Mark makes a good point and I apologise for what looks like a lack of charity. But I have thought long about what he said and I offer the following in all seriousness:
1. Should Paul have apologised for 2 Corinthians 10-13? Maybe there is a place for sarcasm or plain speaking (something bishops are constantly being accused of avoiding). Robust language is sometimes necessary, but rarely welcome. Bishops are on the receiving end of a great deal of robust communication, much of which could be called abusive. This does not justify reciprocation, but it raises a question about who decides when strong challenge is appropriate or otherwise. It seems to me that people who assume the right to use strong language with those with whom they disagree are the first to apply the double standard and complain when on the receiving end.
2. If a practice is stupid, what should I have called it? I recall the language Mark used about Palestinians and wonder if they, too, deserve polite respect.
3. For whom did Christ die? It seems to me that Christ also died for the Palestinians – as well as for the atheists and agnostics who have launched the advertising campaign. Do you know why they did it? There have been Christian advertising campaigns on London buses (and elsewhere) for years and some are straightforward – Alpha, for example. But one campaign saw the words of Jesus accompanied by a phone number which, when called, told you you were going straight to hell. Hence the atheist campaign and the terms in which it has been done. I might think the atheists are both misleading and silly, but at least I understand why they have done it. And that makes me impatient with the response by some Christians. I might be wrong, but there it is.
4. Would Muslims be offended? Guess what? I asked one this morning if he would be offended and his response went along the lines of: ‘It is a bad advert, but is it any worse to ride on a bus with an advert like that (which speaks only of the ‘probability’ of God’s non-existence) than one for a film involving almost naked women – or a Christian advert making claims for Christ that I think are wrong?’
The point is that we need in our culture to find creative and robust ways of engaging such atheists. Shouting louder is both ineffective and stupid. (Oh no, I’ve done it again…) It makes me think that an equivalent would be going to Athens (Acts 17) and, instead of listening, learning and engaging appropriately, we simply demolish the altar ‘to an unknown god’ and throw their poetry in the bin. London is not Texas (or Nigeria) – and we have to engage in ways that are appropriate and effective here. My job compels me into such engagement every day of the week, so this is not simply a notional matter. (Incidentally, when I engage in robust argument with atheists in the media, the most frequent response from Christians – usually by letter or email and often anonymous – is abuse and criticism of what I didn’t say… when just occasionally a bit of encouragement or support would help!)
I have further reflected on Mark’s reference to Jerry Springer – the Opera and the response to it in England. Without going into great detail, I would offer this response: I think the protestors hit the wrong target. The Jerry Springer Show had for years exposed vulnerable people to the most horrible public humiliation in the name of cheap entertainment. Did I see any protests about this dehumanising abuse of often vulnerable people? Er… no. But then the Opera says something pathetic about Jesus and suddenly the Christians are up in arms about being offended – as if Jesus is some weak, pathetic cry baby who needs to be protected from the world’s abuse. And my problem with this? Precisely that it is the similar failure to get the point in the Gospels that leads religious people to crucify Jesus. If we were truly being ‘Christ-ian’, we would have been objecting to the Show, not the Opera. (Or, maybe, both – but only the latter if we had done the former.)
I don’t think Jesus needs to be defended in this way. The baby of Christmas grew up. The cross was about him being subjected to the worst the world can throw at him and defying it in being raised from death by the God who is not threatened by this stuff. I believe in apologetics and imaginative challenge to those who oppose God and the faith; but that does not mean simply shouting loudly about ‘being offended’ or colluding in the ridiculous hierarchies of victimhood that can be seen everywhere.
So, I apologise for injudicious or ‘uncharitable’ language. But I offer the above for further consideration.