If a few people really believed this…

On Easter Sunday, as on most days at the moment, I finished the day reading something from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sometimes, Bonhoeffer is dynamite! Christians often speak about ‘dying well’. They often quote someone (I can’t remember who) who apparently said about Christians: ‘our people die well.’ Or something.
It seems unimportant after reading Bonhoeffer’s critique that Christians wrongly think more about the problem of dying than about the problem of death. He writes, ‘How we deal with dying is more important to us than how we conquer death’ (I Want to Live these Days with You, 111). I’d tend to agree. He points out that we are thinking about the wrong thing: Socrates overcame dying, whereas Christ overcame death. Then come these words, which struck me and quickened my pulse, coming as they did a day after I’d posted my last blog post.

Based not on the art of dying, but on the resurrection of Christ, a new, cleansing wind can blow into the present world…. If a few people really believed this and let it affect the way they move in their earthly activity, a lot of things would change. To live on the basis of the resurrection – that is what Easter means. Ibid.

Bonhoeffer speculates that a time will come when the ‘resolving and liberating’ word of resurrection will be heard in the midst of so much confusion. In this Easter season, my prayer is that the time has arrived for the word of resurrection to be heard afresh in the Church.

You (yes you) probably don’t believe in Resurrection

Whoever you are, you probably don’t believe in resurrection. Yes, if you’re a Christian, I’m including you. You might be upset by that. But, hear me out. By resurrection, I’m talking not narrowly about the resurrection of Jesus (you probably believe in that), but in the sense that the apostles understood it – that is, as an event within history of which the resurrection of Jesus is an anomalous outlier (a gloriously anomalous outlier). Because Jesus has been raised from the dead to eternal life, then all of God’s people will also. It’s what Paul is saying in Romans 8:11 (and 1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. (Rom 8:11 NIV)
In my last post, I was looking at the numbers in the recently-published ComRes survey into beliefs about the resurrection and ‘life after death’ for BBC Religion and Ethics. In this post I want to look at what people really believe when they say they believe in ‘life after death’. This is, for me, a really important part of this survey – although not really picked up by the mainstream media.
The third question in the survey was: ‘You mentioned that you believe that there is life after death. Which of the following forms, if any, do you believe this takes?’ It was asked of the 46% of the sample who expressed a belief in life after death. Various options were read out (thirteen altogether)! The options themselves are fascinating. I wonder who chose them… (See the data tables here).
You’ve got options which are based around the immortality of the soul, but not the body (including heaven/hell, becoming a ghost, existing as energy of some sort, going to a spiritual dimension) and other options which are specifically Christian (The Rapture/Judgement Day/Armageddon all bundled together (1 option), and the Resurrection/Second Coming of Christ (1 option). You’ve one that’s about existence in a ‘parallel universe’, but this is coupled with the ‘astral plane’ – two entirely different things. And one that talks about bodily existence in another world. Then, you’ve got reincarnation (two options, one straight up reincarnation and the other a combination of reincarnation and immortality of the soul, which is classic Platonism actually). There’s another that’s basically living on as part of the natural world (your atoms I suppose), and something that boils down to a ‘don’t know’.
I’m looking at these options and I’m not really sure how I, an orthodox Christian with a biblical doctrine of resurrection, would answer. No, seriously. I mean, the Christian doctrine of resurrection is not merely the immortality of the soul. It involves the body. Reincarnation isn’t a Christian doctrine (although it is quite close to the biblical doctrine of resurrection in some ways). I definitely believe in the Second Coming of Christ, but not the Rapture. Maybe the option that’s worded ‘I believe in the resurrection/second coming of Christ’ is the one I want. It does contain a statement from the Apostle’s Creed, after all. But there’s not much content in that answer about what kind of life I believe in. I could answer ‘a bodily/physical existence in another world’, but the language of ‘another’ is difficult for me there. So, there are a couple of options which are orthodox anyway.
The troubling thing is, these options polled 1% and 0% amongst Active Christians! Perhaps it’s me? But I don’t think so. Now, the options offered for Question 3 are totally confused in themselves, so you have to take that into account. But, let’s look at the most popular options amongst Active Christians:
86% of Active Christians plumped for ‘Another life where your soul lives on (e.g. heaven/hell)’
16% of Active Christians plumped for ‘Reincarnation (e.g. starting a new life in a different physical body or form after death)’
Then you’ve got a couple of 2%ers (ghosts and ‘don’t know’) and what I see as the orthodox options above. It’s obvious that some people are ticking more than one box, so to speak. But, the headline is that virtually none of the Active Christians chose an option that could be considered orthodox.
The Apostles’ Creed contains the statement: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’. This is basic to orthodoxy, whatever your Christian tradition. Orthodox Christian belief is that eternal life is not just the survival of the soul. The concern of the scriptures is not ‘life after death’ anyway, but what Tom Wright calls ‘life after life after death’. Any existence of the soul in heaven is just a temporary state. A biblical doctrine of eternal life also contains the idea of the renewal of creation (or in radical, pietist theology the replacement of the creation with a new one). The resurrection of the human body into this world renewed – that’s the biblical view.
You might argue that the question prompts people to talk about ‘life after death’, rather than ‘life after life after death’. Trouble is, I can well-believe that the average active Christian wouldn’t make that nuanced distinction. In any case, the survival of the soul in heaven is actually a state of death. Christians, in my experience, really don’t like to face up to that. Jesus was raised, on the the first day of the week, from the dead (Acts 4:10). Paul hopes above anything else that he will attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:11). The dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess 4:16). So, if you want to be accurate, the only type of ‘life after death’ in the Christian hope is resurrection life. But, according to the BBC survey, a tiny, tiny, tiny minority of active Christians really believe that.
And let’s not be too hard on the Re-incarnationers. The description in the brackets (‘starting a new life in a different physical body…after death’) is actually more-or-less the orthodox view (with some caveats around ‘different’). It’s closer to orthodoxy than the soul living on in heaven. I remember explaining the doctrine of resurrection to a Roman Catholic man once. He hadn’t heard of it, and his reaction was: ‘kind of like reincarnation then?’ Well, yes, kind of… In my doctoral thesis I argue that it was exactly this idea of ‘reincarnation, kind of’ that was part of the problem in Corinth, which is why Paul shaped 1 Corinthians 15 as he did.
Anyway, I would hazard a guess, based on the evidence, that the good BBC folk who put the survey together are themselves entirely sketchy on this (and a number of other things). But, the really worrying thing is how many committed Christians are themselves entirely sketchy on it. To come clean, I’m not really surprised. I see it all around, in so many orthodox, evangelical, bible-believing (choose any of these adjectives) churches. So many Christians have little biblical understanding of eternal life, including the doctrine of resurrection. They think that the great Christian hope is to go to heaven, as a soul, after death. The survey figures just bear out the anecdotal evidence.
I’ve written plenty of times on resurrection (try this, this and/or this). It is one of the (perhaps the most) forgotten doctrine of the church. The figures suggest that you (yes, you) probably don’t believe in the biblical doctrine of resurrection. It’s high time we rediscovered the inspiring, grand Christian vision of the (to quote Jesus, or at least a Greek translation of Jesus in Matthew 19:28), palingenesis – the restoration of all things.

Who believes in Resurrection?

A fascinating study was published by ComRes last week. Commissioned by the BBC Religion and Ethics people, the survey of over 2,000 British adults focussed on the resurrection of Jesus and so-called ‘life after death’. My colleague David Robertson has written on the survey here. I want to look at bit more deeply at the figures, and also to bring out the shocking ignorance it reveals amongst active/practicing Christians about the biblical doctrine of resurrection. More on that in a later post – for now, let’s have a look at the numbers (you can get the ComRes data tables here).
In terms of self-identified religious affiliation, the sample worked out at 51% Christian, 9% Non-Christian, and 37% no religious affiliation (with 3% presumably not responding). That’s a little higher for religious affiliation across the board that in the 2015 British Election Survey.
The first question is about Jesus’s resurrection. The top line is that 44% of the sample believe in the biblical story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in some way. That’s staggering, especially when just 16% of the sample identified as ‘Active Christians’. The proportion is an aggregation of two answers:

1. it happened word-for-word as described in the Bible;
2. the Bible account has elements which are not to be taken literally.

When you look at the numbers between these, 1. gets 17%, and 2. gets 26% of the sample. Again, that is somewhat amazing – around 1 in 6 people accept the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection! Really!? I mean, maybe it’s true, but it seems high.
I think that there are probably two things to say. First, how many UK adults would have a good idea of the detail of the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, word-for-word? Second, the respondents were given the possible options for replies. Methodology has an impact on surveys and any method skews results. When the options were read out, how much wiggle room was 2 giving, in the minds of the respondents? A fair bit, I’d say – and so 2. might seem like an attractive answer for those who were fairly ignorant of the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection (which I’d guess would be a fairly large proportion). I wonder how the results would look if the respondents had answered unprompted and these replies codified. Anyway, I agree with David Robertson that the numbers are kind of encouraging (more on that later), but I think there needs to be caution. That said, when you see that only 50% answered ‘I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead’, that is a surprise to me, even with the caveats above.
Another thing that caught my eye is the gender split. Of those accepting the gospels’ accounts word-for-word (17%), amongst women that was 22%, compared with 13% amongst men. Significant. The sample is split down by age and region, but I think then more caution is needed. Of interest (with caution) are the figures showing that Wales stands out as the region where belief in the gospel account is highest (26%), whereas in Scotland the figure is 18% (fourth highest out of the eleven regions).
When it comes to age, there’s a decline as you go from the elderly to the young, as you’d expect. Almost 60% of the elderly believe in the resurrection of Jesus in some way. Amongst those under 35, the proportion is still over 35%.
But it’s the second and third questions that fascinate me. The second: ‘which of the following statements, if any, best reflect your views on life after death?’ The possible responses were (apart from Don’t Know):

1. I believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)
2. I do not believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)

The results were evenly split. So, 46% of the sample believe in ‘life after death’. The gender split is again interesting: 36% of males, 56% of females. Pretty informative of the self-identified Active Christians group is the fact that only 85% of them believe in ‘life after death’. The orthodoxy of Active Christians cannot be assumed. When you get down to what kind of ‘life after death’ people believe in, well that’s when it gets really interesting for me. But that’s the next post…
For now, let me throw out some thoughts from the numbers above. First, although David R rightly sees the survey results as encouraging, I see in them a bit of an indictment of the church. In the church we tend to comfort ourselves over our lack of impact in our society with the thought that our message is rejected by ‘the world’. The numbers indicate, at the very least, an openness to resurrection as an idea, and the commonplace view that this life isn’t all there is. We are simply not engaging people with our ways of doing church. We are simply not equipping Christians to engage with people who are probably ready to discuss. If we keep filling our people with fear about the ‘opposition of the world’, then we are failing. Yes, of course, I believe in the opposition of the world, but I also see that these figures are showing opportunity and openness in our culture to the gospel message. If the church could get its act together, and get its message straight on the biblical doctrine of resurrection (rather than itself getting all pagan with its views of ‘life after death’), then I think we would find more of a receptive ear than we imagine.
Second, if you’re a Christian reading this, then you need to realise that people are incredibly interested in what happens after this life. But, if you’re a Christian, I’d guess you don’t feel that confident about explaining your views. That’s because you’ve probably been taught all your life that ‘we don’t really know what heaven’s like’. And you probably feel a bit weird about the whole idea of heaven anyway. Don’t worry, that’s ok (feeling weird about it). Because talk about ‘heaven’ and ‘life after death’ is missing the point of the resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is not about going to heaven. No, really. And the church is too often missing the point. Who believes in Resurrection? Actually, a lot of orthodox Christians don’t really believe in it – as the third question of the survey shows. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that if the church is ignorant about the Christian hope, folk in our communities are too.
Next post soon…

Stormzy and Folk Christianity

I sometimes hear people talking about a post-Christian society in Britain. I think it’s a bit premature to talk like that, to be honest. I think Christianity is still present and recognised in our culture to a sufficient degree that the ‘post-Christian society’ label is too pessimistic. However, I do recognise that there are post-Christian communities – towns, villages, schemes, where any shared cultural and community life is totally unaffected by Christian truth. Where talk of Jesus, human sin and God’s salvation just does not figure.
But, I see a lot of Christianity around. If we’re attentive to culture, we pick up frequent references to the Christian message. Sometimes they pop up in surprising places. I’ve been reading a bit about, and listening a bit to, the grime artist Stormzy. Before I go any further, I’m not necessarily advising you to do the same… neither am I advising you not to. Anyway, read on. On his album Gang Signs and Prayers are two tracks entitled Blinded by your Grace (Parts 1 & 2). Here are some of the lyrics:

Lord, I’ve been broken, although I’m not worthy, you fix me – now I’m blinded by your grace, you came and saved me

You saved this kid, and I’m not your first, it’s not by blood and it’s not by birth, but Oh my God, what a God I serve

You can watch a public performance at the Westfield Shopping Centre here. Stormzy raps about being ‘God’s son, look at what God’s done.’ It seems on the face of it a bona fide declaration of Christian faith. Stormzy has said he wanted to make a beautiful gospel song, ‘to touch on the gospel side of things and my faith, because that’s so integral to my character.’ He’s spoken of church and clearly has some idea of the gospel. When Christians come across something like this they can, because of the familiarity of the ideas, embrace tracks like this. That’s what I did initially. But I think we need to be more discerning.
First, it’s interesting that Stormzy doesn’t mention Jesus (either on the track, or in any interview I could find). Sometimes we forget that the heart of Christianity is Jesus. Singing or talking about God, or the Lord, can be all well and good, but if Jesus doesn’t figure at the forefront of our conception of who ‘God’ or the ‘Lord’ is, then we’re not talking about orthodox Christianity.
Second, as Nathan Jones who reviewed Gang Sings and Prayers at Premier Gospel points out, alongside Blinded by your Grace (Parts 1 and 2)  are tracks with ‘plenty of bad language’ (there’s a fair bit of effing) and ‘unsavoury subject matters’. I found the few tracks I listened to contained quite a bit of in-your-face arrogance (par for the grime course), aggressive language and sentiments (including the repeated denigration of others),  references to guns and drugs, and the ever-present bare materialist-consumerist outlook of so much urban music. These tracks definitely don’t reflect the values of Jesus, or the Kingdom of God. In fact, they represent the values of a world that lies in the power of the evil one. So how can Gang Signs and Prayers contain this stark contrast? What are Christians supposed to do with Stormzy’s Blinded by Your Grace?
I think what’s going on with this album is a manifestation of what I think of as ‘Folk Christianity’. Folk Christianity is usually a label applied to syncretistic religion in places like the Philippines. But, I think it’s a valid label for here in the UK too, when Christianity  loses its place and people start to pick and choose which part of it they want to believe. It becomes a kind of superstitious, folk religion. I see Folk Christianity as a stage in the decline of Christianity in Western culture. God, life-after-death, prayer, heaven, blessing – these all seem to find a place. But these are combined with all kinds of un-Christian and anti-Christian beliefs. Things like the church, like allegiance to Jesus, like discipleship, like obedience to the way of Christ – these get lost.
Folk Christianity is a feature of Highland communities – amongst young and middle aged people. I think it’s actually more of a feature of these age brackets than amongst the elderly. I go to funerals, and talk to different folk, who have this Folk Christian worldview. It contains ideas of God in heaven, and how departed loved ones are with God, looking down (see Ed Sheeran’s ‘Supermarket Flowers’ for a great example of this). There are ideas of an afterlife, which are usually quite pagan. Sometimes it contains ideas of Jesus. It usually has some idea of prayer, and of the church (as a place to be for funerals and weddings). It seems to value Christian iconocraphy – the cross, the saints – and often has a place for the Lord’s Prayer. It identifies as ‘Christian.’ It contains a lot of spiritual ideas – miracles, ghosts, the dead as surviving somehow. Most of the time, you can see that these ideas are the vestiges of Christianity, but have been formed into a kind of Folk Christianity that bears very little resemblance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Notable by his general absence is Jesus himself. And all these are combined with a fair dose of superstition, and the kind of attitudes and behaviours that the apostles were warning Christians about in the early years of Christianity.

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV

I would argue against people who say that this kind of Folk Christianity is a total negative, or that it offers the church nothing to work with. I thank God that there are still vestiges of Christianity. We can use these vestiges, use this Folk Christianity as a way into speaking about Jesus and the genuine Gospel of the Cross, the Resurrection, God’s grace and forgiveness, and the way of discipleship. But my concern is that there are too many Christians in orthodox churches who don’t recognise Folk Christianity for what it is, and who are not critical enough of it, and who don’t challenge it enough. Which is why Christians need to be clear about the centrality of Jesus in our faith. To be provocative: there are too many people, even in Free Church congregations, who are too sketchy on the centrality of Jesus for our faith. That’s my opinion, based on my experience.
Going back to Stormzy, don’t get me wrong – I’m not judging whether or not his faith is genuine. I’m just saying that a Christian faith that is comfortable with aggression, the devaluation of sex through sexual obscenity, the demeaning of others, violence, the values of an arrogant consumerism – that doesn’t seem to me, on the face of it, to be a faith which is serious about Jesus. Nathan Jones hopes that Blinded by Your Grace ‘will make people think about God’s goodness in their lives.’ I hope the same. No bones, Stormzy is talented (and talent is God’s gift). I like Stormzy’s Blinded by Your Grace, but I’ll never feel totally comfortable listening to it. Jones also writes:

The Christian life is a process, one which is started by the gospel becoming central to all aspects of your life. For that reason, change is one of the most important components. It’s impossible to meet with Jesus and stay the same. Let’s hope and pray that as these artists continue to be open with their faith, they are also open to the change that we are all in need of.

I agree; I hope and pray the same. Jones also pointed out that Blinded by Your Grace sounds like ‘something you would have heard on a Christian rap album circa 2006.’ After listening to some of Gang Signs and Prayers, another track from that time came to mind: The Cross Movement’s 2007 track We Were They. Whereas I think Stormzy’s ‘gospel’ track probably represents a kind of Folk Christianity within black culture, We Were They is the real deal. Like some of Stormzy’s work, it’s provocative, even a little aggressive in places. But, it’s a challenge to those living within a black American Folk Christianity to hear the call of Jesus to put him at the centre, and to follow him in a repentant and obedient lifestyle of discipleship.

They stay the same, no they never change, ain’t nuttin strange… / They wanna hang, just wanna party, kick some slang, sip on some Bacardi…

Think about this, then think about that / think of what they do, think of how they act… / they say God knows my heart, but that don’t get ‘em off the hook…

They don’t want to learn, they just want to know… / They just want the watch, don’t want to know the time…

They don’t want to become, they only want to be… / They just think he’s gracious, what about his wrath?

They might not be sheep, they might be the goats…

They say that they’re we, we used to be they / we had our last night, we live in a different day

The line about the watch is great, considering the in-your-face consumerist, exhibitionist attitude of a lot of urban music when it comes to blingy jewellery, including watches (Stormzy mentions Hublots on one of his tracks). Ditto for the Bacardi reference, which is also one of Stormzy’s on the same track.
Folk Christianity and Real Christianity are not compatible. That’s the kind of challenge we need to bring when we encounter Folk Christianity in our communities. Ministers especially, when preparing for, and conducting, funerals and weddings, need to gently but firmly put Folk Christianity in the spotlight of Jesus’s Gospel. Folk Christianity might give us a way in, but Folk Christianity is not enough.