Saturday, March 23, 2013

Giles Fraser and Cheesus

Normally I enjoy reading or hearing Giles Fraser. He's usually challenging, often controversial, and never makes comfortable listening. It's very important there are people like that around, who don't accept the status quo, question everything, and are prepared to face some criticism for the stands they make. In the old days they called people like that prophets, now they call them loose canons.

However, I feel I need to respond to a recent short article he posted on the Guardian "Comment is Free" site. In it, he starts with a description of permanent-grin Christians for whom anything nasty or messy is something to ignore or deny. Many of us will have come across the type over the years - it's not a new observation in itself, and it's legitimate, though not particularly novel, to critique them. So far, we're on consensual ground. 

What troubled me was what happened next in the article. Fraser does two things simultaneously. He outlines what he sees as the theological root of this tendency - a failure to engage with the desolation of the cross. Put simply, there is a culture in some Christian circles that can't pause at Gethsemane and Good Friday, but has to jump to the "happy ending" of Easter Sunday. At the same time he describes Rowan Williams as having gravitas, but of Justin Welby he says "but I worry that he does have a slight weakness in that direction." Later on he can't resist noting that an important part of Justin's Christian formation was at Holy Trinity Brompton, a church well-known for its smiley nice Christians.

It seems to me that Giles Fraser's right rejection of what affects many evangelical Christians becomes prejudice, rather than analysis. I grew up in an evangelical church, and that was the place I found faith, and vocation. Many evangelicals wouldn't recognise me as one anymore, but that experience means I know that Christians bearing the 'evangelical' label are a diverse bunch. They range from fundamentalists to people like Steve Chalk and Benny Hazelhurst speaking out for equal marriage. They range from people who have a 'proof text' from the Bible for everything, to people who are recognised for their theological scholarship. Just because Justin Welby comes from a particular background, it doesn't mean he will fulfil the stereotype. Let's assess him on what he actually says and does, rather than what our pre-conceived ideas assume he will do.

In Fraser's passion to demolish what he call 'Cheesus' Christians (of whom the new Archbishop may or may not be one, according to his analysis), he also makes a remarkable assertion. He says of the people he is critquing "the cross of Good Friday is actually celebrated as a moment of triumph. This is theologically illiterate."

Giles, it may not be balanced, and it may not be the theological emphasis you or I would wish to major on during our Good Friday devotions, but the idea of the cross as victory is well-established in theology. It is not illiteracy. From the Gospel of John's account of Jesus referring to the cross as "glorification", to the final words from Jesus on the cross in John "it is finished", the roots of the idea are there. Giles Fraser will know the term "Christus Victor" and its association with a theological understanding of the cross as defeat of evil. (Ironically it was an Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, who played a significant part in replacing it as the dominant understanding of the cross) It is also explored in art, such as the triumphant Christus Rex figure in Southwell Minster, where I was ordained. The ambiguity of a triumphant figure with arms stretched out in a cross-like shape is the paradox of the piece. By all means call a triumphal view of the cross bad theology, theology you don't believe, but please don't call it being theologically illiterate, because it isn't.

Keep writing, Giles, and keep speaking. You challenge our complacency, and you say things that others aren't brave enough to name. Just don't get carried away with your assumptions about people, or groupings that carry certain ecclesiastical or theological labels. 
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Mark Bratton said...

Very balanced, Mike. Your principal concern seems to be Giles' charge of theological illiteracy. Notwithstanding, I have been struck at the level of the reaction to Giles' piece. The charge of being 'Cheesus Christians' seems to have been a little too close to the bone for many.

Mike Peatman said...

As you'd expect, that didn't bother me. It was the insinuation about Justin and the badly argued case about triumphalism that irritated me

Mike Peatman said...

From the long preface for Palm Sunday Eucharist:

"The power of the life-giving cross reveals the judgement that has come upon the world and the triumph of Christ crucified."

It is possible to see the cross as paradoxical victory, without resorting to a crass jump to "it was worth it because of the happy ending".

Revsimmy said...

"Keep writing, Giles, keep speaking."
Up until this most recent article I would have echoed these words. However, I am beginning to feel that whenever Giles rubs up against "evangelicals" (regardless of what they actually believe and preach) a certain irrationality comes into play. He stereotypes and generalises in a way that he would not countenance for other people or groups and applies a "guilt by association" rhetoric which hardly becomes soemone of his supposed academic standing. I suspect he has already realised this since his farewell piece in his Church Times column suggested that he is an angry man and that he does not feel free to write what he thinks when he writes for CT (so we get it in the Guardian instead).
Otherwise I agree with all you have written here, Mike and wonder exactly which liturgies Giles has been using all these years.