Over the past ten days or so I’ve watched two of the BBC’s Easter programmes. There was more traditional fare available (Easter from King’s College and a Songs of Praise)- but I watched Ann Widdecombe on Christianity and Comedy and Melvyn Bragg on Mary Magdalene. Trust be told I watched them before going to bed on iPlayer, fell asleep in both of them and kept having to rewind them. However, I was awake enough to form certain impressions.
In watching them it was hard to avoid an image of an editorial meeting- What’s our angle on Easter this year? Of course it is a scandal that the Creator God coming to die and rise again for our salvation isn’t enough of an angle in itself- it should be the cause of endless worship by the entire human race. But we know that human beings will want to get rid of God’s King (Psalm 2 and the crucifixion itself shows us that) so we ought not to be surprised that ceaseless worship is not on the agenda. Given that, what should we make of the two programmes?
You can get a sense of the Widdecombe programme from her article here. Quite reasonably, she makes a distinction between jokes at the expense of clergy, which she sees as fairly harmless, and lines that aim to mock the person and claims of Jesus himself. Widdecombe’s Catholocism was evident throughout the programme- the joke she abhorred most revolved around a communion wafer, which I have to confess I found faintly amusing. The jokes ridiculing the Scriptural accounts of Jesus’ life came much nearer to the bone for me. Rowan Atkinson’s Comic Relief sketch came after the programme was made but I remember a sense of outrage rising within me as I read it. However, a sense of annoyance shouldn’t blind us to an important qustion- How should Christians respond to this? Ann Widdecombe made great play (somewhat histrionically or maybe I’m just bitter about her getting my Songs of Praise gig…) of how offended she was by it all. Essentially she was seeking to persuade comedians like Marcus Brigstocke that he should desist from such jokes because of the way in which Christians were wounded by them.
To be honest, I struggle with this. I’m not entirely sure that Christians complaining about being offended is a helpful way to proceed. It leaves us on shaky ground when, for instance, a practising homosexual is offended by a sermon on Romans 1 or a committed pluralist is offended by John 14. Given that the Gospel will always offend in some ways, it seems to me dangerous for us to use the giving of offence as a reason to stop doing something. (In passing it is also why I refuse to sign petitions against the building of mosques for instance- we should be passionately arguing for freedom of religion in all places. It is hard for us to argue against restrictions on our brothers and sisters around the world if we seek to restrict Muslim freedom here.)
But there is a further problem with us complaining about the offence to us. It is just too self-centred. When I hear comedians mock Christ, I shudder- for them. They will meet the one of whom they speak one day. In the light of that my own feelings matter very little. The end of Romans 12 seems relevant to me. I don’t think we need to be protesting violently about these comedians- the Bible tells us that mockers will come and ultimately it is God who will repay. Rather than protesting about offence we need to be clear about the Gospel. Jesus is risen, will return and everybody will meet Him. We need to present that sobering reality rather than concentrate on our own sense of hurt.
So what of Melvyn Bragg on Mary Magdalene? Again you can read his article here– although it will probably irritate you. Truth be told, the programme wasn’t as bad as the article. Indeed there were some good bits. Bragg argued- rightly- that the fact that the Gospel writers record Mary and the others as the first witnesses to the resurrection is a reason to believe its veracity. No first century writer inventing a resurrection would put a woman as the prime witness. And the closing line of the programme was quite moving as Bragg commented that the most important thing about Mary Magdalene was what she witnessed- the events of the first Easter weekend.
The first twenty minutes of the programme were broadly helpful as Bragg worked through the references to Mary Magdalene in the Gospels. However, I do remember looking at the on screen timer after twenty minutes wondering how he was going to manage to fill the rest of the hour. Because the truth is we have very little to go on in order to know much about Mary Magdalene. However, an hour long programme had obviously been commissioned so we went headlong into readings from some of the so called Gnostic Gospels. In these Mary is accorded a much greater role with some arguing that she is married to Jesus (although that seems a bit of a stretch even from the documents themselves). Bragg argues- especially in the article- that these were suppressed in favour of the four canonical Gospels because of misogyny in the church. This is becoming quite a common line- it is what lies behind Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.
Now some of what was in the programme was offensive to Christians. But we must not get caught up on that. We simply need to speak the truth. The reason Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were regarded as authoritative instead of the Gospels of Philip, Thomas and Mary Magdalene was not because of misogyny. To see this you just have to look at these other Gospels. It seems to me that all Christians should do this so that we are not taken in by the nonsense that is spoken about them. You can find them here, here and here. It doesn’t take long to realize that they are in a completely different league to the other Gospels. They are simply fragments of what was around in the early church- both good and bad. Unlike the canonical Gospels, they are not historical documents, they don’t fit with the rest of Scripture and they don’t present a clear picture of Jesus. It is widely accepted that these documents were written in the second century at the earliest- unlike the canonical Gospels that are written within a generation of Jesus’ life. The idea that they weren’t used because the church wanted to suppress their view of Jesus in a fit of misogyny is ludicrous and intellectually contemptible. The truth we need to proclaim is what we have available to us in historically credible documents- the reality of God come to earth, who died and rose again. We’ll explore some of these issues at our Guest Evening in May.
My point overall is this. We don’t need to be defensive- as though we are some weak minority who are always anxious about being offended. We need to have the confidence to set out the truth boldly, to show up nonsense for what it is and to proclaim the glory of our crucified and risen Lord.