Many journalists have reflected on the events of 2016, and they are pretty consistent in their verdict that it was something of an “annus miserabilis”.
Amongst other events, we saw the demise of significant cultural icons – David Bowie, George Michael, Alan Rickman and Leonard Cohen amongst many others, culminating at the end of the year in the twin deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds.
Carrie Fisher was particular mourned, but mostly, it seems, as her most famous character, Princess Leia from Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope. It was a reminder of the impact of film and television in shaping the cultural identity of today’s society. Just now, on Radio 4’s Newsquiz, a panellist was able to use an analogy about faith-based education in the UK: “If you belonged to the Jedi religion”, he said, “would you be comfortable sending your child to a school which was 100% Sith?”
Reflection is an important skill and habit which Methodist local preachers (and all Christians, really) need to develop. Here’s a definition offered in the course notes: “The discipline of exploring individual and corporate experience in conversation with the wisdom of a religious heritage. The conversation is a genuine dialogue that seeks to hear from our own beliefs, actions and perspectives, as well as those of the tradition …Theological reflection therefore may confirm, challenge, clarify and expand how we understand the religious tradition …The outcome is new meaning for living.” *
“New meaning for living” seems like a good starting point for the first blog of a new year. It’s interesting, too, that theological reflection is not, in this definition, restricted to sacred texts. In a previous blog I referred to Rev. Dr. David Wilkinson’s book on the theology of Star Wars, and for myself and I suppose for many others, God can speak through pretty much anything that crosses our path, if we are attentive. The Bible, particularly the Prophets, is full of visual cues leading to inspired understandings. “What do you see, Amos?” he asked. “A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered. Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer”. Amos 8:2.
We’ve spent Christmas this year with our daughter and her family in the USA, and movies and TV play a large part in their lives. We watched “The Crown“, a gripping and excellently written series on Netflix about the early years of the reign of Elizabeth II. It culminated in a taut and moving narrative about the desire of Princess Margaret to marry a divorced man, Group Captain Peter Townsend.
The Queen is forced to choose between family and a promise made to her sister to facilitate the marriage, and her duty as sovereign and head of the Church of England – and being subject herself to the law of the land in the form of the Royal Marriages Act. In making that choice she inevitably destroys the hopes of her sister.
It was a classic demonstration of the definition offered above: Elizabeth was forced to undertake a disciplined exploration of an individual situation in the light of religious tradition which, in the end, confirmed the validity of the tradition and drove the decision-making process.
I have two reflections on this unhappy saga. First, if Margaret were able to observe the acceptance of the marriage of Charles and the divorced Camilla, she’d have a right to be more than a bit miffed. However much we may argue about “continuing revelation” and “new light on the Bible”, it seems to be the case in practice that it is social change and public opinion which precipitates theological change, and theology and church tradition struggle to keep up and make sense of it all.
I suppose this is what is meant by “contextual theology”: our reading of the Bible is inevitably and perhaps rightly influenced by the realities of the world in which we live. But this doesn’t mean we should simply keep realigning our theological understanding and beliefs with the prevailing customs of society. Otherwise, where is the truth of the gospel? And at times when the Bible is at odds with society’s laws and customs, how should Christians respond?
We are, as was the Queen, between a rock and a hard place. If we choose faithfulness to the traditional interpretations of Scripture, we will be viewed as uncaring, unloving and out of touch with reality, putting rules before human rights and needs. If we continually reinterpret the Bible in the light of reason and the Western liberal ethical framework, we will be accused of making the Bible effectively irrelevant as a rule of faith.
I’m writing this in the USA, where the majority of Christians appear to be addressing this question by seeking to align the laws of the land with their interpretations of the Bible, notably in respect of abortion and gay rights. Evangelicals and Roman Catholics together make up around 37% of the US electorate, and are increasingly seeing themselves as a powerful political force.
81% of evangelical Christians voted for Trump. However unrighteous and immoral his views and actions may be, however distant he is from any reasonable view of what a “Christian” should be, he has attracted their support because he will appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court (the body responsible for interpreting laws), and will oppose and change legislation which is deemed to be “unChristian” – including, apparently, Obamacare and gun control.
Israel, of course, came badly unstuck through seeking political alliances with ungodly nations who in the end proved to be unreliable and destructive to their interests. I hope for the sake of my American friends – and the rest of the world – that Trump does not prove to be a “splintered reed of a staff, which pierces the hand of anyone who leans on it.” (Isaiah 36:6). Supporting Trump for his perceived pro-Christian Right stance may have some very unwelcome unintended consequences in areas which are equally – or more so – authentic gospel issues: none more so than the increasing bias against the poor, sick and dispossessed.
This leads to my second reflection: in what galaxy, far, far away is it considered to be a good thing for religious faith to ally itself with political power? Specifically, in the context of “The Crown”, why is the sovereign the head of the English church? I know the historical answer – Henry VIII’s need to get a divorce and therefore to split with Rome – but since the emperor Constantine began to make Christianity the state religion of Rome in the 4th century, tie-ins between temporal and religious powers have a distinctly chequered history, with an almost inevitable tendency towards the persecution of those of other faiths.
This is true not just in Christianity, but in Islam (where in some states there is the death penalty for apostasy or conversion), Hinduism (for example the current Hindu Nationalist party led by Narender Modi in India, and where both Christians and Muslims are suffering) and even oh-so-peaceful Buddhism (witness the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar).
It is legitimate and appropriate that Christians, along with all other citizens, should use the democratic process to continually move the laws of the land in the direction of what they believe is for the good of all. And mobilising in support of a cause is perfectly acceptable. But why should Christianity have an “Established” role in the British parliament? It’s a consistent complaint from atheists that Bishops should have no automatic right to be part of the House of Lords, and on this I am in agreement.
I suppose the root of it all is the idea of a “Christian country”. Many Islamic states could loosely be categorised as “theocracies”, but is that an appropriate concept within Christianity? Both Britain and the USA have at various times claimed that kind of special status, and have had laws, customs and assumptions which were based on that belief; perhaps we are experiencing a residual discomfort that the law of the land is increasingly at odds with Biblical patterns.
But Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” He didn’t die to establish a new political system, but to bring new life to people, who would change the world through their faith and witness. Paul encouraged us to pray for rulers (idolatrous Romans at the time), but only that we would be left in peace to practice our faith and share the gospel – not that they would enact laws favourable to believers. Rather than engaging in political efforts towards the creation or restoration of a “Christian country”, perhaps we should focus on being salt and light, and bringing a “new hope” to so many whom 2016 has left in despair.
Next up, “Paddington Bear” and the refugee crisis.
* The Art of Theological Reflection P O’Connell Killen and J De Beer, (New York, Crossroad, 1999), p. viii