Scandalous cartoons

Should a Christian be offended by blasphemy, in the way that various Islamic groups have been offended by those cartoons? I believe not – and I’d like to explain why.

There is no shortage of material that could be cited as offensive to Christians – the ‘piss Christ’ is possibly the most egregious – but I’d like to focus on the graphic novel ‘Preacher’, written by Garth Ennis, partly because it is a cartoon/ comic, and partly because it is a work that I am familiar with.

To understand ‘Preacher’ you must imagine a tale composed of a blend of three other stories, but then put through the blender of a particular film. The three stories that ‘feed’ it are: Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood western; the Da Vinci Code (although it predates the Da Vinci Code – it’s actually drawing on the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail); and Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with a Vampire’; and all of this is then fed through the blender of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”. It is certainly blasphemous, also obscene, disturbing and very funny. I believe it also makes some interesting theological points – not as profound or interesting as I had once hoped, when I was first reading it, but interesting nonetheless.

The basic plot is this: an angel and a demon come together and conceive a child; when the child is born it is immediately expelled from Heaven, and God vanishes from His throne. Genesis (the child) plummets to earth and is ‘united’ with Jesse Custer, a preacher (probably Episcopalian 😉 who was raised by some rabid and violent fundamentalists in the Deep South of the United States. You could say he has some problems with his faith… However, once Genesis is united with him, he gains the Word – the power to command people to do whatever he tells them. Through various adventures involving the Priory of Sion and his best friend, an Irish vampire, he ends up producing a confrontation between God and the Angel of Death. God, of course, isn’t the God that a ‘normal’ Christian would recognise – God is schizophrenic, in the popular sense, in that there is sometimes a raging Old Testament father figure full of righteous anger, and sometimes there is a radiant New Testament figure seemingly all sweetness and light. The end of the tale is the death of God – and the continuance of the world without Him, seemingly all the better for it.

Ennis grew up in Northern Ireland, not a place where balanced Christian thinking has been much in evidence, and there is clearly a kinship between the God in ‘Preacher’ and the attitudes of someone like Ian Paisley. I had hoped that there would be something theologically creative at the end – that was what kept me reading – along the lines of Genesis becoming a renewed God, essentially a retelling of the Christian story but in a modern idiom. Instead, Preacher is profoundly atheistic, and is in fact much more of a story about the importance of friendship than anything about theology. It remains deeply memorable, and the set-up I think is wonderful, but in the end there is little engagement with ‘mainstream’ Christianity – Christians within it are portrayed as either fundamentalist fascists or as idiots, and the ethics that are vindicated are those of the western, ie righteous violence.

Now, in the face of such a sustained and offensive criticism – how should a Christian react? Should a Christian shun any contact with such writing, with a view to avoiding ‘contamination’ from its blasphemy? My reading of Christianity, influenced from what I know of the work of René Girard, (partially mediated via James Alison) is rather the opposite, and that the degree of our ‘offense taking’ is the degree to which we remain to be converted to the gospel.

A key word in Girard’s analysis is skandalon (see the analysis here). It means the taking of offence, seeing something as shocking or blasphemous. As part of his anthropology, Girard argues that scandal is contagious and reproduces itself across a society, forming a major way in which a society polices its own customs. (In MoQ terms it is the most important social level pattern of value). The practices of societies are founded in sacred violence and scapegoating – in other words, societies reinforce their identity by choosing a person or group as the ‘cause’ of all their problems (think Jews in 1930’s Germany) and the society achieves a sense of unity by combining against that person or group, expelling them violently from their midst, and then telling a religious mythology justifying their actions. This practice persists over time, for the society is never able to completely eradicate tensions within itself, due to the maintenance of rivalrous desire, when one person wants what another person has.

Girard describes this contagion of scandal as the way of the world, and sees the Satan, the ‘lord of this world’ as that force which seeks to reproduce scandal, the taking of offence – for it is in the shared nature of the offence taking that the social solidarity is affirmed and reinforced. A society has a vested interest in ensuring the maintenance of scandal, for that is how the society itself is maintained. What such a society cannot accept is the continued existence of the source of scandal.

I believe this can be seen rather clearly in the case of the cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten. When they were first published, nobody in particular took offence – they were even reproduced by an Egyptian newspaper! Yet certain authorities have a vested interest in shoring up the unity of Islamic societies over against the West – the West being scapegoated as the source of the problems (internal tensions) experienced in Muslim countries. Thus it is Islamic sources which seek to generate a sense of scandal about the cartoons – to great success.

Christianity, however, begins with the scandal of the cross. That is, in the story of Jesus we have the unmasking of this process – a scapegoat who isn’t simply a victim, but one who is cognisant of this process and who forgives those who take part in it. In other words, a victim who does not take offence. This “non-taking of offence” is central to Jesus’ entire ministry – indeed, he is regularly criticised for eating with sinners and tax collectors, and memorably criticises the religious authorities saying that the prostitutes will get to heaven before them! Through not taking offence, through not seeing religious pieties as things to be defended, Jesus changes the social dynamics and enables a non-violent reconciliation with the excluded to take place. That is the essence of the Kingdom – an unmasking of this process of scandal, scapegoating and violence, in order that a new common life, not built upon these elements, can come into being.

Thus, for a Christian, it is wrong to take offence. To take offence is to play the devil’s games, to enter into antagonism between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘unrighteous’, the ‘sinner’ and the ‘saved’. In letting go of any sense of offence, one is released from the mythological pressures embedded in all stories of ‘them and us’, and is set free to become the sort of person that God originally intended – living in peace and loving the neighbour. This is what lies behind the striking language in Matthew’s gospel (5:29, where Jesus commands us to pluck out our eyes if it “causes us to sin” – language taken up by a great many moralists seeking violent self-harm, as it is, of course, to scapegoat a part of oneself). The original language used in Greek, however, is related to this word skandalon and the passage means ‘if your eye is scandalized, pluck it out’ – in other words, do not see offence.

This I find profoundly helpful, in terms of guiding my engagement and interest in the world. We are not to seek to preserve some sort of moral purity – that runs counter to Jesus’ own well documented practice. Nor are we to protest at being offended. If God does not take offence at the murder of his Son, how can we take offence at anything milder?

The lesson I take from Girard and ‘Preacher’ is that the Christian community must understand why it is seen in such negative terms, in order to move more completely into the Kingdom itself. Paradoxically, it is precisely because of this bias against ‘offence’ embedded in Christianity from the beginning that Western society has grown up with this remarkable notion of free speech and free enquiry, which is what is now at stake in the confrontation with the Islamists. It is the unmasking of the sociological processes of scapegoating and sacred violence by Jesus on the cross that fundamentally enables the fruits of Western society that we presently enjoy – including, not least of all, modern science. Girard puts it well: “The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit … is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text.”

Western civilisation is under threat and it is worth defending, but not by being offended by those who hate it, whether the Islamists, or delinquents like Andres Serrano:

The temper of the truth

The Learning Church process on the Creeds has now come to a conclusion, and I feel that it has been one of the most beneficial that we have had so far, not in the sense of immediate pleasure, but in terms of long term impact.

I began this last session with two questions: hands up if you

a) think we should say the creed on a Sunday morning (about 2/3 yes)
b) fully understand and accept the creed (about 1/2 yes).

That gave me a real ‘temperature check’ on the overall sense of the group, about 35 strong. I explained my own answers (yes and no – the word ‘virgin’ being my sticking point, as you’re all aware 😉

Lots of challenging discussion eventually ensued, with one question in particular staying in my mind: “What difference does it make if you confess Jesus as divine” – but I’ll pursue that more in the next sequence, which is on other faiths.

I tried to argue strongly, in this final session, for the claim that a) truth was independent of our own choices (“heresies” comes from the word meaning ‘choice’ in Greek; the Creed is about insisting on a truth which is independent of our own views on the subject). This seems to me essential to Christianity – and something distinctive about Christianity as compared to other religions, and linked to the how and why of science being born out of Christian womb, to do with a fundamental trust in the reliability of the natural world (reflecting the reliability of a Creator behind it).

This assertion of truth, combined with the assertion that Jesus IS the truth (ie the reality of the world expressed in human flesh) lies at the centre of my own faith: a very Anglican insistence on the reality of the Incarnation, along the lines of John 1. I also realise that when, in the classes, I used the language of ‘submission’ to the truth – which I do see as a hallmark of Christian faith – I had my own experience in the background, of being called to a vocation which I absolutely did not want to enter into, and yet, once submitted to, that vocation becomes precisely the source of the peace which the world cannot give, in that I am now much more truly myself than I was when I was the person who did not want to be ordained. The call to be ordained lies more deeply in me than my own power or sense of choice.

This applies more broadly, I believe, in the sense that for all of us, full human fulfilment, ie the becoming of who we are, depends upon a right understanding, acceptance and integration into ‘the way the world really is’. A different way of saying this – but one which I think ends up saying the same thing – is that the pursuit of truth is non-negotiable. We have to pursue the truth wherever it leads, for to shy away from the truth, to shy away from something which may seem unpleasant or unattractive, is to shy away from precisely that fullness of life which we are called into. The truth is what sets us free, and we cannot turn away from it.

Which is the context for my losing my temper recently, when I was accused of intellectual cowardice and running away from open discussion (on the MoQ discussion pages – if I can get a specific link to what I said I’ll put it here). It’s an extremely rare event (although it’s not as rare as it used to be, and that makes me wonder what is going on) and it has caused me a fair deal of soul searching and reflection.

The question of anger is an odd one for Christians, simply because Jesus is shown as being angry on a number of occasions (most obviously when he drives out the traders from the temple). I preached on a text from the letter of James a couple of weeks ago: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”

Anger is something which indicates a wrong, an injustice – but it doesn’t, of itself, say whether the wrong is in us or in another – hence we must be slow to anger. Yet we are not called to allow injustice to continue – we have to act, but we do have to act in a considered fashion, because anger doesn’t bring about righteousness.

It’s a difficult thing. Most of the time my own emotions are kept tied up, but perhaps I’m realising that this is not always for the best – that I do need to let my own specific thoughts and feelings come out. I certainly felt much better – ‘cleaner’ – having vented my spleen. And I am certain that it qualifies as ‘slow to anger’ – it had been building for over five years!!!

At Morning Prayer today we had Psalm 123, from which I drew comfort:

“Have mercy on us Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured much contempt.
We have endured much ridicule from the proud,
much contempt from the arrogant.”

Mad Essex vicar quoted in The Guardian

Mentioned in the first paragraph no less (and at the end).

Update: I have also now been asked by the BBC and Sky to take part in TV audience discussions; the Essex County Standard are running a follow-on piece, for which they sent a photographer(!), and BBC Radio Essex want to do an interview. (Update: went out at 8:10am Thursday 23 February. My Mum had a nice birthday surprise, hearing her son on the radio :o)

I think this might add up to more than fifteen minutes. I wonder what that is going to do to my karma and how I’m going to have to make up the difference.

Update 3: quoted in East Anglian Daily Times article here.

Update 4: interviewed by the Daily Mail today – longest interview yet, it’ll be interesting to see what actually makes it in. I can’t help thinking that this is getting a bit bizarre….

Update 5: apparently the Daily Mail article is going in tomorrow – I’ll link to it here if possible – but today I’ve also had to turn down BBC TV who wanted me to do something for a programme to go out on Saturday. Odd, odd, odd. Who cares what a rural vicar thinks?

Meres Igge

Stuart Staniford is my hero. Another astonishingly good analysis from him here, but this one looking not at Peak Oil but at sea level rise.

Bottom line – the sea level rise will happen more swiftly than expected, and be larger.

Which means for Mersea residents – much less reliable use of the Strood, beginning now. And probably no use of the Strood, in a couple of decades or so. And the bottom of the Lane will be unliveable. I wonder if where I live will become beach front property? (We’re about 10-15 feet above high tide level, I’d guess)

Ho hum.

House of Flying Daggers

This was sublime. Made me fall in love with China again – it was all so beautiful.

I do wonder, though, whether there is script approval at the level of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. I couldn’t imagine a film that was more in tune with their agenda.

Musing still on VB

Doing some research for the Learning Church process on the creed (the talks are going reasonably well but the material is seriously dense) and I came across this passage from Joseph Ratzinger, quoted in Nicholas Lash’s ‘Believing Three Ways in One God’: “…the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity would not be affected if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage.” Lash goes on to spell this out: “Confessing Jesus to be Son of God most certainly does not entail denying that he was any other father’s son.”

There are certain things I believe about Jesus. I believe John 1.1 (on which I’m preaching tomorrow) – that Jesus is the Word made flesh. I adore the passage in Colossians, that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, he is ‘before all things and in him all things hold together’. I believe that Jesus was – as Son of David – inheritor of all the Old Testament prophecies, that he became King of Israel and that those prophecies come true in him – ie they are fulfilled in him.

Which is a roundabout way of saying I have a very ‘high’ Christology. I’m not a liberal – according to Sven’s test I’m 100% Chalcedon compliant(!) – and I certainly don’t think that Jesus was “just” a good man, tho’ he was indeed that, of course.

Put differently, I do think that Jesus embodies the purpose of creation – he shows it forth in human form – and that this Divine purpose is personal and human, thus fitted to become incarnate in the shape of a particular man. I think this purpose was hidden before the foundation of the world, and that it was revealed in Jesus at a moment that could be described as evolutionarily appropriate.

Thing is, I just can’t reconcile any of the above with the Virgin Birth.

Another quote, from Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, quoted in Frances Young’s ‘The Making of the Creeds’: “For our God Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, of the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit.”

This ‘seed of David’ stuff is pretty explicit in the Old Testament. It comes from the original promise to Abraham, and it is pretty directly male – the mother doesn’t get much of a say or interest in the process. So how does a birth in which the ‘seed of David’ isn’t involved fulfil the promise?

In one sense, tho’, that’s still trivial. The fundamental point is ‘what he has not assumed he has not healed’ – ie, the VB undermines Jesus’ humanity. It seems more and more to be a simple category mistake – in just the way that Lash outlines. Being the Only-Begotten Son of the Father is not something that takes up the same sort of ontological space as being the first-begotten son of Joseph the Carpenter from Nazareth.

Now Jon the Jedi left a helpful comment last time I wrote about this topic which was essentially challenging me not to feel bad with my doubts – why work myself up about it? Why not just let it go?

Part of me thinks that this is right – it’s probably the way in which I will eventually go – but I’m too much of a conservative to feel happy with it. Stepping outside the framework of the creed – hmm, not sure I like that. (Next week’s learning church is going to be all about how far we can use the creed today – and in particular whether we should sign up to the whole package. I tend to think that we should).

Two final points.

First, belief is not volitional. This is the mistake that the fundies make, assuming that refusing to share their beliefs is a matter of bad will, rather than the incapacity of a rational mind to wrap itself into contortions. You can’t force yourself to believe something which you cannot accept to be true. That’s dishonesty, and I think Simone Weil had that right (paraphrase from memory) – if you leave truth in order to pursue Christ, you end up leaving Christ as well. If you believe firmly – as I do – that Jesus IS the truth, then you are set free to pursue truth wherever it leads.

Second, it’s fairly clear to me that a belief in the Virgin Birth in today’s society is a different beast to belief in the Virgin Birth in the society of the early church. I don’t know sufficient details to make a conclusive argument, but I’m pretty sure that in the early church the VB was an argument used to assert the humanity of Jesus. It made more sense then – there was no notion of DNA or equal contributions from two human parents. Today, it seems to have the opposite effect to what is doctrinally correct. And at the end of the day it is precisely that doctrine that I would wish to affirm.

In other words, where Ratzinger wrote: “…the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity would not be affected if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage”, I would say: the doctrine of Jesus’ humanity is only confirmed if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage.

So there we go.

Notes on atonement

These are some notes from an atonement conference I attended from 5-7 July 2004.

On the whole I found the conference extremely worthwhile, enlightening and provocative. The doctrine of the atonement, unlike eg the doctrine of the incarnation, has never received an official definition within Church history, and the church’s understanding of it has changed over time. The aim of the conference was to bring together people with different understandings to seek mutual awareness and acceptance. The following are some of the key thoughts that I have taken away from it (this isn’t a representative account of all that was said!).

The theory of penal substitution
The first keynote speech was given by Dr Christina Baxter, the principal of St John’s Nottingham, and she had been asked to describe the way that evangelicals understand the Atonement, which is through the ‘penal substitutionary theory of atonement’. This is the view that Jesus’ death on the cross was a satisfaction for the sins committed by humanity, which meets the righteous demands of the wrath of God and through which Christians gain ‘imputed righteousness’ – Christ is punished on our behalf. That’s quite complex, but it is put across in the Alpha course a bit more clearly:

“What does self-substitution mean? In his book Miracle on the River Kwai, Ernest Gordon tells the true story of a group of POWs working on the Burma Railway during World War 2. At the end of each day the tools were collected from the work party. On one occasion a Japanese guard shouted that a shovel was missing and demanded to know which man had taken it. He began to rant and rave, working himself up into a paranoid fury and ordered whoever was guilty to step forward. No one moved. ‘All die! All die!’ he shrieked, cocking and aiming his rifle at the prisoners. At that moment one man stepped forward and the guard clubbed him to death with his rifle while he stood silently to attention. When they returned to the camp, the tools were counted again and no shovel was missing. That one man had gone forward as a substitute to save the others. In the same way Christ came as our substitute. He endured crucifixion for us.” (Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Life, p48)

Dr Baxter outlined seven ‘drivers’ behind the evangelical acceptance of this understanding of the doctrine. These were:
1. The ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah, especially the text ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we have been healed’;
2. The words of institution at the Lord’s Supper, and the idea that it is through blood (which is understood as a reference to propitiatory sacrifice) that we gain access to God;
3. An acceptance of language referring to the wrath of God – there are apparently 375 references to God’s wrath in the Old Testament;
4. The pervasiveness of ‘for us’ language in the New Testament (ie ‘Christ died for us’);
5. The relational framework employed by this doctrine, ie that God acted in Christ on our behalf;
6. The way in which this doctrine is effective as an evangelical tool (especially in prisons); and
7. That it represents a truth that has been found to be worth dying for, eg with missionaries.

In some ways the conference could be summarised as an extended discussion and debate about whether this understanding of atonement was the right one.

Objections to the penal substitutionary theory
At the end of Dr Baxter’s talk I overheard one of the group leaders saying ‘I didn’t agree with a word of that!’, and certainly there was significant disagreement with this way of understanding the doctrine. The objections included the following:
1. The Early Church did not put great weight on this way of understanding salvation, if indeed they employed it at all (Frances Young, another keynote speaker, spoke eloquently on this point; see below);
2. It employs a very thin understanding of ‘sacrifice’; in the Old Testament, for example, the oldest root for the understanding of sacrifice is simply saying ‘thank you’ to God. The idea that sacrifice is fundamentally about appeasing the wrath of God is not true to Scripture; it is a development associated with the Temple; and a strong case can be made that Christ’s achievement was in large part about overturning that theology (see Tim Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance);
3. In particular, understanding the Eucharist through the lens of propitiatory sacrifice ignores the Passover context in which it is set. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – this is a reference to the passover sacrifice as described in Exodus, and the establishment of a new covenant community which is offered life through that sacrifice. So the sacrifice reflected in the Eucharist is an achievement of life, not an appeasement of divine wrath;
4. The character of God (the Father) portrayed in this doctrine seems in profound contradiction to the understanding of God (the Father) portrayed in Christ’s overall life and teaching; eg, in the Nicky Gumbel example above, God the Father is portrayed as a psychotic sadist, not the Father of prodigal sons;
5. The doctrine places violence at the heart of God’s activity in creation and redemption, and this carries through into the human activity of the church. So a culture which upholds the notion of penal substitution emphasises punishment as retribution, rather than notions of repentance, reconciliation, rehabilitation and restoration, all of which seem more Christian and grace-filled. Specifically, support for the death penalty is logically tied in with the notion of penal substitution, so if the death penalty is seen as anti-Christian, so too should the notion of penal substitution.

Alternative understandings of atonement
As Frances Young argued in her keynote talk, the idea that Christ was executed on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice in punishment for human sin is one that is, at best, marginal for the first thousand years of Christianity, and one that is largely unknown in the Orthodox tradition. It descends from the ‘objective’ account of atonement first put forward by St Anselm, whereby God’s honour and justice must be satisfied, but no human has the capacity to make such satisfaction – therefore God must become man. The early church’s understanding centred much more on ‘Christus Victor’ – that in Christ the ‘principalities and powers’ have been overcome, Satan’s hold over humanity in sin and death has been overthrown, and so the Christian is set free for the glorious liberty of the Children of God.

One contemporary account of atonement theory which was discussed is the ‘non-violent Christus Victor’ developed by J Denny Weaver, which seems to hold much potential. Specifically, the achievement of Christ on the cross is seen as being wholly consistent with his teaching and life, in that there is never a resort to violence or coercion, and that it is precisely in that loving approach that the principalities and powers are overcome – as much by exposure to the light as anything else. It is the resurrection that governs how we are to understand the cross, ie that the violence of the world is expressed on Good Friday, but that God’s sovereignty and love surpass that violence, and allow for creative resolutions of conflict within a community of reconciliation and redemption, which is the church. Without the resurrection the cross can only be interpreted through the ideology of wordly power and violence, and as a triumph for the world not for God. It is the resurrection that presents each believer with the choice of which way to follow – violence or non-violence?

There was no consensus at the end of the conference, although there was some agreement that the penal substitutionary theory should not be seen as the exclusive way to understand the atonement. If the atonement is the ‘crown jewel’ of Christian doctrine, then penal substitution is merely one facet.

A final analogy for understanding God’s wrath
I found the conference very useful as a means for clarifying my own thinking about the doctrine, and specifically for how it should be employed in teaching. In particular, my understanding of wrath has benefited. I was struck by the notion that although wrath in the Old Testament is personalised (ie it is always God’s wrath), in the New Testament it is more of an impersonal force. I find the following analogy, using terms taken from modern biology, quite helpful at present. In studying various species, biologists and zoologists distinguish the genotype from the phenotype. The genotype is the DNA sequence which is found in every cell of the life-form. The phenotype is the expression of that DNA sequence in a specific context, eg the wing of a bird as opposed to the beak, where both have the same DNA but the end-result is very different. In the same way, it seems to me that we must understand ‘God is love’ as referring to his essential nature, his ‘genotype’, whereas we must understand God’s wrath as something which derives from the interaction of that nature with a particular context (our sin), and so is derivative or ‘phenotypical’. The problem that I have with the notion of penal substitution is that it makes God’s wrath part of his genotype (and therefore part of the fabric of His creation), rather than being a reflection of human sin. If we are called to work towards a ‘peaceable kingdom’, as I believe we are, then I don’t think we will achieve it by worshipping a God whose fundamental nature is violent.

Man on Fire

One of the best films of its type that I have seen.

The only trouble is that I begin to be troubled with the mythology of redemptive violence. But if you’re not troubled by that, you’ll find this an outstandingly good film.