Every month I attend a Film & Faith group not far from where we live. So far we have watched everything from Machine Gun Preacher to Tales from the Madhouse (monologues from Biblical characters in a strange asylum). Last night we watched a BBC film from the 1980’s about Martin Luther – Heretic.
It was a dramatisation of various incidents from the great man’s life and not least his battle with the established church following his liberating discovery that salvation is a free gift of God, not something to be earned, or sold as an ‘indulgence’. There were many moments that set me thinking, not least Jonathan Pryce’s portrayal of Luther struggling with himself and his faith as he tried to break through to some assurance of peace. It reminded me of Rob Bell’s The Gods Aren’t Angry DVD which is all about our history of wrestling with acceptance by a loving God. The planet has a bad past when it comes to the perception that, as Adrian Plass would say, ‘God is nice and he likes us.’
The portrayal of the powerful church also reminded me of a documentary I watched recently about the life and comedy of Dave Allen. Mr A was of course famous for his bar stool gags, and his sketches about religion. Like Luther, Mr A fell foul of powerful organisations, receiving death threats from some quarters no less. (Though not from the church, I hasten to add!)
Dave Allen and Martin Luther both experienced the church in its powerful guise, telling others what to do, and what the terrible consequences would be if they did not fall into line. It seems to me the church in England today is still coming to terms with the fact that it is no longer a power player in the way it was. A friend of mine once put it like this. If life is a football match, the church used to have key players on the pitch, very much a part of the game. Now we are just a small huddle of a group in the stands, and the temptation to yell loudly in an attempt to retain control persists.
In Kenneth Bailey’s insightful book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes Mr B unpacks the events when Jesus meets a despised Samaritan woman at a well. Jesus needs a drink but has no bucket. However, he and his friends would have carried a bucket with them, a collapsible leather thing, but it seems Jesus deliberately let the others go off with it so that he is left thirsty and helpless by a well. When the woman approaches Jesus is in need of her help, she has a bucket and he must ask her. This develops into a respectful and thought-provoking conversation. Ken Bailey suggests that this is the model of faith-sharing that Jesus offers us. He is vulnerable and genuinely reliant upon the woman. I know this sounds like a strange analogy but at times I think I go tramping around with big buckets full of my own water, occasionally slapping people over the head with them. Dave Allen and Martin Luther came up against this approach and it was painful for them. What would things be like if I took a smaller bucket, or even, no bucket at all?