The bishop of Chelmsford has teased a conversation he had with...
Alister McGrath had a fantastic opportunity to share the meaning of Christianity with Russell Brand this week. But can people like Brand with a pluralist, postmodern worldview ever come to understand why we believe? Heather Tomlinson investigates
Russell Brand has a reputation as a political provocateur, so I suspect many Christians would come to his podcast today and expect Alister McGrath, as a Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University and leading Christian debater, to get a bit of a roasting.
You might assume Brand is an atheist – so many well known comedians are. But he doesn't sound like one. He interviewed McGrath for his podcast in a friendly manner (you can listen to it here), and the question he kept coming back to was – why Christianity? Why this religion and not all the others?
It’s a conversation that I believe reflects a shift in the wider cultural debate – at least in certain groups. Brand (and others) appears to be moving away from Christianity-bashing and science-worship, toward a recognition that there's a deep lack in our modern secular consumerist culture that needs to be filled. With this fresh understanding comes an openness about who or what should fill it. Hence Brand exploring all the options, Christianity included.
If you listen to Brand’s musings via his multiple social media outlets, he’s been engaging with spiritual questions for some time now. He's clearly interested in issues of consciousness and the divine. Many of his comments could be classed as leaning toward a 'New Age' perspective. I feel a lot of empathy with Brand’s position and his questions, because I came from a similar philosophical and cultural starting point before I became a Christian.
I grew up in the same generation as Brand. I was caught up in hedonism of the 1990s (though perhaps not to his extremes). I was liberal-leftish politically and yearned for a better society. I also had pluralistic and New-Age-esque spiritual beliefs. I was searching for meaning. Around ten years ago, I started to search more specifically and ask the question that Brand kept on putting to McGrath in this podcast: "Why Christianity? Why not something more pluralist and general? Why believe in creeds and dogma, or in the literal truth of Christ? Why do Christians think Jesus on the Cross is so significant?”
My search for answers eventually led me to a deep faith in Christ and a love for the literal truth of the Bible. Today, many would probably label me 'conservative', 'traditional', 'orthodox' and the like. I think Alister has broadly the same position as I have now, so it intrigued me that he gave no clear answers to Brand’s questions. Instead he gently skirted them, talking about the meaning of Christianity without giving details. It was a genuinely postmodern apologist’s response: openness to other ideas, little dogmatism or expression of truth, exploring meaning, and answering 'what can Christianity do for me?'
Was he teasing Brand, trying to give glimpses of the truth without trying to bulldoze him into submission? Is that what Paul did on Mars Hill, teasing his listeners with Greek poetry? Perhaps in part. But Paul did eventually end with a clear statement of the need for repentance and of Jesus’ resurrection. I think we need to remember this step, even though I admit it can be hard to make at times.
We need to start being bolder in stating that we believe in truth and we believe truth can be found in Jesus
To come in to the conversation with Brand and start arrogantly telling him what to think or belittling other beliefs would have been disastrous. McGrath was wise to avoid taking that approach. But I think we also need to start being bolder in stating that we believe in truth and we believe truth can be found in Jesus. We should never claim that we are the finders and arbiters of truth: of course we are not. But Jesus is, and if we believe that we need to be able to express it, even to people with postmodern assumptions.
I moved from our Western culture’s strange melting pot of science and postmodernist ideas, to a clear belief in Jesus as the way, truth and the life, though it did take me several years to understand it. The rock on which my faith was built was Jesus Christ, his message and history, his living reality in the here and now, and that happened way before I had come to terms with all the problems of the Church.
Why bother listening to Jesus and not all the other religious figures who’ve said interesting and sometimes worthwhile things? Without the belief that he is the Son of God and different from all the others, we can’t accept his unique message, and his gift of freedom and salvation through the cross. We tend to think that postmoderns don’t like absolutes, but everyone is absolute about some things. We just have to show that being absolute about Christ is what’s important rather than science, sociological theories, politics, pleasure, our own self, or any of the other temptations of our age.
If you have negative preconceptions about Brand, listen to this podcast and listen to what he’s really asking. It may help unlock compassion not just for him but for our society which is so awash with ideas and conflicting values, but is lacking an anchor. As the Church we need to avoid the arrogance of modernism and science, as well as the vagueness and lack of clarity of postmodernism.
Our culture is beginning to realise that scientism and secularism cannot answer the deep questions of life. That's good news. But we need to fill the void and tell of the real Christ, free from all the baggage of dead religion and historical corruption, in his pure, loving and powerful position as God. And that will take real boldness.
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