No PR agency in the world could sell the disturbing message of a broken man on the cross. That’s why we get Jesus-lite
- The Guardian, Friday 22 March 2013 19.30 GMT
One thing you learn pretty quickly as a priest taking primary school assemblies is that, according to the under fives, there is no question that cannot be appropriately answered with the word Jesus. Obviously, anything faintly religious must be answered in that way. But other questions too. “What is the capital of France?”, “What is the price of a loaf of bread?”, “What is the name of your sister?”.
In every class there is always some little mite who enthusiastically sticks up their hand, bursting with confidence. Jesus, they say, proudly, when chosen.
After a while, if you say a word enough, over and over again, it loses its meaning. It even begins to sound a little different. Jesus morphs into Cheesus – the es getting steadily elongated. Those who talk about Cheesus do so with a creepy sort of chummyiness. This is what evangelicals call “a personal relationship”, by which they mean that Cheesus has become their boyfriend or best mate.
And when such people speak of Cheesus they have to wear that sickly smile too. It’s that I-know-something-you-don’t smile. Patronising, superior and faux caring all at the same time. And if you disagree with them they will pray for you. It makes you want to bang your head against a brick wall.
Once again, the evangelicals are in the ascendency in the Church of England. Rowan Williams never spoke of Cheesus. He had way too much gravitas. Which was why so many non-Christians respected him. And, to be fair, Justin Welby doesn’t do that either – but I worry that he does have a slight weakness in that direction. After all, that is the stable of the church he hails from. And if he does lapse into Cheesus-speak, heaven save him from Rowan Atkinson, whose Red Nose day satire was a little too close for comfort.
Welby, however, does have one important inoculation against Cheesus. He has personal experience of tragedy and Cheesus cannot deal with tragedy. Which is why, for the worst sort of Cheesus-loving evangelicals, the cross of Good Friday is actually celebrated as a moment of triumph. This is theologically illiterate. Next week, in the run up to Easter, Christianity goes into existential crisis. It fails.
The disciples run away, unable to cope with the impossible demands placed upon them. The hero they gave up everything to follow is exposed to public ridicule and handed over to Roman execution. And the broken man on the cross begins to fear that God is no longer present.
The fact that this is not the end of the story does not take away from the fact that tragedy will always be folded into the experience of faith. Even the resurrected Jesus bears the scars of his suffering. A man who has been through something like that will never smile that cheesy smile or think of faith as some sunny suburban upspeak.
Justin Welby is the theological product of Holy Trinity Brompton, the Old Etonian-run church next to Harrods that brought the world the Alpha Course and doubles up as a posh dating agency for west London singles. They are brilliant at PR and have pots of money. And if Christianity is all about success, then you have it hand it to them.
But the problem with PR Christianity is that it can easily transform Jesus into Cheesus, which is a form of Jesus-lite, a romantic infatuation, a Mills & Boon theology that makes you feel all warm inside. The Gospels, however, tell an altogether more disturbing story. And there is no PR agency in the world that could sell the message of a man who told his followers that they too would have to go the way of the cross. That’s the problem with Cheesus. He won’t really suffer and he doesn’t ever die.