I’ve had a rather exciting media week. As one of my friends said, “it’s nice to see Gavin in the Sun fully clothed and without a whiff of scandal.”
At the weekend the Sunday Times interviewed me for a comment on an unusual situation. A woman vicar was preparing to hide all the Christian symbols in her parish church to make it more comfortable for local Muslim women. I gave a comment and the story appeared throughout the press with a number of colourful radio interviews that followed.
The vicar (and the local mayor) intended to invite some members of the Muslim community to come into the parish Church to mark the end of Ramadan. The idea was to strengthen community relations.
A condition of their coming was that the room they were to use should have the crosses covered up. There was also a rather beautiful and famous pre-Raphaelite painting of Jesus by Holman Hunt. In it, Jesus is standing at the door of thehuman heart with a lantern, asking to be invited in. That was also to be covered up. In the meantime the local Muslim men were to offer Islamic prayers in the body of the Church.
This raised some exciting questions. For example, should the offer of hospitality be made at the price of denying one’s own beliefs or hiding their symbols?
If twitter and the internet are an indication, a large number of Christians were both outraged and deeply upset that a vicar could even contemplate hiding a painting of Jesus and covering crosses to hide them.
It was Mohammed of course who raised the stakes on this one. “Inspired by the Archangel Gabriel” he declared in the Koran that Jesus did not die on the cross; that he did not bear the sins of the whole world; and since he didn’t die on the cross, didn’t rise from the dead either.
The problem her is obvious. Either Jesus was authentic or he was bogus (according to Mohammed) and misleading people. Jesus said he would die as a sacrifice for our sins, and that he would rise from the dead as proof he had the power to forgive sins and bring us clean to heaven.
Jesus’ followers unsurprisingly found this difficult to get their head round when he said it. Who wouldn’t. It had never happened in human history.
One of the great dramas of the New Testament is the description of their astonishment and the transformation of their lives when he appeared to them. The record of the Bible is that he appeared on a number of occasions to hundreds of different people.
One of the tests of whether this actually happened or not, is that many of the people he appeared to after rising from the dead were willing themselves to be tortured and even killed rather than deny it ever happened.
So who is right? Jesus, the early disciples, those who have had mystical experiences of Jesus appearing to them down the ages, or Mohammed and what he wrote in the Koran six hundred years later, getting messages from an angel he thought was called Gabriel announcing the Christian narrative was bogus?
The cross isn’t just a symbol Christians are inspired by. In this context it becomes the sign that stands for accepting the claims of Jesus and the experience of the Christian community, and a refutation of Mohammed and the claims he made in the Koran; which is why it matters to Christians and irritates Muslims.
In fact it annoys Muslims to such an extent that throughout the Middle East, as Isis has gone on its rampage and killing spree, it has made it a priority to destroy crosses wherever it found them. And it provokes them for obvious reasons. If Jesus did rise from the dead, wherever Mohammed was getting his inspiration from, it wasn’t God.
So it’s strange that the vicar in Darlington set so little store by the symbolism in her own Church.
But for people who like to get to the root of the problem, there is a further diagnosis to be made? Would the Muslim men ready to pray in Darlington Parish Church be praying to the same God?
Allah of the Koran is not at all like the God of the Bible that Jesus teaches us to pray to. Allah is unknowable. You please him by keeping the religious rules laid out meticulously in the Koran. He cannot suffer and is beyond feeling and knowing. He demands unconditional obedience.
God the Father is not only knowable, in the parables of Jesus he runs to find and forgive us, welcome us home and celebrate our mutual discovery. He comes in his son to find and forgive.
Take away the word god, and what we have is two value systems. One based on power and submission, and one based on love, intimacy and forgiveness. When their followers are faithful to these values, you get two very different societies, based on radically different values.
Socialising outside mosques and churches across the faiths is a wonderful way of acknowledging our shared humanity and finding out about each other.
But Mohammed and Christ made two very different kinds of follower, and two very different kinds of world. We are free to choose between them, or to repudiate them both. But no one is helped by being under-informed or covering the differences up – literally or symbolically.