Cheesus: Primula or Gorgonzola?

Giles Fraser’s Cheesus column in the Guardian has stirred up lots of comment from Evangelicals over the last couple of days, much of it slightly hand-wringing as we worry that he has put his finger on a real weak spot of evangelical theology. Leaving aside for the moment that what he attacks is not evangelical theology at all but a certain sort of shallow charismaticism, it seems to me that the glaring weakness in what he says is in danger of being overlooked. For the understanding of the cross he proposes is the very thing he accuses ‘Cheesus’ evangelicals (whoever they are) of.

He criticises those for whom the cross is reduced to an emotional experience. And in its place he says the cross offers… an emotional experience. The experience he criticises is cheerful, insipid, and fake; the one he offers is dark, disturbing, gritty, and real-life. But it is emphatically no more than an experience. The cross he proposes does not do anything. It does not achieve anything. It just makes us feel different; which is exactly what he condemns ‘evangelicals’ for.

The ‘Cheesus’ Good Friday he condemns is like Primula, plastic-tasting cheese out of a tube; the Good Friday he offers is perhaps ripe Gorgonzola, complex, strong, even offensive. But it is still just an experience. It is still cheese. Perhaps a cheese more attractive to those of sophisticated cosmopolitan taste, but cheese nonetheless.

Look at how he describes them. ‘Cheesus’ is ‘a form of Jesus-lite, a romantic infatuation, a Mills & Boon theology that makes you feel all warm inside’. Fraser says ‘[t]he Gospels, however, tell an altogether more disturbing story’. for him, the cross teaches ‘the fact that tragedy will always be folded into the experience of faith’. But that is all it does. It makes us feel the same sort of complex emotions we might get by reading Thomas Hardy or listening to a Mozart requiem. But beyond making us feel something it does nothing at all.

Indeed, Fraser’s Christ is capable of doing nothing more than that. His cry of dereliction is not the human experience of the Son of God being crushed for our iniquities; it is the whimper of ‘the broken man on the cross’ as he ‘begins to fear that God is no longer present’. With this statement Fraser leaves any pretence at Christian orthodoxy behind. This is not the Word incarnate, very God of very God, who has taken human flesh in order to bear our sins in his body on the tree. It is merely a good man racked with self-doubt as he faces the failure of his mission. But we don’t have to go to the cross of Christ to find that. Any shakespearean tragedy would have done just as well.

And so Fraser’s Good Friday achieves, beyond giving us a surge of tragic emotion, absolutely nothing. It is his Christ who ‘cannot deal with tragedy’. Because dealing with tragedy is exactly what Fraser’s Christ, and Fraser’s cross, doesn’t do. It cannot deal with the horrible reality of evil. It cannot help people racked with a guilty conscience. It has no power to transform people gripped by the enslaving power of sin. It cannot bring any kind of redemption to a broken world. It gives no hope that things will ever be better; no means by which the sting of death is drawn and will be ultimately destroyed. Because it simply does not touch evil, nor deal with the power it wields over humanity; it merely displays evil’s power and the pathos of helpless goodness in the face of it. It is an account of the cross in which it is evil which has the final victory. And which cannot, therefore, lead to resurrection – either Christ’s or ours.

Ironically, this means that Fraser’s exasperation at evangelicals is completely groundless. If all the cross does is give us an emotional hit, who is he to say that his emotional hit is better than anyone elses? He may prefer tragedy, but why should others not enjoy comedy? He may prefer to wallow in the sorrow of Good Friday, but why should others not go for happiness instead? He may think Gorgonzola more refined, but why shouldn’t others enjoy Primula if they prefer it? It’s just a matter of taste.

But Christ did not die to give us an emotional hit. He gave his life as a ransom for many. To reconcile us to God. To bear our iniquities. To be a sacrifice of propitiation. So that the Father might be just and the one who justifies him who has faith in Jesus. To nail the record of debt that stood against us to the cross. To triumph over the rulers and authorities. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; not for us men and for our emotional experiences. Cheese is incapable of doing any such things, whether it’s out of a toothpaste tube or a fancy package from Waitrose.

Dear Mum. Thanks, but it turns out I didn’t really need you after all

This Sunday is Mothers’ Day. Like countless other people, I shall send a card, buy some flowers, and made considerable efforts to express my gratitude and love for both my own mother and my wife, the mother of our three children. What I once watched one of them do through the eyes of a child, and now daily see the other do through the eyes of an adult, is an indescribable labour of love and diligence and hard work and pain and patience and endurance and devotion. We all owe our mothers a debt of gratitude which few, if any, of us ever adequately return.

Our government is set upon a course of redefining marriage so that same-sex couples can now ‘marry’. Whatever else may be said about this, and whether one is in favour or opposed, it seems undeniable that at the very least this change in what we consider marriage to be includes the assumption that mothers are not essential for families. That should not be controversial; it is I think a fair statement of part of what the planned legislation is seeking to change. Two men will be able to marry, as well as a man and a woman; so will two women. Neither the man or the woman will be an indispensable part of what marriage is; both can be replaced with someone of the opposite gender without cost or even effect on what the marriage is. Which means that a family will be just as much a family even if it has no mother.
Because marriage is all about families. Marriage is about the founding of families. To change our definition of marriage is to change our definition of family; and if marriage is redefined to allow two partners of the same sex then family is being redefined to allow two parents of the same sex. Again, I do not think that proponents of same-sex marriage would disagree.

Which is, then, to say that mothers can be dispensed with. Perhaps the government also plans to redefine ‘childbirth’ so that we can say that men can give birth to children; even if they do, it will not change the facts of where human beings come from. My mother carried me in her womb for nine months, endured the agonies of labour to deliver me, and nursed me at her breast. And that was just the beginning. She changed countless nappies, broke her back lifting me and wore out shoes pushing my pram. And more significantly still, she made a home where I was loved and nurtured: cuddled me when I was happy, comforted me when I cried, slaved over a stove and a sink and a washing machine, listened patiently to her irritating boy, endured her moody teenager, and all along gave me the immovable certainty (even when I was pig-headed enough not to realise it) that this woman to whom I owe my very being was absolutely committed to my wellbeing and healthy development, as much as a fifteen or twenty year old as she had been when she first felt me stirring in her belly. My father was and is a wonderful man. But in no way could he have done what my mother did or been what my mother was. Not because of anything lacking in him; but simply because he is not a woman. He was and is a great father; no child could have asked for better. But he was not and could not have been a mother. And neither could any other man. Today I see the same with my three young children, and their remarkable mother, my wife. I hope and pray that I am, despite my failings, a good father to them; but in no way could I or any other man do what my wife does or, more importantly, be what my wife is to them. Their mother is irreplaceable. And so is every other mother in the world.

The government’s consultation on same-sex ‘marriage’ last year stated that ‘the personal commitment made by same-sex couples when they enter into a civil partnership is no different to the commitment made by opposite-sex couples when then enter into a marriage’. This is a statement so foolish as to beggar belief. Physical intimacy in marriage leads to children, while that in a civil partnership does not. so the ‘commitment made by opposite sex couples when they enter into a marriage’ includes, for the man, a commitment to fatherhood; for the woman, a commitment to motherhood. It is a commitment not only to each other, to society, and to God; but also to the children that their union will (barring medical problems) produce. That of course is why marriage is such a valuable and essential part of human society. It is what gives children the two parents, so very different, but both so very essential, that they need. Of course death can and does deprive children of one or both parents, and some children with bad parents are able to rise above their upbringing. But this is not to say that either parent can simply be dispensed with at will. The assumption that they can is a clear demonstration of how atheism ends up destroying everything about us which is distinctively human. When motherhood is judged to be dispensable, we should know that something has gone seriously wrong. If we cannot give any significance to what it means to be a mother, it is a strong sign that we have forgotten what it means to be human. If ever there were a reason to question the adequacy of atheism as a system of thought, this must surely be it.

Most people know that they owe their mothers an incalculable debt. To admit this is to admit that mothers are not merely one family option which can simply be replaced without loss with another man. Biologically, it cannot be done; but what makes a mother a mother does not stop with the cutting of the umbilical cord. To say it did, and that mothers, once the midwife has departed, are not necessary, is not only to ignore an obvious fact of human nature. It is to insult the mothers of each and every one of us.