Friday, 1 May 2009

bad for the soul

Giles Fraser has used his column in The Church Times to criticise blogging in a piece entitled ‘Why blogs can be bad for the soul’. He does acknowledge that there are some good blogs and threads but most of the article is negative and his criticisms include:

‘too many contributors do not recognise that they are being unpleasant because they believe themselves to be justified by some higher cause’.

‘The other problem is that, on the internet, the other does not come with a face.’

Now Giles does have a point and there are plenty of blogs that I stay well clear of for the sake of my blood pressure. There are those who think they can pontificate and libel with impunity, often under the blanket of anonymity. However, this article annoyed me for several reasons and at the risk of confirming Giles’ opinions about blogs and bloggers here they are.

  1. It’s a bit rich for someone who is regularly given a platform in the national press, church press and on Radio 4 to complain about others sharing their views, usually with a much smaller audience or readership than him.
  2. The media through which Giles’ shares his opinions can also be used to be unpleasant in the belief that the comments are justified by a higher cause.
  3. Writers in print and broadcasters on the radio are also engaging with others who do not come with a face; they are broadcasting opinions not engaging in personal conversation and often without much accountability.

Over Easter Giles took the opportunity to share his views about the doctrine of atonement. He was given three major platforms for this: The Merciful Crucifixion in The Guardian, his Radio 4 Thought for the Day on Monday 13th April and in No Task Left for the Risen Jesus his Church Times column of 24th April. He took the opportunity to attack substitutionary atonement in general and penal substitution in particular. This is becoming almost an annual event for the media; wait until Easter comes around and find a prominent cleric to attack a central aspect of Christian doctrine. During Easter 2007 it was the Dean of St Alban’s Jeffrey John saying almost exactly the same things as Giles Fraser. Unfortunately, the full transcript of Dr John’s Radio 4 Lent talk is proving very hard to track down but I did listen to it at the time.

What I found unpleasant, manipulative and depressing about both Jeffrey John’s and Giles Fraser’s comments on the cross is that they didn’t use the occasions to proclaim good news but rather presented a caricature of atonement theology which they went on to attack. They didn’t seem too concerned about using a public platform to distort and undermine the beliefs of brothers and sisters in Christ during the most important period of the Christian calendar. Tom Wright responded to Jeffrey John in an excellent article entitled The Cross and The Caricatures and I think his critique holds for Giles’ comments about the cross.

So, yes Giles those of us who blog need to consider and reflect on what we post, but so do those who are given the privilege of writing and broadcasting in the mainstream national media. All these formats have the potential to be either good or bad for the soul.


Charlie said...

I suggest that Giles Fraser steps down occasionally from his weekly Church Times column and give this blogger a go instead!

Tim Goodbody said...

Two words
Ugley Vicar
John's robust defence of orthodoxy and subsequnt post about the resurrection are bound to have put Giles' back up, but lets face it, bloggers' audiences are much smaller than national newspaper and radio stations can offer, so Giles' media profile is of course much higher. What's he got to worry about?

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks Charlie & Tim,
For those interested the Ugley Vicar comments on the cross can be found at .

rrchapman said...

I haven't heard or read the Giles Fraser comments on atonement mentioned in this thread. So, I don't know how he discussed it, and with what tone. This means my comments are general in nature, and not specific.

(I would say "of course, I could be wrong." But, that line has already been taken. [grin])

There are more points of view on what the death and resurrection of Jesus is about. There is Christus Victor, favored by the Orthodox. I seem to remember something from history about Peter Abelard getting in trouble for his point of view on this, too.

Because of the various views out there, I would not necessarily call any view of "substitutory atonement" to be central to the Christian faith. It is the resurrection that is central.

Why Jesus had to die won't be answered on this side of death. It may not be answered on the other side, too. Or, it will never be answered in a way that limited beings could understand the Infinite.

So, if Giles Fraser pushes a different theory, he will probably find someone who has trouble with the various atonement theories. May Fraser communicate God's love to that person.

At the same time, I hope Fraser was at least charitable to those of other ideas.

Philip Ritchie said...

Bob (rrchapman),
Many thanks for your comment.

I am not wanting to suggest that penal substitution or substitutionary atonement is the only way of understanding the cross and fully accept that scripture and the Christian tradition give us a whole range of ways of understanding it.

My concern was the way both Giles Fraser and Jeffrey John chose to use the media to caricature and dismiss this understanding of atonement theology, which is actually central to many people's understanding of the cross. They didn't seem too bothered about how their words were heard by many of their brothers and sisters in Christ. It wasn't that Giles pushed a different theory of atonement it was the manner with which he has consistently rubbished another theory. He once used a review of Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto to have a go at substitutionary atonement. Giles' writes:

'The technical term for this theology is penal substitution. It is, among other things, the reason so many conservative Christians like Gibson support the death penalty - wickedness must be paid for with blood. And it's precisely this equation that has come to rot the Christian moral conscience from within. For this theology is intrinsically vindictive, bloodthirsty and vengeful. Though many evangelicals and conservative Catholics think it the beating heart of the good news, it's a much later medieval interpretation that refuses the gospel's insistence upon forgiveness and non-violence.'
This is just one example of his tone. You can read the whole article here.

Glies' article in the Church Times was a complaint about the way some bloggers and commenters write. I was simply pointing out that he sometimes dishes it out in a manner others find unpleasant. My post was an appeal for all of us to consider what we say and write not just bloggers.

By the way, I would suggest that whatever one's particular understanding of the cross it is just as central as the resurrection.