The most recent book by the historian Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, has received wide critical acclaim.[i] With characteristic elegance and thoroughness, Holland argues that all Western cultural assumptions and values are entirely rooted in the social revolutionary claims of Christianity. Part of his purpose is to demonstrate the shocking and strange nature of the claim that a crucified criminal is somehow the world’s true lord, arguing that this remains essential to Christianity:
‘Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.’[ii]
Holland writes with the passion of an evangelist as much as an advocate, sitting throughout on the cusp of secular historian and zealous apologist. Interestingly he is not (yet) a confessing Christian himself, although he has admitted in various interviews that he wishes he were. One of the main things that holds him back is the lack of confidence of Christians and the church in the strangeness of the gospel message. His critique is scathing:
‘I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft‑left liberal, because everyone is giving that. If I want that, I’ll get it from a Liberal Democrat councillor. If you’re a Christian, you think that the entire fabric of the cosmos was ruptured by this strange singularity when someone who is a god and a man sets everything on its head… and if you don’t believe that, it seems to me that you’re not really a confessional Christian… If it’s to be preached as something true, the strangeness of it… has to be fundamental to it. I don’t want to hear what bishops think about Brexit. I know what they think about Brexit and it’s not particularly interesting. But if they’ve got views on original sin, I’d be very interested to hear that.’[iii]
This is a major challenge to the Western church and its mission. Some will think that Holland’s charge is unproven; but the fact that he, as a seeker, perceives this as the fundamental problem with the church’s proclamation of the gospel must surely lead the church to re‑examine itself. In the New Testament, the strangeness of proclaiming the cruciform gospel is front and centre. There was no question about the shocking absurdity of proclaiming a crucified man as lord: ‘we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1.23-24, NIV).
If the church is to meet Holland’s challenge, it must reconnect itself to the shocking and strange nature of what it proclaims. Christians must also be prepared for the fact that doing so will bring Agrippa’s accusation to Paul on themselves: ‘You are out of your mind!’ (Acts 26.24)
Part of the reason why Christians shy away from telling others about the strangeness of the gospel is because they don’t discuss it among themselves. The only way to address that is to start talking about it: unashamed talk of the criminal execution and astonishing resurrection of Jesus must be reintroduced at the heart of Christian discourse and worship; strange phenomena like angels and demons must be openly discussed; the place of miracles, the hope of bodily resurrection and the mystery of prayer must be clearly taught and lived out. Importantly this must become a common currency among all Christians, transcending ecclesial subcultures.
From an evangelistic point of view, then, the question Christians must ask of themselves is not whether they believe in Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord of heaven and earth, but whether they are prepared to be fools for Christ, ready to be open about the strangeness of their message, and willing to take the consequences of sneering ridicule and scepticism, personal attacks, discrimination and possibly worse. If Tom Holland is right, if they are thus ready and willing, then there will be those who will listen.
[i] Tom Holland, 2019, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (London: Little, Brown). The U.S. edition is subtitled How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.
[ii] Holland, Dominion, 524-5.
[iii] ‘Tom Holland to Christians: Preach The Weird Stuff!’, Speak Life interview 25/10/19, accessed September 2020.
10 thoughts on “Strange Gospel”
I have spent ten years compromising my faith in an effort to make it more palatable for the atheists and sceptics I live amongst, and more attractive to the mockers and scoffers. No more! Something has happened to me this summer. After taking a break from my LP training, I made a decision to continue with the course, but no longer will I pander to the snowflakes in our churches for whom the crucified Christ has become something of an embarrassment, and any mention of Heaven, Hell and personal salvation has become taboo.
From now on I will preach Jesus crucified, Christ risen, and the gift of grace freely offered to all who repent and believe. If people don’t want to accept the gift they are excluding themselves. It’s their choice!
‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in Heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ Matt 5:11-12
As you are a fan of Richard Rohr, may I remind you of something he wrote in a book in 2019:
“The theory of substitutionary atonement has inoculated us against the true effects of the Gospel, causing us to largely ‘thank’ Jesus instead of honestly imitating him. At its worst, it has led us to see God as a cold, brutal figure who demands acts of violence before God can love creation. There is no doubt that the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—is filled with metaphors of sacrifice, ransom, atonement, paying the price, opening the gates, et cetera. These are common temple metaphors that would have made sense to Jewish audiences at the time they were written. But they all imply that God is not inherently on our side.
“Anthropologically speaking, these words and assumptions reflect a magical or what I call ‘transactional’ way of thinking. By that I mean that if we just believe the right thing, say the right prayer, or practice the right ritual, things will go right for us in the divine courtroom. In my experience, this way of thinking loses its power as people and cultures grow up and seek actual changes in their minds and hearts. Then, transformational thinking tends to supplant transactional thinking.”
Does that make him one of your ‘snowflakes’?
Pavel, you always look to extremes. Just because I want to do the ritualistic stuff (yes, WANT to; not that I feel I have to!) doesn’t mean I endorse the cruel and angry God of the Old Testament. Can’t we want to say the right prayer and believe the right thing AND seek actual changes in our hearts? Why does it have to be either/or? As RR is fond of saying: ‘Everything belongs!’
Thank you Richard. Reading this I felt shivers run down my spine (maybe I left a window open somewhere?). I’m interested that Holland wants to hear bishops speak of original sin rather than Brexit. My question would be, is that because the kinds of views on Brexit which would be expressed come from a place of privilege and empire. Would views on original sin be any more revealing? What is the radical outcome of the God dead on a cross? Do we find it in the post-colonial views of, say, Anthony Reddie in Theologizing Brexit? Is the heart of what Holland is asking for the Christ who challenges empire in concrete, liberative ways; or is it a dualist separation of body and spirit, earth and heaven? Maybe I should try and find time to read his book! Lots of questions.
These quotations from Tom Holland remind me of a TV programme from a few years ago when Richard Dawkins was given significant air time to explain why he thought that people who believed in God had either lost the plot or didn’t have the intellectual capacity to see things as they really were. The programme included an interview with the bishop of Oxford who ran rings round Dawkins by pointing out that the Christianity which Dawkins was describing and attacking was a caricature and bore little resemblance to what most Christians actually thought. Dawkins’ response was to say that the bishop obviously wasn’t a Christian, because he didn’t believe what Dawkins had decided that Christians should believe and which he found easy to dismiss.
Here again we have a non-Christian telling Christians what they ought to believe but acknowledging that he himself doesn’t find what he is specifying credible enough to actually do anything about it.
And which Richard Rohr book are you quoting, Pavel
The quotation comes from Richard Rohr’s, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 141-142.
In his book Falling Upward, Richard Rohr sees our early Christian teaching as our ‘containers.’
Our beliefs, our values and our practices are how we identify as Christians. Some people are content to remain in those containers all their lives, wholeheartedly believing all they have been taught without question. But many don’t. They have doubts, they ask questions, and they are not satisfied with the stock answers often given by religious leaders. This is the point where people either drift away or dig deeper. They study, they listen, they pray, and step by step they find their way to a much broader understanding of God’s Universal love for mankind, and in doing so they form a closer relationship with God. They have fallen out of their containers, but they have ‘fallen upward.’
But falling out of our containers doesn’t mean we should discard them. Each new generation needs to find its identity; the containers are still vital to them. Those who have fallen out of their containers but choose to return to them, can bring with them all the things they have learnt, and help others who are just beginning their journey with Jesus.
It might make us look naive and simplistic (is that where the term ‘Holy Fools’ comes from?) Maybe some egos can’t cope with that. They like to look learned and wise. To go back to basics is an insult to their intelligence. But just because we have read profound works, doesn’t mean we can’t help the beginners with Janet and John.
Everything Belongs (but that’s another RR book!)
If individual Christians are to grow spiritually, they need to develop their faith. Traditionally, this has been seen as a deeper commitment to the same truths. A lot of helpful spiritual exercises have been developed for this purpose. This training is aimed at Christians deepening their faith through the stages of commitment and moving ever closer towards the faith centre, which is Jesus. In addition to organized courses, prayer and meditation, bible study and sharing experiences with like-minded people can all help to deepen faith.
Less often people are encouraged to seek the truth that lies behind traditional stories and teaching, to take an interpretative view rather than a literal approach, and to explore their relationship to God in individual terms. This form of development is like an upward spiral, sometimes appearing to take the seeker away but then bringing him back to examine familiar ideas anew with a higher level of perception and understanding. It is often likened to a journey of spiritual exploration. It is not an easy option. Ancient maps had undiscovered areas marked “Here be dragons” and some faith journeys can take the seeker into the equivalent in spiritual terms.
The form of spiritual development that is appropriate to an individual will depend on her/his personality and stage of spiritual growth.
In The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, (1995) authors Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich offer a model to help understand and navigate growth in the Christian life. They define a spiritual journey as “our response to or faith in God with the resulting life changes” (xv). “It is a continual process of growth rather than a point of arrival” (Spiritual growth is neither instant nor easy. It is a journey, and a “journey involves process, action, movement, change, experiences, stops and starts, variety, humdrum and surprises.” )
The authors do not “offer any formulae for spiritual growth” but rather hope to “describe the various phases of our spiritual journey and illustrate how people act and think when in those phases” Each stage builds developmentally on the previous stage. Each person possesses a specific “home stage,” a stage “where we operate most of the time and which best characterizes our life of faith”. However, our experience is not quite so tidy. The stages on the journey are very fluid. We move back and forth between them regularly, and we can experience more than one stage at the same time. The orderliness of the model (stages 1-6) suggests only the sequence in which we experience the stages as we proceed on the journey. For instance, we do not begin the journey at stage 3. We begin at stage 1. When we revisit earlier stages, our experience will often be deeper or more personal than the first time: “we experience more depth each time we recycle through the stages at a higher place on the spiral”.
To my mind this article by Saunders-Hindley Is implyimg that our faith must be based on transactional thinking rather than transformation thinking. We are supposedly converted from some state of ignorance to Faith which turns out to be a literal belief in miracles and the Resurrection. The deal seems to be that this belief in some ways makes us acceptable to God and He will love us in return and grant us eternal life – and this makes us a proper Christian!
Jesus and other spiritual masters and faith healers over the ages were empathic and able to move about in the ambiguous ambiance of the psychosomatic without being expected to magically cure diseases or magically resuscitate corpses. Resurrection, the possibility of new life, is miraculous, yes, but resuscitation is magic. These events in Jesus’ life become far more meaningful for me when I stop thinking of him as a magician and concentrate on the responsive love He showed to all he met. For me God is not a being in somewhere called Heaven but deeply embedded in human life, interrelational and implicit in the ethical concern we have. or should have, for each other – especially the stranger. And if prioritising the ethical makes me a soft-left liberal then so be it.
I much prefer Pavel’s model of faith as a spiritual journey, “a continual process of growth rather than a point of arrival”. A transformation rather than a transaction.