Love and faith, Advent, and the two Johns

Dec 8, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Last week, sitting on the sofa and surfing through the channels, I came across a documentary on the Beatles. It was a serious analysis, linking the development of the band and their art with the cultural history of 1960’s Britain, and Western society more generally. The clean, jangly guitars, the simple, catchy pop tunes, vocal harmonies and lyrics about innocent boy and girl relationships of 1962-64 morphed into something different as the decade progressed. Sitars and distorted guitar riffs, a more complex rock sound influenced by the American West coast, and a change in subject matter. First, “I wanna hold your hand”; then “Tomorrow never knows” and “Let it be”.

The programme was especially interested in how John Lennon went in a few years from cheeky Liverpudlian working class folk singer to drug-inspired poet, atheist philosopher and transatlantic peace campaigner. “All you need is love”, and then in his post Beatles era, “Give peace a chance” and “Imagine there’s no heaven…imagine all the people living life in peace”. At a time of profound disillusion with, and rebellion against the established order, which had overseen the Vietnam war and the shadow of nuclear holocaust, these songs became anthems of hope for which there is no equivalent today. They articulate a yearning, but a philosophy of love and peace which had kicked away any foundations in Christian faith was bound to result in bitter disappointment. The ‘summer of love’ gave way to a decade of cultural decline, reaching its nadir in the ‘winter of discontent’. Then, Lennon was assassinated in 1980, exactly 40 years ago today.

During Lennon’s heyday, no-one was singing “Imagine there is a heaven”, except in church, rapidly declining in numbers and influence. But actually that’s not strictly true. Firstly, while the gods of stage and screen and idols of money appeared to be much “bigger than Jesus” (Lennon’s phrase about the Beatles) in the West, in China, Africa and Latin America the church was experiencing massive growth. But secondly, even in Britain there remained a popular medium by which the Christian message was consistently expressed in song. Year after year, as the Beatles were followed by glam rock, prog rock, punk rock, electronic pop and hiphop, something unchanging remained: Christmas carols.

Santa Claus and his elves, the absurd commercialisation of the present-buying season, Slade, Mariah and Bublé, even CoVid lockdowns have failed to displace the ongoing popularity of these old songs about the birth of Christ. Men and women who never normally sing, and those more familiar with “Swing low sweet chariot” or “When the Spurs go marching in”, can be heard belting out “God rest you merry, gentlemen” or “Silent night”. People are quite happy with carols on TV and radio even if they never go to church. Even Richard Dawkins famously said he liked them.

The peace on earth spoken about in carols has a more solid foundation than John Lennon’s wish – it originates in an event in history, and its celebration is part of the deep memory of generations. And carols speak about love, not the emotion temporarily generated in human hearts, but “God imparts to human hearts…”, in profound commitment to the human race which originates in God’s heart and, despite our unloveliness, came down at Christmas. Christians should be concerned about the spiritual darkness, the ongoing erasure of the cultural memory of faith, the hostility towards biblical values, but the continued sound of the public singing of carols is one of hope.

The words and the music of carols are counter-cultural, and yet they touch non-churchgoers. There is surely a lesson in that. Can the same be said for more attempts by today’s church to reach out contemporary society? There’s a lot of talk about “love” in the Church of England’s ‘Living in Love and Faith’ resources. But is it the love of Christ, the love that comes to us from above, or something described by 1960’s singer-songwriters? At the beginning of the LLF book, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York say:

“Our vision must be that which Jesus prays in Johns 17:21, ‘that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’. Being one is not in the sense of being the same, but being one in love and obedience and holiness…”

Most of us would say ‘Amen’ to that. But the whole purpose of LLF is not to establish how we should act with our bodies and emotions, so we can be obedient and holy to an external, unchanging standard. Rather, the way the words are used, ‘obedience’ and ‘holiness’ are about conformity to an understanding of ‘love’ which means horizontal, peaceful human relationships. So, for the Archbishop of York writing in Radio Times this week, the nativity scene is not a picture of the mystery of the incarnation, speaking of transcendence, human sin, the lengths God has gone to bridge the gap, our invitation to repent and welcome the Saviour to “be born in us today”. Rather the nativity can be a focus of attention for a diverse national family, like the TV in the corner of the room, or the pub singer crooning “Hey Jude”, where we watch together, we have fun, “we discover that we belong to one another, we are one humanity”.

But of course that passage referred to, in John 17:21, is not just about unity and love. Yes these things are important, but their meaning is understood only in connection with the other things Jesus says in the previous verse:

“My prayer is not for them [the apostles] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father…”.

Don Carson comments:

“This is not simply a ‘unity of love’. It is a unity predicated on adherence to the revelation the Father mediated to the first disciples through his Son, the revelation they accepted and then passed on…Similarly, the believers…are to be one in purpose, in love, in action, undertaken with and for one another, in joint submission to the revelation received…”

Carson goes on:

“Although the unity envisaged in this chapter is not institutional…[it] is meant to be observable. It is not achieved by hunting enthusiastically for the lowest common theological denominator, but by common adherence to the apostolic gospel, by love that is joyfully self-sacrificing, by undaunted commitment to the same goals of mission with which Jesus’ followers have been charged, by conscious dependence on God himself for life and fruitfulness”. (Don Carson, The Gospel According to John, p568).

John Lennon sang about love and common humanity, but his life was not exemplary, he died young, he is remembered but his ideas cannot save. John the Apostle recorded the words of Jesus, also talking about love and unity, but with a different meaning, one to which the church should be unashamedly bearing witness and using the opportunity of Christmas to do so. Is the Church of England’s idea of Love and Faith taking inspiration from the wrong John?

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