What to do on New Year’s Day with the children yesterday? We began with a return to ‘the world’s least crazy crazy golf course‘. After freezing there, Debbie offered to buy lunch the local branch of Wetherspoon’s.
Wetherspoon’s may not do flashy food, but they are family friendly. So Debbie and I didn’t worry if our mixed grill was tough enough to suggest the animals had put up considerable and recent resistance: the monkeys were happy. They had activity books to decorate while we waited for the food.
And it is the activity books given by Wetherspoon’s that are central to this story. Rebekah is used to ‘spot the difference’ puzzles, but Mark had his first encounter with one on this occasion. Rebekah found the eight differences between the two drawings with little difficulty; Mark found five.
Suddenly, however, he had found eight, like his sister. However, they weren’t the same.
“Where did you find those differences?” we asked him.
“I made them up,” he replied, laughing – and we joined in.
Sometimes, making it up is fun, especially when you are a four-year-old comedian like Mark. It is also part of that cherished part of childhood where the imagination is valued.
But sadly the currency of imagination is devalued as we grow older, even though poets and artists often have special insights on life. In that respect, ‘making it up’ has wrongly earned a bad reputation in a scientific culture, where to make something up is of lesser value than ‘hard facts’. That is something the church has imbibed. While there are many parts of Scripture where historicity is of vital importance, there is no loss to faith and truth, for example, if the book of Job is a literary creation to grapple with the problem of suffering in an artistic way.
Yet there is also a rightful concern to protect against a wrong kind of ‘making it up’. Imagination is fine, false witness is not. Not that Scripture condemns all forms of lying – see the example of Rahab the prostitute of Jericho at the beginning of Joshua, for example. But bearing false witness against your neighbour, as the commandment puts it, is most definitely out. And it is here that we have a problem, both on a large public scale and on the more personal level.
In terms of the public, it is easy to think of scandals. Like last August, when Michael Guglielmucci was found to have faked cancer (even writing a song called ‘Healer’ and performing with a tube in his nose), all deriving from a porn addiction.
And yet it’s easy to get self-righteous about those types of incident when we do the same thing on a smaller scale, where fewer people are affected. From the modification of a CV to finding all those subtle ways in which we present ourselves in the best possible light, making it up is a curiously popular pastime for those of us who profess to follow the One who called himself the Truth.
Naturally I don’t mean that in the sense that a Richard Dawkins would allege against us. It is not a wilful attempt to believe a lie. On the contrary, our faith is based on reasonable evidence, and with that in mind we enter into a relationship of trust. But relationships of trust require honesty in order to flourish, and that’s where the fantasy stuff becomes dangerous.
I suggest our problem, at its root, is that we don’t believe the Gospel enough. If we believe in grace, do we need to perform? Do we need to appear like we reach a certain standard? The fact that we do suggests we have developed cultures that are not soaked in grace. We are not free to be ourselves, with our foibles and weaknesses.
Not that I seek to justify sin, you understand. But the lack of acceptance that we need in order to face change and growth in holiness is disturbing. If I feel I am going to be judged all the time, I shall go on the defensive and spend time justifying myself, even when in my heart I know full well I am in the wrong. As such, a judgmental culture does not bring greater righteousness but a deeper retreat into sin. If I know I am loved unconditionally, then I feel able to face what is wrong in my life.
What would it take to create a culture in the church where we don’t have to make it up? It would require that we actually believe the Gospel of God’s free grace in Christ, and that by such grace we may face the need to repent of our sins and co-operate with the Holy Spirit in the project of sanctification.
It would also surely free us from the religious celebrity culture which contributes to the public scandals by creating an expectation of the spectacular or dramatic. When you are nurtured by grace, you don’t need to be an immature thrill-seeker. You are thrilled by God instead.