Jesus is an Inkblot

For Christians today, and many yesterday, Jesus is a Rorschach inkblot. Read into the Jesus of the Gospels what you will. You want to use homicidal violence and kill people in war, in revolution or in the electric chair, Rorschach Jesus is there as your transcendental justifier. You want to kill people in order to recapture Golgotha from Muslims, or to free the world of Jews who won’t convert to Christianity, Rorschach Jesus is available to support your endeavours. Indeed, there is no place that Rorschach Jesus cannot fit in. Christians can even be tearing each other to pieces and Rorschach Jesus will be there giving his moral support and divine assistance to all parties on all sides. If following Jesus’ teachings is not intrinsic to the call to discipleship, or if His teachings are erroneous, fanciful, unrealistic, or if non-violent love of friends and enemies is just a stupid idea for running a life or for running a Church, then Rorschach Jesus is the only Jesus there is.

Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy

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Ffald -y-Brenin Blessings Conference March 2013

Having visited Ffald-y-Brenin with friends last summer for four days, we were amazed by the atmosphere there, and although Ffald-y-Brenin is set high on a beautiful vantage point overlooking the valley below, I felt that it was not the altitude but rather the presence of God in the place that made me feel slightly intoxicated on arrival.

Daphne Godwin provided a lovely warm welcome and the home-cooked food and accommodation was perfect. As there were no formal sessions over the weekend that we stayed, we were especially grateful when Roy Godwin volunteered to speak to our small group and the other weekend visitors about the Ffald-y-Brenin ‘project’ and stories of what God was doing. We were even more pleased and powerfully touched when Roy offered to speak a blessing over us. We were slightly taken by surprise and a few minutes into the blessing, which was both rich and detailed, we wished we were recording it or someone had been writing it down.

So, as soon as we received the email announcing the Blessings Conference in March 2013, we signed-up without any hesitation.

The conference, which was very well organised, was held in a nearby chapel where over 160 people were arranged in downstairs seating and upper deck pews, perhaps recalling earlier days of Welsh revivals when the church must have been filled in a similar way.

The atmosphere among delegates was warm and friendly with plenty of conversations, chatter and exchange of contact details. One thing which was particularly refreshing (in an age when the church seems to be almost fixated with youth ministry) was the hair colour in the room, which for the men at least(!), was predominantly grey.

The Worship was often just one hymn sung without instruments before each session so was strong and included some great hymns including Dyma Gariad (the Welsh Revival Hymn). Roy spread his teaching over the 25 hours available into bite-size chunks mixed with practical application and opportunities to experiment in speaking a blessing over those in the seats to your left and right and in front. Roy’s teaching provided the biblical framework and as a result I was convinced by Roy’s whole thesis which is that the whole story of God is a story of blessing. He mixed his teaching (which was supported by detailed written notes) with practical examples and plenty of inspiring stories of people and places (including Ffald-y-Brenin itself) that had been changed as a result of blessings spoken over them. The practical sessions (which I was a touch nervous about beforehand) of speaking a blessing over someone near you came much easier than expected and was actually really good fun.

The power in the Blessings conference was that the concept is simple ‘God wants to bless his creation and through Jesus is reversing the impact of the fall’.  One beautiful example was how Jesus taught the disciples about the Father’s provision (consider the lilies of the field) which reflected his original promise to provide for Adam and Eve in the garden.

The other major theme was the recognition of our role as Priests (within the Royal Priesthood) in which we are invited to stand in his presence, carry his presence and proclaim his blessing.  The idea of blessings challenges our Christian ‘negativity’ – Roy was challenging us to consider how much of our attitudes to ‘outsiders’ can look worryingly similar to a curse rather than a blessing given freely.

We left the conference energised and with only one regret. How had we been followers of Jesus for over thirty years and not understood the role of Blessings until now? Oh well, they say the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today!

Stuart Henshaw


Church, Gospel & Empire

During a drive from Leeds to London a while ago my son challenged me with a question; why are there so few Christians who are saying challenging things in our society.
We talked about how the church seems strangled and often behaves in society like a domesticated pet and where its role seems to be ‘blessing the status quo’ rather than providing life-affirming and healthy challenge to our society.
We talked about how Christians are often so confused about the moral implications of their faith (so for example, should Christians be for or against war, pro – or anti Islam, support homosexuals or condemn them). We discussed Peter Tatchell and reflected on his openly brave stance on a range of current issues. After our in-car debate, we concluded two things:

  1. Like a polar bear stuck on a moving iceberg, the church has moved a long way from its starting point and the seeming firm foundation it has stood upon for many years is rapidly melting
  2. The church in its current incarnation needs to be ‘outed’- to speak up

I realised that my challenge was to understand where the church, (which if St Paul has it correct, holds the strategic role in the future of the universe), had lost its mojo. With anything lost, the best advice is always to look at where you were when you last had it. This approach led me through some great books and authors, but importantly to the book being reviewed here, ‘Church, Gospel & Empire ‘ by Roger Haydon Mitchell.
First, this book is Mitchell’s PhD Thesis so it is not an easy read. I had to re-read many of his pages. As an indication, in just the first chapter, there were more than 20 words which I had not come across before. However, whilst in the past this would have stopped me in my tracks, Mitchell’s theme feels so important that it felt like a book I should persevere with and keep my dictionary to hand. However, I think a glossary would help non-theologians like me.
Where did it all go wrong?
Mitchell’s thesis is that the church went adrift very early in its history, at the Christianising of the Roman Empire which was caused, he believes, by an ‘over-realisation of eschatology’ or perhaps, working too hard to construct the New Jerusalem. As a result, the church was absorbed within empire and this set a trajectory for the church’s alliance with political power, warfare and monarchy – for which the world is still suffering.

Constantine hailed as Roman Emperor in Eboracum (York)

He describes how the Roman Historian and Bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius (AD 263-339) associated the future end time hope of the world with the alliance of church and the Roman Empire. As Mitchell comments, Church and the Roman Empire had moved from ‘opponents’ to ‘bedfellows’; from a radical Jewish sect opposed to the temporal authority of the Empire to a doctrine ‘encouraging imperial obedience’. Jacques Ellul, another author on my list, in his book, ‘The Subversion of the Church’ bluntly describes the same event; “whilst Jesus had turned down Satan’s offer to have the world, its powers and its kingdoms, the church happily conceded.”
From this beginning Mitchell then selects a number of key moments in history stopping off at certain points to illustrate how the church’s alliance with sovereignty and power has transposed over time.
For his second slice of church history, Mitchell turns to the medieval period and outlines the challenges being experienced by the Church of Rome, and Pope Innocent III who was facing territorial challenges from Islam, from the Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) church and from German Kings seeking to extend their rule into Italy. Mitchell describes the wheeling and dealing of the Pope to win back territory and control, and how he sought alliances with the secular power of the German Kings to re-establish the control of the Roman Church. Also, he pinpoints the significant theological shifts which took place at the same time, such as the negotium crucis, which proposes that the ‘business of the cross’ is actually … warfare. This militarisation of the Christian life built upon the power of the labarum, (Emperor Constantine’s battle field sign of the cross) with which he conquered. Also, under Pope Innocent III, the chivalric knight became an ‘imitator of Christ’ and through its increased emphasis on the power of forgiveness available through the ‘rite’ of the Eucharist, the church had adroitly captured the propitiation market; further strengthening its own power and position.
Third, we re-visit the establishment of the Bank of England and see how this was established with an eschatological zeal which recognised and celebrated the sovereignty of money. Mitchell contrasts this with the alternative approach of Gerard Winstanley of the Digger movement whose radical proposal to cultivate common land for the benefit of the poor was snuffed out by the church establishment within months of their movement beginning.
Fourthly and finally, Mitchell turns to the 20th century and explores the century of the spirit; by looking at the small but significant impetus of the Pentecostal movements to establish communities that were intent on living free from this sovereign power but which he admits was eventually overpowered by the more insidious American Dream ideology.
There follows then a discussion of a socialist critique of power and sovereignty and how religious and Christian concepts are borrowed to describe their alternative to community of ‘selfless love’ etc.
Towards the end of his book, Mitchell begins to pull together the threads of his argument into a discussion of the Kenotic power of Jesus and coins his phrase ‘kenarchy’. This is clearly the next part of Mitchell’s project after this book has set the scene.
In conclusion, Mitchell’s book is a challenge due to its concentrated academic vocabulary but I found this an effort well worth making as the story he weaves and the conclusions he draws begin to shape the real challenge within this book, how might the church be shaped in the future. I hesitate to use the word church as the Christ-centred movement which Mitchell is pointing towards is as far removed from current perceptions of church as you can get. This is an ecclesia for the occupy movement, and points towards a faith which radically challenges the status quo. There is no safe place when reading this book. Not only does the book present a serious challenge to ‘comfortable’ faith, it also invites us to re-discover the ethics of Jesus and rediscover living a Jesus-like life in the power of the beatitudes.
(Roger Haydon Mitchell.- Church, Gospel, and Empire: How the Politics of Sovereignty Impregnated the West . Wipf & Stock Publishers (15 Nov 2011) ISBN-13: 978-1610977449)