A closer look at Giles Fraser's Cheesus

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Giles Fraser has ruffled feathers with an evangelical-baiting piece for Comment is Free, published on Friday. People are angry and I think that's entirely justified. Fraser uses his platform to unleash a bit of a rant about "Jesus-lite" - a brand of evangelicalism, as he sees it, that majors on cheesy platitudes, superiority, and theological misunderstanding. The image of Ned Flanders is invoked. He shoehorns in a bit of scaremongering about Holy Trinity Brompton, in keeping with the media trend of portraying the church - and the clergy associated with it - as some sort of terrifying evangelical conspiracy. Creeping Alpha, if you like.

I found Fraser's words slightly too nasty to be credible and at times, just bizarre. He's got issues with the way he thinks evangelicals view Easter. And he worries that the pain, suffering, and doubt associated with Jesus's story has been forgotten as they focus on sunny smiles and success. One of my main issues with what he's saying is that he should know better than to write something completely without nuance in a way that panders to mainstream media and public perceptions of what evangelicalism entails. A large, influential church like HTB is always going to divide opinions - people will have had good and bad experiences with it, and there's no doubt that many members of its congregation reflect its affluent location. But that's not the full story, of course, and it feels unfair.

A lot of people are upset that Fraser appears to be simply looking for controversy, but the piece has hit home for some Christians. I think they have a point and that Fraser could have made a better one too, if he'd articulated it differently. Differently, perhaps, like Dave Meldrum did in this excellent post last year, entitled "(Not so) happy clappies". Dave's assessment of the friction that comes with being charismatic, evangelical, and depressed is spot on, and he manages to talk about the way the subculture can make him feel without sneering. It's also not all bad - he talks about increasing emotional depth in some of the services he has attended, and greater willingness to talk about difficult issues without needing a cheerful veneer. Becoming a Christian isn't about all your problems getting solved and never feeling sad again, and this is an attitude we should always counter.

It's these things that have made some people I know identify with Fraser's piece, with its reference to Christians who can be "patronising, superior and faux-caring", who promise to pray for you when you disagree with them and can't - or won't - engage with anything that isn't on-message, upbeat, and joyful.

Over the past couple of days we've talked about leadership teams running away from addressing problems, dismissive attitudes towards mental health issues, refusal to listen to concerns, irritation at constantly being told to "focus on the positives", and constant streams of platitudes that can just get too much. I was reminded of the time I was asked whether my being a feminist could be contributing to my feeling depressed, and the frustration I felt that no matter how many times people told me I was "God's beautiful princess", I didn't feel the same. I was reminded of my sadness at superior attitudes towards other denominations and traditions (admittedly something that Christians of all types are guilty of, from Giles Fraser through to the people who say traditional churches are "dead" and "make them shudder"). Sometimes there's nothing worse than sitting in church feeling as if you're supposed to cheer up and stop moping because you're letting the side down. And a lot of people can identify with that.

What's clear is that "Cheesus" culture is real and that it does hurt people and make them run away from church. It can be bloated, self-satisfied, focused on marketing and projecting an image that can cease to come across as sincere and look instead like constant advertisement, laying it on thick and trying to prove a point. What's also clear is that this needs addressing in a sensitive way, rather than pandering to people who can't see the good in the church at all. Evangelicals can see through Cheesus too, and plenty of them are even fighting him all the way.

Further reading: David Bunce has written a great post addressing all the issues raised here.


drbexl said...

Thanks for another great piece Hannah, added to: http://bundlr.com/b/nmthink

David Bunce said...

Hi Hannah,

Thanks for linking into my post, and for your own great reflections.

Coincidentally, I happened to be reading 'Glorious Ruin' by Tullian Tchividjian this morning on the train. It's a theological meditation on suffering and particularly the book of Job. In the early chapters, Tchividjian takes an extended look at the theology of hope vs the theology of the cross (and comes down pretty heavily on the theology of the cross a la Luther).

It's worth checking out, as it says much of what Giles Fraser wanted to say in a more measured way - though not without its own unhelpful simplifications.


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