Faith, not celebrity endorsements, matter, says David Robertson
The Church in the United Kingdom could certainly do with all the help it can get. So it was very sweet of Sir Elton John to give us his considered theological opinion a few weeks ago. He told Sky News: “If Jesus was alive today, I cannot see him as the Christian person he was and the great person he was, saying this [gay marriage] could not happen. He was all about love and compassion and forgiveness and trying to bring people together and that is what the church should be about.” Sir Elton seems keen to have the blessing of Jesus Christ for his proposed wedding next year to his partner David Furnish. Like many, he wants the ultimate celebrity endorsement – that of the Son of God.
Some might consider that Elton John’s opinions on Jesus Christ are as relevant to the Church as David Bowie’s are to the independence debate. But our media seemed to think them significant. His remarks received more coverage than the bombing of churches in Nigeria, the execution of Christians in North Korea, or the destruction of the ancient Christian community in Mosul. But let’s not be too cynical. Perhaps there are some things the Church can learn from him. He certainly reflects an understanding of Jesus Christ that is common. People may not like the Church, perceiving it as a divided, intolerant, out of date institution. But (almost) everyone loves Jesus – as long as he is, in the words sung by Johnny Cash, Depeche Mode and others, “your own personal Jesus”. He is whoever you want him to be.
I once sat in a room where one minister said “my Jesus was the first communist”, another said that his Jesus was gay. It really is extraordinary how deep this trend goes in our culture. This is exactly what Sir Elton is doing – constructing a Jesus in his own self-perceived image.
Elton John really has nothing to teach the Church, but does the Church have anything to teach Sir Elton? A spokesperson for the Church of England opined: “Sir Elton’s reflection that Jesus calls us all to love and forgive is one shared by all Christians. But insights into aspects of the historic person of Jesus are perhaps best left to the academics.” If that is all the church has then we are in trouble. A Church which can only offer a Jesus who can be understood by the academics is in as bad a position as one that has to rely on aging celebrities for its theology.
The truth is that the Jesus who actually existed, the one from 2,000 years ago who gave incredible radical teaching, performed miracles and died a horrific death, rejected by his people, killed by the authorities and abandoned by his friends; that real Jesus is not one that Elton John or others, or indeed yours truly, would be comfortable with. His thoughts are not ours, his standards are profoundly different and his challenge is much more radical than the nice comfortable Barbie Jesus. Sir Elton would be shocked to discover that it is precisely because Jesus is loving and compassionate that he defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.
When the apostle Paul was faced with as hard and sceptical an audience as any modern-day Christian is likely to face, he taught them the truth about themselves, their culture and Jesus. “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31). Up until this point the Epicureans and Stoics of Athens had listened to him but when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some sneered, but others wanted to hear more. And therein lies the key for the modern Church to regain its spiritual vitality. If we listen to the whimsical fancies of those who want to create a Jesus in their own image, we will find they are nothing more than a candle in the wind. Sir Elton said “if Jesus were alive today”. He is. I was visited by a friend who said that she had one question to ask me. “Do you really believe that Jesus is still alive?” The astonishing answer is yes. Much to my friend’s credit she grasped that this was, and is, the game and life changer of all time.
If the Church wishes to be light in the darkness, we must stop pandering to those who want to create their own personal (dead) Jesus and instead proclaim with all the joy, vitality and life that the Spirit brings: (the real) Jesus is alive.
• David Robertson is director at Solas Centre for Public Christianity