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A 25-minute video talk by John Bowen showing how the process of evangelism requires the involvement of a whole conregational and all their gifts. Sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. A user-friendly introduction to the idea of congregational evangelism.
Christian discipleship is no picnic. There are picnics on the way, of course—and parties an festivals and celebrations and holidays. But discipleship is hard work, and Jesus wasn’t afraid to make that clear, even if it meant having fewer disciples.
Now evangelism can be incredible joy, almost intoxicating—when you see a person responding to the message, like a flower opening in the sunshine. Jan was baptized a couple of Sundays back. She had invited all the people who had played a part in her coming to Christ over a period of two years. As she told her testimony, she asked each person to stand at the point where they came into the story. By the time she finished, maybe a dozen people had stood up, there was not a dry eye in the church!
But (as the old Prayer Book says about marriage) it is also not to be undertaken unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, but soberly, discreetly and in the fear of God! There’s a good book on evangelism called Evangelism made Slightly Less Difficult. That about sums it up: it will always be difficult, but it can be “made slightly less difficult.”
So why do it? Why not be comfortable? One basic reason because we follow Jesus and this is something he commanded us. (I am not aware that he ever promised us we would be comfortable.) Indeed, the command to make disciples was the last command he ever gave. Sometimes we recognise that obedience is important: we know it’s important to love our neighbour, or to forgive our enemy, or to “do this in remembrance of me.” So it’s strange that we ignore things like the command to make disciples! Probably we do so simply because it’s difficult. As G.K.Chesterton said of the faith in general: “it’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but that’s it’s been found difficult and not tried.” It’s the same woth evangelism.
If we decide that we need to work at obeying Jesus in this, learning to make disciples, it will cost . . . So let me suggest to you ten items that need to go into the balance sheet. (I am assuming the worst-case scenario here; so if you find yourself thinking, “That wouldn’t be a problem for our congregation,” that’s a plus. Pat yourselves in the back.)
1. We will need to re-educate our congregations about the reason we exist
Our churches do not exist to keep the Anglican Church of Canada in business. Our churches do not exist because there are still a few religious people who happen to like that kind of thing. Our churches do not exist because it’s nice to see old church buildings dotting the Canadian landscape and they remind us of our heritage.
At its simplest, church exists to be a gathering of disciples of Jesus, to worship him, to learn from him, and to invite others to become disciples too. That might sound too obvious, too simple, but for many that sounds really weird. One elderly lady said, “Why do we always have to think about other people: why can’t we think about ourselves for a change?” and that was after 60 years in that church! So for our congregations to understand what the church is all about is the starting point, the sine qua non of evangelism.
2. We will need to rediscover the Gospel
I was leading a seminar once, and talking about the Gospel, when an elderly gentleman in the front row raised his hand, and said “I’ve been in church all my life, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard anything I would call ‘the Gospel’.” I suspect he had heard many sermons about behaving yourself, being a good citizen, not being racist, caring for the environment, and (perhaps) the lack of leadership in society. Many such sermons, I am sure, told him to try harder, love more, and give more. But these things are not the Gospel, they are not the kind of good news to make us dance, or even smile. All too often, they just weigh us down.
So what then is the Gospel? The good news is that God has not given up on our world, but is doing something new to deal with evil and sin, and to restore the whole world. That “new thing” is called “the Kingdom of God” in the New Testament, and it centres on Jesus. And now God invites everybody to give up whatever they were living for before, to become a follower of Jesus and to become a part of what God is doing in the world.
We need to hear this message, in all its glory and all its many facets, from the pulpit. We need it to be the focus of our Bible studies. We need it to be at the heart of the devotions which open our committee meetings. We need to sing about it, talk about it, and let it warm out hearts. The Gospel needs to become our lifeblood again. Without it, church life becomes boring at best—and lethal at worst.
The Greek work for good news, or Gospel, is evangel—so if there is no evangel, there cannot be any evangelism. It’s absolutely basic.
3. We will need programs to help new people understand discipleship
Let me ask you, if a person comes to your church and is asking, “I’d like to understand this Christian faith business,” what can you offer? One woman new to our church said, “I didn’t know where to begin.” We too often begin in the middle, and assume a person is ready to jump into the middle of active ministry, when in fact they may not know anything about Christian faith, let alone be committed disciples. We ask, “Could you help with Sunday School?” when we should be asking, “Where are you at in exploring your spirituality?”
Remember too that the church is a school, the school of Jesus. If people behaved this way in any other school, we would think it was bizarre, like offering graduate programs to people who ought to be in kindergarten. There are programs to help beginners: Alpha works for some, Christian Basics is great, Harold Percy’s Christianity 101 is being widely used, Emmaus is catching on. So there are lots of programs: we just need to choose one and start teaching it!
4. We will need to redirect finances to make evangelism possible
At the simplest level, if you buy Alpha videos, you won’t be able to buy something else. If you start a new service, you may need to hire a musician. (A couple of years ago, we started a new service in my parish, and put in our budget $5,000 to pay a worship leader. At our AGM a few Sundays later, a long-time member said, “Are the people at this new service actually giving $5,000 a year? And if not, why are we putting money into it?”)
I don’t need to tell you, when you talk about money, specially taking money away from something, or raising money for something new, you touch a raw nerve. For evangelism to happen, you need a treasurer with strong nerves and a passion for outreach!
5. We will need to reassign personnel
When we started our third Sunday service, we needed musicians, greeters, an extra Sunday school, and so on. And where were the people to come from to staff these? At least at first, they came from the existing services. You can imagine how popular that was.
It’s not only responsibilities within the church that will change, however. Often in the church, the way you measure someone’s commitment is by how many committees they are on, right? Wrong. I recall a friend in Ottawa, Don Page, who founded the Public Service Christian Fellowship. Over several years, they established about 100 Bible study groups on Parliament Hill and in government offices, and, over those years, Don heard of about 100 people who had become Christians through them. You know what responsibilities he had at his church (a Fellowship Baptist church)? None. They said, “Don, that’s your ministry. We’ll pray for you, support you, give you anything you need. But don’t waste your gifts on church committees.”
When Don left, there was a suggestion that the vice-president of the PSCF should take over, but he was unable to do so. Guess why? He had too many church commitments. There’s something deeply ironic about a church which limits people’s ability to do evangelism, isn’t there? But it happens all the time.
So we may need to release people from their regular commitments. Maybe someone will resign from a church committee because they are gifted at teaching one of those newcomers groups we are going to be offering. Maybe someone will give up teaching Sunday School because they’re starting a Bible study group at work. And instead of getting antsy and protective, we need to bless them and let them go. And to remind ourselves that people who serve on fewer committees may actually be getting more serious about their discipleship, not less.
6. Some old things, familiar and beloved, will have to give way to some new things.
I don’t know what these might be for you, but we need to be prepared. I think of a friend who was priest in a little country congregation in Ontario. He took out the two back pews because there was nowhere for people to stand, to mingle and have coffee. Sounds like a sensible move, right? Let us just say he is no longer the priest in that congregation. In fact, he has a thriving ministry in Nova Scotia.
He had offended people with money, and people who had the bishop’s phone number. The people he was trying to reach had neither—indeed, they weren’t even there yet. He changed something for the sake of outreach—and it wasn’t appreciated. Beware!
7. Our worship may have to change
I did a series of sermons on Lord of the Rings a couple of years back, for a weekly seeker service in downtown Toronto. Towards the end, one of the music group, a long time church member, came to me, and said, “At first I didn’t like your sermons. I couldn’t see what you were up to. But finally I’ve figured it out; they’re not for us, are they? They’re for the new people!” and she was right. But it took her time to get used to the different style.
But it may be something as simple as how we begin the service. I was in a service recently where the first announcement before the service began was about the new stewardship campaign. That’s hardly appropriate as the first thing new people hear. After all, what does it tell them? “Oh wow, so this place is in financial trouble! Do I really want to stay?”
So we will need to think about the beginning of the service, how and whether we take up an offering, what we sing, how we introduce Bible readings. Everything needs to be thought through from the point-of-view of a newcomer. Not that we necessarily change everything—of course—but at least we are sensitive to how a new person will hear things, and respond accordingly, so they do not feel alienated and never come back.
8. New people will come
But that’s what we hoped for, right? Isn’t that the point of evangelism? Why is that a cost? Well, the question is: what if they’re not like us? Our youth group has been growing with unchurched kids the last few years, and, as a result, on any given Sunday morning, there may be at least half a dozen youth in the service, and there are more belly buttons and nose rings, and more colourful hair than have ever been seen in this church before. And what’s worse, they don’t know the service. So far, we’re coping well.
However, one priest who has seen his church grow significantly with new people said to me, “People like it . . . until it comes to questions of power. The new people have come to feel they belong, and they want to serve, so they come to the annual general meeting, and they run for office.” You can imagine the rest. Power touches people where it hurts almost as much as money. But this is what happens if we do evangelism.
9. Some people will leave
Some would say that in any congregation there will be 20% who want to reach out and make disciples; 20% who say “Over my dead body” but show no sign of being about to die any time soon; and 60% who are open to be persuaded either way. Sometimes we have to choose which 20% we want—because in all likelihood not all of them will stay.
10. All this puts pressure on clergy for a different kind of leadership
I remember one minister in his mid-40s who said to me, “I was trained for a church that no longer exists.” A minister who cares about evangelism may well end up doing less pastoral visiting and more time hanging out in the local Tim Horton’s; less time with church committees, and more time training lay leaders; less time caring for the present members, more for the potential members that nobody knows or has seen yet. And such clergy need the encouragement and support of their congregations, not criticism and complaint.
Well, this is the price. Is it too high? But consider the cost if we do not do it . . .
The cost of not doing it
• To put it bluntly, a church that is not growing is a church which is dying—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but somewhere down the road, when the last three members close the doors for the last time, and say, “Maybe we should have thought about evangelism after all.” Church that is not trying to make disciples is going against its God-given nature.
• But I would say this is the least of our worries. Far worse will be the fact that we will have failed to obey our Lord’s last command. And one day we will have to look him in the eye and explain why. This is a higher price!
But don’t be discouraged. If we do launch out into disciple-making:
• We will find our own faith come alive. The New Testament was written to a disciple making church, and it will start to come alive to us in a fresh way if we too are disciple-making church. “Faith without works is dead,” and evangelism is one of the “works” which will bring our faith to life.
• We may see new people come to faith, and that will be a cause of great joy. It’s a good reminder when someone becomes a Christian that, “Wow! It really works!”
• You may remember that movie of 20 years ago, Chariots of Fire, and those words of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” When we start to evangelize, we will know God’s pleasure. Why? Because God is an evangelizing God, a disciple-making God, and when we do the things that God cares about, and our heart begins to beat with the heart of God, and we know God’s pleasure. And there is no greater joy for a human being on this earth.
Diocese of Edmonton, June 2004
The direct route is not always the best route. C.S.Lewis says, for example, that if we want joy, the worst thing we can do is go out looking for it, because we will never find it. If we want joy, we need to forget about it and simply get to work on whatever God has given us to do. And joy will sneak up on us when we’re not looking. It’s the same with evangelism. If we suddenly say, “We have to do evangelism”, and try to do it, we’ll be disappointed and frustrated—and, whatever we do, it’s unlikely to be evangelism. But, as with joy, if we get to work on what God has given us to do already, evangelism may just sneak up on us. Hence I call this talk “The Unexpected Key to Evangelism.” So, if we don’t start with evangelism, where do we start?
We start with discipleship. Christians are called primarily to discipleship, not to evangelism. But if we work on being disciples, I won’t say evangelism will happen spontaneously, but it will at least be within our grasp. Consider how this works in John 1:35-36. John the Baptist says to John and Andrew, “Behold the lamb of God!” and they follow—in other words they begin to be disciples. The very next thing is that Andrew goes to fetch Peter. But in telling him to come to Jesus, he is in fact evangelizing him. What is it that has made that possible? Simply that Andrew has become a disciple himself, so now he can invite someone else to be a disciple—which is the heart of evangelism. The same pattern happens just a few verses later. Jesus evangelizes Philip, that is, he invites him to be a disciple. Now, because Philip is a disciple he can go off and evangelize Nathaniel—that is, invite him to be a disciple too. You see the pattern? So evangelism begins with discipleship. Once we have started on the road of discipleship, we can help others become disciples too—that is, we can evangelize them. But only disciples can make disciples. Only those who are following can help others follow. Only those who have experienced good news can share good news.
So let’s think about discipleship. Christians are Disciples Interestingly enough, the name by which the first Christians called themselves most often was “disciple.” And the literal meaning of the word “disciple” is “learner” or “student.” For them, it seems, when they thought of Christian faith, the thing that came to their mind first was not church or services or the Ten Commandments or being a good citizen, but learning. This suggests that for them the Christian community was first and foremost a school, and the Christian life a process of learning.
This raises some interesting questions. Where is this school? What is it for? What do you learn there? What are the teaching methods? Who are the teachers? And where are classes held? How do you graduate? Is it true that the graduate programs are out of this world? The easiest question to answer is: who is the teacher? The answer is Jesus. Many times in the pages of the earliest biographies of Jesus he is called “Teacher”, and a couple of times he calls himself by the same title. But what is it that he teaches? What is the curriculum in this school Jesus is running? In the 1940s, Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of plays for radio based on the life of Jesus and called The Man Born to be King. In one of those plays she puts into the mouth of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ first followers, the sort of thing Mary might have said to Jesus as she recalled the first time she met him: “Did you know? My friends and I came there that day to mock you. We thought you would be sour and grim, hating all beauty and treating life as an enemy. But when I saw you, I was amazed. You were the only person there who was really alive. The rest of us were going about half-dead—making the gestures of life, pretending to be real people. The life was not with us but with you—intense and shining, like the strong sun when it rises and turns the flames of our candles to pale smoke. And I wept and was ashamed, seeing myself such a thing of trash and tawdry. But when you spoke to me, I felt the flame of the sun in my heart. I came alive for the first time. And I love life all the more since I have learnt its meaning.” 
Sayers explains elsewhere: “What she sees in Jesus is the Life–the blazing light of living intensely.” What did Jesus come to teach? He said on one occasion, “I have come so that people might have life and have it in all its fullness!” Jesus is a teacher of life: he teaches us how to live as God’s person in God’s world in God’s way—and in the friendship of God. That is what people saw in Jesus. It is what gave him that unique quality of being fully alive; it is what attracted people like Mary to be his followers. They wanted to learn the life that they saw in Jesus. Then I want to ask: how do you learn this kind of life? Some time ago I received in the mail a Bible study guide with a picture of a very formal classroom on the cover: big desk, blackboard, books neatly arranged in the desk, clock on the wall. To be honest, I didn’t spend a lot of time with it, because it seemed to me the whole image was so deeply wrong. Jesus’ kind of learning never took place in a classroom with a blackboard and a big desk. The
That then raises the question of how we learn? Jesus has a specially vivid image for this:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am humble and gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
There in the centre of this saying of Jesus is his offer to be our teacher: “Come . . . Learn of me.” Then he gives us a powerful image to explain how we learn. He says, “Take my yoke upon you.” Before we came to
Well, we learn theory through such things as Scripture, sermons, small group discussions, and books. We learn by watching models of the Christian life—Jesus first and foremost, then models in Scripture and church history, but then too people we have known who have showed us what it means to live a life of Christian faith. Experimenting generally means risking something new. I don’t know what that will be for you. Jesus tailors the learning to the particular disciple. it may well involve such things as:
o learning to be generous with what we have—perhaps more generous than we feel comfortable with at first;o learning to express our anger in more constructive ways;o learning how to forgive;o learning to come alongside someone at work or at school who is a bit of a misfit;o Jesus the Teacher may also want to alter our career plans, or our retirement plans, or our holiday plans. Then there is evaluation: going over what we are learning with a friend or a mentor or a spiritual director. And all of this of course in an environment of Love: the safety of Jesus and the community of his followers. If this sounds daunting, it is important to note that there are encouragements here. For example, Jesus says he is a teacher who is gentle and humble. Many of us have had teachers who are not like that: they delighted in showing how clever they were, and in putting down their students’ mistakes. Jesus is the opposite: encouraging, nurturing, patient with our mistakes, taking time and trouble with us individually, to help us learn. Then too he says his yoke is “easy.” For anyone who has been a follower of Jesus more than about twenty-four hours, that sounds a little strange because being a Christian is often demanding. The original biographies of Jesus, from which this saying is taken, were written in Greek, the main language of Jesus’ world, and I am told that the Greek word for “easy” can be better translated “well-fitting.” Actually, we still use the word “easy” this way. If you are looking for a pair of new shoes, you might try a couple of pairs that really do not fit and then you find one that is just right, and you say, “That’s a really easy fit.” You mean the shoes are comfortable, they are right for you. This is the sense in which Jesus’ yoke is “easy”: it is well-fitting. After all, in those days, yokes were made one by one for individual oxen—there was no mass production. Jesus is saying, in effect, My yoke is made specially for you. There will be work and there will sometimes be difficulty—but the yoke will still be the one I made for you. When Jesus originally said these words, he was issuing an invitation. He begins this saying with the words, “Come to me!” That wasn’t a theoretical statement, and his hearers knew it. In my imagination, when he had finished, and the crowds were going home for supper, there were some who did not leave straight away. They pushed through the crowd and came up to Jesus, maybe a little hesitantly, and said something like this: “Jesus, you know what you said about being your student and sharing your yoke? I really think I’d like to do that. Is there some kind of application form? Do I have to get transcripts?” And whoever that person was, whatever they had done, wherever they had been in their spiritual journey, Jesus said (and in my imagination it’s with a big smile and outstretched arms), “That’s great. You’re welcome. We’re just going to have supper. Come eat with us and I’ll introduce you to the others.” In one sense, nothing has changed since that first day, if it is indeed true that Jesus has returned from death and is alive forever. So we can speak to him just as if he were present here in the flesh. The offer of becoming his student, learning to live as God’s person in God’s world in God’s way, still stands. And his invitation, “Come to me”, is just as real today as it was 2,000 years ago. And now just as then he waits to see what we will say. Let me offer you the sort of thing you may wish to say to Jesus in response to his invitation. If it makes sense to you, you may wish to echo these words silently in your heart to him.
Thank you for inviting me to join your school. Thank you for offering yourself as my Teacher, and for shaping a yoke just for me. I do want to learn what it means to live as God’s person in God’s world in God’s way. Please enroll me as a student in your school. Teach me to share your yoke and to be your faithful student day by day. Amen I want to end by connecting back to evangelism. (I don’t want you going home, saying, He was supposed to talk about evangelism but all he did was talk about discipleship!)
How Does Discipleship Connect to Evangelism? A) One of the things on Jesus’ curriculum for his disciples is that they should “Go, make disciples.” B) If we are ourselves disciples, that is the first, most essential step towards helping others become disciples too. (I recall an Anglican Bishop in
“As time went by, I started to notice that Sarah and the other Christians in the residence seemed to live by some kind of code which was different from everyone else. They seemed to have a lot of fun, but . . . They were different, and I noticed the difference and was impressed by it. As I continued to think and learn I scrutinized those around me to see if they really were living a life that was true to what they believed. I discovered that indeed they failed from time to time, but I was more impressed by their readiness to own up to their failure and to start again with new enthusiasm.”
These people were living as disciples . . . and someone was attracted to become a disciple too.
Tomorrow we’ll think more about how this works out in the life of a congregation. I will have good news and I will have, well, difficult news. But my hope is that like me you will come to the conclusion that this journey to evangelism is worthwhile, perhaps the most worthwhile thing we will ever do. Diocese of
 Dorothy L. Sayers The Man Born To Be King (London: Victor Gollancz 1943), 186-187.
 The Gospel According to John, chapter 10, verse 10.
One of the things that we expect in a postmodern world, and rightly so, is that people will be upfront about where they are coming from, about what their story is and about their biases, so that they don’t pretend to an objectivity they don’t have, and so that we can have honest conversation. This being so, I need to tell you as I begin that at my core I am an Anglican of the evangelical variety, but at the edges I am quite fuzzy. (Well, maybe to say “fuzzy Anglican” is redundant anyway.) When I say fuzzy, let me be clear: what I mean is that I know God can’t be contained in my little box, or indeed in any human box, so I want to be open to God wherever God is to be found. Like the late Bishop John Robinson, who in many things is not a hero of mine, I want to be clear at the centre and open at the edges. I also want to acknowledge that this event tonight [Convocation] doesn’t take place in a cultural vacuum. I don’t need to tell you that the Anglican Church of Canada is facing what will in all likelihood be the most contentious of General Synods since the ordination of women was debated, and perhaps moreso. Friends of mine on both sides of the issue of blessing same sex unions are threatening to leave the Anglican Church if the vote goes against their preference. If that makes you nervous because you think that I am about to pontificate on The Issue, you can relax. It’s not my job, and I’m not sure I’m that courageous anyway. (I had lunch with Michael Peers a few months ago, and I said as we began, “Don’t worry. I don’t want to talk about the homosexual issue.” And he said with a wry smile: “That’s OK. Most people don’t. They just send me emails.”) I only mention this because it is the situation in the background for this evening’s convocation, and I think it would be naïve for us not to acknowledge it. Where then to begin, and which direction to go? In trying to be open to different ways of thinking, one of the schools of thought I have found helpful in recent years is postliberalism—people like George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas—and I want to borrow their term “retrieval.” They would say in order to understand the present and to be ready for the future, we need to have a strong sense of who we are, and in order to do that, we have to reach back into our history, and “retrieve” a sense of what it means to be a Christian. I want to suggest there are perhaps three areas of Christian faith that we need to “retrieve” in order to understand the present and to be ready for the future, whatever it may bring: 1. We need to recover a sense of what story we are living in You may know that wonderful line from philosopher Alasdair McIntyre on this subject. He says:
I can only answer the question, “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question, “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” (After Virtue 216)
Human beings need to know their story: it gives us identity and it gives us purpose. If I may adapt an old joke, you may know of the son who wouldn’t get up on a Sunday morning for church. His mother tried to get him up, but he said, “Why should I go to church? Nobody likes me, it’s boring, and I’m not sure I believe that stuff anyway. Give me two reasons I should get up.” And his mother replied, “Well, you’re thirty years old and you’re the priest.” What is the mother doing? She’s trying to get him to do the right thing by reminding him of the story he belongs to!
For the most part, Anglican Christians don’t know the story they belong to. We are biblically illiterate, maybe because we still live with a Christendom model of the church, where we assume everybody who walks through the door is already a mature Christian, or maybe we prefer to be biblically illiterate so that no-one will mistake us for Baptists.
What then is our story? We are part of what is basically a very simple story. Our story says God created the world good and beautiful and full of life; the story says we spoiled God’s creation by refusing to follow the manufacturer’s instructions; but the story says too that this is not the end, that the Creator has not given up, indeed that the Creator is seeking to restore this world to a beauty even greater than it had at the beginning. And, as we understand it in the Christian community, the centrepiece of God’s restoration project is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Does this make the Christian story a metanarrative, bete noir of postmodernism? Frankly, I don’t see any way around saying yes, it is a metanarrative. But I would say with Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh in their book, Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be, that the Christian story is a uniquely benign metanarrative, whose intention is to bring freedom not oppression. Now the Christian story is not the same story a Muslim or a Buddhist might tell (though that’s no reason we can’t be friends). Neither is it the same story an atheist would tell. And, frankly, it’s not the story most Canadians would tell. So Christians need to be familiar with their distinctive story in order to answer the question, “What am I to do? How should I behave? What are wise choices?” Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has a great analogy for this, which I will adapt slightly. He says, suppose a previously unknown play of Shakespeare’s was discovered, but with one act, Act 5, missing. What could you do? Perhaps the best solution would be to get together the world’s most experienced Shakespearian actors, get them to read Acts 1 through 4, and Act 6, till it is second nature to them—and then set them loose to act out the play. When they came to Act 5 they would improvise, they would make it up. Now, if they are going to do that well, they would have to be true to Acts 1 through 4, the characters and the plot would have to be credible—and their improvisation would have to connect with the start of Act 6. Now, says Wright, that is where we are in relation to the Christian story. God has given us a framework for our lives in Acts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. Act 1 is creation, Act 2 the fall, Act 3 the formation of the people of
2. We need to retrieve the story of the Gospel . . . because at the heart of our story is Good News. When you ask what brought the Christian church into being, it was, in a word, the Gospel. Those first followers of Jesus had stumbled on good news–the good news that Jesus had risen, that sins could be forgiven, that God is for us, and that the whole world looks different because of this. And the reason the Christian church spread so rapidly throughout the ancient world, and the reason it continues to spread in many countries today, is exactly that—that Christians have amazing good news to share. I think of one young man who became a Christian not long ago, who said to me, “I feel more alive than I’ve ever felt before!” That’s what the Gospel does to people. Now Anglicans are not exactly known for their (what shall I say?) unbridled spiritual exuberance. But unless we rediscover the Gospel, we will die—it’s as simple as that. Do Anglicans know the Gospel? I remember asking this question at a diocesan gathering once, and an elderly man in the front row said, “Well, I’ve been an Anglican for 60 years, and I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever heard something called the Gospel.” His priest, who was sitting beside him, turned to him in horror and said, “But you hear it every Sunday!” Who was right? Well, probably both were right. He had heard the words all right, but not in such a way that it came home to him as good news, not in such a way that it gave him joy or hope. We say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”—and the greatest facts in the history of the human race just make us yawn, whereas, if they are true, surely they should make us want to shout and dance and sing and weep for joy all at the same time. Although as Anglicans, we would do it in a reserved and liturgical way, naturally. That doesn’t matter. Part of the problem, I think, is that we have not helped people discover the Christian good news in their own experience. Think of it this way. Suppose a war has been won and a country has been set free from oppression. That’s great news. (My father used to tell us children how he had liberated
For some years, I served on the Primate’s Evangelism Commission. I remember Michael Peers once reflecting how in his lifetime he had seen the church’s involvement in social action move from the margins of church life, where it was just the pet peeve of a small ginger group, to the centre, where these days we take it for granted that social action is the church’s responsibility. So my question, I suppose, is this: Can the reality and drama of our story move back to the centre of the church’s life? Can we grow again into loving the story, being passionate about the story, centering our lives and our congregations’ lives, around the story? Because in a world where many lack a story, this is a story that gives life, this is a story that is full of hope. Does the Anglican Church of Canada have a future? My answer is a definite . . . maybe. But in the big picture, you know, that’s not really the most important question to be asking. In the long run, if survival is our number one priority, one thing is clear: we will not survive. (You will recall that Jesus said some pretty strong things about those who tried to save their own lives.) No, our job is to be faithful to the story, not least because we believe it is God’s story, and our job is to retell the story and to live out the story—as Tom Wright puts it, with faithfulness on the one hand and creativity on the other. And to leave the consequences to God.
By way of putting this paper in context, I should say that Lewis has been one of my most formative influences from the time I read Mere Christianity as a teenager. I was on staff with IVCF for 26 years, and the last 10 of those were as a campus evangelist, giving lectures on Christian faith, particularly in relation to culture, on university campuses across Canada. Lewis was one of the models for how to address a secular, or at least non-churched, audience. I have been teaching evangelism at Wycliffe College since 1997, and I suppose being in a more academic environment has encouraged me to think about Lewis and his approach to evangelism, and how it relates to changes in culture, more critically than I had done previously. This paper comes out of that ongoing reflection.
In current writing about evangelism, largely through the influence of Lesslie Newbigin, there has been much discussion of the relation of evangelism to culture, and an assumption–I think a valid and biblical one–that the style of evangelism needs to change according to its cultural context. Peter’s sermon to Jewish pilgrims on the Day of Pentecost is quite different from Paul’s sermon to the philosophers of Athens. The corresponding problem, of course, is that any given culturally shaped form of evangelism cannot be readily transferred to another cultural context, since its message will not be understood or received.
C.S.Lewis was a remarkably effective evangelist to the culture of his day, and Mere Christianity in particular still helps many come to Christian faith. Yet western culture has changed greatly since Britain in the first half of the twentieth century, not least in the ongoing shift from modernism to post-modernism. As a result, some today see Lewis as hopelessly wedded to a modernist culture and therefore unable to communicate to a postmodern world. One author who does so is Rodney Clapp: in his 1996 book A Peculiar People, he points to one aspect of what he considers to be Lewis’ modernism:
The foundationalist C.S.Lewis argued that there is for all persons in all times and places a singular and innate sense of fairness. . . . But today our society is sufficiently pluralistic . . . that different standards are indeed seen to be at work. Thus the prochoicer’s “decent behaviour” is the prolifer’s “murder.”
In other words, Lewis’ kind of argument will not impress a true postmodern. Lewis assumes absolutes and appeals to universals in a way that many in our culture do not. Clapp seems to me correct in some respects. Certainly, Mere Christianity can be interpreted as modernist, in the popular sense that it seeks to argue people into belief in a linear, rationalistic way. For Lewis, Christian faith can only be based on sufficient evidence:
I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against. (MC 120-121)
–and his goal is to set out the appropriate evidence in such a way that the conclusion is virtually irresistible. An objective, non-perspectival, faith-free consideration of “the facts” is possible, and faith is a secondary step based on that rational consideration. In a postmodern world, where reason is relativized and distrusted, and where objectivity is considered impossible, this approach is hardly guaranteed to gain one a sympathetic audience. Even worse, of course, underlying all of Lewis’ apologetics is a metanarrative, bete noir of postmodernism. This is perhaps clearest in The Narnia Chronicles, with their retelling of the Christian metanarrative from the creation (The Magician’s Nephew) to the eschaton (The Last Battle), but it is always assumed
So is Lewis’ voice ineffective as an evangelist to a postmodern world? My argument is this. There may indeed be ways in which Lewis addresses his culture more appropriately than he does our own. This is the nature of good evangelism: it is precisely its timeliness that limits its timelessness. Nevertheless, I want to argue that Lewis in fact recognizes and anticipates the dangers of modernity and, in response, demonstrates approaches to evangelism which we might now label as postmodern.
Lesslie Newbigin, in his many books, has encouraged Christians to learn from those who have been involved in cross-cultural mission overseas in order to learn how to address what is increasingly a cross-cultural situation “at home.” Following this lead, I am going to make use of a 1991 missiology classic, Transforming Mission, by South African David Bosch. What Bosch does is to look at the history of Christian mission from New Testament times to the present day, with an eye to the many ways in which mission has adapted to culture. He considers how mission has been influenced by modernity, and how it needs to adapt to a postmodern context, and although his focus is on overseas missions, his analysis this seems particularly apt for our purpose.
Bosch’s first observation about modernity is that:
The human mind was viewed as the point of departure for all knowing. Human reason was . . . independent of the norms of tradition or presupposition. (264)
In these terms, Lewis’ appeal to reason in books like Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, or Miracles might appear to classify him as a modernist. Yet Lewis is actually quite aware of the limitations of human reason and clearly relativizes reason in several ways.
Probably Lewis’ own experience laid the foundation for this. After all, the experience of Joy in his life preceded any rational reflection on the experience. Further, when he describes the foundations of his own personality, he does not see rationality as primary. In a 1954 letter, he explains that:
The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic, than either the religious writer or the critic.” (Letters 444, 1954)
It may be significant in this respect that he saw himself first and foremost as a poet, and that his first published work was poetry.
From this vantage point, Lewis is able to acknowledge that reason is never autonomous but that culture has a role in shaping how we approach truth and reason. As Lewis says of Uncle Andrew’s view of the creation of Narnia, “What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.” (Nephew 116) Our knowledge of the world is never unbiased, complete or absolute.
This is clear in such places as The Discarded Image, where he acknowledges that no Model of the world can be regarded as ultimate truth:
Part of what we know now is that we cannot, in the old sense, ‘know what the universe is like’ and that no model we build will be, in that sense, ‘like’ it. (218)
He encourages us, therefore, to “regard all Models in the right way, respecting each and idolizing none.” (222) David Downing actually notes this as anticipating “contemporary post-structuralist historiography.” (Planets 61)
As so often happens, Lewis’ philosophical convictions are played out in his fiction. Thus it is not surprising that in the space trilogy, while reason plays an important part, it is strictly relativized. Reason occupies one seat at the table, but not the seat of honour. Thus in That Hideous Strength, McPhee, the strict rationalist (who, like Kirkpatrick “came near to being a purely logical entity.” Surprised), has an honoured place in the fellowship of St. Anne’s. The Director explains to Jane Studdock, “He is our sceptic; a very important office.” (Trilogy 539). Thus he can ask the difficult questions and challenge sloppy thinking. Yet his strength is also his weakness, and when it comes to confronting Merlin, McPhee is useless: “You can’t go, McPhee,” says the Director; “The others are heavily protected as you are not.” (587)
What then of the reliance on reason in books like Mere Christianity? One possibility is that it is chiefly strategic, based not on autonomous modernist foundationalism, as Clapp seems to believe, but on Christian presuppositions. Lewis’ 1941 letter to the BBC’s Dr. Welch suggests this:
It seems to me that the New Testament . . . always assumes an audience who already believe in the Law of Nature and know they have disobeyed it.” (Green and Hooper 202)
Although he will “mention Christianity only at the end,” that very strategy is a biblical one, reminiscent of Paul’s sermon at Athens. Perhaps this is an example of what James Como has in mind when he says that although Lewis “never deviated from his belief in reason as the organ of truth,” nevertheless he “could adapt with the adroitness of a field commander.” (xxvii)
Bosch deals at some length with the modernist view of science. He observes a new emphasis on objectivity in the modern period, which “separated human beings from their environment” and opened the door for exploitation of the environment and of others. Teleology has disappeared: “science cannot answer the question by whom and for what purpose the universe came into being.” Scientific knowledge is perceived as objective and value-free and all problems are in principle solvable. (264-266)
Lewis’ scorn for what he calls “scientism” is well-known. He distinguishes it from “real science” and “good scientists” since “the sciences are ‘good and innocent in themselves’” (quoting THS).
He is clear what this good science would be:
When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. (Abolition 79)
Scientism on the other hand is by nature reductionist, finally undermining its own credibility by destroying the possibility of rational thought and human nature itself:
Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. (Abolition 68)
The fictional form of scientism is seen in several places. At the creation of Narnia, for example, while most spectators are rapt in awe, Uncle Andrew, the scientist, is already thinking of how to plunder the scientific and economic bounty of this new world. His objectification of Narnia, of course, has the logical result that he cannot hear the music of the Lion or the speech of the animals; nor can he enter into their play. In other words, he becomes less than human.
In Out of the Silent Planet, Weston and Devine, similarly, think of Mars and its inhabitants as objects of scientific and economic interest only. Their bias is revealed early in the book, when Weston complains of the boy they had hoped to take with them, that “in a civilized society [he] would be automatically handed over to a state laboratory for experimental purposes.” (Trilogy 15) When they arrive on Mars, it is not the physical scientists but Ransom, the linguist, who enters into relationship with the inhabitants, shares their sports, hears their poetry, and shares their grief.
In both instances, while scientific “objectivity” towards the environment may bring limited (and usually selfish) benefits, the person who is prepared to set aside such distance and enter in to the environment, reaps far richer rewards. That Hideous Strength illustrates the logical end of this kind of “objectivity.” When Frost is preparing Mark Studdock for the (significantly named) Objective Room, he warns Mark that:
Resentment and fear are both chemical phenomena. Our reactions to one another are chemical reactions. Social relations are chemical reactions. (Trilogy 614)
The reductionism which is implied in objectivity leads to the mind of dehumanization which is at the heart of the NICE.
Bosch observes that in modernity the doctrine of progress meant that people “were convinced that they had both the ability and the will to remake the world in their own image.” (265) Lewis is not a fan of “progress.” He calls it:
the fatal serialism of the modern imagination—the image of infinite unilinear progression which so haunts our minds. Abolition 80
In Surprised by Joy, however, he admits that he was not always a sceptic about progress. He describes his reaction on hearing that Owen Barfield had become an Anthroposophist: “‘Why, damn it—it’s medieval,’ I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse.” (Surprised 166) Later, he wrote of Barfield in 1936, “The friend to whom I have dedicated the book [The Allegory of Love] has taught me not to patronize the past, and has trained me to see the present as itself a ‘period’.” As a result, Lewis was not a fan of the doctrine “lodged in popular thought that improvement is, somehow, a cosmic law’ (De Futilitate 58) nor of its offspring, chronological snobbery, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age.” (Surprised 167)
In The Discarded Image, he further disarmed the myth by suggesting that scientific “evidence” for progress merely followed on a philosophical hankering for progress. This is why, in The World’s Last Night, he says that “Progressive evolution as popularly imagined, is simply a myth, supported by no evidence whatever. . . . No-one looking at world history without some preconception in favour of progress could find in it a steady up gradient.”
Perhaps the most merciless pillorying of the myth of progress, however, comes in Out of the Silent Planet, when Weston tries to defend human colonization of the universe on the grounds that human beings are more “advanced” than other civilizations. Ransom’s childlike translation of Weston’s rant effectively reduces its triumphalism to meaningless folly. Thus Weston’s boasting of “our transportation system which is rapidly annihilating space and time” is reduced to we “can carry heavy weights very quickly a long way.” (Trilogy 120-121) It is significant that both Weston and Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew are punished with cold water on their heads (Trilogy 116, 118, Nephew 123), as if their scientism has been a form of intoxication.
Finally, Bosch characterizes the modernist period as one when people were seen as “emancipated, autonomous individuals”, as compared with “the Middle Ages, [when] community took priority over the individual.” (267)
Lewis has a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards individualism. On the one hand, he fears the crowd, “the growing exaltation of the collective and the growing indifference to persons. . . . the general character of modern life with its huge impersonal organizations.” (“Haldane,” OTOW 108) Yet he acknowledges that this emphasis on the collective ironically stems from an over-emphasis on the individual, “that quite un-christian worship of the individual . . . which is so rampant in modern thought.” (“Membership,” Fernseeds 24)
On the other hand, Lewis is clear about the importance of the Christian community. He is quite explicit: “The Christian is called, not to individualism but to membership in the mystical body.’ (“Membership,” Fernseeds 15) In That Hideous Strength, if the NICE represents the parody of “family” that scientism brings, true community is to be found at St. Anne’s, with its strange mixture of the Cockney cleaning lady, the Scottish sceptic, the academic Dr. Dimble and his wife, the bear Mr. Bultitude, the enigmatic and austere Grace Ironwood, Jane Studdock, the would-be academic with second sight, and the director, the saintly Ransom. The group is bound together by philia, that is, the love which exists between people who “care about the same truth.” (Four Loves 62) St. Anne’s is in fact almost a microcosm of the Body of Christ.
It is true that Lewis’ ecclesiology is notoriously weak. Though he attended his parish church in Headington, he could hardly be called an active participant in the parish’s life. Yet he understands the importance of church as a place of community. Screwtape complains about church because “being a place of unity and not of liking, it brings together people of different classes and psychology . . . in the kind of unity the Enemy desires.” (Screwtape 81) His advice to Wormwood is to distract his patient from these realities by reminding him of the outward eccentricities of church members and the unintelligible liturgies, not to mention the singing of “fifth rate poems set to sixth-rate music.” Screwtape, like Lewis, knows the importance of church, and that, as Lewis says elsewhere, “personal and private life is lower than participation in the Body of Christ.” (“Membership,” Fernseeds 13)
Conclusion: The premodern as key
In light of this, I would suggest that Lewis can be read with profit by both modernist audiences (of whom there are still many) and postmodern audiences (of whom there are a growing number).
How is it possible to do both? On the one hand, he addresses the modern world because he deeply understands that world. He was influenced by it, as all of us are shaped by the culture into which we are born. He uses the tools of that culture, not least the linear rationalism, and the assumption of shared values, to advocate on behalf of Christian faith, to great effect.
But, at the same time, because he is a Christian, that culture does not have the final word, and he can anticipate its demise without concern:
It is not impossible that our own Model will die . . . when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental temper of our descendants demand that it should. (222)
In fact, because Lewis’ faith and his academic discipline have their origins before the modern era, his mind is also shaped by influences far broader than that of a single culture: his faith, indeed, his whole mindset, is a pre-modern faith. Some have suggested that the pre-modern has more in common with the postmodern than either does with the modern. This would explain why other sides of Lewis than the purely rational can still communicate powerfully in a postmodern world.
One of the features Bosch observes in a postmodern world is a realization that:
Rationality has to be expanded. . . . This recognition has led to a re-evaluation of the role of metaphor, myth, analogy and the like, and to the rediscovery of the sense of mystery and enchantment. (353)
This would suggest that the future of Lewis as evangelist may lie more in his fiction than in his directly apologetic works, in Narnia and the science fiction trilogy, in The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces, those places where (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson) he tells all the truth, but he tells it slant.
Mere Christians: Then and Now
7th Annual C.S.Lewis and the Inklings Conference
LeTourneau University, Texas, April 2004
I do not think the God of Christianity is particularly religious. If Jesus is right, God created all of life, not just the narrowly religious bits. So if God is interested in us, God doesn’t have to wait till we get religious. God can communicate with us many ways—through friends, books, school, experiences . . . and even movies. Movies often touch us in deep ways—and whenever we are touched deeply, that may be a signal that God is trying to get through to us.
For example, in many of the movies of Jim Carrey, I am struck by how often issues of personhood crop up, question such as: Who am I? Am I good or bad? Who really knows me? Who am I meant to be? I was beginning to reflect on this on 2002, when what was then a new Carrey movie began to be advertised, Me, Myself and Irene, and I thought: “If that’s not identity, what is? Bingo!”
To me, questions of identity are basically spiritual questions, in the sense that they very quickly lead us to questions of God, and our purpose of life.
What I want to do then is to look at some of the themes that Jim Carrey tackles, and then show how they relate to Christian spirituality.
In Man on Moon (1999), Carrey plays the comedian Andy Kaufman. The amazing thing about this movie is that nothing is what it seems. Every time you think you have got something figured out, the movie pulls the rug from beneath your feet. This is especially true for the figure of Andy: you are never quite sure who or what he is. Every time you think you know, he does something to surprise you. The confusion begins with the movie’s opening credits, where he appears first as a very shy person, then a very extroverted person, then tells us the movie will be full of interesting characters—like the ones he is playing at this very moment!
Later on, he goes to a university to speak to the students, and announces, “For the very first time, I’m going to reveal the real me” (which tells you he knows this is an issue). But he does not: instead, he reads F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby out loud, from beginning to end. What does this have to do with revealing the “real” Andy Kaufmann? Is he revealed—or disguised—by the reading of the book? We are left confused. We discover along the way that Kaufman has an alter ego called Tony Clifton, whose theme song is, “I gotta be me.” But who is the “me” he has to be? Does he really exist? This is still a question right up to the very last frame of the movie.
Another way we experience the problem of identity comes out in The Mask (1995) Carrey plays the introverted bank employee, Stanley Ipkiss, who finds an ancient mask. When he puts it on, he becomes a totally different person: animated, impetuous, and crazy. What’s going on? He goes to see a psychologist to try and understand himself, and we learn that the psychologist has written a book called, The Masks We Wear.
This suggests that we are meant to think of the mask that Stanley wears as a metaphor. We hide what is really inside and put on a mask for public consumption. For most people, of course, what the mask conveys is a socially acceptable, quiet, law-abiding person. The person inside might cause chaos if we let them out!
And, even worse, who would love the person we are inside? In 1969, Catholic author John Powell wrote a book called Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? He recounts that, when he told someone he was writing a book with this title, they immediately responded by saying, “Because if I tell you who I am, and you don’t like it, I don’t have anything else.” That is why we like to have masks, and are reluctant to drop them. We need to protect what is inside.
For Stanley, the opposite is true: putting on the mask gives him the opportunity to become wild, even manic, and he really doesn’t care who likes him or not. In his case, the quiet public persona actually seems to be the more truthful one. Stanley says he is a wild romantic, but that side of him only comes out when he puts on the mask. But that is when Tina (Carmen Diaz) sees the man who lives inside the mask, and accepts the “real” Stanley.
Jim Carrey is obviously aware of this tension between the public and the private persona, and our sensitivity about letting the inside be seen too often. He said, in an interview in Flare magazine in July 1998:
My movies have been ways for people to escape life. . . .The scary thing is that because you’re letting little glimpses of your true self come out, if it’s rejected, it’s actually you that’s being rejected and not the character you’ve created.
In Cable Guy (1996), the mask is very thin, and what is underneath is not pleasant. Indeed, the movie is hardly a comedy: some people find it very scary. Chip Douglas (Carrey) is an emotional black hole, frequently left by his mother to be raised by TV. As a result, he does not know how to relate to anyone, and he is desperate for friendship. In the movie, his latest victim is Steve (Matthew Broderick), whom he tries to force into being his friend. But Chip does not know how to be a friend: he manipulates, threatens, and bribes. C.S.Lewis once said:
Friends are not primarily absorbed in each other. It is when we are doing things together that friendship springs up—painting, sailing ships, praying, philosophizing, fighting shoulder to shoulder. Friends look in the same direction.
But for Chip, friendship is basically about him. He has almost nothing in common with Steve; they share few interests. He simply wants a friend to fill the emptiness inside, and (surprise) it doesn’t work. Steve does not want to be used in this way. He says, “We’re not friends. I don’t even know you.”
On one level, what Chip wants is reasonable: we all need affection, acceptance, and friendship. One again, the songs in the movie give us an insight into what is really going on. Thus, at a karaoke party, Chip sings “Don’t you want somebody to love? I’d like somebody to love. It’s hard to find somebody to love.” That is the story of Chip’s life. So how do we find the love, acceptance, friendship we need? The movie raises the question, but gives us no answer, except that Chip’s way is not the way! Even at the end, he still has not learned, and the cycle begins over again.
The movie Me, Myself and Irene (2002) returns to the theme of the contrast between inside and outside. Charlie Baileygates (Carrey) is a cop on Rhode Island. But he is too nice for his own good, and, as a result, people walk all over him. He asks one man to move his car, which is illegally parked. The man throws Charlie his keys, and tells him to move it himself. Charlie obliges without a murmur. He is incapable of expressing his own opinion, or of showing anger. Rather, as one character says when the crisis comes, he “locks it all away.” Finally, the suppressed sides of his personality come out as a new, quite nasty character called Hank. Charlie apparently now has a split personality. (The makers of the movie got in trouble with the Schizophrenia Society for their cheap parody of schizophrenia.) The two characters—Hank and Charlie—begin to fight.
When he finally admits he’s got a problem, Charlie asks about Hank: “How did he get in?” and the answer is: “You created him by not dealing with your problems. You’ve been avoiding confrontation, but this guy inside, Hank, he doesn’t. The doctors feel you’ve created this character out of necessity. You never stick up for yourself.” Once again, we see different, conflicting parts of a personality: how can they co-exist? How can Charlie (or indeed any one of us) be a whole person?
There are also two sides to Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar (1997). This time, Carrey plays a lawyer (Fletcher Reede) who is a compulsive liar. The movie begins with children in class talking about their parents. Reede’s son Max says, “My father’s a liar.” The teacher corrects him: “You mean a lawyer.” Max replies, “No, I mean a liar.” And, of course, Max is right.
Fletcher lies in order to make life easier for himself. In other words, his lying is a mark of how self-centred he is: he twists the truth to suit his comfort and convenience. (Early on, he says he ran out of gas when he was late to pick up son.) Max, naturally enough, is fed up, and makes an unusual wish at his birthday party—that his father be forced to tell the truth. His wish, naturally, comes true.
Telling the truth, however, gets Fletcher into all sorts of new trouble, because now he can’t be so self-centred. By the end, he’s learned his lesson. He even quotes Jesus: “the truth shall set you free” and he concludes that “This truth stuff is pretty cool.”
Here then are some of the problems Jim raises around issues of personhood:
Who is the “real” me? (Man on the Moon)
How can I connect the inside and the outside? (Me, Myself and Irene)
How can I get people to like me? (Cable Guy)
Will people like me if they really know me? (The Mask)
How does the real me relate to the truth? (Liar, Liar)
Some hints of an answer:
I would argue that Jim Carrey’s movies offer at least four ways forward: all four resonate with Christian spirituality. Some of the movies we have already looked at offer clues to an answer; other answers are found in other Carrey movies.
1: Man on Moon (1999)
There is a point in the movie where Andy has been particularly obnoxious. He wrestles with women, and he wins. He insults people. He goes on David Letterman, and throws coffee and swears at his host. He is voted off Saturday Night Live. And finally he is expelled from the Eastern meditation group TM, because he is giving them a bad image.
He goes back to his apartment and lies on the bed brooding. His girlfriend Lynn (Courtney Love) arrives with Haagen-Dazs ice cream for him, and asks what the matter is. “I’m a bad person,” he confesses. “No, you’re not,” she argues. “You’re just a complicated person.” He replies, “You don’t know the real me.” Then she says gently, “There is no real you.” Immediately he asks her to move in with him. What is the connection? Why does her strange statement lead to his invitation? It sounds like a non sequitur. My guess is that he is deeply touched by the fact that Lynn loves him in spite of her insight that there is no “real me.” He does not want to lose this rare gift of a person who sees inside him, to the emptiness he knows is there, and loves him anyway. That is real love, the ability to love someone when every mask is removed.
One of the chief things that Jesus was known for when he was on earth was accepting people for who they were. It made no difference who a person was, how marginalized, how much of an outsider or a “sinner” they were. Jesus could know everything about you and still be your friend, even if nobody else wanted anything to do with you. Christians say he is still that way, that he knows the worst about them, and still goes on loving.
2. The Majestic (2002)
Here Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a movie script writer. The story is set in the 50’s, at the time of the McCarthy trials, when anyone suspected of Communist sympathies was being put on trial before the Committee on un-American Activities.
Near the start of the movie, Appleton has an accident and loses his memory. He wanders into a little nearby town where people think he is Luke, a boy from the town who was killed in Second World War. One man claims him as his son. The woman who was Luke’s fiancée decides it is probably him. Since Appleton can remember nothing, he wonders whether maybe is Luke. But not everybody believes it. So who is he really?
By the end, Appleton’s memory comes back, and he has to go and face his trial on charges of being a Communist sympathizer. His lawyer advises him to admit to the charges, stupid though they are, and to incriminate others. That is the easy way out, and he is inclined to take it. But before he leaves town, he visits the grave of Luke, and there is Adele, Luke’s fiancée, who has finally accepted that the real Luke is dead after all. Adele criticises Appleton for not taking a stand for truth and justice, as Luke would have done. Luke died for his country, after all, and here is Appleton not willing even to stand up for himself. Appleton is moved Adele’s angry challenge. In the end, he defies the committee and becomes a hero himself.
What’s happened? He has not only recovered the person he used to be. He is actually becoming someone different, a much finer person, with integrity and idealism he lacked at the beginning. And how has that happened? By modeling himself on someone admirable.
Christians are followers of Jesus. They are aware of their weaknesses and failings. But in Jesus they see someone they want to be like—compassionate, passionate for truth and justice, with integrity that is willing to suffer for what is right. And their belief is that, as they open themselves to the Spirit of Jesus, little by little he shapes that same kind of character in them. We all need models—who better than Jesus, a human being as human beings were created to be?
3. The Truman Show (1998)
Truman is the star of an all-day soap opera. The only trouble is, he doesn’t know it. Gradually, as the movie unfolds, he gets clues that something is wrong in his world. Again, here is the theme of identity and personhood: Who is Truman? Who is the true Truman? (His name is significant.) Either he is the only real person (since all the others are actors) or he is the only unreal person (since everyone else lives in the “real world” and knows what is going on).
However, there is one person who enters his artificial world from the outside, because she cares about him and wants to tell him the truth about life: her name is Lauren. She takes him to the beach, hopefully outside the range of the omnipresent TV cameras, and tries to tell him that his whole world is artificial, and that he needs to escape. Unfortunately, before she can say much, another actor drives up, claiming to be her father and insisting on taking her “home.”
From that point on, Truman’s goal is to find a way out of his world, to stop playing a part, and to find Lauren and the “real world.”
Again, Lauren is a bit like Jesus: Christians believe that Jesus too came from outside our space-time continuum into our artificial world, and said Hey, you want to be real in a real world? Follow me, and I’ll take you there.
4. Bruce Almighty (2003)
In this movie Carrey plays Bruce, a TV reporter whose life is falling apart. He complains to his girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston) that it is all God’s fault. So God calls him on his cell phone and summons him to a meeting. God (Morgan Freeman) says basically, “You think it’s easy being God? You try.” And so, for a week, Bruce has all the powers of God. There are only two conditions: he can’t tell anyone that he is God, and he has to respect people’s freewill.
Half the fun of the movie of course comes from watching Bruce fool around with his supernatural powers, parting the red sea of his tomato soup, and so on. But there is a serious side to his experiments, which is, of course, his learning that he is not smart enough to be God, and too selfish to be God.
As you would expect, by the end he is learning his lesson and becoming a much nicer person. He is even willing to give up Grace if that is best for her, and he tries to think of Grace as God thinks of her. God says to Bruce, “You want her back?” and Bruce, says, after a moment’s hesitation, “No, I want her to be happy, whatever that means . . . To meet someone who sees her as I see her now . . . through your eyes.”
As a result, ironically enough, once he stops trying to play God, this unselfish love actually makes him more like God in character. Instead of being a poor imitation of God he becomes a decent human being with God-like qualities, in a harmonious relationship with God.
And I guess that is the ultimate parallel with Jesus in Jim Carrey’s movies: that Christians believe he put us in touch with God in a unique way, so that all the different parts of our personality can come together in that relationship, and we can become the person God made us to be.
A friend of mine works in a university writing centre. She was recently advising a student who was writing an essay about the self, and it became obvious that for the student this was much more than an academic exercise. She said, I’m different people in different situations: I begin to wonder, is there a real me? Is there some way all these fragmented selves can be united? And my friend, who’s a Christian, said very gently, well, for me all the pieces come together in my relationship with Jesus, who made me and knows me through and through, and loves me no matter what.
And I guess that ultimately is the good news that Jesus has for Jim. And for all of us.
Brock University, 2004
The world divides into two categories: those who divide the world into two categories and those who don’t. I’m one of the first. So the people reading this divide into two broad groups: some are people who have decided that they want to be followers of Jesus, Christians; others are people who are not sure about Christianity. In the second category, you’re probably a spiritual person but you’re not into organized religion (oxymoron though that is). You’re exploring your spirituality but you’re not ready to commit to any one religion. In other words, you’re a normal person.
This article is particularly for the normal people, but others can listen in. What I want to do is to write as clearly as I can about what it means to be a Christian today. Personally, I long for people to become Christians. But I know too that people have to take their time over a big question like their spirituality, to figure out their options. I have no interest in manipulating people into becoming Christians, or disguising what it’s really like to be a Christian. The trouble with people who get rushed or manipulated into becoming Christians is that they wake up one day and think, What on earth have I done? I didn’t mean that at all. Let me out of here! And that’s no good for them or for the Christian religion!
So I want to try to tell it like it is, both the good stuff about Christianity and the difficult stuff. And before we’re done, I hope you will be thinking, “You know, I never knew that Christian faith was like that.
You know, I think maybe I do want to be a Christian after all.” So at the end I will tell you as simply as I know how just how you can become a Christian.
So: seven reasons you should not become a Christian–and one reason you should.
REASONS WHY NOT
1. Because you will be joining an institution which is morally compromised. If you become a Christian, people will be amazed that you choose to identify yourself with such an institution. I promise you, they’ll say: What about the crusades? What about the Inquisition? What about the role of missionaries in the colonial movement of the 19th century? What about the residential schools and pedophile clergy?
There’s a lot your new family has to answer for. And Christians can’t just brush those things off even though we might like to: we have to admit, yes, those things did happen in our family, and we are embarrassed and ashamed of them, not least because they are unworthy of the name of Jesus Christ.
But at the same time, as you get to know the history of your new family, you will discover a less well-known fact, that Christians have done and continue to do some wonderful things in the world in the name of Jesus Christ. Christians started the first hospitals, the first orphanages, many of the first schools. They pioneered such things as the abolition of slavery, industrial reform, prison reform. Even today, they are involved all over the world in working for literacy, development, justice and medical care. They are following Jesus’ teaching:
“You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am. . . . I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John13:13-15)
Even in those areas where Christians have been criticized, the criticisms are not the whole story, though they are often the only part you may hear. Take the role of Christians in the spread of European empires. There is a positive side. It can be a very moving experience to hear African or First Nations leaders say (as I have), Yes, some evil things were done by some. But we are deeply grateful that the missionaries brought us the Christian message.
So there are two sides. But I need to warn you: if you become a Christian, you will hear much more about the failures than about the successes.
2. Because you won’t like every Christian you meet, and some you will dislike very much indeed. I can tell you from personal experience, some Christians are weird (present company excepted, of course). Some of them have poor taste in music and clothes; some have political leanings that are somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun; some have dandruff and bad breath. Frankly, they’re not the people I would choose to hang out with in a million years. Yet I am expected to hang out with them and treat them like family (in the good sense, that is: it’s all too easy to treat them like family in the bad sense).
But then I remind myself what church is all about. It’s not just a place you go once a week to meet with cool, sophisticated, like-minded people, as though it were an art appreciation class or a chess club.
You know what church is at its heart? It’s God saying to people of all shapes and sizes and cultures and ages, who really have nothing in common: Get together, get yourselves organized, and learn to love one another, and show the world what it means to be a beautiful community. Yes, being involved with other Christians can be tough, but what a breathtaking project to be involved in. It’s crazy, so crazy that only God would have thought it up.
Here’s how one early Christian writer summed up God’s plan:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female: for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
And you know what? Some of those people you would presently try to avoid will turn out to be the most wonderful people you have ever met. And, of course, that’s part of God’s plan.
3. Because I don’t want to become intolerant and condemn other religions. There is a common perception that if you are a Christian, it means you think everybody else is completely wrong and probably going to hell.
I can’t improve on what C. S. Lewis says about this (well, that’s true of most things):
If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. . . . But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic, there is only one right answer to a sum . . . but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.
Put it another way. The God of Christian spirituality is a God whose light is available to people in every culture and every century. As a result, I want to acknowledge all truth and all love, wherever it’s to be found.
But as a Christian, I also believe that the place where the light of God is most clearly focussed is in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no-one like him among all the religions of the world! So it’s actually a caricature to say Christians think they are 100% right and everybody else is 100% wrong. But it is true that Christians think they have something special: and that something is Jesus.
4. Because people may make fun of you. They may think of you as a religious fanatic or a Jesus freak or a Bible-thumper. You know the kind of thing. One friend of mine says that, before he became a Christian about five years ago, his family sometimes used to make fun of him because he was like Homer Simpson: now, he says, they make fun of him because he’s like Ned Flanders!
People won’t necessarily see the positive side of what’s happened to you; sometimes they won’t want to know. It doesn’t matter to them that you have a greater sense of being yourself than ever before, they may not notice that your laughter is fuller and healthier, it may escape them that you have a sense of stability and satisfaction that wasn’t there before. One friend said recently, “When I opened my life to Jesus, I had a sense of being more fully alive than I had ever been before.”
You will know that you haven’t become a religious freak: to you religion will simply be a means to enjoying God more, not an end in itself. You will know that there’ll be no church in heaven because the building will be complete, and the scaffolding will drop away. But people around you may not know or care.
You will take comfort in Jesus’ words:
“Blessed are you when people revile you or persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11-2)
5. Because it will require sacrifices—in fact, Jesus said that following him would be like heading off to execution.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
My friend Ken’s parents would not attend his wedding because he was marrying another Christian. In a job interview, Stu was asked if his Christian convictions meant he would not tell a lie for the good of the company. He told them he wouldn’t. He did not get the job.
Or I think of friends of mine who decided to work with youth off the street. Their friends warned them that if they did that, their silver would get stolen and they’d catch hepatitis. They went ahead with their work anyway. What happened? Their silver was stolen and they caught hepatitis. But they did amazing work. And they didn’t complain, because they knew Christians are called to sacrifice.
And it can be much worse than that. In some parts of the world today, followers of Jesus are being persecuted, bombed, imprisoned, discriminated against, and spat on for no other reason except that they are known to be Christians. The freedom Christians presently experience in the west is a historical aberration: it may not last. If you decide to follow Jesus, there will be sacrifices. In Jesus’ own time, some people decided not to follow him because he warned them that it would be tough.
But sometimes we don’t notice the fact that Jesus also said there would be life on the other side of those sacrifices, even in this life.
“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29-30)
6. (This may be the toughest of all, and in some ways it’s the key too all the others.) Because it means giving God the leadership of your life, no longer being in charge of your own destiny. That’s radical. Following Jesus may well mean giving up your dreams, or a treasured career, or a wonderful relationship. Quite early in my Christian life, I had to give up a relationship with a girl I cared for very deeply, simply because she was not a serious follower of Jesus and I wanted to be. Another personal example: my family and I are in Canada today because we believed that was what Jesus wanted us to do.
Don’t be insulted if I say we had no interest in coming to Canada, and we only came because we believed our lives were to be spent doing what Jesus wanted, not what we wanted.
Of course, if you are a follower of Jesus, you know that obeying him brings life. Think of it this way. My son Ben is a trumpeter. Some years ago, after several years of trumpet lessons, he began to have lessons with one of Canada’s top trumpeters. At the very first lesson, Mr. Oades said to Ben:
“Ben, your embouchure is totally wrong. You’re going to have to learn a whole new technique. It’ll be tough, but if you’re going to get anywhere with your trumpet, this is what you have to do.”
Do you think Ben did it? He could have said, “No way. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ll do what’s comfortable for me. I just gotta be me!”
In fact, he didn’t. Instead, he obeyed. He worked at what Mr. Oades had said until it became second nature and he could move ahead in his playing. Why did he do that? Because Robert Oades is such a great trumpet player and a great teacher. Did it undermine Ben’s individuality and creativity? No way. In fact, it enabled him to develop his individuality and creativity way beyond what would have been possible otherwise.
So why do Christians try to obey Jesus? Because he is a great teacher, The Great Teacher, the one best qualified to teach us what life is all about. Once, when Jesus’ teaching struck his disciples as particularly difficult, he asked if they were thinking of leaving him, and they replied, “Lord, to whom who can we go? You have the words of eternal life!” (John 6:68)
7. Because I don’t think I could keep it up. You may say, “The way you’re describing being a Christian sounds quite attractive but very difficult. You’ve told me people might make fun of me, and I might be persecuted, and I’ve got to do what Jesus wants ahead of what I want, and you think I should do this for the rest of my life. Right?” Right.
Your concern is a perfectly reasonable one. But, you know what? God knows all that, and God has provided sufficient resources to make it possible. What resources are those? There are lots. Let me name just two:
In becoming a Christian you join a family. And what you discover is that they are there for you. For instance, I meet with a bunch of guys every other Saturday morning, in a group called “Saturday Stuff for Guys.” There we share our joys and our sorrows, our questions and our doubts, we study the Bible and we pray for one another. Actually, don’t tell anyone this, but we love one another (being guys, we don’t like to say so). Personally, I would find it 100% more difficult to live the Christian life without them.
Let me tell you about another resource. In the middle of the last century, Archbishop William Temple said something like this:
If I were asked to write plays as good as Shakespeare’s, there’s no way I could ever come close. But if by some miracle the spirit of William Shakespeare could come and inhabit my personality, and influence my mind and fire my imagination, then I could write plays like Shakespeare’s. In the same way, no way could I ever hope to live as a follower of Jesus. Yet if by some miracle the Spirit of Jesus could come and inhabit my personality, and influence my mind and fire my imagination, then it is possible that I could be a follower of Jesus.
And, of course, that is the case: the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God, is available to us to breathe life into our efforts to follow Jesus. The Spirit keeps us gives us strength when we feel weak, gives us guidance when we are confused, picks us up when we fall. In fact, God himself is committed to helping us make it to the end of the journey. That same early writer, Paul, said:
I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the Day of Jesus Christ. (Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 1:6)
So . . . seven reasons you should not become a Christian. But there is one reason you should, and it is this:
1. Because the God who made you loves you more deeply than you can ever imagine, and that God longs for a friendship with you. More than that, in that friendship you will learn to live as God’s person in God’s world in God’s way. And that is the greatest adventure that can ever befall a human being. It is what human beings were made for.
And how can you know the friendship of God and become the person God longs for you to be? By deciding to become a follower of Jesus. Why Jesus? Because Jesus is this God come in person to our world to rescue us, to guide us, to teach us.
So what do you think? If you are not put off by the seven difficulties, if you are drawn by the awesome potential of the one reason, what should you do? I want to invite you to take a step today. I don’t know you or where you’re at with all of this stuff, so I don’t know what step would be right for you.
It may be that all this is very new to you. Maybe you didn’t know Christian spirituality was like this. So for you, the best thing may be to read one of the very first biographies of Jesus to be written. They are found in a little book called The New Testament, the second part of the Bible. It might actually be helpful for you to join a group of people who are also trying to figure out this Jesus stuff, and work with them till you get some answers.
Or you might be a person who says, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this stuff for some time. I’m kinda sitting on the fence. But I think this is what I want, I think this is what I need.” Maybe for you it’s time to say yes to Jesus, to get down off the fence and start following, with all that involves.
If you are new to all this, but you want to investigate it for yourself, here’s the sort of thing you might like to say to Jesus:
Jesus: I am curious about the things I’ve heard about you, and I want to know if they are true. Please help me learn about you and find out how these things can be true for me. Amen.
And if you want to begin following Jesus now, here’s the sort of thing you might like to say to Jesus:
Jesus: Thank you for inviting me to follow you. Tonight I want to say “YES” to your invitation. Please give me your Spirit so that I can begin to live as your person in your world in your way. Amen.
Once upon a time there were five nice Christians who lived in the same city but had never met one another. Let me introduce you to them. I’ll tell you a little about each, and then I have three questions to ask of each one.
1. Colin Contemplative
Even as a child, Colin loved to go for walks by himself. He learned at an early age that God could be his friend, and he loved to talk with this friend as he walked. As a result, when he grew up and told his parents he wanted to become a monk, they were not taken by surprise. Colin loves the life of the monastery: the extended periods of silence, the regular times of prayer, chanting the whole Psalter every month, and the hard work in the fields. He also acts as a spiritual director for four or five lay folk who come to see him on a monthly basis. He would be very surprised to know this, but they are a little in awe of the strength of his spiritual life and what they feel to be his intimate knowledge of God.
· My first question for Colin is how he knows God. He replies with quiet confidence, God is to be known in silence and contemplation. He likes to quote Mother Theresa: In prayer, sometimes I tell him I love him, sometimes he tells me he loves me, and sometimes neither of us says anything. · For my second question, I ask him where he believes the kingdom is. He smiles. The kingdom of God is within, to be discovered and explored in relationship with God who is the King. · Question 3: is there a particular verse from the Bible that inspires and guides you? Again, he doesn’t hesitate: “Be still and know that I am God.”
2. Then there is Astrid Social-Activist (Astrid was actually born Astrid Activist, but then she married Steve Social, so she became Astrid Social-Activist.)
Astrid grew up in the church, but God had never been particularly real to her until one Victoria Day weekend her youth group went to a conference where Jean Vanier was speaking. There for the first time she understood that the heart of God identifies in a special way with the weak, the poor, and the oppressed of the world. It was a revelation to her–and a revolution in her understanding of the Christian faith. She left the rather conventional, middle class church of her parents out in the suburbs, and started attending a downtown church which had a wide range of social programs.
· So, Astrid, I want to know, how do you know God? She answers at once: I see the face of God in the face of the poor. · And, Astrid, where is the kingdom of God? The Kingdom won’t come, she replies, until the structures of society are reformed so that power and wealth are justly distributed in our world, where nobody goes hungry, where all have dignity and fulfilling work. That would be the shalom of God. · And a favourite Scripture? It’s in Matthew 25: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Next I would like you to meet: 3. Eddie EvangelicalThe most important day in Eddie’s life was the day he went forward at a Billy Graham rally in Toronto to indicate that he wanted to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour. From that day on everything has been different for Eddie. He joined a church where he feels the Bible is faithfully taught. He reads the Bible and prays every day, and tries to follow what he learns there. He goes to a midweek Bible study group where people sing and share, study Scripture together and pray for one another. Eddie is a clerk in a law firm, and he does his job well, trying to be a good witness for Jesus by his conscientious work and his good humour, and, whenever he has a chance, he talks about his faith in Jesus. · So, I ask him, Eddie, how do you know God? His face lights up as he replies: “I know God through his Word. He speaks to me and I try to listen and obey.” · And the kingdom, Eddie? What is the kingdom? He replies with passion, “When every man and woman has acknowledged the Lordship of Jesus Christ in their lives: that’s the kingdom.” · Choosing a favourite verse is harder for Eddie. (He knows a lot of them.) He can’t decide between 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for training, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.” And, on other days, the great commission of Matthew 28: “Go, make disciple of all nations.” Both are very central to Eddie’s understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
My next friend is: 4. Chris Charismatic
Chris would describe his faith like this: “I had been a Christian for some years, but somehow I had never knew much about the Holy Spirit. It was as though I believed in a Holy Binity rather than a Holy Trinity.” Then one evening, some friends of Chris had dragged him off against his will to a service at the Airport Christian Fellowship in Toronto. There Chris had been prayed for, had been, as the terminology goes, “slain in the Spirit”, and, from that night on, his outlook on the Christian life had been quite different. Although he hasn’t given up on his high Anglican church on Sundays, he goes to an interdenominational prayer group during the week, where there is lively worship and speaking in tongues, and where the sick are prayed for and sometimes dramatically healed. Chris is praying that his priest will discover what he has found; the priest meanwhile is praying that Chris won’t go over the edge–though he’s not quite sure what that edge might be.
· So what does it mean to you to know God, Chris? He smiles and says, “Easy: in Spirit-filled worship: that’s where I feel God and I see God.” · And what for you is the kingdom? “No question: ‘the Kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power’: wherever the Spirit is free to work, that’s where the kingdom is.” · His favourite verse, not surprisingly, at least since that fateful night at the Airport, is Acts 1:8: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
Last and by no means least is: 5. Samantha Sacramental
Samantha returned to church in her late thirties after the breakup of her marriage. She came in the first place because she needed the spiritual strength the church seemed to offer, but to her surprise it was actually the beauty and the mystery of the Eucharist that drew her and fascinated her. After a couple of years, her priest encouraged her to think about ordination, and, as she began to study theology, she came to understand more of why she loved the sacraments: it was the sense that the God who had been present in the human form of Jesus was also the God who was present in bread and wine, and was also the God was present everywhere, making all of life sacred. That understanding began to transform her whole life, and breathed life into everything she did, even the most menial tasks. The sacrament on Sundays was a reminder that the other six days of the week were also sacramental. The sacramental nature of the six days focussed and climaxed for her in the sacrament at the altar.
· So where do you know God, Samantha? I know God most intimately in the Eucharist. · And the kingdom? Well, in a sense, the kingdom is everywhere because all of life is God’s, but in the Eucharist the reality of the kingdom is made visible in bread and wine. · And do you have a favourite Bible verse? Sure: at the end of the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24: “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
My guess is that you have met all of these five at different points in your life. My guess too is that you feel closer to one, or even two of these, than you do to the others. (I think it’s unlikely that anyone will feel an equal affinity for all five—but I could be wrong!) Now I probably don’t need to tell you that there have been times when these five have been mortal enemies. In fact, I deliberately didn’t tell you what each of these characters thinks of the others, but I have to confess that some of them don’t have a very high opinion of some of the others. There have been times in living memory when a church has gone from (let us say) Anglo-Catholic to evangelical (or vice-versa) and half the congregation has left, while the other half has gritted its teeth and said, “We can outlast whoever the bishop throws at us. And, if necessary, we can even outlast the bishop.” There have been times when contemplatives have felt pity for the noisy-ness and superficial piety of the charismatics, and times when evangelicals have felt that social activists lacked spiritual depth. (I am putting these criticisms in polite language, you understand.) The list could go on: after all, each of the five would have criticisms of each of the other four, and that would make twenty points–but you can probably figure out what they would be, and we have more important things to think about! I want to argue, however, that there is strength in each one of these, and that we need each of these traditions. (Richard Foster has written a wonderful classic on this subject entitled Streams of Living Water, and some of what I have to say is taken from him.) One reason I think that is that each of these is clearly rooted in Scripture and in Christian tradition. Let me illustrate. It just so happened that our five friends (friends with us, that is: not necessarily friends with each other) were at a diocesan conference on spirituality (these things happen all over the place, you understand), and that at the beginning of the day, the reading during worship was from Acts 10, Peter’s speech to Cornelius. Listen to what it says: “You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all.” Colin Contemplative heard that sentence and nodded gravely. There it is, he thought: the message of peace. That’s what it’s all about: peace with God, peace with one another, peace with the world. And if he had not been feeling particularly gracious, he might have said, I hope these other folk are listening. But, actually, he was feeling gracious. As for other folk, well, they were listening, but they didn’t hear what he heard.
The reader hadn’t stopped: “That message spread throughout Judea . . . how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” And Chris Charismatic suddenly sat up straight, and surreptitiously looked around to see if his priest had been convicted by that powerful sentence.
Now it came to pass that Chris happened to be sitting next to Astrid Social-Activist (whom he hadn’t met–yet), and she just happened to notice something different in the same sentence that she felt was just for her: “Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good.” That’s what it’s all about, she thought: he went about doing good. In her more cynical moments, she felt that most Christians just “went about”: Jesus, however, went about doing good. Why didn’t they get it?
But the reader hadn’t finished: “We are witnesses to all he did, both in Judea and Jerusalem”. Now it was Eddie Evangelical’s turn: ooh, witnessing he thought. That’s what we need round here: real witnessing. Telling people what we know about Jesus. You don’t have to be a great preacher to do that. And Samantha Sacramental? You won’t be surprised to know that she wasn’t disappointed either. “They put him to death . . . but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear . . . to us . . . who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” There’s the Eucharist right there, she thought: eating and drinking with Jesus after he rose from the dead. “I could preach on that tomorrow,” she thought (since she hadn’t quite got her sermon together yet). You see what I mean? Each of these types, at its best, seeks to know Jesus Christ, to be faithful to him, to know him, love him, serve him. Each of these is a way of being faithful to our Christian heritage. And each of these is a way to grow into all that God has in mind for us. Yet each does it in a different way: > The strength of the contemplative is to know God in quietness and silence, and to call the church back to that. > The strength of social activist is to challenge the comfortable middle-class assumptions of the church, and to remind us of the uncomfortable truth that though God loves all people, God has a bias towards the poor—just as you might love all your children equally, but if one is in pain or difficulty, your heart goes out to that one first. > The evangelical shames us by his enthusiasm for the Gospel of Jesus (very un-Canadian), and by his knowledge of the Bible (very un-Anglican) and by his warm spontaneous praying (very non-liturgical). Maybe he too knows something we don’t.
> The charismatic holds our feet to the fire, and says, Every Sunday you say you believe in the Holy Spirit, but in reality you are more worried about whether the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone than you do about allowing the Holy Spirit to come at all! Hey, get with the program!
> And the sacramental says, Do you realise that God may be known in all of life? You say “he became incarnate by the Virgin Mary”, but do you realise what that means? That there is no longer any division between sacred and secular?
My question would be: Which of those emphases can the church do without? Which one can we dare to be without? Of course, you may argue that each has its weakness, or potential weakness, and that is perfectly true. I’m quite sure none of these weaknesses would be true of any of the representatives of these five streams here today, so nobody should feel got at, but nevertheless: Colin Contemplative may sometime forget that it is possible to know God in the middle of a traffic jam, or while changing a baby’s diaper, or even at a riotous party. Astrid Social-Activist can get so wrapped up in her social concerns that she forgets the Jesus who inspired her in the first place. Eddie Evangelical can end up treating people as one-dimensional souls needing to be saved rather than people who are body, mind, emotions and soul in community, in the image of God. Ironically enough, Chris Charismatic can actually end up putting the Holy Spirit in a box–this is where the Spirit is, this is what will cause the Spirit to act, this is what enables the Spirit to work. Forgetting that the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Eternal Trinity and that Aslan is not a tame lion. And Samantha Sacramental can get so wrapped up in the details of doing everything exactly right that she forgets that Jesus was the friend of sinners, that he had messy friendships with messy people who lived messy lives, and that this is the Jesus who is there at the heart of the Eucharist she loves.
All five of our friends can become pretty legalistic–these are the rules for doing it the Right Way, which just happens to be my way. All of them can become so wrapped up in their distinctive religious stuff that they forget the Jesus who inspired them in the first place. And all of them can reduce the grandeur of the Christian message to something trivial and unworthy.
C.S.Lewis believed the devil didn’t have a sense of humour, so if we have a sense of humour, we know where it must come from. I don’t know about you, but sometimes God’s sense of humour seems a little (what shall we say?) dry, so it seemed like rather a twisted kind of joke when the conference divided into table groups for discussion, and (by a strange coincidence) Colin, Astrid, Eddie, Chris and Samantha ended up in the same discussion group. It didn’t take them long to figure out where each was coming from—the name tags were a dead give-away.
Fortunately, the questions they were given headed off some potential nastiness at the pass: Question 1 was: say something about your tradition of Christian spirituality which might make someone from another tradition want to try it. And question 2 was: Choose one thing that you think you could benefit from in one of the other streams of Christian spirituality.
There was silence at the table for what felt like a very long time. Finally, Eddie said: “I have to say I think one of the best things in my tradition is my small group Bible study. It’s become an amazing support group for me: there’s warmth and laughter and prayer in the group, and we feel the presence of Jesus right there, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything.” The others looked thoughtful. Then Astrid said, “Maybe I could check it out one of these Wednesdays. To be honest, I sometimes get very drained in my work with street people and advocacy groups, and I would love to have a Christian support group like that. Do you think that would be OK? They wouldn’t try to get me ‘born again’?” Eddie looked earnest: “It’d be OK. I’d protect you.”
Chris was next. “I know that sometimes our enthusiasm is, well, just that–enthusiasm–and it’s not always the Holy Spirit. But I’ve also known some times when the Spirit really is present but the experience is very gentle and quiet and non-threatening. And I think anyone could benefit from that. And as for the other question, I think I’ve got kinda cut off from God’s heart for the poor. So, Astrid, maybe I could come with you one of these Saturday nights when you go and give out sandwiches and coffee to street people. Maybe the Holy Spirit will be there too!” She nodded, pleased but a little nervous.
Then Colin chipped in. “Chris, what you just said about the Holy Spirit: I’ve never heard a charismatic talk that way. I thought it was all noise and drama and showiness. I never thought I could find myself at home in a charismatic meeting, but if I could come with you, I think I’d like to try it. And, as for a strength, I have space for someone to come for spiritual direction. I really think it’s something my tradition has to offer, if you don’t think that’s presumptuous of me to say so.”
Samantha responded immediately. “I have to confess the life has been going out of my relationship with God recently, even at the altar. I still feel badly how I snapped at the president of the Altar Guild last week. She almost cried. I’ve been thinking for some time that maybe what I need is some spiritual direction to keep me fresh in my ministry. I think the fact that you’re here means I should take you up on your offer.” (Chris chuckled: “That’s the Holy Spirit: see?” But Samantha went on.) And as for something to offer: I do think the Eucharist is a window through which to marvel at the activity of God in the world. I don’t know how other Christians survive without it!”
Eddie shrugged. “OK, I’ll come clean. I’ve never understood why communion is so important to you people, but the way you talk about it makes me feel I must be missing out. I’d better not start coming to your church or my pastor will get mad at me, but maybe you could suggest a couple of books for me to read.” “Glad to,” replied Samantha. Then the emcee called them to Eucharist, and, to their surprise, they found that they wanted to sit together for the service. And, when the peace came, they hugged each other, and some found they had tears in their eyes.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12)
The Diocese of Ontario
Part 2 can be found at http://institute.wycliffecollege.ca/?p=397