Palm Sunday. Normally Christians would be walking through the streets with a bemused donkey before beginning Holy Week in church. Not this year. This year we have the unwelcome and uninvited gift of stepping back and re-focusing on what Christian faith – rooted in this Jesus who enters Jerusalem with us friends – says to us while the church is being the church differently.

When Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem he knew what might await him there. You don’t challenge religious authority or the military powers of the Roman Empire without considering the likely cost. Messiahs were popping up all over the place (see ‘The Life of Brian’) – all offering ultimate solutions to those who ‘believe’, but all ending up on crosses. Jesus was, like the Old Testament prophets, open-eyed about power and resistance and cost.

The trouble is that his friends don’t get it. They have invested their hopes in the Galilean carpenter being the best chance of messianic liberation. When the crowds come out and cheer, they think they are on to a winner. Jesus suspects differently. This always makes me recall Cromwell’s remark to Fairfax when riding through cheering crowds, that they would equally have shown up to see him hanged. Crowds are fickle; affections and convictions can be turned over in seconds; people who think acclaim has the final word are usually shortsighted.

I can only imagine the loneliness of Jesus – accompanied by friends who just don’t get what is going on here … in the words of the great Crowded House song, ‘Together Alone’. It is often harder to be lonely in a crowd when you see what no one else sees.

So, Jesus is alone in company. His friends don’t spot this aloneness and read the ‘now’ as the end. And the crowds will soon turn when the wind blows in a different direction.

Jesus is going to challenge power – social, political, military, religious – right at its heart. But, he is not going to do it in the way anyone might suppose. He will look feeble and ridiculous. He will look like he has lost the argument. The crowds – even some of his friends – will suspect he’ll has been a fraud all along. And Jesus knows they won’t even begin to understand all this until much, much later.

I think Palm Sunday opens up the space to re-think who Jesus is and what he is about. If I think he really is the messiah, then is this because he simply confirms to an image (an assumption?) of what messiahship looks like? Is it because I find it convenient to my theological preferences? Or am I as open as his friends ultimately needed to be to re-think, re-imagine, re-conceive what hope, freedom and commitment look like through the eyes of this Jesus?

Am I with the crowd – Jesus to offer quick entertainment and easy solutions; with his friends – hopeful, but stuck with a prejudice of what Jesus ought to be, do and say; or with Jesus himself – prepared to stare even my own convictions in the eye and examine them afresh under the silent gaze of the man heading toward a cross?

The second book I have just read (see here for the first) from the imaginative Princeton University Press series Lives of Great Religious Books is John J. Collins’ The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography. Great stuff, again.

I have waited for a straightforward book about the Scrolls that not only introduced the contents and told the story, but opened up their implications and described the – often bizarre – academic controversies that have arisen around them. This book does it.

I haven’t the time or ability to deal with detailed academic scrutiny, important though that clearly is. I need something that gives me the big picture.

Towards the end of the book Collins concludes:

Despite sensationalist claims, [the Scrolls] are not Christian, and do not witness directly to Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. Nonetheless, they illuminate the context in which Jesus lived, and in which earliest Christianity took shape. (P.240)

Other works that do a similar job are (depending on whether you like film or book) Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilaean.

I was doing Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show this morning. It’s not always easy to know what to say about what, especially when you have to write he script a day or two ahead of the game. ‘Events’ might intrude in the interim…

Anyway, this morning it was a casual conversation that got me going:

A couple of days ago I had one of those conversations that leaves you confused – not about the content, but how the conversation itself ever happened in the first place.

I was having a chat with a woman in a shop and I remarked that I hoped we’d sort the Swedes out on Friday. She said the best way to deal with swedes is to chop them up, boil them, then roast them in the oven. At least, that’s what I think she said. The problem was, I was talking about Euro 2012 and England’s chances on Friday while she was thinking ‘vegetables’.

This reminded me of when I was a kid in Liverpool. Two neighbours were having a chat one day about the ants. It was only when Mrs Green went into detail about how, when even Nippon failed, she resorted to pouring boiling water down their hole, that Mrs Howard twigged that she wasn’t referring to the two elderly spinster ladies she had been talking about. In Liverpool we didn’t distinguish between ‘ant’ and ‘aunt’.

I remember this every time I find myself not listening to what someone is actually saying and jump to conclusions about what I think they are saying. And this happens a lot – not just to me, but to all of us. What we hear is not always what is really being said.

Remember the disciples mishearing Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian? “Blessed are the cheese makers? Of course, he means producers of all dairy products…”

We do this with Jesus all the time – making him say what we want to hear him say, rather than what he actually said. We duck the hard stuff. We can confidently propagate the stuff about ‘loving your neighbour’ – even if we find it easier to say than to do – whilst quietly ignoring the embarrassing stuff like ‘deny yourself, pick up that cross and come with me’.

What we hear isn’t always what is being said. So, when I say I hope the Swedes get battered on Friday, you know what I mean.

 

One of the more amusing elements to have come out of the last week’s ridiculous media frenzy about Christmas carols is the dawning realisation that I have a typing problem. Those who have commented in the media on press reports about my book Why Wish You a Merry Christmas? clearly have either a credulity problem or a literacy problem. But mine is a typo problem.

For some reason, every time I type the word ‘bishop’ it turns out as ‘bihsop’. ‘Which’ comes out invariably as ‘whihc’. But the best by far is that ‘brain’ keeps coming out as ‘brian’. During the last week or so I have repeatedly used the phrase ‘engage your brain’ (verbally and in writing) and only later realised that I have actually invited people in writing to ‘engage their brian’.

What on earth can this mean?

Last week I contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Perhaps there is something deep down within my psyche that wants to identify with the misunderstood bloke who ends up being crucified despite proclaiming he is not who everyone thinks he is. In fact, the programme took as its title the wonderful line spoken by Terry Jones as Brian’s mother in the film: ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’

So, what might it mean to ‘engage your (inner) Brian’?

It might mean:

  • telling the truth even though nobody wants to listen
  • seeing the Romans miss the point (correcting the grammar of your graffiti while ignoring the content of it)
  • belonging to fractious parties and learning that it has always been thus when human beings try to work together
  • learning that your mother was right…

I’m sure others could add more imaginatively to this, but I just thought it was funny.

We live in interesting times. While debates continue to rage about whose human rights trump those of others, it emerges that huge wads of money are currently being spent on religious films – or, more specifically, on films about Muhammad. One new biopic – by the Oscar-winning producer Barrie Osborne – has been budgeted to cost around $150m (£91.5m). (Another film is the planned re-make of  the controversial 1976 The Message – to be entitled The Messenger of Peace.)

Passion of the Christ posterApparently, Ahmed Abdullah Al-Mustafa (chairman of Qatar-based production company Al Noor Holdings) spotted what Mel Gibson ‘achieved’ with his Passion of the Christ and decided it was time to do something similar with the prophet of Islam. According to an article in the Guardian, he said:

The film will shed light on the Prophet’s life since before his birth to his death… It will highlight the humanity of Prophet Muhammad.

And, according to the producer Barrie Osborne (Matrix, Lord of the Rings, etc.), the film will be “an international epic production aimed at bridging cultures. The film will educate people about the true meaning of Islam”.

Of course the interesting thing about this is that the story of Muhammad will be told without actually showing the prophet himself – in accordance with Islamic law. So, any comparison with Gibson’s Passion of the Christ ends right there. I still haven’t seen Gibson’s bloody epic – partly because I don’t like watching violence and also because I hated the way many Christians who would normally oppose violence in the cinema excused this one because of the subject.

It will be interesting to see (a) how Osborne’s film, particularly, will handle the person of Muhammad without showing him and (b) how interested people will be in seeing it: after all, most people think they already know everything about Jesus (wrongly), but might be intrigued to have their ignorance of Muhammad corrected without having to read the Qur’an. It will also be interesting to see just how brave the critics are when it comes to pouring their scorn on the subject-matter – as they happily do with anything Christian.

Life of Brian posterBut, there is a sort of parallel in the Christian world. I often offer congregations two options for understanding the society and context in which Jesus lived and died (and was raised): Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilaean. The former is a film, the latter is a book by a German academic theologian who writes for ordinary people like me. (I was asked by a BBC interviewer recently whether I thought the Life of Brian was blasphemous and offensive; I responded that the clue is in the title and that the name is the give-away.)

Theissen tells the story of Jesus without ever bringing Jesus himself into the picture. We learn about Jesus from the impact he has on the people around him. It is a brilliant, evocative, challenging and moving book – and allows Theissen to play some games with academic approaches to biblical texts along the way.

Shadow of the Galilean coverIn the end the credibility of the Christian community depends on the extent to which that community resembles the person whose shadow falls across the real world – and Muslims might like to be the judges of that. Equally, the Muslim community only has credibility insofar as it reflects the person of Muhammad – and maybe Christians should be the judges of that. It is only from the outside that any community can be truly judged – ‘insiders’ rarely know what it feels like to be ‘outside’ the camp.

So, if Muslims are perceived as aggressive and violent, it will not be surprising if we assume Muhammad to have been aggressive and violent. And if Christians are perceived as thin-skinned wets, then it should not come as a surprise if Jesus is thought by ‘outsiders’ to have been a thin-skinned wet. But, perhaps if humility is allowed space in both communities, each might learn to regard the other through fresh eyes – generously allowing their own faith and the other to be judged by their best examples and not their worst.

Maybe the films might help?