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.

Between my ears

Thursday, 21 March 2013

I've been talking to friends this week about having writer's block. Posts on here have tailed off of late and there are several reasons why. I returned to work last month and things have been busy. Settling into being back in the office plus being a parent AND having a life is tiring and time consuming - who'd have thought it? It means I think about writing posts then realise I won't be able to do so in a timely fashion. It means I miss out on news. It means I think about it too much and get frustrated.

Not writing as much means my perfectionist side comes out when I actually think about blogging. Over the past couple of weeks I've agonised over exactly how I'm going to write about several things, only to give up because if they're not going to be good, I'm not going to bother. I like a lot of the posts that I've written immediately as thoughts have come to me - the words flow easily and as they've generally been posts in response to something that's either just happened or is still happening, they're easy to write.

When you don't have the time and the energy, posts don't come as easily any more. It's hard for me not to beat myself up about this. But I think there's also a weariness as well, that's come out of some of the things that have been happening over the past year.

I've thought about expanding more on my final column for BitchBuzz, about how you shouldn't fear the Evil Twitter Feminist and how you can get past the drama surrounding debate about certain issues. I've thought about it but it's really hard, because as someone else was saying to me today, there needs to be some sort of a third way.

At the moment we have one 'side' writing articles every few weeks about the nasty, elitist divisiveness of the feminists on Twitter who talk about intersectionality and privilege, and in response we have the other side justifiably getting irritated by blinkered and often offensive refusal to engage with the idea that they need to listen to diverse points of view. It's a vicious circle and every few days something else is stoking the fires again, yet there's little moving forward precisely because some people won't engage except to mock and snipe and it in turn makes some other people really angry.

I've thought about writing again about the need for more prominence of nuanced discussion in the abortion debate. It's there. You don't have to look hard to find women talking about why reproductive rights doesn't just mean the right to terminate a pregnancy because their experiences are of forced abortion and forced sterilisation and forced adoption thanks to their race or their class or their family situation. You don't have to look hard to find people talking about why 'pro-life' needs to be a more wide-ranging concept and asking where the compassion for women is in all of this. You don't have to look hard to find women wondering why some activists have a whole lot to say about not wanting to keep a child, but virtually nothing to say about the fact that four out of five women will at some point have children and that many, many feminists issues will affect them because of this.

I've thought about writing on my evolving feelings about church and the Christian community and the Christian blogosphere and the pressures and the trends and the loneliness of the past year and my thankfulness for online community, but that's really hard too. A fellow Christian blogger recently wrote about how difficult he was finding attending church; he followed this up with a post about how uncomfortably vulnerable it had made him feel. As "professional Christians" we struggle to truly articulate our feelings about church a lot of the time. We think about who's following us on Twitter; who might see the post shared on Facebook. What our friends might think and the problem that so many people seem to have with questioning. The way that someone, somewhere, is bound to say "If you have a problem with the church the problem probably lies with you!" The fact that a lot of people will judge you because you're not supposed to ask questions.

I will say this: I have felt deeply unenthusiastic. I have felt lonely. I have felt irritable, overtired, overwhelmed, antisocial, unsupported, invisible, disappointed, and sad for people I know who have felt the same. On the other hand I still know God is there - no doubt about it. I've felt affirmed, encouraged, loved, and grateful. So it's not all doom and gloom. But it's damn hard when you usually process things by writing about them and feel you can't. Who would have thought that I wouldn't want to rock the boat?

I've considered writing about a lot of things and haven't managed it - until tonight. And while this post is no substitute, really, I'm publishing it to remind myself that I've still got something going on between my ears.

Feminism lately: a round-up of sorts

Monday, 11 March 2013

Things have been a bit quiet here recently but I've been popping up elsewhere:

- I wrote a piece for the Guardian women's blog about the Christian Feminist Network (CFN) and the need for women to challenge patriarchal religion from within.
- I took part in a lengthy email conversation with Phil Whittall, who blogs as The Simple Pastor. Phil identifies as complementarian and the purpose of our conversation was for us to talk about gender issues in a non-confrontational way. We discussed feminism, the blogosphere, and the church's attitude towards gender issues. He has posted the conversation as a blog series.
- I wrote about busting myths and misconceptions about feminists for Threads, in a piece called "So you have concerns about feminism?" which was published on International Women's Day.

Saturday saw CFN attending Million Women Rise as a group for the very first time, complete with banners that we made at a pre-march breakfast. It was a great day with a brilliant atmosphere and we were pleased that the banners received a lot of positive attention.


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