Imagine that a Hollywood director who knows nothing of Christianity wants to make a film depicting God. Surely it would be a special effects extravaganza, transfixing with its images of glory and power. What is almost inconceivable is that the encounter should be with a helpless newborn baby in a rough stable, far from the centres of civilisation.

It's hard to envisage a less likely way to encounter God - except perhaps as a man nailed to a cross, tortured and torn, slowly asphyxiating. No wonder this portrayal of the divine was, as the Apostle Paul noted, a scandal to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews - and to many since: God identifies himself with suffering humanity, startlingly weak and vulnerable.

PICTURE: Lisa Fanucchi (www.sxc.hu)

 

"(W)eakness is at the heart of the Christian message, a paradoxical and liberating truth that Christmas should highlight."

Yet weakness is at the heart of the Christian message, a paradoxical and liberating truth that Christmas should highlight. Unfortunately it is a truth the church often seems to forget. In Australia, too much of the church is comfortably middle class, complacent and detached from the human misery around and inside it.

I don't mean to disparage the thousands of ordinary Christians who sacrifice time, energy and money in many ministries and who act as the invisible glue that stops society fragmenting more than it has. But they are not what springs to mind when the ordinary Australian thinks of church.

Hypocrisy, perhaps; wowserism, probably; fallibility, certainly. But this is a judgement Christians are willing to embrace, for most of them know they are fallible. That paradox of strength in weakness in which they put their hope encapsulates much of the power and appeal of Christianity, a religion of paradoxes. Jesus tells us, for example, that the last shall be first and he that would keep his life must lose it (a reference to self-denial rather than suicide). In Christianity there is always tension between the now and the not yet, between doing and not doing, between freedom and bondage, and between power and weakness.

From the first, the Gospel was good news above all for the poor and oppressed, the alienated and the ill, women and slaves. To them, it brought comfort and consolation. Listen to the passionate hope that American slaves put into their spirituals. That, of course, is why atheists often vehemently despise Christianity: they see it as false and deluded consolation for the weak-minded.

I can't count the times atheists have told me that whereas I can't cope without a crutch, they have the strength (or courage, or clarity of vision) to see the world as it is without false props. Leaving aside the fact that such unambiguous certainty about metaphysics is itself a false prop, in one sense their attack is well-founded: Christianity is for the weak and inadequate.

"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick," said Jesus. "I have not come to call the righteous but sinners." Paul pointed out to the Corinthians that "not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong."

Sometimes, though, it seems the church wants to sidestep that self-image. The fastest growing church in Australia, and most of the world, is the Pentecostal church which, in its modern manifestation, turned 100 this year. Far from the first Christian movement to emphasise miracles, ecstatic utterances, prophecy and the Holy Spirit, Pentecostalism was born in a small church in Azuza Street, Los Angeles. The movement came to Australia three years later. Today, Pentecostals and charismatics (people of the same beliefs who stay in mainstream churches) comprise about a quarter of the world's Christians, second only to Catholics.

Monash sociologist Gary Bouma, in his new book Australian Soul, explains how Pentecostals have moved from working class to middle class and become the church for the post-Christian, postmodern era.

He traces three main historical stages in church history. The first was authority, still found in Catholic and Orthodox traditions, with the focus on the eucharist through the agency of the priest. Church architecture was designed to inspire awe and emphasise the distinction between the ordinary worshipper and clergy.

The second, the age of reason, dominated the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, and underpinned the emergence of modern societies. Theology became a set of propositions, and God was seen as law-giver, providing the structure to all of life. Mysticism was viewed with suspicion, and the sermon became the centrepiece of the worship service. This still characterises most mainline Protestants, such as the Uniting, Presbyterian and Baptist churches.

The latest stage emphasises experience and participation. The duty of the follower, Bouma says, is "'to feel the grace of God, to feel saved, spirit-filled and full of joy". The emphasis has shifted from correct belief to correct feelings. This version of Christianity offers success theologies, prizing emotion over intellect, "celebration, not cerebration".

It has brought the era of the megachurch, particularly in the United States, but also found at Hillsong in Sydney, or CityLife, Crossway and Careforce in Melbourne. From one perspective - including mine, as a "second-stager" - this has not been an unmixed blessing. Their energy, honesty and desire to make their actions reflect their beliefs  - in other words, a comparative lack of hypocrisy - are admirable. And a more coherent approach to doctrine has emerged in the past 25 years, giving such churches a firmer intellectual base.

The downside, at least in the West, is the way Pentecostals have united religion and worldly aspiration in the health, wealth and happiness teaching known as the prosperity gospel - the perfect religion for a self-obsessed consumerist society, and a perversion of biblical Christianity.

"By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed and desolate, both inside and outside the church, American theologian Carl Trueman says in 'Themelios' magazine.

American author Bill McKibbon tells of a New York Timesreporter who visited a megachurch outside Phoenix, with its "drive-through latte stand, Krispy Kreme doughnuts at every service, and sermons about how to discipline your children, how to reach your professional goals, how to invest your money, how to reduce your debt. On Sundays children played with church-distributed Xboxes and many congregants signed up for a twice-weekly aerobics class called Firm Believers".

None of this is so bad in itself, McKibbon suggests. All the accompanying Christian self-help books have turned people into better parents, better spouses, better bosses. "It's just that the authors of these creeds, in presenting their sensible advice, somehow manage to ignore Jesus' radical and demanding focus on others."

Precisely. What's wrong is that it's out of focus, concentrating on self rather than God and on self rather than others. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: ask not what you can do for your God but what your God can do for you. And it's self-deluding and self-defeating because, if the Christian duty is to be full of joy, how do they cope with their own pain and failure and doubt and inadequacy? These have become heretical emotions - yet every human, without exception, experiences them.

American theologian Carl Trueman asked three evangelical audiences what miserable Christians could sing in church. Each time, he says, the question elicited uproarious laughter, as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical.

By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed and desolate, both inside and outside the church, Trueman says in Themelios magazine.

And at the same time the church has implicitly endorsed the banal aspirations of consumerism, generated an insipid, trivial and triumphalist Christianity and confirmed its impeccable credentials as a club for the complacent. "The idea that Christianity, at whose centre stands the Suffering Servant, the man who had nowhere to lay his head, and the one who was obedient to death - even death on the cross - should be used to justify the idolatrous greed of affluent Westerners simply beggars belief."

This leads to a further danger: it changes the way Christians see the world. They are taught to expect victory, progress and success at every turn, which is theologically wrong and pastorally disastrous in a world in which suffering is inevitable.

Trueman suggests that evangelicals should start reading the psalms again, the Bible's own hymnbook, which is often dropped from modern worship in favour of vapid pop ballads precisely because it is largely taken up with lamentation, with feeling sad, unhappy, tormented and broken; emotions that lack credibility in modern Western culture.

Part of the paradox is that weakness adds strength to ministry. Christianity gains purchase when it ministers out of weakness to weakness. The Apostle Paul pleaded with God to remove the "thorn in his flesh" but was told, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12). Modern clergy belong to the class of professional experts who are expected to solve problems quickly and dispassionately - an expectation that helps build the crippling illusion.

The Holy Spirit is called the Paraclete in the Greek New Testament, the one who comes alongside (usually translated as Comforter, Advocate, or Helper). Ministers are those who get alongside those to whom they are ministering. Ministry is not something dispensed from above.

According to the late Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen, "pastoral conversation is not merely a skilful use of conversational techniques to manipulate people into the Kingdom of God, but a deep human encounter in which a man is willing to put his own faith and doubt, his own hope and despair, his own light and darkness, at the disposal of others who want to find a way through their confusion and touch the solid core of life".

The authority of the church must be compassion. Who can save a child from a burning house without risking being hurt by the flames, Nouwen asks. Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without risking similar pains in his own heart or his peace of mind? Who can take away suffering without entering it? The great illusion of leadership, Nouwen says, is to think that people can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.

"The Bethlehem baby's defenceless presence, His shocking and precarious weakness, His overturning of all our ideas about the nature of God, stun us into silence."

Against all this, the baby in the manger should not be a sentimentalised legitimation of consumerism and complacency but a rebuke. It's hard to see Him with fresh eyes, but we should look again at what he reveals about God and humanity, about the humbling and moving beauty of the incarnation, and about grace.

English Catholic priest Daniel O'Leary reflected in The Tablet about picking up a tiny baby during a Christmas service. "A baby is an amazing symbol of both power and powerlessness. Or, perhaps, more accurately, of power within powerlessness. As I felt the totally trusting baby stir sleepily in my hands I thought about her utter vulnerability, her total trust. How ambiguous and paradoxical it all was. And how shocking, too. This is what love does. It gives away its power. It renders itself destructible. All this runs against the grain of our competitive and controlling nature. How can weakness be understood as the secret of true love?"

But that is what love is like, O'Leary suggests. It surrenders. It has no more masks, no more expectations, no more certainties. The Bethlehem baby's defenceless presence, His shocking and precarious weakness, His overturning of all our ideas about the nature of God, stun us into silence.

What could be weaker than the newborn baby in the manger, and what could be stronger than the love that put him there?

The article was first published in The Age newspaper (www.theage.com.au). Barney Zwartz is the newspaper's religion editor.