Sunday, 27 December 2015

How to make a Holy Family

© Viz
Family. Authority. Obedience. How very Victorian. The theme of the gospel for the Feast of the Holy Family might make modern liberals blanche over their skinny de-caf soya lattes, yet it may be just the remedy for the indiscipline of modern times. 
Compare and contrast: the Individual. Choice. Self-discovery. Now we're back into happy modern territory. Surely happier, at any rate, than the 1950s, that mythical decade wherein Guardianistas fondly sneer that Mail readers all wish to dwell, in saecula saeculorum. After all "family," we are repeatedly told, is the primary locus of emotional and sexual abuse; "authority" is never to be trusted, since everyone is out on the make; and "obedience" is sheep-like and undignified, because nobody could possibly know better than I. So it is the individual trumps the wicked family, personal choice overrides all authority, and nobody deserves the obedience which would impede my personal voyage of self-discovery. 
People who argue against infant baptism and religious education in schools often argue along these lines. The young, they say, should be able to make their own minds up about such things when they get older. On what grounds they will make their decisions when all information and reasoned debate is withheld from them, I do not know; and if we take the principle to its logical extent, presumably the kiddy winkies will be allowed to choose to eat rusty nails and bubble-wrap if they like, and left until later in life to debate the relative merits of stabbing each other with scissors or playing on motorways. 
Yet there is much that children do not choose, such as their nationality, their sex, their sleeping patterns, or for that matter to be born. One of the points of being a parent is that you make certain choices. Sprog may reject those choices in due course, but the parent still makes the decision in the first place: and choosing to make no decision is a decision in itself. So, like it or not, the family is a unit of authority and obedience. 
What a remarkable counterexample to an age obsessed with self-empowerment that the all-powerful God submitted to the authority of mortal parents. I could bang on about the horror that the almost joyous dismantling of the family and the pathological contempt for authority have wreaked over the decades, but anyone without ideological blinkers or myopic optimism can see that for themselves. Better to think about what kind of authority Jesus was submitting to in his family and community, and what hope it might bring. 
His community's authority was not simply for authority's sake, the authority of "because I say so:" Jesus was debating with his elders and religious superiors when Mary and Joseph found Him. The gospel here commend an authority secure enough to allow dissent, knowing enough to answer questions, mature enough not to resort to anger when challenged. 
Jesus' family had given him the freedom to go off on his own. At first, Mary and Joseph were not worried, certainly not wrapping him in cotton wool. So theirs was the sort of authority that inspires freely willed obedience rather than forces it. Obedience which is unreasoningly enforced is really not obedience at all, but a kind of enslavement. There are times when you do have to enforce it - you can't reason a toddler out of sticking her fingers in the electric socket. But the emergency exception should not set the rule. Good authority sets the boundaries needed for independent flourishing. 
Most importantly, Luke describes a family interrelationship which helped Jesus reach wisdom. Wisdom resides in truth, a concept dismissed by the modern cult of self-fulfilment. The absence of moral truth becomes an excuse for people to use and abuse one another, to break off and start up successions of "relationships" without an afterthought for the detritus they leave behind, and they are bolstered in this by online "friends" who just happen to support them without challenge in everything they do or say or think. Since the wealthy and the middle-aged can afford to make mistakes, the fallout of this indiscipline and folly tends to hit the poorest and the youngest hardest. 
Where many people have found wisdom is in those who have submitted, like Jesus, to the rule of a person or community in which they find the love and knowledge of God, and who have stuck with it; in those who pray often and plenty in a disciplined routine and who give themselves in loving service to one other. If we can offer to our biological families and to our greater family of the Church anything like the nurturing authority Mary and Joseph gave to Jesus, then we will be doing God's work. 

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Advent and Apocalyptic Rivalry


An obscure group camped out in the Middle East believes the end of the world is nigh. Their bearded rabble-rouser of a prophet is proclaiming ancient, apocalyptic scriptures, and he says that the promised Messiah who will judge the living and the dead is coming soon, any minute now. They've been waiting a long time, so long that they start to wonder if their prophet is that Messiah, but he says not. The world is showing no signs of ending, and so many zealots want to take matters into their own hands, accelerate the end of days, do God's work by expelling the pagan occupation. At every setback, their leader tells them to be patient, because the judgment will most certainly come to pass. It is God's will. He will send a Spirit of fire to cleanse and purify. And for you, he says, for you who live righteously and believe, this is Good News: for He will judge justly.

I'm talking about John, of course. But which one: the Baptist, or the Jihadi?

Many of the Baptist's congregation were expecting a military Messiah. There were men who claimed the title and rebelled against the hated Romans. The Old Testament tribal chiefs had no difficulty massacring women and children to achieve their political hegemony, and these were the rebels' God-given inspiration. And when Siefeddine Rezgui Yacoubi opened fire on 38 tourists on the beach in Tunisia in January this year, he did so believing that he was not a murderer but a martyr, and the bombers in Beirut and Paris no doubt thought the same thing.

Like John the Baptist's group, the jihadis in Syria also believe that the apocalypse is nigh. This is not some eccentric minority view. According to recent research, more than half of the Muslims in nine Muslim-majority countries think that they will live to see the apocalypse. Some 42% of Islamic State propaganda is based on this belief, a belief startlingly close to that of the early Church represented by that other John, the Evangelist: that soon, within their lifetime, there will be a final battle between good and evil, with the Messiah leading God's forces against the Antichrist, whereafter Jesus will sit in judgment on us all.

The immediacy of the Apocalypse is such an important part of ISIS ideology that their slick magazine, 'Dabiq,' is named after the town in Syria where the Quran says this final battle will happen – it's the exact equivalent of naming a Christian magazine 'Armageddon.' And their leaders, too, tell them that although there will be setbacks, they must have patience, because God's will is predestined and will come true, and will be good news for those on the right side – which, incidentally, doesn’t include most Muslims, whom they view as apostate traitors.

Roman military might did not ultimately crush the little apocalyptic sect that would become Christianity. If anything, the martyrdoms only strengthened the Church. The bombing of Syria may or may not achieve much, and you will doubtless have formed your own opinions. But surely nobody believes that it will ultimately eliminate the threat of Islamic terrorism, because that threat is the product of an ideology, of a dream which expands far beyond any territorial borders. The Islamic State proper is a nation of the mind, and minds cannot be bombed. But it has conquered the imagination of countless Muslims worldwide, many of them young, able and idealistic.

The political philosopher Edmund Burke observed in the 18th century that "it is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination." It doesn't matter who has the best idea, the best ideology, whether secular democracy, international socialism or a worldwide Islamic Caliphate: only the one which appeals to the imagination is going to last. And be in no doubt, the myth peddled by the Islamic State is doing just that. It's based on a widespread sense of estrangement among Muslims from a world dominated by liberal western powers which have not only abandoned traditional values but actively persecute those who try to promote them, a feeling of being bullied and humiliated for keeping the faith. Don't Christians feel much the same, whenever another Catholic adoption agency is closed, or the Bible is desecrated in an art exhibition, or a nurse banned from wearing a crucifix? The difference is that we still feel we can compromise and just about function in the modern world. For many Muslims, on the other hand, modernity is an enemy that needs to be stood up to. The Caliphate, says ISIS, is the answer: one God, one Caliphate, one Islamic people, standing nobly and chivalrously like Saladin against the Crusaders.

ISIS have the myth to capture the imagination. What they also have, which the early Christians lacked, is the means to promote that myth on an unprecedented scale. There's no need to go out to every town in twos proclaiming the Gospel. They can do it from their bedrooms: on social media sites, through slickly produced e-zines, by writing on blogs and fora all read by a generation that, research reveals, struggles to distinguish fact from opinion when it comes up on a computer screen. And because people know so little about their religion, other than the 'show-and-tell' stuff they get in RE lessons, Islamists can easily 'prove' their theological point. Their methods include highly selective references to Scripture and Tradition (the Quran and Hadith), dismissal of serious scholarship as 'apostate,' and simple black-and-white answers to very disputable questions, but all this is lost on a generation looking exactly for the dream of a black-and-white worldview. It's exactly like those Christian Unions at schools and universities which tell their members to go nowhere near chapel and bans them from academic theology because it will make them question their beliefs, and it's packaged in exactly the same sexy, trendy way.

No doubt the easiest way to get youngsters into mosque or church is to brainwash them. But that does no justice to the great Christian and Islamic theological traditions reasoned out over the centuries. Instead it fosters enmity, arouses a sense of entrenchment against everyone else. The only weapon that can break through those trenches is reason: theological reason, because this is a theological war, a war over interpretation of what God is and says and does.

So which John? Which God? Which Christ? Both the Baptist and the Jihadi believe in Jesus coming to judge at the end of the world. The difference is in who they believe Jesus is. The Jihadi believes, like some in the Baptist's company, that Jesus will be a warlord coming to kill the infidel. Christians believe that Jesus is God, and that there is nothing in God that is not like Jesus. We have the same kinds of apocalyptic prophecies but the lens by which we see them is quite different: because we believe in a God who triumphs, yes, but by emptying Himself of power and offering Himself for execution upon the Cross. When do not know the time when He will return to fight the Devil, but we do know what His weapon will be: love. And we know what His judgment will be: mercy. The Islamist's God cannot be true, because it is not Christlike. That is our dream. Our work now, the work of preachers, poets, lovers rather than soldiers, is to rekindle that dream in the world's imagination.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Good news, you brood of vipers!


Advent 3, and this week, as last, the star of the Gospel passage is John the Baptist.
The contrast between the first line and the last are almost comical. Hairy old John begins by shouting at those queuing up for baptism "you brood of vipers!" and goes on to tell them that their Abrahamic ancestry counts for nothing, because God has his axe at the root of the tree just waiting to cut them off and lob them into the fire. "So," the Gospel concludes, "he proclaimed the good news to the people."
"What an uplifting sermon, Father," said the congregation as they shook hands after the service and left the bank of the Jordan.
I cannot imagine many bishops nowadays counselling their clergy to adopt John's homiletic style, though I'd love to see the look on the faces of people bringing their children to a baptism if I tried it.
There's nothing remotely risible about John's message, however, and it's one which hits us all with its severity, whether we are rich or poor. Those who believe the disciples were proto-revolutionary rabble-rousers might note John's advice to the soldiers: "be satisfied with your wages." Those, on the other hand, who think that coming to church is a get-out-of-jail-free card which will excuse their greedy materialism need to hear his exhortation that "whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none." Supply "two Jags" if you can.
The message to us all, sadly all the more relevant just before Christmas, is that fixation on material things will ultimately do us no good at all. Those things are all bound for the flames, and if we don't watch it, they will drag us down with them, into the hell of jealousy, one-upmanship, obsession, selfishness. Not that we see anything like that in Berkhamsted, of course.
There is another way: the Way that John makes straight, cutting through and breaking down all the clutter that clings like you-know-what to the ego and drags us away from the true self within, which is nothing other than Christ himself within us. It may take a baptism of fire to get us there, and the pain may be searing. It's otherwise known as the Cross. Better by far to take it up now than to wait for the final judgment.
And so John's message rings loud and clear, in one word: "Repent!"
Confession times are advertised on the parish pew slip.