In a cupboard full of books, mostly in Russian, all looking somehow both worn and unread, and out of reach except by stepladder, my next-door-neighbour made a surprising discovery: a book in English by John Wimber, of Vineyard Movement fame, called Power Evangelism.
It’s a curious feeling when you find an abandoned English book in a Moscow krushchovka that hails from roughly the same Christian camp as yourself (in my case, according to some unexpected Wikipedian terminology, evangelical and neocharismatic). It’s as if you’ve found, not only a book, but an unknown friend across the generations of short-term tenants. And not, I hasten to add, because neocharismatics are united in the belief that only neocharismatics will be saved and that everyone else’s Wikipedia pages will be taken down and recycled as cat memes. It would be curious in the same way to find a plectrum in a dusty corner, or some literary criticism, or an empty jar of Sainsbury’s reduced salt yeast extract.
Of course the church is a far more complicated tribe than the tribe of all Sainsbury’s reduced salt yeast extract enthusiasts. After about a page of Wimber’s book I was feeling generally spiritually inadequate and planning a book of my own called Weakness Evangelism. Reading on, I wondered sometimes how Christian writers manage to be so sure about everything, and at other times, how I managed to be so unsure about so many things. I had a particularly sharp disagreement with pages 39 and 40 and considered removing them from the book altogether before allowing it to fall into anyone else’s hands. It’s still on my shelf, but looks as if it doesn’t know whether it’s really welcome there, while I don’t know whether the surreptitious glances it keeps giving me represent the indifference of effortless superiority or a secret wish to call a truce.
These frosty silences are naturally more painful with books than with people. (After all, it seems to be only Wikipedia that actually calls anyone neocharismatic.) But denomination is a problem, whether you were born into it, or achieved it, or had it thrust upon you. I remember attending my first ever C of E Sunday morning service, having no idea how to share the peace, and my friend apologising about the infant baptisms. Around the same time, she privately objected when our Religious Studies teacher ticked the phrase ‘As I am an Anglican’ in her exercise book as if it was remarkably intelligent and insightful. ‘We’re like iron sharpening iron,’ said my cessationist Baptist friend after a flaming (ahem) row probably about speaking in tongues. At Cambridge, I attended a college Chaplain’s Lunch for religious society organisers, wearing my CICCU Rep’s Hat, a very uncomfortable invisible garment designed to help reps defend the evangelical corner at all times, so that I would have sat in terrified silence throughout the meal, had I not been kept in civilised conversation by the kindness and good manners of the representative of the Catholic Society. More recently, I was approvingly called a progressive liberal Christian by a friend probably unaware of Christian contexts in which ‘liberal’ collocates with ‘woolly’.
And then, denominational confusions aside, there is the question of what to do when you just seem to be generally inclined to disagree with things. If you’re with me on this, you may even have flinched a bit or started muttering to yourself at some point while reading this blog. It’s ok; I’m the same. Maybe we do it by sheer force of habit, or because everyone else is always so terribly positive-spirited about everything, or from some confused notion that if we work at this bit of grit for long enough it will eventually turn into a pearl.
One example from me, but please do replace it mentally with your own. This article by Robert Fergusson, a Hillsong pastor, justifies the line ‘Even when it hurts like hell, I’ll praise you’ to those who might raise eyebrows over it: ‘We live in a desperately broken world. Occasionally, it feels as if hell itself has been unleashed. Of course, we know our victory and safety is in Christ, but it still hurts.’ Disagreement answers immediately that the problem with the line is not that it exaggerates suffering but that it trivialises suffering. ‘It hurts like hell’ is a rattling contemporary adult’s equivalent to ‘it hurts like billy-oh’, like Eustace Scrubb losing his dragon’s skin. Stubbed toes hurt like hell. But I only bothered to think about this because I happened to read Robert Fergusson’s article.
So perhaps the solution is to stay off the Internet, avoid conversations, try not to think too much and focus on practical service. To act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly before God, and lose sight of the fact that the third line of verse two in such-and-such a song was definitively appalling. To trust in the Lord with all your heart, and not lean on your own understanding. And all God’s people said, “Yes, we’ve heard Proverbs 3:5 plenty often enough before”.
It’s unavoidably easier said and heard than done. I’d always let the sentence stress fall naturally on ‘understanding’, leaning on understanding even in telling myself not to lean on understanding; read in this way, and taken in isolation, the verse might come to sound like you’re really not supposed to be thinking too much about things. But then I discovered that I could lean on a different word. Do not lean on your own understanding; do not try to support your self against your self, because you will fall over; understanding is fine, in fact, this is Proverbs after all, so get wisdom for all you’re worth, but do not depend on your own understanding, depend on understanding, but not your own, someone else’s, there is a better and broader and stronger understanding that can take the weight and lift you.
At this point, having theoretically cast all our anxieties on Him, it would be nice to float gracefully into a concluding paragraph before my remaining readers’ attentions are drawn away elsewhere. But conclusions are rather too easy, and the church is still rather complicated. It seems fitting that, if you search for pearl oysters on Google Images, all the pictures that show real oysters look disgusting, and all the others look fake. There is no illustration of Eustace being un-dragoned, but the illustration of the newly dragoned Eustace is repeated on Google many times; in one photo, it has been reproduced as a tattoo on someone’s leg.
What I really wanted to find, by way of representing the church, was the illustration of Reepicheep the mouse in conversation with Eustace at night:
On such occasions, greatly to his surprise, Reepicheep was his most constant comforter. The noble Mouse would creep away from the merry circle at the camp fire and sit down by the dragon’s head… There he would explain that what had happened to Eustace was a striking illustration of the turn of Fortune’s wheel, and that if he had Eustace at his own house in Narnia (it was really a hole not a house and the dragon’s head, let alone his body, would not have fitted in) he could show him more than a hundred examples of emperors, kings, dukes, knights, poets, lovers, astronomers, philosophers, and magicians, who had fallen from prosperity into the most distressing circumstances, and of whom many had recovered and lived happily ever afterward. It did not, perhaps, seem so very comforting at the time, but it was kindly meant and Eustace never forgot it.
But this picture of encouragement and mutual grace seems not to have found its way onto Google Images.