There’s been a bit of a stir in my twitter feed about Giles Fraser’s latest Guardian column which appears under the headline “I bang my head against the wall when evangelicals turn Jesus into Cheesus”
Once again, the evangelicals are in the ascendency in the Church of England. Rowan Williams never spoke of Cheesus. He had way too much gravitas. Which was why so many non-Christians respected him. And, to be fair, Justin Welby doesn’t do that either – but I worry that he does have a slight weakness in that direction. After all, that is the stable of the church he hails from. And if he does lapse into Cheesus-speak, heaven save him from Rowan Atkinson, whose Red Nose day satire was a little too close for comfort.
Welby, however, does have one important inoculation against Cheesus. He has personal experience of tragedy and Cheesus cannot deal with tragedy. Which is why, for the worst sort of Cheesus-loving evangelicals, the cross of Good Friday is actually celebrated as a moment of triumph. This is theologically illiterate. Next week, in the run up to Easter, Christianity goes into existential crisis. It fails.
The two years after my son was stillborn were the darkest in my life. Depressed and angry with God for taking our child before his life even began, and for then not giving us the job we wanted (because obviously if you do the right thing then God will make everything OK) I entered that long dark night that the Christian mystics speak of. You’d be surprised how many Evangelicals do. As I sat in the dust alongside Job I learnt that it is in suffering and despair that we learn to wait on God, and it is in the surrender of our desires and dreams that we give God the permission to raise from the dead that which we (and He) have crucified. But as Evangelicals understand, it is the moment of darkness that is the moment of triumph. The Father lays upon the Son every sin of the believer, every suffering, every moment of pain, anguish and sorrow and as Jesus dies he takes upon himself the entire spiritual consequence of those things. There is a supernatural exchange – my brokenness for his perfection. It is an exchange that cannot be understood by those who have not experienced it and it is one that the world derides and mocks.
It seems to me that both sides of this have a point worth attending to. Of course Giles Fraser’s article is a caricature. But caricatures only work because they exaggerate the features of their subject. And he’s undoubtedly right that evangelicalism as it comes through HTB and the ‘Alpha Course’ finds it very difficult to accommodate suffering. That faith in Jesus makes everything all right is an unrelenting message in all the course materials. Nicky Gumbell is no Joel Osteen, but he has a similar smile and his theology is on the same trajectory.
Peter is right that “The joyful expression of the name of Jesus is not a denial of the suffering and pain but a bold proclamation despite it.” Yes, absolutely. However, that truth is frequently camouflaged by a determined jollity in the face of suffering that simply does not take its reality seriously. The hymn-writer’s pious lie “Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies, | But his smile quickly drives it away;” has been taken to heart. Evangelicals have no monopoly on this, and it doesn’t afflict the whole movement. But it’s undeniable that what Fraser calls ‘PR Christianity’ is widely available in an evangelical church near you.