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Producer Armando Iannucci says Jesus’ death and resurrection never made sense to him as a child. Nick Spencer asks if that is the point.
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Being an incurable fan of The Thick of It and this year The Death of Stalin, I am always eager to listen to what their creator, Armando Iannucci, has to say about anything. He is one of the wittiest people around today, plotting narratives that dissect human nature, and human fallibility, in a way that is both honest and funny.
I was particularly interested, therefore, to read his Diary comments in this year’s Christmas edition of the New Statesman, on why he is no longer a Christian.
He doesn’t quite say he ever was a Christian, but makes it clear that he had “a Catholic upbringing”, “lapped up all the stories about miracles”, “had no trouble taking the Gospels as gospel truth”, and “managed to swallow the whole eat–my–body thing” – all of which sounds reasonably Christian to me.
He subsequently “tripped up” over two things: how the Gospels differ the way they do beginning with “four [sic] completely different versions of the birth of Jesus and ended with four very different versions of his death”, and why Jesus had to “physically die for something he didn’t do”. These “inconsistencies” were simply explained (away) to the young Iannucci as “Mysteries”.
This is not the casual mockery of the Christian story with which we are familiar from its many cultured despisers. Rather, it’s an intelligent and seemingly (not–un)sympathetic man explaining why he can no longer believe.
The first of Iannucci’s queries is the more straightforward. The accusation of inconsistency in the birth, death and resurrection accounts is familiar, if odd given how much detail they share. (‘They’re all suspiciously similar’ might be a more legitimate criticism.) I suspect it’s indicative of a mindset that is not generally shared by historians (or the police). Identical accounts (or statements) are inherently less trustworthy (for reasons of copying and collusion) than those that agree over the story but disagree over details. A little bit of inconsistency tends to be a good thing, and the gospel narratives are, as a rule, a little bit inconsistent.
The second is more interesting. I happily wrote in the first draft of this blog that it was quite possible to understand how and why Jesus did have to die. Given the physical nature of his life – eating and drinking with outcasts, feeding and healing the hungry and sick – and given his uncompromising teaching that love should suffer anything for the sake of the loved, I reasoned that the idea Jesus’ physical suffering to the point of death is wholly believable. This is a man who talks the talk, and then walks it with a cross on his back.
In response, an eagle–eyed colleague quoted St Peter to me: “to those who do not believe [he is] a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” Touché. Better still, he might have quoted St Paul: “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. When Iannucci called the crucifixion “a very bad plot point [which] makes no sense,” he was almost channelling Saints Peter and Paul, and not, I suspect, either knowingly or ironically.
The result is that this blog has a different ending to that which was originally planned, because my colleague – OK, credit where it’s due – Paul Bickley’s comments set the traps running in my mind, and they haven’t really come to rest.
Does the whole enterprise of ‘public theology’ – roughly what we do at Theos; we even used to be called the “public theology think tank” – in fact risk enfeebling the gospel precisely by de–emphasising its strangeness in favour of its reasonableness? Is it just because I don’t want to be laughed at by my few remaining bien pensant friends, that I take the ‘this–actually–makes–profoundly–good–sense’ line? Should we even be engaged in making the wisdom of the gospel appear wise? Should we not be more comfortable to accept its foolishness and let the Holy Spirit do his thing?
I think not, or not quite. After all, St Paul did spend quite a lot of time explaining how the early followers of Christ might make sense of this foolishness. He is no out–and–out fideist. Faith may, and should, seek understanding.
(St) Paul even goes as far as to reason with the Athenian philosophers. But there – again, thanks to (Mr) Paul – “it’s interesting that Paul’s address to the philosophers of Athens broke down when he mentioned the resurrection.” Reason will take you so far. If you expect it all to make sense, to be wholly explicable, it’s probably a good indication that it won’t.
All of which means that, while I do, ultimately, disagree with Armando Iannucci, I suspect that his seeing the cross as “a very bad plot point [which] makes no sense” may not be the worst place to start. Indeed, it may be by listening to the views of those beyond the congregation, to today’s wise ‘Greeks’, that those of us who do “proclaim Christ crucified” might recapture a little of the shocking strangeness that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).
Posted 19 December 2017
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