church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

G. K. Chesterton wrote that he once left fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery and hadn’t found any books so sensible since (from his Orthodoxy, “The Ethics of Elfland”). I suggest that Christianity is one such fairy tale, and also that it is a myth. But it is a fairy tale come true, and a myth that became a fact.

People today tend not to believe in Christianity precisely because it is a fairy tale come true.  That is, some people feel about Christianity (if they ever come into contact with the real thing) that it is too good to be true.  They all share what Rod Serling (another great writer) called “the common ailment of all men…the strange and perverse disinclination to believe in a miracle” (from his story The Big, Tall Wish).

What is the Christian faith, the Church’s message?  The fairy tale begins like this:  Once upon a time (or, as Serling might begin, “submitted for your consideration”) God made a world.  It was a world in which human beings found sunlight and birdsong, flowers and wine, sex and chocolate, children and laughter, a world which opened each day with a glorious sunrise and concluded hours later with a glorious sunset.  In other words, we lived in paradise.  God only asked the human beings He placed in this world that they love Him, be grateful to Him, and be kind to each other.

Weirdly enough, we did nothing of the kind.  We turned our backs on the One who placed us in this paradise and worshipped and lavished our love on other things—anything else really, even base things like reptiles.  And we were not kind to each other, but quickly began to hurt and kill one another.  Soon enough the entire world was filled with idols and war.

Equally weirdly, God did not abandon us as we had abandoned Him.  As the climax of a long process of attempted education (called “salvation history” by theologians), having first secured her assent, He became a zygote within the womb of a young Jewish teenager, grew as a foetus within her, and was then born into the world as a baby boy.

Being God, He did amazing and miraculous things and made what His hearers regarded as amazing claims.  Being also a man like them, most of His hearers did not believe that He was God despite His miracles.  He was rejected by most of them, and fought with His back to the wall.  Eventually the religious people and the politicians (always a potent and toxic combination) succeeded in having Him destroyed.  He was arrested, tied up, insulted, and slapped.  His back was flogged until it lay open and the blood ran.  He was then nailed up to a piece of wood in public and left to die.

But the third day after all this, He showed Himself alive and strong to His followers who loved Him.  He then ascended into heaven, promised that He would rule the world from His heavenly throne, and give to those who chose to follow Him joy and power and eternal life.  He promised them that if they followed Him they would always be in trouble and would fight with their backs to the wall as He once did, but would ultimately emerge triumphant and share His rule when He finally returned to set the world right and make it a paradise once again.

This is the Church’s message to the world and its invitation to follow Jesus, the incarnate God.  In a world plunged in war where its people languish in sorrow and depression, and are doomed to die after a few short decades, this is (as any journalist should recognize) good news.

It is also shocking news.  That the poor suffer under the weight of the rich and that the weak have to fight for their rights against the strong is only to be expected.  That is not news.  But that the God who made the world should have to fight with His back to the wall against overwhelming odds is news.  That He won even when He lost is unexpected news.  And that by His victory all men might enter into life and joy is news almost too good to be true.  But it is true nonetheless.  It is miraculous news, and perhaps that is why many men have a strange and perverse disinclination to believe it.

But, I further suggest, the common disbelief in the Christian message is not simply rooted in this common ailment of men to disbelieve something that seems too good to be true.  The disbelief also often finds its origin in the way the Church proclaims its message.

In a word, we have presented our message in a way which obscures it, and makes the shocking news of an incarnate, embattled God sound prosaic and dull.  Consider, for example, some presentations of the good news.

Some begin the Christian message by saying something like, “God is going to send you to hell unless you believe what I am about to tell you.”  Given that most people do not believe in hell, this is not a promising start.

Others suggest that our message consists of an invitation to join an organization (the Church) which holds services and offers comfort.  This approach is not much aided by the history of the organization, which has had its share of failures, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Still others suggest that the good news consists of saying that God wants everyone to be nice and that Jesus, who was merely a good human teacher, went about telling everyone to be nice and that if they were nice, they would be much happier.  This is not shocking, and it is not news, much less good news.  This is especially so given the fact that clearly the human race seems to find it impossible to be nice.  Putting up billboards announcing, for example, “War is Over! if you want it” as John and Yoko famously once did does not get you very far.  Our hearts need the healing that only God can provide, not slogans from sincere hippies which mean practically nothing.

The Church needs to recover its recognition of the scandalous nature of its message—the scandalous tale of an incarnate God that we rejected but who still loves us and calls us to join Him in joy.  Living this message will not result in its followers becoming dull and respectable (like those who crucified their God), but alive and embattled (like their God Himself).

The message may appear too scandalous and unbelievable to some, but at least it will be recognized as news and (for many) as something new, despite the fact that the message has been around for two millenia.  In proclaiming it we may encounter mankind’s strange and perverse disinclination to believe in such a miraculous tale.  But we must share it with everyone anyway, because it is the only message that we have to share.  It is the real message of Christmas.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.