becomes our righteousness. He becomes the model, source and foundation of a new kind of humanity – a perfected, liberated, renewed kind, filled with God’s imperishable life. And we who are ‘in’ him become part of this new humanity.

Some argue that God could have forgiven and redeemed us without becoming us. I’m not sure. But either way, this is the way he apparently chose to do it. He chose the way of relationship, of love, of presence, of active involvement. That just seems to be how God prefers to work.

Understanding humanity?

But did God ‘need’ to become human in order to understand what it’s really like to be human? Some have suggested so. I’m not convinced; I imagine God already had a pretty good understanding of the human condition.

But they do say there’s no substitute for direct experience… And of course there’s that verse in Hebrews about having a great high priest, Jesus, who fully understands our condition, having experienced it for himself: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin” (Heb 4:15).

Or what then of the contrary idea that God was already human-like before the incarnation, and that human nature is not utterly alien to God (apart from sin)? Right at the outset in Genesis we’re told that God makes us in his image and likeness, a favour he does not apparently bestow on whales or cats or trees or even chimps.

So it seems there is something inherent in humanity, in us, that uniquely reflects and responds to God. There is a correspondence, a likeness, an affinity. It’s not full or total; we’re not fully gods. And it’s marred and blurred by sin, by the ‘fallen’ or unperfected elements of human nature. Nonetheless, when God does become human there’s something right and natural about it, which would arguably not be the case were he to become a gerbera or a gerbil.

‘The glory of God is humanity fully alive’ as my favourite early theologian Irenaeus may or may not have said. Or to put it another way, God is most God when humans are most human; is most himself when we are most ourselves.

But I don’t think the main point of incarnation is for God to understand humanity. I think it’s about him identifying himself with humanity – which is where I’ll start next time…

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Is Jesus the Messiah – and does it matter?

Last time I was asking whether Jesus was the Son of God. A slightly different question is whether he was also the Messiah (Hebrew Mašíaḥ) – or as translated into Greek, Khristós or Christ; literally ‘the anointed’. And the answer to that rather depends on how you define the Messiah/Christ, and on what basis.

To Christians, by very definition, Jesus crucially is the Christ. Interestingly, Muslims also apparently see Jesus as the Messiah (Masîḥ). To most Jews, however, Jesus was and is definitely not the Messiah (at which point those who’ve seen Life of Brian will probably be thinking “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a Very Naughty Boy!”… Sorry).

So what is the Messiah? I think there are two slightly different ways of approaching the question.

The biblical clues

Firstly, there’s the scattering of hints and clues throughout the Old Testament prophetic writings about this somewhat mysterious figure who God would one day send. He would be God’s chosen prophet-priest-king, God’s and/or Israel’s true representative, the suffering servant, the anointed one, the true shepherd, the son of man and/or son of God; the shalom-bringer, ‘God with us’. He would be the one who would unite and restore Israel, set all to rights, restore true worship and usher in God’s kingdom and reign.

The thing about these clues is that they are scattered and disparate, and not everyone agrees what they mean or that they all necessarily refer to the same person. The Bible nowhere sets out to precisely define the Messiah or to bring all these clues together into a single picture, so readers have to do a fair amount of deductive and interpretive work. Which brings us to the second approach.

The Messiah in Judaism

So based largely (but not entirely) on these scriptural clues, there’s the evolving theological understanding of the Messiah within Judaism over the centuries. This would I think result, in Jesus’ time, in a kind of official identikit picture of the Messiah, and of his defining roles and characteristics. So he would come from Bethlehem, would descend directly from King David (via the male line), would be a priest and king to lead Israel forever and so forth.

So, quite naturally, Jesus’ fellow Jews sought to measure him up against these characteristics, and it seems they were divided in their verdict. Some did see in him the qualities and character of the true Messiah, even if he didn’t seem to fulfil every single official criterion, and these Jews followed him and became the first Christians.  But others saw in him one who was neither truly Davidic, nor divinely sent, nor priestly, nor royal, and these rejected him.

Evaluating the approaches

At this point then it’s worth asking two questions. Firstly, are the OT clues authentically divine in origin (and so broadly correct)? And secondly is the resulting understanding of the Messiah within Judaism the best way of interpreting those clues, one which we too can helpfully use to decide whether or not Jesus is the Messiah?

Some would argue that the OT prophecies are merely human in origin – in which case the whole case falls apart. But for now I’d like to assume that they were broadly authentic and divine, and that they do mostly refer to a single figure who we can label Messiah or Christ. Certainly my own belief is that God was paving the way for this one whom he would one day send, revealing aspects of his character and mission.

What I’m less convinced about is the resulting attempt to formulate official dogma and systematic theology from the scriptural clues. I’m just not sure the prophecies were meant to be used like this. Rather I think they simply point in picture language to one who would come, one who God would send; one foretold by prophets and poets, and longed for by the ordinary people, the poor, the exiled and enslaved.

So I’m not sure it’s all that helpful for us to try to stick the prophecies together into a religious checklist against which we can measure Jesus and see whether he qualifies as Messiah according to officially-approved ‘biblical’ criteria.

Rather I’d suggest that, with the benefit of hindsight, we may do better to approach it from the other direction. So we look at Jesus in the round, at the whole of his life and character, and ask whether or not this looks like the kind of person and life that might be what God was hinting at. Could this be the promised and longed-for one, even if he doesn’t exactly match every single exact criterion? The disciples who stuck with Jesus apparently thought so.

A retro-fitted Messiah?

Of course, some argue that the gospel-writers made very sure that the picture of Jesus they drew would fit the bill for the Messiah, retrofitting details of his life to fulfil the OT prophecies because that was who they wanted or needed him to be.

I certainly think some of them did try to draw out and highlight Jesus’ Messiah-like qualities, particularly in Matthew’s gospel with its rather tortuous efforts to make details of Jesus’ life fit passages from the OT. But these aren’t the parts that convince me of Jesus’ Messiahship – quite the opposite, in many cases.

Rather it’s the overall picture that convinces me – the authenticity and unpredictability of Jesus as he strides through the gospels. And it’s the parts that the gospel writers almost definitely couldn’t or wouldn’t have invented – the parts that reflect badly on them, or which are deeply counter-cultural, or which run directly against the expectations of the Jewish Messiah.

A few things in particular impress me. One is that Jesus is so much more than what was expected, going well beyond the remit of the promised Messiah. He is also subtly different from the religious identikit, but in ways that are better, that make sense of what was obscure or strange in the OT, and in ways that I think his disciples could not have predicted and would not have invented.

“Are you the one?”

The other thing that strikes me is that Jesus does not go out of his way to spell out his Messiahship. If the gospel writers were really wanting to present him as the Jewish Messiah, they could have had him say “Look everyone, yes, I really am the one you’ve been waiting for, and here’s why”. But it seems that for the most part he didn’t say that, and it also seems that they felt they had to be faithful to his actual words.

So when asked, he generally answers indirectly, or with a question or conundrum. John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask the same question we’re asking: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” To which Jesus replies, “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” By these signs, Jesus is demonstrating that he is the Messiah, rather than spelling it out in words. But he wants his hearers to notice, to see, to think, to work things out for themselves. He doesn’t force himself on us.

The Suffering Servant

So I don’t think that the disciples simply made up details of Jesus’ life and death to fit the expected characteristics of the Messiah – particularly not whole crucial events such as the crucifixion and resurrection. Some suggest that the gospel-writers invented the crucifixion based on OT passages like the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 (‘he was pierced for our transgressions’), and on ideas of the perfect sacrifice for sins in Leviticus.

This seems highly unlikely to me. A crucified Messiah was the very opposite of what anyone was wanting or expecting; as Paul put it, the very idea was ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks’. It seems far more plausible that the gospel-authors re-read the OT passages in light of what had actually happened to their master, and saw the connection.

Like these writers, I believe that these OT ideas were divine foreshadowings of who Jesus would be and what he would do; of what he needed to be and do, for the redemption of humanity and the whole cosmos. But they are ideas that I don’t think anyone would have put together correctly before the real Messiah came along and shed his light on them.

High priest and king?

So what of the ways in which Jesus doesn’t appear to fit the bill for the Jewish Messiah, for example not being an actual king or priest?

For me, these are again human misunderstandings of the OT picture language. Jesus was not a human king or earthly priest, nor did he need to be. He is, as the writer of Hebrews put it, ‘our Great High Priest’; he is ‘a priest in the order of Melchizedek’, i.e. one outside the normal earthly priesthood, appointed by God not man. And similarly he is the ‘King of kings’ of Revelation, a heavenly king above all earthly ones.

So was Jesus the Messiah? It depends how you understand the term. But I would say that in all real senses he was and is the Messiah, the promised and awaited one sent by God to restore his people and save the world.

And does it really matter whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ? Maybe not; in one sense it’s just a title. But it’s a title that sums up and expresses much of the essence of who Jesus was and is, what he did and does, and viewed that way I think it is fairly important.

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