Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, and God in a suffering world: Part 1

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Click to view Russell Brand’s reply to Stephen Fry

So much has been written on Stephen Fry’s recent interview on Irish television, in which he was asked what he’d say if he was confronted by God at the pearly gates. His answer described the divine as a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain”. Fellow-comedian Russell Brand’s responded to Fry on his YouTube channel, and, whether Brand would describe himself as “Christian” or not, he sums up much of what I have written about in two of my books – Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and The Compassion Quest. Instead of contributing yet another response to the plethora of discussions already on the web, I have decided to post a series of extracts from those books – extracts that relate directly to the questions Stephen Fry asks and to the responses Russell Brand gives. The first extract sets the scene:

Color Purple“In Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Colour Purple, the main protagonist Celie, a poor, uneducated, black girl living in the Deep South of the United States in the 1930s, describes to a friend the God to which she was introduced at a very young age. ‘He big and old and tall and greybearded and white;’ she explains, ‘you wear white robes and go barefooted’. This God was a distant, authoritarian figure, who had been used for centuries to justify the power that whites held over blacks and that men held over women. Celie admits that it was, therefore, easy for her to discard her out-dated, white, male deity. ‘When I found out, I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest’, she confesses. This, however, was only the beginning of Celie’s faith journey, and the novel describes her eventually laying aside her negative concept of God and moving towards a radically different, incarnational portrayal of the divine.

DawkinsBy today, while very few Christians would hold to a God who could be described as ‘white’ and a ‘man’, a theologically traditional view of God is still in ascendance. Yet, in recent years, the traditional image of God has found itself under vitriolic attack. Writers such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens certainly influence the thoughts and beliefs of their readers, but, more than this, they reflect and affirm the already deeply-held hostility of an increasingly atheistic society towards faith. Speaking about ‘God’ is regarded as being as nonsensical as speaking about Father Christmas or the tooth fairy. ‘Fairies don’t exist, because we don’t see them. If we don’t see things, they don’t exist’, explained my 5-year-old daughter. Dawkins’s analogy of faith being akin to believing in a Flying Spaghetti Monster runs along a similar line of argument – believing in a God we can’t ‘see’, ‘touch’, or ‘hear’ is as ridiculous as believing in a fantastical creature. Dawkins’s image has particularly been taken into the hearts of atheist and agnostic internet bloggers, one of whom famously adapted an image of Michaelangelo’s ceiling at the Sistine Chapel by replacing the Almighty with the Spaghetti Monster. One of his tentacles reaches out to touch Adam’s finger, with the tagline ‘Touched by his noodly appendage’.

misunderstandingSuch criticism of the traditional image of God is now widespread in our society. Young people especially regard such a critique as supporting their worldview and culture, and many of their idols, from comedians like Ricky Gervais and Eddie Izzard to TV celebrities like Derren Brown and Stephen Fry, affirm their views. For us to counter such misunderstanding and prejudice about the Christian God, we ourselves must embark on a liberative faith journey like the one taken by Celie in The Colour Purple. By undertaking such a quest, we must aim to develop our image of God to reach a way of viewing the divine, and a way of speaking about the divine, which can make sense to the post-modern, scientific mind-set, but still holds on to a theologically sound and time-honoured foundation. After all, such joviality about the Flying Spaghetti Monster hides a serious issue that Christians have to face. Traditionally, the Christian concept of God has been unashamedly other-worldly and, to the unbelieving mind-set, such a supernatural God is increasingly seen as ‘unbelievable’. At the foundation of this traditional, ethereal view of God, however, is not Christianity itself, but rather the secular lens through which our faith has universally been read.”

(extract taken from Trystan Owain Hughes, The Compassion Quest SPCK, London 2013)

See also the following blog posts:

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (blog post)

“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering

 

 

Christmas is Coming: But do we really need the nativity story?

AdventMost of us look forward to Christmas each year. A recent poll revealed why people continue to love the festive season. The reasons were varied – time with family, giving gifts, the food and drink, catching up with old friends, watching children opening their presents, good television, and so on. The “real meaning” of Christmas, however, was positioned lower down in the list. For many, Christ is slowly being relegated from the Christ-mas season.

ricky gervais christmasIn a promotional video for their internet podcast, which has been downloaded over 300 million times, the comedian Ricky Gervais quizzes his radio producer and friend Karl Pilkington on the significance of the nativity story. Pilkington’s answer is revealing and reflects an increasing trend in society’s attitude towards the festive season: ‘[The nativity] is not important. It’s so not important this story. I don’t need an old story… I could do without it. If someone said we’re getting rid of it, I’d go “all right”’.

Those of us who are Christian, though, know very well that the nativity is not simply an ancient story from a dusty old book. The incarnation is about experiencing Christ now. A wonderful consequence of the ‘Word made flesh’ is that Jesus is still involved in a dynamic relationship with the world. After all, God did not only reside in human form for a fleeting thirty-three years, but is still engaged in every part of our everyday lives.

Real God in the Real WorldThe BRF Advent book for 2013, Real God in the Real World, encourages us to use our festive season to recognise Christ in the world around us – not only in our prayer and worship, but also in the beauty of nature, in the friends and family with whom we celebrate the season, and in our everyday activities over the Christmas period and beyond.

Each day we are given a thoughtful consideration of a Bible passage. This will explore the passage through poetry, literature, film, or a lively anecdote, as the scripture is brought to new life. Each day also includes a practical application of the passage’s reflection, to aid us in discovering Jesus’s presence over the festive season. Thus, as we journey through Christmas together, we will start to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to Christ all around us, and, as we do, we will find that the Word is still becoming flesh today!

Real God in the Real World can be purchased directly from BRF, from Amazon, or from your local bookstore. It can be used as for personal reflection or, by using the group discussion questions at the back of the book, it could be used in an Advent group.

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