Christians are often surprised to find that there are many people in the world with a passionate hatred of Christianity, and that these are often people who have a past connection with the church. It surprises us because most of us spend a fair amount of time with other Christians and we know they are no better or worse than other people. While this is disappointing - surely the followers of the God who is Love should be at least a little better than average - it hardly seems a reason for active animosity.
I've been noticing that in our culture there is a strong thread of critique of the church, and if we listen carefully we can understand the animosity a little better. So I'm going to give you some examples. They're not scientific or representative, but they illustrate what many people feel.
My first is one of my favourite poems of all time, William Blake’s “The Garden of Love” from Songs of Experience.
I went to the garden of love
And saw what I never had seen
A chapel was built in the midst
Where I used to play on the green
And the gates of the chapel were shut
And “thou shalt not” writ over the door
So I turned to the garden of love
That so many sweet flowers bore
And I saw it was filled with graves
And tombstones where flowers should be
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds
Binding with briars my joys and desires
Blake was a deeply religious man, if a little strange. He wrote intensely religious poems and painted vivid Biblical scenes. His relationship with God was passionate and deeply personal. Yet he saw the church not as a helper but an intruder on this relationship. Instead of helping him to love, the church prevented him.
Where he looked for a celebration of life, he saw a graveyard. Where he looked for a way of love, he found a locked door and a heartless commmand. Where he looked for joy and fulfillment, he found a prison of thorns. The song is a lament for his lost innocence, driven from him by the very institution that should have nurtured and celebrated it.
Back in the 1950's and 60s, Australians used to use the word "wowser" to describe a morals campaigner. Wowsers were looked at with derision in Australia. They supported a kind of public morality which they claimed was Christian. It included early closing for pubs, strict liquor licensing and gambling restrictions, tough censorship and indecency laws, bans on Sunday trading...you get the picture. In the wider Australian culture they were seen as killjoys, the enemies of fun. And they were the public face of the church.
In Queensland our State Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was a famous wowser who took part in public bible readings, opposed condom vending machines, maintained tough censorship laws and took every opportunity to court the religious vote. Yet his career ended in public shame as the corruption of his government was revealed and he himself escaped prison by the skin of his teeth.
Hypocrisy can keep for another day. But this harsh joylessness, this focus on externals and on banning things, seems not so much Christian as Pharisaical.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Mt 23:13)
I'd much rather follow the man who made wine at a wedding, and who strolled with his disciples through the grain-field on the Sabbath, plucking and eating ears of grain in defiance of the Sabbath law because they were hungry. Lets not let our own fear of chaos, our desire for control and safety, shut out those who long to enter the joy of the Kingdom.