http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51533The Christmas stories in the Bible have a message – and it is neither the commodified story of contemporary culture, nor is is the cutesy baby in a stable nativity scene. It’s a story of political subversion and social reversal, set in a particular time and place.

Humans are excellent pattern recognisers. Generally speaking.

It helps though, when we have a cue letting us know what sort of pattern to expect. Many patterns are cultural, they use recognisable signs and signifiers which make sense to those immersed in the culture they are developed in. Looking at unfamiliar signs is difficult when we aren’t immersed in a culture.

When we are overfamiliar with dumbed down versions of stories we have a double problem: we feel as though we know the story, but our knowledge is entirely out of context.

One of the key and most obvious patterns in the gospels, is that of reversals. And this is firmly established in the Christmas narratives: the virgin is pregnant, the night sky invades the day time, the king is a pauper, God is a human baby, the outcasts are welcome. The writers of these stories made these reversals deliberately, pointedly, to overturn expectations and set off a narrative of an upside down way of seeing the world.

To understand the meaning (or one of the meanings) of this pattern, we have to consider the culture of the time in which they were written. What would it mean for things to be upside down?

These stories are set at a particular time, a really important time. It was in 6 CE that Judea, Samaria and Edom became the Roman province of Judea. Roman Judea was substantially larger than it’s predecessor state had been, with an eastern border which stretched as far as contemporary Jordan and even encompassed Damascus (hence Saul/Paul and his dual citizenship). It was an important part of the Roman Empire, and its good governance was key to Roman security.

One of the key groups in maintaining this order, were a cadre of Jewish leaders known as the Pharisees. When people talk of the Pharisees in churches, they will often make much of a particular type of ancient Jewish theology, and set Jesus up in opposition to that. This way of thinking misses the obvious: the Pharisees were effectively working for the Romans. They were crushing dissent and trouble because of a political need. The theology of the Pharisees is relevant, but its particular relevance is that it was far more in line with Roman theology than their rivals the Sadducees, not that they were stuck up or full of their own self importance.

Behind all of this was a corrupt priesthood – run by a figure called Annas, who was high priest in Jerusalem between 6 and 15 CE until he was deposed, but whose family continued in the role. Think: mafia. Think: contemporary despotic regime of your choice.

So this is the context – the time that was being written about, and the time in which it was being written. A puppet state, run by a corrupted priesthood, enforced by violence. And what are the writers talking about? Reversal. Reversal of everything. And if I were to ascribe a ‘meaning’ to Christmas, perhaps that would be it. It is a scene setter for the ‘ministry of reversal’ that the Jesus movement comes to embody. Tables are literally turned. The dead are brought back to life (we must talk about Lazarus some other time).

And in the midst of this – a whole host of reversed rituals, baptism, the reversal of the Roman military Sacramentum, and the core Christian rite, the shared meal: a subversion of the Roman banquet. Everything is overturned, everything is lampooned. Its incredibly subversive – social and political dynamite.

Perhaps the point is that the only way this all makes sense, is if you stand it on it’s head. Which is why I’m so keen, on an #alternativeadvent.

 

 

end_is_nighThere’s a thread that runs through much of the Old Testament, which sees conflict between the perspective of the prophet, and the perspective of the king.

Prophets and kings were basically two sides of the same coin, they had a kind of symbiosis. And they both had much to fear from the other too: mainly death, of one sort or another.

Whereas kings represented the rule of earthly law, and were all about gathering power and wealth,  prophets on the other hand lived a marginal existence, eschewed power and privilege, and spoke instead of the primacy of God’s law, and of the ultimate rule of justice. There was little profit in being a prophet.

When it comes to the considering the archetypal prophet, certainly the one that looms  largest over the Hebrew identity, is Moses. He is the one who, according to the Exodus story, ushers the Israelites out of Egypt, through the desert and on to the promised land. Matthew of course draws a number of direct parallels between the hero figure of Moses, and the new hero: Jesus. Matthew is depicting Jesus as the new Moses. (Miraculous birth, divinely appointed role, comes out of Egypt, water miracles, feeding miracles, goes up a mountain to deliver God’s rules, etc.)

For some people these clear comparisons are an example of the way in which Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecy, and from a faith standpoint that’s a perfectly valid way to look at it. An alternative, and similarly valid way of looking at this however, is to say that “Matthew” is using the tropes of Moses to develop his portrait of Jesus in a way that shows him to be the new Moses (the new liberator). In other words he uses the Torah as a means of retrospectively foreshadowing Jesus’ story. There’s probably a technical literary term for this, but I don’t know it.

Adding weight to (either) of these two theories/approaches is the way that the same thing happens with Jesus and King David, again the similarities in Matthew’s Gospel are notable (Bethlehem birth, tribe of Judah, ‘Shepherd’ role, wilderness battles, betrayal by trusted friends, and of course significance of the Mount of Olives for both, etc.) This sort of thing doesn’t stop with David and Moses, but they are suitable for illustrating the point. *

The writer of Matthew is, in my opinion something of a master of clever literary devices. (One of the best being the way he portrays the choice of the crowd when it comes to the crucifixion: do they want ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jesus Barabbas’? This is clear word play, bar Abba means ‘son of the father’, so the question is: do they want Jesus, or Jesus son of the father? Sadly this word play has been lost in translations which use newer versions of the Matthew text.)  So my suggestion is that Matthew is using a sophisticated literary device to paint a picture of Jesus as both the new David (important politically too), and the new Moses. And its the Moses bit that’s important here, because what I want to do is get to the idea of Jesus-as-Prophet.

If and when we talk about a prophet today, there tends to be an idea that we are talking about someone who can ‘see’ or ‘predict’ the future, in the sense that a clairvoyant or soothsayer might be said to do. But really the role of the prophet is to speak truth to power, to stand up to the powers that be and announce the word of God. This is the role of Moses. Of course there is a sense of prediction here, but its mainly in the sense of consequences, rather as I might have said to my children when they were younger: ‘don’t do that, or else you’ll hurt yourself.’ (Now they say it to me.)

A prophet then is not really there to say ‘this is what will happen when you die’, or ‘this is when the crops will grow’, the prophet is there to critique the king, particularly when the king slips into injustice, as they more or less all did. The King role is the establishment role, the ‘state’ role, while the prophet is the outsider, the reformer: it’s a deeply political role of course. Depicting Jesus as the new Moses says to the reader that this is Jesus’ role, to critique the action of the state, to lead a reformation, to usher in a whole new way of living. Depicting him as both king and prophet casts him as a Platonic style philosopher king, a vital idea for Matthew’s gentile readers.

* Readers will understand that I don’t necessarily see the figures of either Moses or David as ‘genuine’ historical figures, from my perspective, they are both mythic figures from the Hebrew tradition, who occupy important places in the collective imagination. It’s not whether they ever lived that’s important to me, it’s what people understood about them that matters.  

My #alternativeadvent project starts on the 2nd of December, and will run all the way through to Christmas.  I’ve been trailing this on social media for a little while now, and I recognise that some people are not entirely sure what the general idea is.

So I put together a short video this morning, just to give a little bit of explanation.

Sorry about my dodgy filming skills, but hopefully it gives you the general idea. It’s an email every day through advent, with four themes running through: the first set of emails will be on the subject of an ‘ahistorical advent’, then I will write about an ‘absurd advent’, then about an ‘anarchic advent’ and finally about an ‘atheist advent’. Essentially it’s a reflection on advent through a historical/literary lens, then through a more philosophical lens, then a political lens, and finally through a more theological lens.

I hope you’re able to join me for this, and that as we go you feel able to share your own thoughts, using the hashtag #alternativeadvent, because anything like this needs to be a conversation. And if you know me, you’ll realise I’m pretty much always up for a conversation, until about 10pm. After that, I might still be up for a conversation, or I might just be asleep. Sometimes its hard to tell.

file000606541737.jpgThere comes a point in most people’s lives, when things have to be taken apart. Beliefs, world views, ways of understanding yourself, and what life is all about.

This is because the structures we build up become too restrictive. We reach the point where they no longer holds us properly, and that chafes.

The things you know, the experiences you’ve had, the stuff you’ve learned… you need a new framework to hold it all.

Its like in the old days when they used to keep wine in bags made from the skins of animals, called ‘wine skins’: you couldn’t keep new wine in old wine skins. Because they would split, they were only good for the old wine.

New wine had to go in new wine skins. New ways of seeing the world, require a new structure.

The same process is true of us when we are conscious of our religious or spiritual beliefs. The structures we built up, sometimes from childhood, will eventually need to come down in order to accommodate our new, wider, more mature understanding. That doesn’t mean our old structure was bad – although it can feel that way, because the restriction is uncomfortable. Really though, it just means that it doesn’t fit anymore. Like the yellow jumper I begged my parents for when I was about twelve. I loved that jumper. It doesn’t fit me now, and anyway I’m no longer convinced yellow is my colour.

The process of deconstructing a religious or spiritual world view is often difficult, sometimes very painful indeed. If you’re lucky, it’s easy. But we’re not all lucky, because these things have built in defences against deconstruction, often involving feelings of guilt, doubt, and existential dread.

For various reasons, conscious deconstruction is way better than unconscious deconstruction – (when you just go “this is all b*llocks”, and chuck the lot). The problem is that sometime later you will find yourself wishing you had a certain part, and then you have to go looking in the bins. And there’s always disgusting stuff in the bins. Much better to take it apart carefully, being aware of where the bits are, and what they do. Conscious deconstruction for the win.

I’m running a deconstruction retreat in November to help people do just that, find out more or book here. I’m planning on it being a small affair – intimate. Because this stuff is personal, and I prefer to work with small groups.

I’m also in the process of setting up a number of house conferences on the same kind of theme, a house conference is a conference… in a house. A bit like a house concert, but without a band, and fewer hairy roadies. If you’ve got a house (or other nice, friendly space), and you know some people who might like to come, then let’s talk about doing one at your place.

 

priestMy post about tipping over the certainty curve created some extra interest this week, after Thinking Anglicans posted posted a link to it on their website.

Some of the thoughtful responses to it, led me to write a little more about the process, rather than going in to the post about silence, which I had planned as the next in this series. That one will come soon.

Before I go into some more detail about the process, I should point out that I don’t mean to suggest that evangelicalism has a monopoly on certainty. All traditions have their elements of certainty, dogma or orthodoxy. However, one of the reasons I pay some particular attention to evangelicalism is a tendency within particular parts of it to prefer total certainty to mystery or doubt. In this post I will refer to a couple of individuals who clearly were not evangelicals.

So another thing to make clear is that the arc or curve that I depict in the original post is a deliberate simplification of the process, I don’t mean to genuinely suggest that there is either a very straightforward line, or that the journey is ‘one way’. Rather the real picture is more complex, and always dynamic.

The best model I have seen for understanding the complexities of this kind of process is called Spiral Dynamics, a very complex piece of work which purports to be an overarching meta narrative that explains human development. As a good GenX postmodern thinker, I’m innately suspicious of such a meta narrative, however, experientially I resonate with the process described by Spiral Dynamics thinkers.

That doesn’t mean though, that I believe there to be no value in the curve model. All of these things are limited, they are deliberate and knowing simplifications of a complex situation. They are visual aids, just as, for instance, parables are story aids to understanding similar things.

So, speaking of parables, let’s reconsider the curve, in particular the way in which the curve model maps with the parable of the prodigal son. I use this curve a lot, and the curve images I use below also highlight/map in black text, what I believe are the key stages of the way people view God/ultimate concern in a journey of spiritual development.

In this story, the son starts off at the bottom left of the curve, looking up to his father (the God figure) in the knowledge that in him, all needs are met. He is developing in the place of ultimate safety and certainty. Naturally enough though, the son develops, and goes through the difficulties and frustrations, and disillusionment of adolescence. This precipitates something of a crisis – where he believes that life elsewhere would be better than what he has. And in some ways, of course, he is right. He is a child, and he recognises that adulthood is different to what he has now.

prodigal_sonSo in the story, the son leaves home, and becomes physically distant from his father – in a similar way someone may leave the certainty of evangelicalism, or any other dogmatic view of God, and become physically distant from the church. This is the beginning of his period of deconstruction, during which the proto evang-exiter may become arrogant or conceited about his or her journey. ‘I know the way to live, and it’s nothing like the old way…’

But this is not a long term sustainable way of existing. Not for most people anyway. It’s hard, and it’s quite false. There’s a sense of denial about it, and there is a very good chance that this is likely to precipitate another crisis, or series of crises. In this case the son finds himself utterly degraded, and comes to realise he is in a place of paradox. At this stage his desire to be with his father is strong, and he makes a return.

For some ex-vangelicals, ex-Christians or church leavers, there is a return to their home, although like the prodigal son, they are not returning as the same person who left. They are changed. They now, perhaps, have a more rounded, less certain view of the world (it’s not hard and fast, these journeys are not the same for everyone). And their return may not be to the fold of evangelicalism either, rather it may be a return to the church more broadly. Hence you find many ex-vangelicals in the bosom of traditions that embrace a more mysterious or apophatic understanding of God. The paradox stage.

peter1Another example is the disciple Peter (a non evangelical of course), who goes through a similar process to the Prodigal son. In this case, Jesus is the God-figure, the point of ultimate concern. In the first place Peter is dependent upon Jesus, seeing Jesus as the answer to everything. Jesus is all powerful at this stage in their relationship, and Jesus is at his miracle performing best. As things develop, Jesus plays an almost parental role in Peter’s life – he has left his family to follow him. But then crisis hits, and all of a sudden the miracle working Jesus has gone, and a new captive, powerless Jesus has emerged. This throws Peter in to a state of turmoil, and he finds himself denying the master he had followed so closely until now. At the point of Jesus’ death, Peter is at his most distant, entirely removed from Jesus. He is not arrogant at this point, rather he is broken, which demonstrates that everyone walks this path in a unique way. Peter’s re-encounter with Jesus is his experience of the mystery of un-earned grace, and he moves into a place of all pervasive love and acceptance. Does this make him perfect? No. Does it make him totally wise and enlightened? Again no. This illustrates that this is not a simple process as this curve would make it appear, this is not the end of Peter’s story. He goes through a new set of curves, crises, and moves forward. But this curve is quite clear, he tips over the edge of certainty. Mother Teresa

This kind of process accounts for the myriad stories of loss of certainty, and loss of faith, that characterise Christian ministry. The proverbial dark nights of the soul. Mother Teresa (Catholic) is an oft cited example, her doubts were made public after her death, and they demonstrate that she suffered greatly. And of course there are many others who experience the same kind of issues, and whatever tradition they come from, it’s jolly hard.

For the activist, this is a particularly difficult experience, and this is partly why I’m interested in the experience of evangelicals, who are fundamentally, part of an activist tradition. The certainty stages are much more steady ground for the activist, who often needs the reassurance of certainty to provide her/him with energy.

I suppose fundamentally my point is that for all of us, the God we grow up with, needs to die. I don’t really care what tradition you’re from, or what religion, or belief system, or philosophy. That which guided our childhood must, at some point perish, if we are to advance in to spiritual maturity. In each person the process is different, probably unique. In many, perhaps most, it involves a crisis, or series of crises. And, in my experience, inevitably certainty has to die away. It can be the work of a lifetime, and many of us never get there.

If you feel that you are going through a period of deconstruction, you might like to come on a retreat with me to talk about the process. You can express interest here.

BG1My weekday meditations series is currently focusing on some of the words of the Benedictine monk Fr Bede Griffiths, a mystical pioneer  who lived much of his life in an Indian Ashram (spiritual community).

Fr Bede, was born Alan Richard Griffiths in 1906. He became a Christian, initially exploring ordination as an Anglican priest,  but converted to Catholicism after reading work by John Henry Newman, the poet priest who had also converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, some years before. Griffiths joined the Benedictine order, and upon taking his vows, he was given the name Bede, which means prayer. After a number of years as a Benedictine monk in the UK, he moved to India, and spent the remainder of his life there. He became a key figure in what was known as the Christian Ashram movement, and perhaps more than any one apart from his shorter lived contemporary, Thomas Merton, came to symbolise the quest to engage Christianity with the religious and wisdom traditions of the East. After arriving in India, he took the name Swami Dhayananda which means bliss of prayer. Years later he was took the name Swami Dayananda, which means bliss of compassion.

Dressed in the ochre robes of a Hindu Sanyassi (ascetic/holy man), which symbolise the renunciation of worldly attachments, Bede became a leading figure in Hindu – Christian dialogue, speaking widely, and writing books about Hindu and Christian spirituality.

Bede grew up relatively poor, but his natural intelligence saw him win a scholarship to Oxford University, where he read Philosophy and English Literature. In his third year at Oxford, CS Lewis became his tutor, and the two formed a strong bond of friendship which went beyond the ivory towers of academia, as they journeyed together towards an understanding of the divine. In ‘Surprised by joy’ Lewis wrote of this time in his life: “My chief companion on this stage of the road was Griffiths, with whom I kept up a copious correspondence. Both now believed in God, and were ready to hear more of Him from any source, Pagan or Christian.” As Griffiths turned towards Catholicism though, the friendship grew strained, and although they maintained a correspondence, this move proved difficult for the friendship to bear.

It was after university, but before his shift to Catholicism, that his interest in monasticism began to kick in, and he and two others tried an ‘experiment in common life’, an early new monastic attempt, living lives of self denying rural poverty, as with many such endeavours, this was not long lasting. After a while Bede made an attempt to become an Anglican Priest, but eventually, upon reading some of Newman’s writings, converted to Roman Catholicism, and proceeded to join the Benedictine order. A number of years as a Benedictine in the UK followed, during which time he was given the role of Prior. But during this time another change began to take place, as he grew more engaged with the religion and philosophy of India, following meetings with Indian Catholics, and Jungian psychology.

Bede eventually left for India in 1955, writing that he was going ‘to discover the other half of my soul’, and it was there that he eventually developed the ministry for which he is best known, integrating Christian and Hindu spirituality.

His writings are powerful, and the more so in that they reflect his ‘lived experience’. For all that Merton, his better known contemporary, gained renown for his forays into inter-spirituality, Griffiths lived it in a way that Merton never could.

It is probably no surprise that Griffiths was something of a progressive in his social attitudes, as well as his religious ones. In an article called ‘On Homosexual Love’ he wrote that homosexual love is ‘just as normal and natural as love between people of the opposite sex’. Quite the assertion for a man of his time, for he was no ‘free love’ hippy priest, nor yet an Osho type charismatic guru. Fundamentally Griffiths was just much more interested in love than anything else, advocating the development of interspiritual communities based upon the primacy of love, rather than any one particular creed.

Griffiths was controversial, both within Christianity and Hinduism: It’s true to say that when he first reached India, he exhibited something of a colonialist attitude, making some apparently disparaging remarks about Hindus and Hinduism. But while that was largely put behind him as he grew to understand India and Hinduism better, he continued to face criticism for his adoption of the Sannyasin robes, which are only supposed to be worn by followers of a guru. In Christianity he remains controversial among those who consider his relationship with Hinduism to have been problematically syncretistic.

There may well have been problems with his adoption or appropriation of these symbols, but its important to remember that symbols are just that: symbolic. We all too readily make them sacred. Griffiths was an equal opportunity barrier breaker – upsetting religious Christians as well as sections of Hinduism as he sought a way of being which transcended cultural and religious dividing lines.

In 1993 Griffiths died, as he had lived the majority of his life, in his small hut in Shantivanam ashram. To many of us who are interested in spirituality and the ongoing search for language of the divine, he was a mystical pioneer. For those who recognise the primary importance of love beyond any religious boundaries, he was a prophet. There is lots about his life on the internet, but for a really good read I can recommend Shirley Bourlay’s biography ‘Beyond the darkness’. Shantivanam, and the Bede Griffiths Sangha (community) continue his legacy today.

I’ve added some Bede Griffiths quotes to my ‘inspirational quotes page‘, and you can sign up to my free series of weekday meditations here.

file0001703193213by Simon Cross

As a child I caught a butterfly. In the moment of its capture, the tiny creature’s fluttery kisses tickled my fingers. I knew for certain it was there.

But then the butterfly grew still, content to sit in the darkness of its small prison. I grew concerned, was it dead? Had it somehow escaped?

I peeked in, and through the dappled daylight caught a muted glimpse of wing. Folded and shadowed, it looked a different beast, but I knew it was the same thing.

Time went on and I grew bolder, opening my hands wider to get a better view.

And then it happened: I opened them to look in, and the butterfly flew off.

And as I looked at the butterfly skipping through the air, I knew that it was right. It belonged in the wind, not in the stuffy silence of my closed hands.

So I followed the butterfly’s meandering maze, and it led off me in a dazzling dance.

© Simon Cross 2018