Rowan Williams is in the news again. In preparation for his departure from Lambeth Palace, he’s been interviewed by the Torygraph, leading to lots of comment about what he said, including his admission that he got things wrong, his regrets that he failed to communicate well, and the reported plans for a “President of the Anglican Communion”. I can’t resist an invitation like that.
In Jesus’ alternative words from John 16:
Truly I say to you, it is for your good that I am going. Unless I go, the comforter will not come to you. But if I go, he will be sent to you. And when he comes, he will show the world to be wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. His main strength will be getting his message across clearly, because sometimes people just don’t seem to get the point of my parables, and they don’t really fit into the sort of soundbites that a 24-hour news culture expects.
And he will have a president to attend to the big picture. Actually, it would have been really helpful to have someone with overall responsibility for the whole world, because quite frankly, I’ve got enough on my plate just dealing with Galilee. Do you have any idea how long it takes to get from Nazareth to Capernaum by donkey? It’s no wonder that I can’t travel to Jerusalem as often as I’d like.
On that subject, maybe the president could also talk to disaffected factions and do all the dirty political wrangling. He could start by meeting with the Roman authorities, so that they understand our position and there’s no danger of misunderstandings. And it would be important to speak to the Pharisees on a regular basis, to listen to their concerns and take them on board. I think I’ve failed to really connect with those groups in particular – they just seem to see me as a hairy lefty.
I’m sure we’ll be able to talk it over and make up once I’ve retired.
Photo by clarita, used under morgueFile License
Christians of certain traditions love to talk about the importance of being childlike, obliquely referring to this passage, but this is used worryingly often to mean that you should trust the church leadership, and not ask too many difficult questions. I’d have said that the context indicates pretty clearly that the important feature is humility, which I suggest is a message pertinent to anyone who expects unconditional trust, but this is glossed over or ignored, and if you disagree with the conclusion you’re providing clear evidence that you’re not trusting like a child.
But if these church leaders are right, and we can’t take Matt 18:4 as evidence that this verse refers to humility, what else could it mean? What does it mean to be childlike? Well, I’ve had a few thoughts about that:
And he said, “Truly I say to you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And the disciples said, “Why?”
Jesus said, “Because it’s important to be trusting, and to have a pure heart.”
And the disciples said, “Why?”
“Because that makes you a nice person.”
And the disciples said, “Why?”
“Because I said so. Now stop asking why.”
Simon Peter paused in the middle of picking his nose and said, “But we’re being like little children, like you told us.”
“Oh, I see,” said Jesus. “That wasn’t quite what I meant – stop that, Philip – but never mind. Let’s just forget about that for now – I said stop that – and I’ll explain later. Okay?”
The disciples shuffled their feet and mumbled “Yes.”
“Good,” said Jesus. “Now come on, we’d better get a move on if we want to get back to Nazareth this evening.”
“Teacher,” said James, “John took my sandals.”
Photo by Howdy, I’m H. Michael Karshis, used under Attribution License
This is dedicated to Bideford Town Council, Eric Pickles, Baroness Warsi, and all their fellow travellers who equate religious freedom with permission to enforce corporate prayer in the guise of public service.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. But if you want to go for the jackpot, try to use your position to coerce other people to join in publicly with your prayers. I’m on performance-related bonuses based on prayer numbers, but there’s no quality control, so if you help out to inflate my results, I’ll be happy to pass on some of the profits. You know I’ve never really cared about sincerity – it’s all about numbers.
I often hear people preach an obscurantist God – one who avoids detection and acts so as to deny any possibility of demonstrating His existence, but still expects you to somehow conclude that He does indeed exist and follow Him on the basis of this deliberately insufficient evidence.
This new version of Revelation 3:20 is dedicated to them.
Behold! I stand at the door and knock. And then I run away and hide. It’s freakin’ hilarious, man – you should see their faces! And sometimes I leave them a flaming bag of dog poo, because they’ve got free will, right, so whatever they do isn’t really my fault. And you know what I think about over-reliance on material possessions, so it’s actually good for their souls to ruin a nice new pair of suede loafers once in a while. Seriously.
It occurs to me that if the Bible was really dictated by an angry, dictatorial God as fundies believe (or appear to believe, or claim to believe), we’d expect to see a lot of things that don’t seem to appear in the text. A truly infallible, comprehensive manifesto for human living, direct from God’s own mouth would surely reflect God’s priorities, but there are some pretty big discrepancies between the contents of this manifesto and what fundies take from it, which they have to fill in with a substantial amount of interpretation, even while denying that they’re doing it. At the very least, you’d think He’d have made sure to be absolutely explicit about what He wanted you to do.
So what would the Bible look like if it had really been dictated word for word by a micromanaging God who shared the strange obsessions of various kinds of fundamentalist? Some passages would have to be struck out, some new bits would have to be inserted, and various other bits would need to be rewritten. So for anyone who pays attention to apocalyptic prophecies and suchlike, the Fundie God Dictation (FGD) version of the Bible would look a bit like this from Matthew 24:
For no one knows the day or the hour – not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. But to be honest, He’s really bad at keeping secrets, and He’ll probably blab to any half-arsed self-proclaimed prophet he happens to bump into. I’ve told Him that the whole idea’s to keep people guessing, so they can’t exploit that last-minute repentance loophole He put in, but He just won’t shut up. Between you and me, I think He might be getting a bit soft in His old age. It’s just as well His memory’s going as well, so He keeps giving out the wrong date – there’s only so much space in heaven, and we need to keep the riffraff out.
Of course, it’s very easy to have a go at the way fundamentalists say that the Bible’s a complete, infallible set of direct, divinely dictated instructions, even while holding beliefs which require some serious interpretation and downplaying of inconvenient passages, and even outright invention. But what really interests me is the way all shades of belief adhere to what they think the text means, rather than what it actually says, and the often massive difference between the two.