Let’s take a few steps back.
On Friday night, I was raging. Utterly fuming. Because I’d made an unfortunate bedtime reading choice: Giles Fraser’s Guardian column in which he makes some pretty sweeping generalisations about evangelical Christians. We apparently talk about “Cheesus” instead of Jesus and profess to have a “creepy sort of chummyiness” with this dude who we have made into our “boyfriend or best mate”.
He adds: “And when such people speak of Cheesus they have to wear that sickly smile too. It’s that I-know-something-you-don’t smile. Patronising, superior and faux caring all at the same time. And if you disagree with them they will pray for you. It makes you want to bang your head against a brick wall.”
Fraser claims that evangelicals don’t understand the idea of the suffering non-triumphant servant and caricatures us as the very un-cool Ned Flanders-type in The Simpsons.
I stand by my view that the article was poorly executed, vicious and mean and that it was absurd in its sweeping generalisation. But it upset me more than it should. I voiced my anger on Twitter. I wanted to show him a piece of my mind and became obsessed with looking at his @ replies to see just how many people agreed with me and not him.
I really was angry. So angry that I started to analyse just why I was so. As someone whose job it is to basically say how great the evangelical Church is, the article clearly wasn’t helping me professionally. Was I jealous of Fraser’s Guardian platform? Do I just hate sweeping generalisations about any people group? Or was there something else?
And then I realised that crumpled underneath my rage was my ego.
The evangelical Church of which I’m a part was being ridiculed in public. We were coming off as losers, outsiders, weirdos, not part of the cool crowd; not part of the liberal, rational, Guardian-reading crew of which I so desperately want to be a part. Flashbacks to school and that crippling need to fit in, to be accepted, clever, successful, beautiful – a winner. Or at least to be seen as a winner.
I have always been extremely competitive. I love being the top of the class. I like to be right. I love to win. I thrive on being liked. And as a classic ESFJ in the Myers Brigg personality test, when I think I’m being criticised, or not liked, or when I don’t come out on top – it hurts. I take criticism and failure extremely personally.
But the things that crush me the most are the criticisms that are closest to the truth.
So I read and re-read the Fraser article. And I realised that maybe that drive to be ‘a winner’ is exactly what he was getting at. Maybe there are times when I reduce Jesus to the one who makes me feel better about myself, who whispers that I’m beautiful, who gets me that job or that car park space; the one who makes everything ok, the victorious warrior-saviour. Maybe I’m not too dissimilar then from those Christians I myself judge who claim God is on their side politically and socially. The Fox News-watching evangelical American caricature who wields Jesus’s might over the nation.
And then I get to Palm Sunday.
And as I hold my Palm cross in my hand, I get it.
This Jesus, on this day, doesn’t stride into Jerusalem like a mighty winner. Not like any winner the crowds would have expected anyway. Humbly, he rides in on a donkey; with each step he is coming closer to losing. Inching nearer to being mocked, ridiculed, beaten, shamed, battered, murdered.
Yesterday, I attended the National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year awards with a friend who had invited me along. Not usually the place you’d expect an evangelical Christian to be. And I was prepared for battle. I sat opposite an older man who was wearing a t-shirt with an atheist slogan on it [NB not all secularists are atheists, but this one was very much so]. Within minutes, he had told our table that he was proudly hostile to all religions. I gulped. At some point I would have to reveal my true identity. And when the moment came, I babbled on about how I may be a Christian, but I’m actually very rational, you see, I’m inclusive, open-minded and clever really – citing my Cambridge degree like some sort of proof that I was not insane, stupid or illogical. Because even in that place – where many secularist atheists spoke about their ideologies with evangelical fervour – I wanted to be a winner. I wanted to be seen in a positive light. I wanted to be seen as alright.
But being a follower of Jesus Christ has got nothing to do with being a winner. In fact, it’s the total opposite.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship: “The messengers of Jesus will be hated to the end of time. They will be blamed for all the divisions which rend cities and homes. Jesus and his disciples will be condemned on all sides for undermining family life, and for leading the nation astray; they will be called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The disciples will be sorely tempted to desert their Lord. But the end is also near, and they must hold on and preserve until it comes.”
If I’m to take up my own cross, I’ve got to lay down that drive to win; that need to be beautiful, clever, good, liked, right, popular, cool. I’ve got to accept that I might take the blame for things, that I’ll be condemned, and called crazy. Because the cross of Christ is foolishness. It’s absurd. And those who follow this Christ have got to be prepared to look foolish, to lose, to be ridiculed in public, and even to be a loser like Ned Flanders. So be it.