Steve Tomkins remembers the old and the new and dreams of utopia.
Years ago I had a friend (ah, those were the days) who went to a church called, ironically as it turns out, Folly’s End. I think it was named after the area of Croydon were they met, rather than being a claim to greater and more final wisdom than your average charismatic church.
Anyway, as my friend (we’ll call him Simon - it was his name), as Simon told it to me, one of the leaders had a word from God that the church should change its name, understandably enough. From thenceforth, it would be called Croydon Christian Fellowship.
The leaders had a big meeting, to seek the Lord. And apparently they found him, because they decided that God was giving all of them the same directive: change the name to Croydon Christian Fellowship. Message believed and understood.
They announced it at the next church meeting, and lots of hands went up throughout the church (even though they weren’t singing Lord We Lift Your Name on High). Yes, said one person after another, we believe the Lord is telling us to become Croydon Christian Fellowship.
Except for one person, who said “I’ll think you’ll find there already is a Croydon Christian Fellowship”. Whereupon it was decided that what the Lord was really saying was that they should keep their old name. They stayed as Folly’s End, how appropriately I’ll let you decide for yourself, based on how apocryphal you think the story is.
Either way, this is the story that came to mind the other day when I read those reports about George Bush allegedly confiding to a Palestinian delegation “God would tell me, 'George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did. And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me, 'Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East'. And, by God, I'm gonna do it."
What the two stories have in common is how foolish Christians can look, when they not only believe they have two-way conversations with the Almighty, but publish them before a wider audience. The crucial difference of course is in the consequences: one ends in devastating embarrassment, one in the devastation of entire countries.
The reactions in the media were predictably mirthful. The voices in Bush’s head were compared to those of schizophrenics and Peter Sutcliffe. Someone suggested that as Bush is dyslexic it was probably his dog that he heard.
What people don’t generally seem to have noticed is that, as a Christian, of any but the most liberal kind, Bush is simply being consistent. Christianity - and the same thing goes for Judaism and Islam - is based on the idea that God talks to human beings.
All three faiths trace their story back to Abraham, who was told by God to leave his home and go to the Promised Land that they are still fighting over today. Moses heard the Jewish law from God. (God speaks through bushes, whether or not he speaks to them.) Muhammad was dictated the Qu’ran by God.
Jesus, interestingly, seems to have taught on his own authority, rather than saying 'Thus saith the Lord', but then as Christians believe he was God anyway, he is perhaps in a different category. St Paul certainly claimed that his own teaching was given him directly by God. And throughout history, countless prophets have claimed to have heard and passed on the voice of God.
So there is really nothing very unusual about Bush’s claims. What’s more, if God is going to give instructions to anyone about what they should say and do, the President of the United States would seem to be a pretty top candidate. If it turns out that God’s ‘sent’ box is full of messages telling charismatic churches to surrender their fear and really go forward into a time of deep blessing, while the ones he gets from firstname.lastname@example.org go unanswered, I think we’ll all want to know why.
Of course this doesn’t mean Bush is right. Most people who claim to have spoken for God were wrong - unless God has spent history contradicting himself, making false predictions and talking rubbish. What it means is that the president is even less likely to question Neo-Con foreign policy than if he thought it was human in origin.
I don’t believe it for a moment. Neither do I believe that any time soon he will wake up in the night to find the room filled with light, and a voice saying, 'George, this is the Lord. It’s about Africa. And Guantanamo. And global warming....'
But a man can dream, can’t he?