I bang my head against the wall when evangelicals are misleadingly portrayed – a response to Giles Fraser

When you have invested much of your life into something, it is bound to have an emotional effect if, or when, someone attacks it. Some attacks may be warranted; some may even be done with a measure of grace. Unfortunately, neither of these is could be said of Giles Fraser’s spiteful attack on evangelical christians which was published in the Guardian recently.

His misleading caricature on evangelical christians (or as I prefer to call them, christians – see here for more on what I mean by the term evangelical) seems, at the start, to be based on school assemblies he has with the under 5s. That, combined with the picture of Ned Flanders, did not bode well if this was meant to be a well thought-through, reasonable piece.

This is what evangelicals call “a personal relationship” by which they mean that Cheesus [sic] has become their boyfriend or best mate,” writes the anglican minister. Now I have met a handful of christians who might loosely, if somewhat mean-spiritedly, be described as holding such a view. They are, however, a tiny minority and may make up no more than half a dozen or so out of a medium-sized congregation of hundred or so. In this regard, there is a grain of truth in what he writes. But a grain of sand does not make a beach. To take such a viewpoint and apply it to a wide spectrum of belief is both unfair and unreasonable. Indeed, as I sat at my table to write this response I got rather stuck, given the variety of views that I have come across from evangelicals from a number of different denominations over the last three decades. As such, I can only write this from the perspective of one evangelical, me. Others may agree with what I have to say, some may disagree. That is the very nature of being a non-conformist and a result of free thinking.

So is Jesus my best buddy? Of course not, but there is an element of truth in the personal relationship theme. Because of Jesus’ actions at Easter, both the crucifixion and the resurrection, humans can be put in a right standing with relation to God. This idea is generally known as justification. Though the relationship is not really that of a boyfriend or best buddy, more like the relationship a child has with their parent. That said, it may still have aspects of friendship within it. John 15 records Jesus speaking to his disciples as his friends. Does this extend to his modern-day disciples? Maybe. James 2:23 refers to Abraham as a friend of God. Was that reserved for Abraham, or might it be possible for us? Possibly the best exposition of our relation to God is given in the book of Hebrews, where the writer describes the priesthood of all believers, with Jesus as the high priest, though I’ve written on this before if you want a fuller discussion.

There is not a little irony with Giles Fraser’s use of the term, ‘Patronising, superior and faux caring all at the same time.’ The first two could certainly be applied to his own article, although not the third as he seems to care even less about needlessly offending people than he does about portraying them accurately.

He states that ‘Rowan Williams never spoke of Cheesus [sic].’ Given Giles Fraser’s peculiar portrayal of ‘Cheesus’ this may well be right. However, even though such a simplistic viewpoint of christianity may exist, it is by no means the prevalent view, so not many evangelical christians, let alone the ministers of such churches, speak of Cheesus either. To judge all evangelicals on the basis of one or two who portray slightly lax thinking would be to judge all anglicans on the basis of one minister I encountered whose sermon consisted of reading the newspaper headlines and telling the congregation ‘As christians, this is what we ought to think of such-and-such.’ Nor would I base my view on my time at university, when our college chaplain, who was also canon at the local cathedral would only such much as allude to Jesus but never speak openly of him, let alone give an exposition of a passage of scripture. To him, Jesus was a figure that it was assumed all would know fully. Any sermons consisted of looking at pieces of art and talking about vague ways in which the art “reminded” us of a few aspects of Jesus’ character, though that never involved his turning the tables on the money changers or the one who endured agony on the cross. That was not the Jesus the chaplain preached about. Though such people exist, even in positions of seniority in the church of England, it would be unfair to characterise all anglicans as such. Indeed, as the chaplain was canon at Durham cathedral, it is likely that he knew the new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and his predecessor at Durham, Tom Wright, both of whom have been labelled at one time or another as coming from the “evangelical” end of the spectrum.

This brings me to the next point of engagement: Giles Fraser’s claim that to regard the cross as a moment of victory is “theologically illiterate.” Yet if the case can be so simple and accurate at the same time, then to do so would result in regarding Wright as such. After all, did he not write Jesus and the Victory of God which made just this point (in particular pages 592-611)? Though he may not be to everyone’s liking, it would be a brave man indeed who might call Wright theologically illiterate.  That said, as before, there is a modicum of truth in what Giles Fraser writes. If one were to solely view the cross as a moment of victory, then a vital aspect of Easter may be overlooked. Yet it would be equally wrong to ignore any aspect of God’s victory, pretending it didn’t happen.

The cross was undoubtedly an event of great suffering. Different people have different emphases on this suffering. You can you usually tell a catholic cross because the figure of Jesus will still be present on the cross. Those from a more protestant church will have the cross empty, perhaps focusing more on the resurrection. I may well be in the minority of evangelical christians who have read Moltmann’s The Crucified God, where the idea of God suffering is explored extensively. Though I’m not sure it’s required reading in high church anglicanism prior to confirmation. Whether we emphasise the suffering of the crucifixion or the joy of the resurrection, the two lynchpins of Easter ought not to be divorced from one another. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians, Paul opens his letter by talking of the power of the cross and declaring that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus the Messiah and him crucified.” Yet the natural progression of the letter leads him to climax the letter with chapter 15, perhaps one of the greatest expositions of resurrection theology and what it means for the world.

Giles Fraser supposes that ‘Cheesus [sic] cannot deal with tragedy.’ This seems to be the point that has upset most people, judging by the reactions I have read so far. I don’t deny that many christians have trouble in dealing with tragedy. But is this because we are evangelicals who hold to some Disney-like Jesus and spend our time singing “All things bright and beautiful”? No. We find it difficult because we are human. Tragedy is difficult whether you are low-church evangelical, high church, atheist or catholic. If anything, I’d be worried by anyone who did find tragedy easy to deal with. We all deal with loss in our own way and we all have different ways of responding to tragedy in those around us. Some feel the compulsion to say something, nomatter how platitudinous it may be. For my part, I treat others how I would want to be treated, which is to say I prefer on the whole to be left alone. I will offer, though only once, to listen to anyone if they want to talk or to offer practical help on things like cooking or cleaning. Simplistic words of comfort rarely go down well, yet it would be misleading to pretend that this is adopted by all evangelicals or that such an approach is unique to them. One of the thorniest questions that can be asked of a christian is ‘how can bad things happen to good people?’ not only because of the implicit assumption that we know and understand the meaning of the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ but because it is something  that is barely addressed in the gospels. The closest we have in in Luke 13 when Jesus refers to the tower of Siloam falling and killing lots of people. His answer is little more telling than if he had simply said, “shit happens.”

Perhaps one might consider engaging with just a few (out of many) books written on the subject of dealing with pain, tragedy or loss. Surely, if any writer is more likely to be found on the shelves of evangelicals, it is C.S. Lewis, author of The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. Or for looking at the subject of unanswered prayer, I’d highly recommend God on Mute. There is scant little of Cheesus in this work, even opening with a note of exasperation with some fellow evangelicals. Oh, by the way, the author, Pete Greig, happens to be on the staff at Holy Trinity Brompton, an anglican church which Giles Fraser seems to have, at best, deep suspicions about, or at worst, a disdainful phobia.

With the instalment of the new pope and the archbishop of Canterbury, religion has been near the top of the news a lot recently. Whether you like it or not, it is a topic that interests people. As a non-conformist evangelical, being neither a catholic or an anglican, I have been hoping that these two leaders who have the ears of much of the world might be able to use their positions to faithfully declare the gospel.  I don’t think they’ve made a bad start. Both catholic and anglican churches have their problems, which people love to focus on; but so do many other churches from other denominations who don’t command the same level of press coverage. Christians of all denominations need to be faithful to the gospel and present Jesus as accurately as we can to the rest of the world. Then people can make an informed decision as to whether to accept or reject him and his message. Caricatures of Jesus, whether peddled by evangelicals or high church traditionalists, are not helpful.

Theology ought not to be about publically bashing those we disagree but about studying the logos theou  – God’ word, working to understand what it means and its implications, listening to one another and to the voices from the who have engaged with the same questions. A church without theology is baseless and a theology without the church is pointless.

One response to “I bang my head against the wall when evangelicals are misleadingly portrayed – a response to Giles Fraser

  1. I like your arguments and dislike the common low portrayals of Jesus.