The new pharisees?

Jesus is presented throughout the gospels as a healer, but some of his most controversial healings (such as those in Luke 5:20 and Luke 7:48) involve him stating that someone’s sins are forgiven.

Now, my scientific rationalist head tells me that this is a wonderful way of healing an illness which is psychosomatic. As can be seen in, for instance, John 9:3, the thinking of the day, at least among the religious conservatives, was that any ailment was a divine punishment for some transgression, either of the individual or his forbears. This can be seen at length in the book of Job, where Job’s friends go to great lengths to try to work out how Job absolutely must have deserved all the ills with which he was being showered; of course, in the last portion of the book God is seen very explicitly to tell his friends that they are mistaken. However, Job goes against the grain of much of the Hebrew scriptures (as do Ezekiel 18  and substantial portions of Ecclesiastes, for instance Ecc. 8:14 in which the wicked prosper and the good suffer). It is hardly surprising that some of the conservatives of the day ignored these few scriptures in favour of a philosophy whereby you got only what you deserved.

Thus, if an illness were to some extent psychosomatic, with the sufferer convinced that they were being punished for some sin, being told their sins were forgiven could produce an immediate cure. At least, it could if it were believed. Jesus must have spoken with colossal authority and charisma in order for this to work.

Of course, we have little difficulty in accepting that Jesus must have spoken in just this manner, and can remember that he was said not to have performed healings when he went home to Nazareth (Mark 6:4) – it is always more difficult speaking with authority to people who remember you as a child!

However, this was met with howls of protest from the religious conservatives (labelled Scribes and Pharisees in the gospels, although it would be a mistake to consider that this conservative attitude actually typified the Pharisees of the day, still less those of later times), ostensibly because only God had the power to forgive sins. To my mind, however, the protest stemmed from the privilege of the conservatives, who were well off and respected, and saw their position as justified by their exemplary character. What could be more threatening to them than to be told that their wealth and social position was not justified by relieving the suffering of those on whom they smugly looked down?

And yet, this was a thread running through Jesus’ entire ministry. The first were to be last and the last first, the preferred companions were publicans and sinners, even the occasional prostitute or adultress, who were more worthy of heaven than the overtly religious.

Christian theology has tried repeatedly to get a grip on this principle, and has regularly failed. Conventionally, we are justified through faith alone rather than works (although James reminds us that faith without works is dead), but for the most part this has come to mean that we much have the correct intellectual appreciation of how we are, in fact, smugly justified (i.e. we must adhere to a creed or another statement of faith). And, of course, our works show that for all to appreciate…

Which leads me to contemplating the case of Rob Bell. Rob is a hugely gifted communicator, who became a “star” by founding and growing to mecachurch status the Mars Hill congregation in Grandville, Michigan, being much sought after as a visiting preacher and teacher. His “Covered in the Dust of the Rabbi” talk illustrates this . He could preach a two hour sermon to me any day (as reference to the videos I link to here and below indicates he’s very able at), and I doubt I’d look at my watch once. I pointed a Jewish friend of mine at that talk a while ago, and he responded with “boy, is he charismatic!”. Granted, he is not really a theologian, and as I agreed with my friend, the image he paints in that talk is almost certainly not authentic to the period in which Jesus was teaching, as the system of pupils of Rabbis didn’t really develop in the form he talks of until significantly later, so far as documents can reveal. However, the message of the talk is not in the slightest impaired by the fact that it probably isn’t actually historically accurate.

Incidentally, it’s probably worth pointing out that Rob may well be naturally gifted and turbo-charged by the Holy Spirit, but he also puts a huge amount of work into his craft, as another set of videos shows.

Over the last two or three years, however, Rob has been regularly vilified by the evangelical establishment for whom he was once a shining star. The reason, originally, was his book “Love Wins”, in which he has the temerity to suggest that God might actually be powerful and loving enough to not condemn significant numbers of people to endless torment. (I don’t necessarily recommend the book for reading, as it isn’t theologically rigorous and reads like one of Rob’s talks – it would be better read aloud – but there is an audiobook).

Since then, he’s compounded the felony by suggesting that homosexuality is not, in fact, a sin over and above all other sins (which is a picture I tend to get from many evangelical commentators) but an expression of one person’s love for another which should be at the very least accepted. This too is beyond the pale, as we clearly need a new category of publicans and sinners on whom to look down.

This regular condemnation has recently had a resurgence, as Rob now has a prime-time programme on Oprah’s TV network in the
States. As the link I include indicates, whereas most evangelical preachers would cut off their left arm for such an opportunity in (relatively) mainstream TV, rather than the “preaching to the choir” outlets of the regular televangelists, the fact that it is Rob who is doing this is just unacceptable.

I think I see a parallel here (although Rob would probably be uncomfortable at favourable comparison with Jesus). “Love Wins” is actually saying that everyone’s sins will be forgiven (if, indeed, they aren’t already), and his stance on homosexuality is reminiscent of Jesus’ in relation to (for instance) tax collectors. The religious conservatives are again up in arms when a charismatic and authoritative preacher suggests that God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, extends to everyone, and not just the elect few. In this case the complaints are from the increasingly Calvinistic spokesmen for “evangelistic Christianity” rather than the gospel’s “Scribes and Pharisees”.

The Pharisees, it seems, will always be with us, much like the poor.

A note of apology and explanation

Regular readers of my blog, of whom I now seem to have quite a few, will have noticed that posts have been few and far between lately.
I’m sorry. “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans” as John Lennon memorably said, and in my case a whole chunk of life has got in the way. I managed to finish one post on the day I started writing this, which had been largely written for about a month. There are some others part written, but when they’ll get finished I don’t currently know.

Just under 40 years ago now, I met a wonderful girl, Nel, with whom I fell in love. We have just had our 34th wedding anniversary (we were engaged for 5 years, as we were for most of that period separated by study and by work). “The two shall become one” (Mark 10:8), and we have grown to finish each others sentences and to know by some probably perfectly natural but seemingly supernatural sense what the others mood is, and sometimes what they are thinking. Maybe Douglas Hofstadter’s “strange loops” about which I wrote recently have something to do with that; maybe I now have a rudimentary “Nel” operating within my mind. That would mean that my SR, EC, GF division (see “About”) is not the whole story of my internal architecture – but that’s an aside.

Seven years ago she had a crisis, a mental health crisis. We had had plenty of more physical crises over the preceding few years (and some of those resulted in my own PTSD, depression, anxiety and addiction, though the addiction and PTSD are no longer of significance and the depression has quite remarkably been lifted during the last 18 months), but this was an internal matter – and it was put down at the time to reactive depression and anxiety. She was in hospital for quite a while that first time, and has been back more times since than I can count without referring to diaries. However, not within the last two and a half years.

I have, however, known that all was not right, and that this was not a clear movement toward a complete recovery. In particular, her mother died a little over two years ago, and we have still not been able to finalise her estate due to the need to sell a bungalow in a bad housing market. “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick” (Prov. 13:12), and on several occasions I have persuaded her to go back to her doctor and tell him that her state of mind was, frankly, dangerous. Up to a little over three weeks ago, the result was to be told that she was reacting to stressful circumstances and that things would get better. Hope, in other words, kept getting deferred through various proposed purchasers dropping out and the diminution of a fund on which several beneficiaries were depending, including her. Houses cost money to maintain, and our ideas of value are shrinking at the same time…

Then her GP took her seriously and prescribed antidepressants for the first time in years and got community mental health services involved, and we both breathed a huge sigh of relief. And let go…

So, when the Intensive Home Treatment team made their new daily appointment for the next Tuesday and then cancelled at short notice on the basis that she was seeming somewhat better, she had no-one to catch her any more. An overdose followed the next afternoon, and via our local hospital she ended up at a private hospital specialising in psychological and psychiatric medicine – put there because the local NHS had no beds available in area. It was a pain, as it was pushing two hours by road to get there or back, but it was safe.

Over the ensuing two weeks, it became clear that the Priory Hospital, Middleton St. George was a superior establishment. They had an assessment completed within days, and a programme of psychology, occupational health and psychiatry in place. They also made a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, with an indication that this diagnosis might be longstanding (in fact, although in the past a therapy has been suggested which is tailored to BPD, we have not previously been told that this is her diagnosis, and “reactive” has always been part of the wording used). Borderline, it would appear, can be made significantly worse by traumatic events and stress. It also wonderfully well describes Nel’s symptoms.

On Thursday evening, however, the NHS beds manager made a decision to move her back to our local psych hospital, or which we have long experience and about which we have previously needed to complain. Suffice it to say that neither of us had any confidence in the staff, treament availabilities or the systems there. This was done at 10 minutes notice and without consultation, against Nel’s firm expressed wish for this not to happen.

Needless to say, she arrived at Bootham substantially distraught. On the basis that she declared her lack of trust of Bootham, said she wanted to go home and would not guarantee her safety if she was discharged, the hospital took steps to prevent this and committed her, initially under S.5.2 and then under S.2 of the Mental Health Act. She therefore stopped being a voluntary patient, at least for the next 28 days or until the powers that be change their view of her safety if discharged.

I would note that if I had been perchance in Bootham I would probably have said I didn’t trust them, wanted to go home and would not be able to guarantee my safety if discharged, although if a different question were asked, I would say that the chances of me injuring myself were extremely low… at least for today, as all I will normally promise on such matters is “just for today”.

There has been a difference between this time and the previous ones, and that is that up to 18 months ago, I was suffering from severe depression. A sufficient degree of depression, indeed, that I could not feel much emotion at all, if any – this is well described in Hyperbole and a half’s second depression account, which I strongly recommend to anyone who has not themselves suffered this level of depression and wants to understand it. This time, I was feeling emotions just fine, and the whole thing has hit me like a train. There is an advantage to being at a rock bottom – you can’t fall any further; the only way is up…

That’s where I left this post, part completed, six weeks ago. Nel has now been out of hospital for four weeks, and any thoughts I might have had that things would be significantly easier with her at home have disintegrated. I was at the time trying to find positives to say about the situation – and not along the lines of “this fulfills a greater purpose so it’s OK”, but on the basis that if I could find a purpose, a way of turning this to the good, that would redeem the experience at least somewhat. I find “this fulfills a greater purpose” to be too much like the sayings of Job’s comforters (which God disavowed) to regard this as an objective truth, and certainly it is something I would never say to someone in a crisis, but to find my own way forward to a positive outcome is a different matter.

Initially, the purpose I found was that in complaining to Bootham, I might improve things for other people in the future; I did that, and after a very productive exchange, they have changed their systems for moving people around in a way which should minimise the chance of such a traumatic move for anyone else in the future. Also, it turned out that Bootham has changed radically for the better, and Nel had a named nurse with considerable experience with BPD who worked with her for a couple of weeks almost daily. A week after that, Nel was home with me.

There is now a real prospect that, with this diagnosis, she will move onto a course of therapy which actually has a track record of working with BPD patients. Not, however, just yet, as a period of weekly visits for an hour or so each intervenes – and in the interim, I’m left as “main carer”. Which is fine in one sense, as I take seriously the “in sickness” part of my marriage vow, and feel it eminently right that I should be doing this.

All in all, there is a major positive here. We have a clear way forward, which has been lacking for the last seven years (since Nel was first in hospital). So “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well” as Julian of Norwich put it.

Unfortunately, though, I’m scared. First of all, I’m scared that it will happen again, Nel will take another overdose and at best there will be another hospital admission, at worst she’ll miscalculate and will seriously, perhaps fatally, damage herself. Or that we’ll never get to a viable course of treatment, or that we will, and it won’t work. I can tell myself to live in the present, not the imagined future, all I like, but can’t shake the emotion. I’m also scared that I’ll fall back into the depths of the depression which was my life for over 6 years. As a result, I find it difficult to shake off a state of hyper-vigilance, which is at the very least exhausting.

In the words of Frank Herbert (probably borrowed) “fear is the mind-killer”. EC (emotional Chris) is terrified, and occasionally panicked. SR (rational Chris) can rationalise things all he likes, but this does not console EC. I need both to be singing from the same hymn sheet in order to function well, and at the moment they aren’t. It is proving very difficult to come up with ideas for posts, and even more difficult to stay on message long enough to finish them.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Which, in the long version, continues “living one day at a time”. Sometimes a day is too long.

But just for this hour, I can finish off this post, and look for the next right thing to do. Which, as it turns out, is “make lunch”.