31 May 2013
The disruptive power of the gospel
I've been travelling this week through the seven churches of Asia, now Turkey, to which John is commanded to write in the book of Revelation. This hasn't proved too arduous, fortified by Turkish fish lunches and soft wine-fuelled suppers.
It's difficult to imagine in the gentle May sunshine and under the pomegranate blossom that these early churches lived in great fear of Roman oppression - it's why John is said to have written so much of his Revelation in code, to protect his correspondents.
But I'm struck also by how little has changed since he wrote his extended letter. At Pergamon, there's a Roman amphitheatre that you reach by passing through an ancient shopping mall, just like we're offered retail therapy at the National theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company. At the ruins of the city of Aphrodisias, there is an old surviving inscription that tells people not to throw their rubbish out of the gate.
And it seems that nothing much changes in churches either. John is forever exhorting the churches not to give up hope; that if they hold fast to their faith all will be well.
Sometimes he's encouraging, sometimes he admonishes, sometimes he's downright rude. My favourite is when he accuses the church in Laodicea of being "neither hot nor cold but lukewarm" and claims that the angel of the Lord wants to "spew you out of my mouth".
Laodicea lies between Pamukkale, which has hot springs, and Colossae, which has cold mountain water, so its water temperature is somewhere in between - John, writing on the island of Patmos, certainly knew his churches.
But no one thinks that John is writing about water quality. This is a church that has grown insipid and bland, easy with itself for being easy. Not unlike a few of our churches today, or the arguments that we have in them. Christian arguments become bland when they cease to be transformative, disruptive and radical. This doesn't always mean doing the latest thing that is demanded, or simply appeasing public opinion.
When John wrote his letter to the Laodiceans, he was accusing them of being smug because they were wealthy, rather than rich in spirit as they were intended to be. As I write in my piece "God is the new CEO" in this week's New Statesman, there are strong signs that Christians in the City of London are recognising that the gospel shouldn't serve the markets, but the other way around. I call these the new Power Christians, because they are serving a power beyond free-market liberalism.
The faith of this new generation of Power Christians is one which is unashamed; convinced of the power of the gospel to transform not just personal lives but the whole framework through which financial institutions operate. These pin-striped disciples are anything but lukewarm. They seem to have a new willingness to bring disruption to the markets for the good of the City and the nation as a whole; and unlike their predecessors they are no longer afraid to use religious rhetoric when doing so.
Surprisingly, they are not being mocked for it, but listened to; their prophetic voices being heard within a climate that seems more ready to accept the Christian alternative than it was a decade ago.
It is not only the markets that are in need of this transforming power. It's the same in all areas of our lives. The gospel shouldn't serve our social attitudes, but the other way around. We should be having arguments about these attitudes and enjoying them.
George Pitcher is a journalist, author, public relations pioneer and Anglican priest.