The Revd Brutus Green
My parents had an old record player from which I first heard such fine recordings as Queen’s Greatest Hits for the first time and Benny Hill’s moving rendition of ‘Ernie the Milkman’, who ‘drove the fastest milk cart in the West’. The thing I always remember about records is the way they stick producing the most obnoxious sound. I’m reminded of it at the moment because my DVD player is caput and frequently freezes movies three quarters of the way in, refusing to continue. Even more irritating. I believe that my brother may have bought me a blue-ray player for my birthday (which was in February) but communication and delivery between my brothers and I is in many respects on a medieval basis and so presents frequently take six months to make it from the Principality, that is if they ever arrive at all.
This sticking, or freezing, of records and movies comes to mind because of a certain bad theology in today’s readings that rears its ugly head from time to time. It’s encapsulated in the famed line from the epistle ‘whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ In our Old Testament reading it sounds in the promise of the Lord: ‘I will extend prosperity to her like a river and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream… Your bodies shall flourish like grass; and it shall be know that that the hand of the Lord is with his servants’. The Gospel is even more forthcoming with its promises: ‘even the demons submit to us! … I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you’. Later on in the service, in common with those fringe-churches in the deep South, we’re going to pass around poisonous snakes and then count God’s blessings in dollars. The careless reader of today’s lessons might then walk away believing that there is an essential justice for every single person in this life. Be good and good things will happen to you - as you sow, so shall you reap; God answers the prayers of the faithful.
The reason this reminds me of a stuck record is that it takes one of the themes of biblical literature, certainly prevalent in the psalms and proverbs, and clings to it, verse by verse, without regard for the depth and complexity of the rest of Scripture. The fundamentalist fixation upon particular verses disguises an ignorance of, and a disregard for, the biblical story at great cost. It literally gets stuck on certain verses. It’s as if one enjoyed the gentle opening and confessional ballad of Bohemian Rhapsody, but found at that point the record stuck and repeating, missing out the drama of conflict in the operatic section - ‘let him go! We will not let you go!’, and the raging rock section; or if one never got to that evil-looking man, Two ton Ted from Teddington, who killed poor Ernie with a stale pork pie.
Perhaps the most sinister element of this theology is that at once it justifies the wealthy as the blessings of God and denigrates the poor and suffering as those from whom God has turned away. It suggests to the grieving that they have not prayed hard enough. If ever you have thanked God for your riches or blamed God for your losses you should beware of the god that you have created for yourself. This theology, often called the “Prosperity Gospel”, has a long history in the Protestant ethic and has a wide subscription now in the developing world, particularly in China and South America.
The pragmatists among you might find in it a cause for rejoicing as a new momentum for the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps - but it is bad theology. A more holistic reading of the Bible - that remembers the story of Job, the persecution of Paul and the Apostles, and the central teaching of Jesus in the beatitudes - blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn - cannot accept any correlation between the riches of this life and the blessings of God.
Which is not to say that we should not pray for the good things. The best description of prayer I have heard is that prayer is ‘the distance between ourselves and eternity.’ Which is to say that prayer is the measure of our difference from perfection. When we pray truthfully we know our own desires. The very act of prayer, even if it is for, shall we say, improper ends, may tell us how far we are from God, but when we pray truthfully we discover what we are about. Rather than being about magically changing the world, prayer is first of all about being honest with ourselves, changing ourselves, and learning to be closer to God.
There is a broader point at issue here though, which perhaps concerns us even more than the prosperity Gospel. Because there are many ideas, principles and stories that catch our imagination, often with a grain of truth, but then go on to over-reach themselves. So evolution by natural selection begins as an idea in the natural sciences but gets taken up all over the place as a business model, an approach to human history, a dating strategy. Simple principles of the market get applied on the level of international economics, and then as a way of allocating funding in the arts, then as the method by which you distribute affection to your children. Human rights is incontrovertibly a good idea, but should we extend them without reservation, as some would suggest, to convicted criminals, to animals, to embryos? Human history is full of big ideas which have sought to explain everything, but rarely is human experience reducible to simple categories.
It is not, however, only the big ideas, the ideologies and grand theories that capture our imagination and slant our understanding. And while we have probably all met our share of neo-Darwinians, Evangelical fundamentalists, Marxists and Daily Mail readers who cannot be talked out of their views, it is usually more personal ‘ideas’ that take hold of our minds and refuse to let go, like phobias causing instant fear and revulsion and yet deep attachment. In youth we often believe we are invulnerable - until proven otherwise. We will all probably know people who are consumed by their own incredible importance; who, however bizarrely, are dazzled by their own self-proclaimed brilliance. Perhaps we have been told that we cannot sing or dance and have taken it to heart. More subtly insecurities and anxieties gather around the ‘idea’ that we are not good enough, or perhaps terribly guilty. At an extreme we can believe that we are hideous or unlovable, wicked or deserving of pain. Such self-accusations rarely stand up to scrutiny but the fear and self-loathing they impose can, like a phobia, make them entrenched and difficult to counter.
In a sense this is what is at the heart of the great tragedies - simple ideas which take hold of otherwise tremendous characters and twist them to the point of self destruction. Superficially it’s easy to write off Macbeth for his vaulting ambition, Othello’s jealousy, Hamlet’s inability to actually do anything; but as characters they are examples of how quite simple bad ‘ideas’ can take hold of us and push us to self-destruction. The thought that you deserve promotion, that your partner is having an affair, that your uncle has murdered your father, married your mother and wants to kill you - can all seem quite reasonable at the beginning. Hamlet himself, though, offers the comforting thought that ‘there’s a divinity that shapes our ends,/ Rough-hew them how we will’. In today’s Gospel, when Jesus sends out his disciples, he sends them out with two messages - ‘peace be with you’; and that ‘the kingdom of God has come near’. It reminds me a little bit of an assembly I did at our school a couple of weeks ago when to prepare the children for Robin’s arrival I asked them what they thought priests do. My favourite response was ‘they walk around with candles saying “the Lord be with you” ’. When the disciples return, delighted at their success, Jesus’ response is ‘do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.'
The change is less in terms of how the material situations have changed, but more that he is trying to change how they see the world and themselves; the change is about an ‘idea’ - that they can be at peace, and that God has come near. It is not even about taking up poverty to escape the trap of riches, poverty is usually a far greater trap than wealth. The point is to be free to follow Christ. This will mean different things to different people but fundamentally it lies in being at peace and discovering the nearness of the love of God.
So whatever the ‘ideas’ are upon which we get stuck - whether it’s grand conceptual ideas that excuse our selfishness, laziness or prejudice, or explain away the world -or ideas about ourselves that constrain our peace and happiness and stop us attaining the full humanity we are called to, - if we can stand to challenge them and be honest about ourselves, we have the chance to avoid tragedy and experience the complete recording of life’s album. This includes the knowledge that the sun shines and the rain falls on both the good and the evil, that there is no complete system for interpreting human experience, but that the kingdom of God has drawn near and so, even before we join Ernie ‘in that fairy dairy land’, we can discover in our lives something of the peace of God.