Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

search engine by freefind

hit counter

A Scary Ascetic

Luke 3.16
    I baptise you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.

There�s a piece of graffiti I once enjoyed: "John the Baptist was the first Rotarian". In other words, because he made you feel guilty you handed over your money.

But the image he presents in the Gospels actually is uncomfortable. John lives on very little, he doesn't drink alcohol, and he tells off everybody who comes to see him.

However, above all else he is presented by the gospel writers as the forerunner of the Jewish Messiah. He is the herald of one who is greater than himself. He is made to quote Isaiah that he is nothing more than a voice crying in the wilderness.

There is considerable evidence from the first century of a rivalry between John's followers and those of Jesus. Many commentators believe that Jesus began his faith journey as a disciple of John. And John was quite a celebrity in his day. Therefore to claim retrospectively that he had bowed to Jesus was to make great claims for the latter.

This was indeed clever marketing of Jesus by the gospel writers.

We need to recognise what they are doing with John. They are taking a well-known dead hero of the faith and bringing him on-side. What are today known as "on-message" politicians tend to do this. They claim to be continuing the ideas of some heroic predecessor. They might speak of Roosevelt or Kennedy, Bevan or Brandt, Churchill, Gandhi or Mandela. These great figures are used by their lesser successors to imply that "They would have voted for me. They would have agreed with my policies".

But the trick is that when we use a historic figure merely to point beyond ourselves, we can ignore that person's message. Those who wish to go to war, for example, might quote Churchill the war leader. But they may not concern themselves at all with his interest in prison reform.

Similarly, we tend to focus on Jesus much of the time and forget that John the Baptist had his own powerful message. It was one of radical living. Share your possessions and do not use money for your own ends, he said (Luke 3.11-14).

Traditional Christianity can so often get bogged down in what and how we should believe rather than how we might live.

Coming up to Christmas, we are supposed to wonder at the possibility that the maker of the stars should become a little child. With this in mind we import a great preacher, ignore what he said and claim that he pointed to the same wonder. But where does believing such a thing about Jesus get us? We sit by the crib with sickly smiles and say "Aaaah!".

John, on the other hand, told his hearers in rather uncomplimentary terms that they were hypocrites. He told them to change the way they lived. He told them quite specifically how they could make the world a fairer place. People with extra clothes should share them, tax collectors should not take more than required, and soldiers should not extort money.

This is not a series of beliefs to assent to. It is a faith to live by.

So if John the Baptist was a forerunner, it was not as a rather scary looking ascetic whose main purpose was to say how wonderful he thought Jesus was. It was as a man whose ideas influenced Jesus and his followers to a radical way of life.

[Home] [Back]