DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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SUNDAY NEXT BEFORE ADVENT
Jesus Deposed

Mark 15.2  Pilate asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "That's what you say!"

There are very few kings and queens left in the world. Those who remain are mostly figureheads. They exercise their monarchy with varying degrees of pomp and ceremony. They open this event, launch that ship, and confer this or that state honour.

One or two real monarchs still reign. In one African country it is Parliament, not the king, which has only nominal power. He takes his many wives whether or not they like being taken. He has just appointed some of his relatives to Parliament, no doubt to ensure and strengthen his grip on power.

But such cases are rare. They are seen as distortions in the normal fabric of good government - aberrations which will disappear as the natural democratic order of things inevitably spreads worldwide.

It seems strange in such a world to be celebrating the kingship of Jesus of Nazareth. But it hasn't always seemed strange. Until a few centuries ago monarchy was a normal form of government. Even when it had been stripped of its power, it retained enormous influence. Kings and queens were honoured, respected and frequently adored by masses of ordinary people a mere hundred years ago. 

But today kings and queens are mostly characters in fairy tales. So it is from the deep past that we now dredge up the image of kingship to apply to Jesus. Going back to the earliest days of Christianity, all four gospels imply that even if Jesus wasn't actually a king, he should be thought of as such.

So goes traditional teaching. And because the king image is a quite startling mismatch with ordinary life today, it is often attacked as redundant. This way of understanding Jesus, say its detractors, is positively dangerous because it is irrelevant.

Their conclusions are debatable, if only because so many still value the image. We tend to forget that one-fifth of the world's population still sometimes use the image when they think about Jesus the Jewish peasant.

This debate is a tragic red herring. The real problem is not which image, but whether or not we can change our images.

One can imagine what might happen if, for example, the following was prayed at the Eucharist:

O eternal God, who elected Jesus our beloved President to be Chairperson of your heavenly Cabinet; help him to know the will of his people, and to dutifully do what they want. Guard him against mistakes so that he is not voted out of office. And may the opposition never get the upper hand.  Amen.

This prayer seems bizarre - but it helps make the point that if we are to be forever chained to ancient images, four serious problems arise:

  1. Creativity cannot flourish in chains. And if there ever was a time when Christian creativity was needed, the 21st century is it.

  2. The charisma of Jesus the man is obscured by an image almost empty of emotive power. 

  3. In the modern mind this ancient image portrays not growth and maturity but infantile dependence or even oppression.

  4. If Christians use the image, they become schizophrenic, relating to the world one way in their daily lives and in another on Sundays.

It's hard to know what to do about the problem, however. This is because the Church has reified many such images over the centuries. Ways of imagining Jesus, of filling in the gaps, of giving meaning to his life have been turned into idols. Man-made pictures and symbols have been made into absolutes.

We are urged to honour, revere and obey Jesus because he is a king - albeit of a heavenly kingdom. We're not told, as we should be constantly, that these images are there merely to help us. They are not in themselves anything real. Nor are they essentially important. Far from it. They can, and sometimes must, be discarded without a backward glance.

It may be that until the Church stops trying to preserve its heritage at all costs, it will remain as irrelevant as the images it attempts to pass off as real.

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