Sunday, 30 October 2011

Alpha Course, Week 3: Why Did Jesus Die?

I forgot to remove my chewing gum before I arrived for the third session of The Alpha Course at Brighton’s St Peter’s Church.

I went straight from work this time, which meant I didn’t get a chance to collect a book I’d been handed the previous week. The book is called “Why Trust the Bible?” by Amy Orr-Ewing and it had been lent to me by the lead-helper of the group, with whom I’d shared a lovely apres-Alpha pint of Harvey’s after the first session. He’d dug up the book for me after I declared that their God had some terrible things attributed to him in the Old Testament. In particular, I had referred to God’s instruction that the returning Israelites slaughter every single one of the Canaanites, with no mercy for the women and children. After reading the recommended chapter I felt unsatisfied to put it mildly, and disgusted to put it accurately.

A more detailed account of what I read is appended to the end of this post as it’s not quite in keeping with my main mission here, which is to relate the Alpha Course to you as I experience it.

I’m not usually a chewer of gum, therefore I’m not very well practised at disposing of it. It stuck to my fingers as I tried to drop it into a bin near the food tables. Those who witnessed this did not laugh at me, for which I was grateful. Tonight’s meal consisted of jacket potatoes with a range of fillings. I did not partake. We usually sit and catch up with each other as people drift in over the first 20 minutes or so, which results in those of us that arrive early repeating ourselves quite a bit. Three new people join our group this week (which spices up the group discussion a bit!) but with a few others not showing up, our circle is still 10 strong. We are given enough time to eat the food and then the session begins.

The Alpha Course Residential Weekend

The Vicar was away so we were welcomed by a chap in his early thirties who reminded us about the forthcoming Alpha Weekend. It starts on a Friday evening and goes through until the Sunday lunchtime. It costs £90 for an adult, but a bursary is available for those who cannot afford this. Partners and children are welcome too. At first I thought the weekend might be a step too far for me, but I’ve changed my mind and I’m pretty certain I will go along. It’ll make my account of the course truly complete. I’ve been on a pilgrimage to Lourdes for goodness’ sakes; of course I can handle a little C of E residential in Bracklesham Bay! Part of the weekend includes a group walk down to the beach and do you know what you always find at low tide at Bracklesham? Fossils. Loads of them. How can I resist?

The congregation stood to sing hymns at this point. The words were shown on the large screen and the guitar man sang into his microphone. The first hymn was “Amazing Grace” which is one of those grand old songs I enjoy up until the point I take heed of the words.

As usual, I was one of a tiny number of people that chose not to stand for the hymn. When I look back to the first week, I’m surprised that I thought so seriously about whether to stand or not, as now I feel very comfortable indeed just sitting there. Straight after Amazing Grace, they went into another hymn called “You Alone Can Rescue”. This one features the lyric “You alone can lift us from the grave” which I think is a rather odd sentiment to set to music. Being in a room full of people all singing that sentence made me feel slightly hopeless about the future prospects for mankind, but as ever, I quickly got over that.

For those subscribed by email, for whom the youtube links don’t work, the verses of “You Alone Can Rescue” have a melody almost as generic as it’s possible to imagine, with a chorus seemingly propagated inside the obsidian heart of Simon Cowell.

The Sermon

With the singing complete, we were introduced to our stand-in speaker for the night; a blonde, curly-haired lady with piercing eyes and a generally vibrant demeanour. At a guess I’d say she was in her early thirties. She told us that she would be talking about why Jesus died. I felt comfortable enough to take notes now, as I usually see some of the believers doing so too. I’m glad about this as the talk turned out to be jam-packed with some surprisingly traditional Christianity. This might make for a rather turgid blog entry but my main aim is give you an accurate idea of what these sessions consist of, without clogging it up with my response to everything.

The Cross

I will call her Jay. After Introducing herself, she started by lightheartedly asking us “What do the following people all have in common? Wayne Rooney, Madonna, Elton John, Jennifer Anniston, Naomi Campbell, the Beckhams and the Pope.”
The answer, we are told, is that they all wear the cross. This hung in the air for a moment. Jay wondered if this might be a little strange, these people all wearing what is actually an execution device. Comparing the donning of a crucifix to wearing earrings with electric chairs or gallows on them, she wondered if we might think her a little weird if she were to do this.

She told us that crucifixion was so cruel that even the Romans eventually stopped doing it and asked why the cross has effectively become the logo of the Christian church; its central image. This evening we would look at this question.

A third of the New Testament, she tells us, consists of the Gospels, three of which describe the death of Christ. During communion services they remember the cross and death of Jesus. Significant people, such as world leaders, usually have the content of their lives remembered, but Christ is remembered, according to Jay, for his death. She pondered on what it is about his death that is so very significant and how his death is significant for our own lives. How can a real understanding of his death lead to a revolutionary change in our lives?

Perhaps, she said, we need to ask ourselves this question first:

What is Humanity’s Greatest Need?

According to studies by psychologists, we are told, humans mostly desire security, belonging and purpose. Surely such things can be obtained from our loved ones, she suggests, so where does Jesus come in to it? Well, Jay tells us that the reason we need Jesus is adequately described by Paul “All have sinned and have fallen short in the glory of God”. We have all sinned, every last one of us. Even Jay’s 3 and 5 year old kids are definitely sinners because one blamed the other for a recent spillage of water. Sin!

“We don’t find it easy to admit that we’ve done things wrong, but sin - by definition - is to fall short of the Glory of God.”

To explain this, Jay envisaged a scale of goodness, asking us to imagine people like Stalin and Hitler at the bottom, and Mother Theresa at the top ( Yes, this Mother Theresa ). We would be somewhere in the middle. The ultimate standard is:

“..the Glory of God. That standard is Jesus, the man who do did nothing wrong. Jesus was perfect. It says in the bible he never sinned”.

When we compare ourselves to Jesus, we are obviously below his standard; we’ve all done things wrong.

So why does sin matter? Jay asked. She said there are 4 serious reasons that sin is important. I’ll list them here and then go over what was said about each one:

Sin pollutes.
Sin is powerful.
Sin has a penalty.
Sin makes partition.

Look! they all begin with P - that will help us to remember them! How serendipitous!

Sin Pollutes

Jay informs us that pollution is the “big topic” in the world; how are we going to fix the problem of pollution in the world? Making one of those little hops of logic so common in such sermons, she immediately tells us that it is possible to “pollute our own lives, our own souls”. In Mark 7:20, Jesus himself says:

“What comes out of you is what makes you unclean.”

Jay elucidates by telling us that this means:

“from out of our hearts come evil thoughts; sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, folly. All of these things come from inside and they make you unclean.”

We are told that committing only one of these sins pollutes our entire soul. There is no room for self-satisfaction if we do not commit all of those sins, as even committing a single one is enough to sully us. We are given an example of finding ourselves in a court of law on charges of theft. Saying: “well I haven’t murdered anybody” will not affect the outcome of your theft trial.

Sin is Powerful

Sin is powerful. According to Jay, Jesus says “We are slaves to sin” and also that it is possible to become addicted to bad temper, arrogance, pride, envy, selfishness, lust, gossip etc. These things can grip our lives.

Sin has a Penalty.

Jay asks us:

“When you read the newspapers, what are the things that make you angry? Cases of child abuse? An old lady being mugged? Something within us rises up and says that’s not fair.. something in our nature cries out for justice - we’ve been made that way, to cry out for justice”

If you recall, last week I expressed incredulity that Christians did not seem to think that a sense of justice was a natural human trait, born of an innate sense of empathy. This was after The Vicar had claimed that Jesus had practically invented the concepts of justice and fairness. In this instance however, the inbuilt human sense of justice is restored by the speaker and directly invoked in support of the point she is making. Would I have noticed this inconsistency if I had not written it down? No.

Jay goes on to say that this is how God sees our sin; with his own natural sense of what is wrong. “He sees how the sin is hurting us and he hates it - he can’t live with it, and because he’s God, he does something about it”.

The Partition Caused by Sin.

In Romans 6:23 it says  “The wages of sin is death”. We are reassured here that the death referred to is not just physical death, (people sin every day, Jay says “and we’re not all dying left, right and centre”) but a spiritual death, a cutting off from God. This barrier between us and God is made by the wrong things we do.

She tells us that when we feel that our earnest prayers are not answered, this is because of the sins we have committed.

As long as we sin, we can’t attain the personal relationship with God that is being offered. I wonder how this relates to the statements of previous weeks, where The Vicar and members of my group spoke of their personal, close relationship with God. They acknowledge that they are sinners, but they also claim to have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe. Perhaps they are talking about a subtly different type of personal relationship with him, otherwise this would be a contradiction.

Such contradictions seem to be easily assimilated into the Christian worldview when they are separated by a few days. It’s easy to gloss over the inconsistency between Jay’s statement:

“Christianity promises a living, dynamic, speaking, hearing relationship with God. A level of intimacy with the almighty God which changes everything. But we simply can’t have it while we have this barrier between us and God”

..and the statements made by The Vicar in the first week, where he spoke of his “real” relationship with God; or the members of my circle whose personal relationship with God is almost taken for granted.

We are being sold Jesus as the only way to God one week, and then sinlessness as the way to God the following week. If we are without sin, there is nothing blocking our path to God, so where does Jesus come in? I ask myself. My answer involves original sin, which is the one sin we can’t rid ourselves of. Thank you, God.

Back to the sermon, where, as it happens, Jay is about to tell us exactly where Jesus comes in. Referring back to her earlier question “What is humanity’s greatest need?” she says we have been separated from God and we need something that brings us back. She laughs as she suggests that we might all being feeling a bit depressed about it all right now, but she assures us that we shouldn’t worry, as we’re getting on to the good stuff. The good news is:

“God. Loves. You.”

He doesn’t just leave us, stuck in our sinning ways. He apparently wants a relationship with us and he loves us and he wants to do something about it all. Jay then quoted John 3:16 “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

So, Jay asks, what was the solution? What did God do? She tells us about the idea of the self-substitution of God:

“Basically, God came to Earth in the form of his son, Jesus Christ, to die for you and to die for me.”

She then quotes 1 Peter 2:24 “By his wounds you have been healed” and asks what this means. To tell us what it means, she relates a story. This is the tale of a Polish priest who, while incarcerated at a German concentration camp, substituted himself in place of a man who was being taken away for execution. . Jay tells us 150,000 people attended a mass in his honour in St Peter’s Square in 1982. This turnout was apparently “A victory like that won by our lord Jesus Christ” according to the Pope himself.

Jay concedes that this is not a perfect analogy of what Jesus has done for us, but Jesus has basically taken our place and died on the cross in our stead. If it isn’t a perfect analogy then why use it at all, I wondered, other than as an opportunity to tell a story about a selfless Christian; showing us how great Christians are.

Inserting an inaccurate analogy here seems like little more than product placement to me. At a point where the audience were primed and ready for an explanation of what God did when faced with the problem of our sin, we are diverted along the route of a story which does not answer this question, but gives us something that is suggestive of the sort of concepts that the answer might include.

The use of questions with no answer, or answers that don’t quite fit the question provides many opportunities for “mystery” to be involved and for the insertion of more tales of the goodness of Christians. It seems like a deliberate tactic. The sermon has asked questions, and offered answers but not in any attempt to further knowledge or to try to pin down a logical route to understanding. The questions are a framework upon which a series of favourable images of Christianity can be draped. You feel like you are going to have knowledge revealed, but you are given only a set of oblique references and propaganda. I digress.

Joachim Beaukelaer - Christ on the Cross (Wikimedia Commons)

The Sacrifice on the Cross

The crucifixion, we are told, also allowed Jesus to truly feel what it was like to be human. For the first time in his life, he experienced the existential pain of separation from God. Isaiah was recited here to explain that Jesus was like a sacrificial sheep from the old days. In those times, people would transfer their sins into a lamb which would then be slaughtered in sacrifice. Having chosen to be the designated sacrificial lamb, God has chosen to experience the pain and suffering we all go through, proving that he is not an aloof God.

Personally, I’d say that even if this act did suspend his aloofness temporarily, in the wider context of history, God is still for the most part highly aloof, to the point of his aloofness being indistinguishable from non-existence. A single incidence of non-aloofness does not a non-aloof deity make.

There are 4 results of what was achieved by Jesus on the cross:

One: The slate has been wiped clean. The sins of the world have been taken away, by Jesus: the one perfect sacrificial lamb.

Two: We can be set free from the both the power of and addiction to sin. “If the son sets you free, you are free indeed”. We are regaled with the supporting story of a hopeless local alcoholic being instantly cured of his addiction after he accepted Jesus into his life. Instantly. He said so.

Three: We can receive total forgiveness. Paul says “Through Christ’s death we have been justified”. Another story: Two childhood friends; one becomes a criminal, the other a judge. One day, the criminal is in court in front of this very judge, by chance. The judge fines the man £500 and promptly takes off his wig and writes out a cheque for £500 which he gives to his wayward old buddy. This is like God and us - he has to judge us but he wants to help us pay the price by killing himself in human form.

Four: We can come home and become part of God’s family, where we can feel relaxed and safe.

God was in Christ. If he wasn’t God, his sacrifice and the whole mechanism of the forgiveness of sin would not work. Jay reminds us one last time that God loves us - even if we were alone on the planet, Jesus would still have come down and sacrificed himself for our sake.

For the first time on the course, we were invited as a group to participate in a prayer with Jay. Here it is:

“Jesus Christ, thank you for dying for me on the cross.
I’m sorry for the things in my life that have been wrong
I now turn away from everything I know is wrong and I receive your gift of forgiveness.
I put my trust in what you did for me on the cross.
Fill me with your holy spirit and give me new life.

Jay leaves us with the sentiment that there might be a lot to take in from this talk. She’s not wrong, so I’ll share the content of the group discussion in my next installment. A lot of what Jay spoke about this week demands a point-by-point response, but I think I’ve commented enough for one week. I’d love you to give me your own reactions in the comments though. If you want a little more, then feel free to read my response (below) to the content of the book I was lent.

Next Week: The Vicar returns, to ask the question “How can we have faith?” You won’t by now be surprised to hear that there is no definite answer, it’s just a rhetorical gambit.


“What About All the Wars?”

Here’s my account of what I read in "Why Trust the Bible?" by Amy Orr-Ewing, for those that are interested.

The book consists of 10 chapters, each of which address a “tough question”. I didn’t read the whole book as I was reading David Aaronovitch’s excellent “Voodoo Histories” at the time. I did read the whole of the chapter entitled “What About All the Wars?” which had been specified as the best response to my queries. I won’t quote the entire sequence of fallacies but the chapter opens like this:

“I am often asked how I can believe in God when there have been so many wars caused by religion. The implication of this question is that if only people would leave behind their convictions about the existence of God, the world would be a much better, more peaceful place. Of course, very few people ever reflect on the fact that the very reverse of this was demonstrated in the twentieth century, which saw the rise of the atheistic communist and Nazi ideologies and more killing than the previous nineteen centuries put together”

She goes on to acknowledge that religions have indeed led to wars and that the crusades:

“..should never have happened and are certainly not a true reflection of what Jesus came to say and accomplish”.

In that first paragraph, she sidesteps the opening question by introducing the straw man that asking “How can you believe in God when there have been so many wars caused by religion” is the same thing as believing that without religion, war would disappear. This is a rather obvious fallacy; one can easily ask this question and know that humans fight over all sorts of things - such as territory, for example. She does not answer this question at any point in the chapter; surprising given it’s brought up in the very first sentence of the opening paragraph. My response to the equating of atheism and Nazism etc is to rest my face in the palm of my hand for a few moments.

The chapter goes on to inform us that the Bible came up with rules of war so that they can be fought honourably. The author refers to the “Kindness in the use of the sword” described in Deuteronomy 20, along with ideas such as the requirement for cities to be offered the chance “ capitulate before a full-scale siege and the destruction of the city.”

I will quote one more sizable extract so that you can see I am not being creative in my positioning of quotation marks. This is the part that refers specifically to the Canaanites. If you remember, I had asked during the first week “I don’t know what the Canaanite children could have been guilty of that would justify their slaughter”. Bear that question in mind as you read this extract:

“In this context the women and children were to be spared from death and were to be cared for by their captors (Deuteronomy 20:14) Only in the case of the particularly depraved inhabitants of Canaan itself was there to be total destruction. The reason given for this was the likely corruption of the moral spiritual standards of Israelite society, in areas such as child sacrifice: ‘they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). This is important as Israel had been chosen to be the bearers of God’s self-revelation to the world; they had been given the precious task of making God known.”

(Emphasis mine)

Where do I start here? Remember, this chapter had been recommended to me by a real, live, pleasant man so that I may find an answer to my concern that the God of the bible might be a capricious, murderous despot. I could go on for hours about this, so I will force myself into a few bullet-points:

  • The “Total destruction” of the “particularly depraved” is legitimised. Think of the persecution of homosexual people in Uganda, deemed depraved by their Christian tormentors.
  • Who at the time decided what depravity is? We know this concept to be subjective.
  • Is the “Likely corruption” of “moral spiritual standards” really sufficient justification for the total destruction of an entire people? Not even actual corruption, but “Likely”.
  • Couldn’t the Israelites have simply chosen not to “follow the detestable things they [the Canaanites] do in worshipping their gods”? I choose not to sacrifice babies every day; I don’t demand the slaughter of those who I am told might try to teach me that it was a good idea. This disdain for the Canaanites sounds like base racism backed up by myths perpetuated by bigots to justify hatred and murder.
  • So because God had “chosen” the Israelites for the precious task of making himself known, they were given licence to slaughter those who might try to corrupt them. Who, apart from the Israelites at the time, was saying that the Israelites were God’s chosen people? Effectively, any self-proclaimed “chosen poeple” can justify genocide, by using the bible’s example.

Pardon my language, please but this thinking is not just idiotic, but contemptible. This is the 21st century and yet still we can see a book full of these ideas being passed from one human to another as a serious attempt to make sense of a “tough question”.

Friday, 21 October 2011

“Who is Jesus?” Alpha Course - Week 2

Expecting not to feel like eating in close proximity to other people again, I bought a banana from a greengrocers on London Road as I walked down to St Peter’s church for my second Alpha Course session.


I approached the building quickly and entered with a smile on my face. This was not deliberate, I was genuinely excited by tonight’s subject. At the first session, we were each given an Alpha Course “manual”, so I knew this week’s question would be “Who is Jesus?”. Note the present tense. I do feel like I already know him fairly well, having spent my entire school life in the Catholic system. My mental images of Jesus, Mary and God were all formed when I was about 4 years old. I still have to stop myself from revering the very idea of Mary.

I said hello to the 4 others from my circle who, like me, had showed up early. They all remembered my name and I had forgotten all of theirs. They were happily talking amongst themselves and seeing as there were so few here I decided I would eat some of the food. There was a choice of either pasta carbonara, or a sort of mushroom and leek vegetarian pasta option. I went for the latter and it was very good. As I ate, another 4 or 5 of my circle arrived. In total we were 3 down on the previous week. Nobody sat in the same place as last week and I positioned myself at the point farthest from the altar so I could look at it without twisting.

Once all the plates had been cleared away, The Vicar took to the stage and welcomed us warmly. He thanked those of us who had returned and he thanked those who were there for the first time. It looked like the numbers had thinned slightly but not much. If there were 100 last week then there were perhaps 90 this week. After reminding us of our complete freedom, he went a little more into what the Alpha Course offered. Part of the package he described was “...a taster of the experience of Christianity..” and this is where the singing comes in. He told us that the singing we do there is an example of the sort of benefits that come with being a practising Christian

The Singing

At the end of this short introduction, he invited the guitar-playing singer up on to the stage. We were invited to stand and sing and this time I saw only one other person that had chosen to remain seated. There may have been more but I couldn’t see from my vantage point, surrounded as I was by standing human bodies. The other non-stander was behind me and I chose not to make eye contact.

Surprisingly, they started singing exactly the same hymn as last week. I could speculate about why that might be, but I’ll let you ponder that for yourselves. At the end of “How great Thou Art” they went without a pause into another hymn which contained the repeated lyric “Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord”.

This hymn is apparently called “Everlasting God”. I don’t like it one bit. “How Great Thou Art” has a certain grandeur to it but “Everlasting God” has one of those non-melodies so favoured by weak bedroom-based singer songwriters. Uninspiring.

As they sang, I looked around at my enthusiastically singing, swaying comrades. Although I couldn’t remember their names, I could remember the questions they’d asked during last week’s group session. I’ll give you a summary of that while they’re singing this damned hymn.

The Previous Week’s Group Discussion

After The Vicar finished his first sermon last week, it was time for the circles of Alpha students to discuss the topics amongst ourselves. Our circle stayed where it was, in the centre of the room but most of the other ones got up and went to the various corners of the huge building and its annexes.

As we hadn’t talked as a group yet, our circle’s lead-helper started with a non-religious question to get things going: “If you were sent to live on a desert island, what one item would you take with you?” A short conversation ensued about whether we should go around the circle in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction. Clockwise was decided upon. The answers included a television, a computer, a cooker, cosmetics and a musical instrument. I wanted to take the works of Shakespeare and after acknowledging my own pretentiousness we laughed and moved on.

Next question: “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” Now this was the sort of thing I was here for so I started trying to think of a good question as I waited for my turn. The questions that this group of people would ask if they had an opportunity to speak to the omnipotent creator of the universe included:

“When will the world end?”
“Why does evil exist?”
“Why are there wars?”
“How did you create the world?”

There were a few others which I can’t recall, but one I can vividly remember is “When you created the world, why did you make it so there are 24 hours in the day, and not like 26”. After we’d finished a good-natured chuckle, I couldn’t help but announce to the group that in actual fact, the rate at which the Earth is spinning is slowing down and a some point in the distant future a day will indeed be 26 hours long. I also pointed out that this meant that in the past, the planet spun more quickly, so during the time of the dinosaurs, the day would have been shorter. This was listened to with interest by most of the circle, though a couple of them wanted me to go over it again.

It then came to my turn to ask God a question. I asked “Imagine a human that was so rich and powerful that he could afford to rid the world of poverty. This person chooses not to, however. Does God see this person as a sinner for choosing not to end poverty?”

The main helper said “good question” and some agreed with him while a few others looked bemused. Then it was the next person’s turn. “But what about the answer?” I thought.
This was the first time I realised that the Alpha Course does not provide immediate answers to specific questions. I was hoping that one of the helpers would point out the theological basis whereby it would be wrong for a human not to end poverty, but OK for their God. Nobody in the group offered an answer.

The next question was “Is religion a force for good or bad?” The consensus of the circle was that it is “about 50/50” because religion has caused a lot of strife but it has also led to a lot of good works being undertaken. Religion inspires good deeds such as charity work. I tried to stay quiet on this question as I didn’t want it to become "The Simon Course". I failed, and told them that I don’t believe that you need a religious belief to do good deeds; people are capable of doing good for its own sake. I gave an approximation of the idea (with which I wholly agree) that a good person will do good things anyway whereas religion can give otherwise good people a reason to treat other people badly, sometimes very badly.

This brought us on to the Old Testament. One of the students asked how it can have been God’s will to order the deaths of certain people in the Old Testament. The story she referred to was one where God told a man to “kill this man by burying his sword in his body or something”. Someone else recognised the story and a few other people nodded in agreement that this didn’t seem like a good thing for a good God to command. A moment’s silence followed, and I expected someone to bring up other instances of God’s counterintuitive notion of what is right. Nobody did, so I told them that the killing of individual people is nothing when you compare it to God’s command that the returning Israelites wipe out the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:1-2), with no mercy for women and children. I went as far as to say I don’t know what the Canaanite children could have been guilty of that could justify their slaughter - or even their symbolic slaughter - and that this didn’t sound like the kind of deity I would choose to worship even if I thought it did exist. I saw a few faces frown for the first time at this point.

One of the helpers said she would dig up one of her books to find the Christian answer to this problem as she couldn’t get her head around it. This technique for dealing with difficulties is the standard response to the tricky questions. When faced with something that could only be justified by reference to the mystery of God’s ways, it was accepted that there would be an explanation somewhere, even if it was hard to think of one yourself. For me, if there is no justification to be seen, it suggests that there is no justification. When I see people assume that genocidal acts can be justified by defering to the writings of theologians, it makes me despair for a moment or two.

At the end of the group session, one of the girls suggested that God was “too far above us” to be questioned in such a way and that we couldn’t possibly understand it. In response, I asked why this God should be exempt from the same level of interrogation and scrutiny as the rest of us. The silent nods and frowns ended that week’s discussion. Afterwards I went for a pint with the lead-helper and had a very good conversation about atheism and faith.

The Vicar’s Sermon - The Historical Evidence

Back to the present week, where we left the congregation singing a rather flaccid hymn. When it finished, The Vicar took to the stage and began his sermon. Although entitled “Who is Jesus?” this talk concentrated mostly on reasons for believing that what we know about Jesus is true.

His first point was that the “historical evidence” for Jesus’ existence is very strong. The historical evidence referred to is the New Testament. The reason that this evidence is so strong is because the oldest copies of the gospels are from a time quite close to the life of Christ when compared to other historical documents and the events they describe.

For instance, the oldest copy of the works of Tacitus dates from about  1100 AD, which was 1,300 years after it was first written. These documents are deemed trustworthy enough for us to use their contents to inform our views of Claudius and Nero. We have copies of the gospels dating from 350 AD with partial manuscripts dating from 130 AD. This means that our earliest copies of the gospels date from only 30-310 years from the time when they were written, so they must therefore be at least as reliable as Tacitus.

As always when the reliability of the New Testament is referred to, there is a show of inquisitiveness, but its content is always absolutely trusted in the end. The Vicar did not even mention the possibility that the gospels may have been embellished. The content of the New Testament, and the gospels in particular are viewed as if they are a description of events as they occurred. The Vicar again referred to the supposedly exhaustive choice of Jesus being either “Mad, bad or God” and we discussed this point in the group afterwards.

The lead-helper asked what we thought about the idea that Jesus must be one of those three options. I allowed a few seconds of silence to pass before saying that there is another choice. It is possible that the stories described in the gospels did not happen that way, so the choice should be between Jesus being either mad, a liar, the son of god or a fictional character. I immediately clarified that I don’t personally doubt the existence of a man called Jesus, I just doubt that he was God, that he worked miracles and that he necessarily said the things that are attributed to him. To back myself up, I mentioned that I have read a book called “Jesus Never Existed” and that it failed to convince me that Jesus didn’t exist. They liked this, but nobody responded to my point about the New Testament perhaps not being wholly accurate.

Returning to The Vicar’s talk, after the historical aspect of the life of Jesus, he went on to speak of the things Jesus said about himself. Jesus said that “I am the way and the truth and the life” and “To have seen me is to have seen God”. He claimed to be the Messiah, the son of God and also God the Son. The Vicar’s point was that Jesus must have been so much more than just the great teacher that many say he was. The reason he believes this seems to be that Jesus said it. This circular reasoning is not an over-simplification of the argument.

To show us what he meant, The Vicar asked us to imagine we were at the house party of a friend of a friend. While at this party, the host approaches you and says “I am the truth”. You say OK and shuffle away. A little later, the host speaks to you again and says “I am the Son of GOD”. Such claims, according to The Vicar, cannot be anything other than the claims of somebody who is telling the truth. He didn’t mention the thousands of other people over the centuries that have claimed to be God, however.

He compared the lofty claims of Jesus to the claims of the Buddha who said “I die seeking the truth”, or Mohammed, who said he was “a prophet”. Jesus claimed to be “The Truth”, and indeed God himself. The look on The Vicar’s face as he said all this told me that he really does follow this line of reasoning. His trust in the character of Christ as portrayed in the gospels is so absolute that he believes every claim that the Jesus character makes at face value. Jesus was Jesus so what Jesus said about himself must be true.

Jesus the Original Thinker

The Vicar then spoke of the “new thinking” that Jesus came up with. The examples of such hitherto unheard of concepts included the sermon on the mount; “Blessed are the meek” etc. The other example was the words said to have been spoken by Jesus to the mob that wanted to stone the adulteress to death. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. The Vicar lingered on this story for a while in a kind of amazement at how wise Jesus must have been. This was a subtle attempt to claim a Christian ownership on the concepts of justice and fairness and it was rather disappointing for me; I expected more than that from The Vicar. It still surprises me when Christians think that humans do not have a natural sense of justice that grows from our instinctive empathy for one another. It seems obvious to me.

We then digressed for another attack on the “mechanistic” views of science. The Vicar said that we all agree that the human experience requires more than a mechanistic explanation. There are many things that we cannot quantify, such as justice and love, but this does not mean they don’t exist. “We can’t buy 2 litres of love, but we wouldn’t deny its existence”. In the same way, you can’t deny God just because you can’t quantify him.

Lives without faith are apparently “of limited ambition and purpose”. There is a gap in all of us that only Jesus can fill.

The rest of the talk continued in the vein of using the bible as evidence of what was said in the bible. “How could someone have stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb when there were two guards posted?” How indeed. He can only have risen from the dead. Jesus also fulfilled too many prophecies of the Old Testament to to be dismissed as an impostor.

Finally The Vicar spoke of his feeling that the behaviour of the apostles (you guessed it, as described in the bible) can only have been the behaviour of people that had witnessed the resurrected Christ. Would they have gone to their eventual terrible deaths in the name of somebody they knew not to be the Messiah? Would the church have blossomed into life so quickly if it wasn’t based on real events, witnessed by real people?

The Group Discussion

In our circle, we drank tea and discussed the talk. The conversation flowed a little more easily than the previous week. The main subject was the believability of the Jesus story. I said that for me, discussion of the historical evidence for Jesus’ life and miracles was surely missing the point. If Christians’ main aim is to follow what he said, then what does it matter whether he performed miracles or not, or rose from the dead? Why do we need to attribute supernatural features to him if we are trying to follow his teachings? For that matter, does it even matter whether or not he existed if it’s his teachings that we’re interested in? Why would it make a difference to Christians if it turned out that the New Testament was just a novel? The teachings would still be the same. Nods. Frowns.

The group then starting talking about all the times that Jesus was seen after he rose from the dead; on the road to Emmaus, at the scene of Doubting Thomas’ humiliation, in the garden of Gethsemene etc. I had already made my point to them about all of their evidence coming from this one book with a murky provenance, so I chose to limit the depth of my unpopularity by forcing my mouth closed for a bit.

By the end of the discussion, I felt the first inkling that some of the others were tired of hearing from me. All the questions being discussed seem to stop after I’ve had my say. Nobody argued with me. I do think that a few of them are taking my comments on board, which I’m pleased about, but there are some that are only there to bolster their faith rather than to truly question it. I asked the group to forgive me for speaking so much and they assured me that they were pleased I was doing so.

I spoke briefly with The Vicar afterwards to ask him for the source of the Charlie Brooker quote from last week. I told him I was the token atheist in the group and he congratulated me “Oh well done! Make sure you speak up!”. So with this invitation ringing in my ears, I left the church wearing the same smile I arrived with.

Next Week: The Vicar is away for a week, so the talk is given by a stand-in who treats us to a surprisingly full-on, traditional Christian view of the cross and of sin itself.