Since writing the last Blog post, I have come to see that the way the Bible is taught to the young is a deadly serious business. We have imbibed even through ordinary culture certain ideas about the Bible and its ‘truth’ and we indicate this assumption in expressions like ‘Gospel truth’. The fact that solemn oaths are taken holding a copy of the Bible also gives to scripture an apparent authority which makes it powerful in to our culture. Many people, including those outside the churches regard Scripture as having somehow a special even magical quality. Even if the contents of the Bible are almost entirely unknown to them, the ordinary person in the street will often claim to respect the message of the Bible.
This respect for Scripture alongside ignorance of what it is actually about, means that Jehovah’s Witnesses sometimes gain a grudging audience with some individuals they accost on the doorstep. The same appeal to the ‘truth’ of the Bible is the ploy of many evangelical groups when approaching ordinary people in the street. These same individuals cannot see that the ‘evangelist’ may be involved in a very one sided and selective use of Scripture as a means of making their pitch. Even Christians who have studied the Bible find it difficult to counter the apparent confidence with which verse after verse is quoted to create the patchwork of a theological system. These systems of theological thinking seldom begin with Scripture but have arisen elsewhere and then suitable verses from Scripture have been harnessed to provide a structure on which to hang these ideas.
I was struck recently in reading an account on the Scriptural support for the two divergent systems of Protestant theology, Calvinism and Arminianism. By way of summary Calvinism taught that salvation was the gift of God alone and that we could never be sure of our salvation. Hell was a very real possibility for all but the ’elect’. Arminius taught a more hopeful version of the faith and there seemed to be the possibility that our attempts to live a good life would be a factor in determining our ultimate destination beyond the grave. The book that I was consulting examined the whole of the New Testament and found that there were almost an equal number of New Testament verses to support either position. In other words both Calvin and Arminius were guilty of selective use of Scripture. In making this statement one asks how many people have died rather than admit that the other point of view on some theological position has equal credibility from Scripture. The modern claim by evangelical preachers that the ‘substitutionary doctrine of the Atonement is the only one to be read out of the Bible is of course complete nonsense. It can be found there but they are other models and images to explain the significance of the death of Christ.
Reading the Bible to suit our doctrines has gone on for centuries and continues today. And yet it is alarming for a young Christian to find that the clergy know these things while the new Christians have been fed on a simplistic idea that the Bible is ‘true’. To talk about ‘truth’ in the Bible raises the question ‘Which truth?’ . The discussion about the gay issue or the position of women are of vital importance to many people but it is simply dishonest to claim that some ambiguous words in Leviticus and Romans sort out the problem of gay marriage once and for all. That is taking us back to magical thinking, raising the Bible to be a magic talisman rather than a witness to a profound search for God. Let us never short change those who are to be taught about the Christian faith with simplistic dishonest statements about Scripture. If we feed them this then we cannot be surprised if they become profoundly shocked, disturbed and overwhelmed by a sense of betrayal that they have given their lives believing half-truths and simplistic formulae.
The year 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the famous book Honest to God. I cannot claim to have read the book when it first came out but I was affected by the article in the Observer which had the headline, using words ascribed to Bishop Robinson, ‘Your image of God must go.’ That headline did speak to me because even in my late teens I was aware of the problem of ‘anthropomorphism’, making God into a person, a quasi-human who sat above the clouds waiting to catch us out. In short I did not believe in a God who was like a grumpy and arbitrary tyrant. The way many people spoke about God as though he could simply turn on or off hurricanes, earthquakes as well as serious illnesses at will did not seem satisfactory. Although I cannot remember in detail the kind of God I believed in at the age of 17-18, I do know that I was never sucked into a belief system that made me afraid of God. All my attempts to pray, to worship and generally lead a reasonably good life were never done because I was afraid but because I had a glimpse of a better, fuller life working with this transcendent being. The people called Saints seemed to have got something that I wanted. Being a Christian was part of a journey towards this kind of life and God and Christ were in different ways travelling companions.
These memories of the naive Christian teenager do, I believe, summarise one version of the faith that was set before some of us in the early years of our Christian formation. Another version of the Christian faith, and here I allow myself to be the opinionated writer of a Blog, was frankly terrifying, cruel and even abusive. Some of us were presented with a Christian teaching that threatened us with overwhelming everlasting torture beyond the grave if we did not obey our earthly teachers and submit to their control. They spoke for God himself. To misquote the Anglican collect for Trinity 6: O God who has prepared for those who do not love thee, such awful things as pass man’s understanding. This teaching was not confined to evangelical churches but was being peddled in a middle of the road church primary school assembly as recently as the early 80s. Many of the children were reduced to tears by this uncompromising message. Nothing was done, because the Vicar concerned, no doubt, could quote scripture to say that this was Biblical truth. Behind this teaching is a doctrine of man that sees the natural state of humanity as one of unrelieved evil. The only way to escape such a fate was to be frightened into the kingdom of Christian belief through a process we could call ‘terror evangelism’. It also presented a doctrine of God who, even though described as a God of love, could behave in ways that appeared to be far from loving.
Bishop Robinson was anxious to banish these and other images of God and he now introduced the reader to expressions such as ‘ground of being’ or ‘ultimate concern’ as ways of talking about our relationship with the Divine. These terms strayed far from the quasi-human picture of God, prone to cruelty and arbitrary punishment which filled the imaginations of so many Christians at the time as well as now. But many Christians fiercely resisted this kind of language introduced by Robinson. Their reasons for resisting it were ostensibly because it was not language found in the Bible. But curiously the language of everlasting damnation awaiting those who were not members of the Church was also comforting and attractive to those on the inside of the Church, looking outwards. They had been ‘saved’ so now they were smugly safe from all this potential terror and pain. The fact that they could contemplate with apparent satisfaction such an awful fate for so many of the world’s population verges on the obscene, but many Christians then as now still seem oblivious to this example of a catastrophic failure of love and compassion.
As a footnote to these thoughts about the teaching of Honest to God, the terrible events taking place in the Philippines make it even more imperative that our image of God must change. The anthropomorphic God, the one susceptible to arbitrary moods and emotions, may well be a God that sends or withholds terrible weather events, such as Typhoon Haiyan. The God that Bishop Robinson spoke of who lives in the places of mystery and depth seems to have a very different relationship with these natural events. He does not create or prevent these weather systems. We might wish to say that the God that is presented to us in Scripture is a God, not of power and control, but one of vulnerability and weakness. Somewhere in all the pain of the homeless, the bereaved and the dying in the Philippines, God is to be found in ways we cannot fully grasp. But perhaps his presence is also found in the hearts and imaginations of those who feel moved to respond to the awfulness and the tragedy of this event. In the way we respond to suffering we can show the power of God’s transforming love in our lives. Ubi caritas, ibi Deus est. Where there is love, there is God.
Chris and I (editor) have often spoken about the use of music in church. There are lots of aspects that can be discussed in this area and no doubt we will come back to some more of these in the future. The place that I want to begin at is the observation that ‘successful’ evangelical churches devote a lot of effort and money in providing a good choir and instrumentalists to lead worship. This will always be an attraction to the people who like the kind of music on offer. The tunes are catchy and it would not be wrong to say that many people find this ‘entertainment’ a good reason for attending a particular church. Without at this point making any judgement on the merit of the music or indeed the lyrics being sung, it would not be unfair to say that emotions are stirred and hearts are warmed by music in church long before the brain has been engaged with the message of the preacher or leader.
This reflection wants to focus on the possible disconnection between brain and emotion that takes place in many churches where endless singing and music during worship is commonplace. If there is this disconnection, and here the readers of the blog may have opinions, then there is a situation of true danger. The danger is that religion is permanently associated with spungy pleasant feelings aroused by sentimental music. Thus the engagement of the brain with issues of faith and decisions about life may never happen. In short religion or faith has become permanently associated with ‘feelings’ and the possibility of actually thinking about faith cannot easily take place.
Two further dangers follow from this. One is that the individuals who are swayed into automatic religious sensations and emotions when certain music is played are going to be vulnerable to the kinds of abuse that this blog is concerned about. The capacity to think critically about leaders, whether or not their preaching is good or even rational is going to be diminished. So congregations can become fodder for financial, spiritual and emotional exploitation by their leaders. What I have written is provocative but I want to create some sort of reaction from my readers. Is music sometimes used to ‘soften up’ worshippers for exploitation of various kinds or is it a genuine handmaid of growing deeper into faith and Christian maturity? What do you think?
This blog is a continuation of Surviving Church, an online newsletter which appeared in June and September 2013 for subscribers. The newsletter itself was in response to a letter sent to the Church Times by Chris Pitts and published on June 13th 2013. This letter recounted Chris’ experience of abuse within the evangelical circles that had attracted him as a young man. After the letter some 50 people contacted him recalling similar experiences and sharing their concern over this issue.
The editor of this blog is Stephen Parsons, the author of Ungodly Fear, a study of abuse within the Church. The book was published in 2000 by Lion. Stephen is now retired from full time Anglican ministry and lives in Cumbria. Chris and Stephen are cooperating in agreeing the topics covered in this blog but Stephen is doing the actual writing and management of the site. You are welcome to respond to anything covered by this blog and we hope that our discussion may prove helpful to anyone who has faced or is facing abuse, shunning or being marginalised by Christian groups. Chris himself has a particular concern for those in society who are most vulnerable to this kind of harm, the poor, the ill-educated and those who live on the edge of society. While we will exploring many aspects of this problem of abuse, theoretical as well as practical, we hope to retain an awareness of the needs of these vulnerable individuals who are let down by the Church.