It’s always easier to be dismissive of people you disagree with rather than trying to find some common ground and attempting to engage productively with them. I’ve learnt a lot about this over the last year as I’ve observed and entered into the debate over women bishops and in particular gay marriage. There have been plenty of harsh words and condemnation from both sides and lots of people have been hurt in the process. Those who Jesus refers to as the peacemakers so often appear to be in short supply.
One of the most upsetting aspects of this has been when I’ve seen Christians attacking each other in a way that defies the Bible’s teaching on judgement, grace and forgiveness, especially in relation to other believers. In chapter 14 of the book of Romans, Paul talks about how we should treat those fellow believers we disagree with. The context in this case is food, but what he says is applicable for a whole range of issues:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them…
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
More well-known is Jesus mention of bits of tree being attached to our faces (his father Joseph was a carpenter after all):
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
Treating others with respect and being careful about what you say about them in public is something that would make the world a better place, don’t you think?
I’m writing all of this because of Giles Fraser’s article that was published by the Guardian last night. The title suggests Giles is not happy. ‘I bang my head against the wall when evangelicals turn Jesus into Cheesus‘ is a difficult read to put it mildly. Giles has decided that although he likes Justin Welby, he is more than a bit concerned about his links to Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) Church in London. He writes:
‘Justin Welby is the theological product of Holy Trinity Brompton, the Old Etonian-run church next to Harrods that brought the world the Alpha Course and doubles up as a posh dating agency for west London singles. They are brilliant at PR and have pots of money. And if Christianity is all about success, then you have it hand it to them.
‘But the problem with PR Christianity is that it can easily transform Jesus into Cheesus, which is a form of Jesus-lite, a romantic infatuation, a Mills & Boon theology that makes you feel all warm inside.’
Prior to that he is damning of Evangelical Christians in general:
‘After a while, if you say a word enough, over and over again, it loses its meaning. It even begins to sound a little different. Jesus morphs into Cheesus – the es getting steadily elongated. Those who talk about Cheesus do so with a creepy sort of chummyiness. This is what evangelicals call “a personal relationship”, by which they mean that Cheesus has become their boyfriend or best mate.
‘And when such people speak of Cheesus they have to wear that sickly smile too. It’s that I-know-something-you-don’t smile. Patronising, superior and faux caring all at the same time. And if you disagree with them they will pray for you. It makes you want to bang your head against a brick wall.’
Giles has made it quite obvious in the past that Evangelical Christianity is not his thing, but he appears to have fallen in to the trap of assuming that because you don’t like something it must be wrong. His scathing attack makes little sense and he obviously hasn’t bothered to do his homework. Certainly there are some Evangelical Christians you meet who are annoying, whose faith is fluffy and don’t seem to be grounded in reality, but that’s no different for liberal Christians or any denomination. I can’t think of any Christian I’ve met who has this ‘Cheesus’ speech impediment. You see them sometimes on Christian TV, but they are almost always American. As I’ve written previously, you can’t lump right-wing US Evangelicals together with Evangelicals in the UK and assume they are exactly the same.
Regarding Fraser’s comments on HTB, There are good reasons why it has become a successful church. Its Alpha course which is now run in churches all around the world has led to thousands and thousands becoming Christians. Alpha has not just been embraced by Evangelical churches. It is also run in Catholic churches in seventy countries. Pope Francis, when archbishop of Buenos Aires, sent four of his bishops to one of the annual Alpha conferences in London. Much of the increase in church attendance in London in recent years has been attributed to HTB’s influence and success. It may be a rich church that has many wealthy people in its congregations, but it uses much of this money to fund the Alpha course internationally along with a whole host of other initiatives that other churches benefit from.
HTB’s William Wilberforce Trust resources and equips churches around the UK and the world to confront injustice and poverty and care for those in need. At HTB alone they have ministries that deal with care of ex-offenders, debt advice, eating disorders, addiction, depression and counter-sex trafficking. They run a foodbank and a night shelter. There is a great deal more that they do that I could talk about, but you get the idea. Whatever you might think of HTB and its professional PR machine it definitely doesn’t do Jesus-lite – not by a long way.
Fraser’s biggest insult though, is not against HTB. He implies that Evangelicals can’t deal with tragedy and suffering, because Evangelicalism has to put a positive spin on everything by ignoring Christ’s sufferings. I thank God that I’ve not been through serious personal tragedy, but I’ve been in a position of praying for months for the six-year-old son of friends who had a brain tumour, holding out hope that God would heal him before he eventually died. This wasn’t fluffy Christianity. This was raw and painful where faith and doubt collided. There are plenty of Christians of all backgrounds who have been through immensely difficult and challenging situations who will find Giles Fraser’s comments insensitive and callous.
It’s hard to understand what has led Fraser to write this piece. Judging by his comments on Twitter, he’s quite enjoyed it as if he deliberately went out to cause offence. He is in a very privileged position amongst Christians in this country. He has a high-profile in the media through his appearances on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day slot along with various television programmes including Question Time and Newsnight. His Guardian column gives him the chance to set his own agenda and talk about what he cares about. He has used this to good effect in the past to challenge government policies, but this time round he has abused this position. Judging by the reaction on Twitter since the article was published, it seems only right that I offer a response on behalf of those who have been upset and angered by his comments and try to set the record straight.
Jesus in the gospels talks a lot about fruit. What he’s referring to when discussing trees producing good and bad fruit is that what makes a good fruit tree is not its size or how pretty it looks, but on the quality of its crop. A church might have good PR or have lots of people attending, but that doesn’t make it a good church in God’s eyes. What is important is how well those who attend are discipled and how it lives out the gospel. In a simliar vein being a successful Christian is not about how popular you are or how much influence you have. It’s about living a life that follows Jesus’ calling. On this occasion Giles Fraser has been throwing bad fruit at many who are producing good fruit. In doing so he has done absolutely nothing to enhance the reputation of the faith he cares so much about, just the opposite in fact. It’s not funny and it’s not clever and it was entirely unnecessary.
Giles, if you want to be taken seriously, please don’t go around insulting people for no good reason.