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Like magic

Steve Carell established himself in my estimation as among the most virtuosic of all comics with his role as Brick Tamland in Anchorman -- a film which isn't really a film at all but which makes you seriously question whether you would ever choose to watch a film again were there sufficient like extended assemblages of 'funny' to fill up those time slots in which you would normally be watching films. Sadly, this question is academic, as there aren't.

Since Anchorman, Carell has gone on to prove himself equally expert at attaching himself to disappointingly mediocre films [1]. It recently struck me that were I, as a fan, to wait for a good one to come along, I might be waiting a while. So, I threw caution to the wind and placed £8.50 and 100 minutes on The Incredible Burt Wonderstone not being unbearable. The bet paid off -- I was adequately amused throughout, with moments of acute merriment and even the odd burst of mental provocation.

One such burst was prompted by a scene in which a news reporter follows retired magician Marvelton (played by the inimitable [2] Steve Buscemi) on a quasi-humanitarian campaign in Africa, as he delivers magic sets to children who "don't even have food or water". "You give them food and water too, right?" asks the reporter (in words to that effect)... Hmm. (As the camera pans the scene, one departing child looks unmistakably set to make supper of his white rabbit...)

Now, this plot point may have been partially intended as a satire on celebrity charity. But it struck profoundly as a satire on secular perceptions (and sadly, in some cases, the reality) of Christian mission: enthusiastic idealists offering desperately needy people an 'enchanting illusion' and wasting money and time that would be better spent ministering to their obvious physical requirements. Of course, I strongly believe that the Bible, and the good news it communicates, is no cheap box of tricks but a transformationally powerful gift to be shared. But it is precisely because it is transformational that the idea of sharing it instead of meeting the immediate material needs of the recipients is painfully problematic.

So, I've been reading the book of James rather a lot the last few weeks. (And, for that matter, listening to it a lot -- in recent months my iPod has basically become a dedicated device for conveying "Johnny Cash Reading the Complete New Testament" to me in the gym). I have found it to be pretty clear and uncompromising about the relationship between grasping God's word and getting on and doing something about it:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:22-27) 
If (for some of us) we feel that God has spoken to us through the Bible -- that we have encountered Jesus, that we have experienced grace -- then it is absolutely natural to want to awaken other people to that same opportunity. Indeed, it would be unnatural -- cold and indifferent even -- not to want this. The message, if true, is of a hope which prevails in the midst of unbearable hardship: I just read the autobiography of Gladys Aylward, who felt called by God to "up sticks" to China in the extremely turbulent 30s, where she spent her life sharing Jesus with people to (most of) whom the name was entirely unfamiliar and who were, for the main part, trapped in extreme poverty, war, and political upheaval. Those who she saw become Christians were not necessarily freed from their worldly suffering, but she tells how their faith in, and experience of, God's love for them gave them very real strength to endure.

So there is a sense in which the gospel -- the 'good news' -- transcends bodily need. But to understand it is to (begin to) be transformed by it, so that we can't help but increasingly love and be moved by the physical and emotional needs of those around us. So, just as it is 'unnatural' to not want to share the news, it is 'unnatural' to not want to bring healing and hope and sustenance to the entire person in whatever finite way we're able. Indeed, Gladys Aylward (like many before and since) doesn't seem to have questioned that this was as much a part of her 'God-given ministry' as the words she spoke. She lived out her own proclamation in the way she unquestioningly sacrificed her own health, wealth, safety and happiness for those she was serving, suffering with them and sharing whatever little she had. (On one occasion she led 100+ orphan children many days journey over the mountains to safety in Free China in the heat of the Second Sino-Japanese War, a journey which left her close to death and from which it took her over two years to recover emotionally and physically).

In short, if we think that the Bible and the good news therein are so amazing (and I do), what are we gonna do about it? Can we really hold such bold claims to be true and not have them play out in our actions somewhere along the line? James again:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 3:14-24)
Martin Luther took issue with the book of James -- calling it "an Epistle of straw" and believing it to be of uneasy origin and at odds with the central good news message of justification by grace alone (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9). But I wonder if that is to miss out on a bigger picture of grace: a grace which so transforms the life it touches as to propagate increasingly into the lives of others. First off, though, I think it's really important to remember that we don't know (and shouldn't pretend to) what 'transformation' looks like for anyone but ourselves. For one person (myself, at times), a single bitter word held back may be a triumph of grace at work -- more remarkable, for all we know, than another's daily obvious service and goodness. [I have some vague memory of an excellent C. S. Lewis quote on this, involving someone not kicking a dog, but the Internet, on this occasion, is not forthcoming.] Suffice to say, I don't think the exhortations in James are about comparing ourselves to others and seeing who's "doing best" in the "good works" stakes: God knows our hearts; He knows if we are responding to Him in active faith, even if it's imperceptible to others. I've begun to wonder, though, whether there is even such a thing as 'inactive faith': what is faith if it isn't the decision (or at least intention) to act as if something were true? How can we figure out what we actually believe except by identifying those considerations which we are prepared to allow our thoughts and actions to be influenced by? [3]

By this reckoning I find that in many ways my own faith appears quite strong. I have (by the grace of God) made many active decisions because of my beliefs about Jesus, and those decisions (by the grace of God) have left me in a much transformed situation. But I start to suspect (to fear, if I am honest) that the 'actions of faith' called for in this new, more capacious situation I am in begin to look very different to the ones by which I arrived. "Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more." (Luke 12:48) I think I have some thinking to do. Well, some doing to do.

Myself aside, I know of many individuals and organisations who are deeply and inspirationally involved in easily-recognisable 'works' -- "meeting material needs for the love of Jesus" (for want of a better description). It occurs to me that many non-Christians quite understandably find the idea of 'Christian charity' (as opposed to just 'charity') non-ideal, inappropriate, or even offensive. As an example of how (in my opinion) it "should be done", I'd like to draw attention to Crisis Centre Ministries (CCM), an organisation reaching out to homeless, drug-addicted and otherwise vulnerable people in Bristol, via (among other projects) a drop-in centre, a foodbank, a life-skills course, and a night shelter. And they do this openly and explicitly as Christians, with (again, in my opinion) exemplary wisdom and clarity about the place of faith in their organisation. To quote their website:
We seek to operate according to the principles taught and demonstrated by Jesus of Nazareth. He taught that we should love God and love the people around us, and that is what we try to do. We believe that God cares for the weak, the poor and the outcast - so the Church must be involved in caring for such people. Our practical work is an expression of our Christian faith, just as much as our prayers and worship are. We do not believe that only Christians can help the homeless, drug addicts, or the other people we serve. But we do believe that Christians have a certain insight into the needs people have and the resources they can draw upon.
I offer CCM as an example case in the hope that it might challenge some of the negative associations and stereotypes that skeptics hold about Christian charity. I don't at all expect that it will vanquish all objections, and I concede that, sadly, not all such organisations have the same straightforwardness about them. But I really do admire the loving pragmatism with which they get on and serve people in situations of great need -- without deceit, without an agenda, and with unembarrassed acknowledgment that their action flows from relationship with God and from the confidence that He wants to bless the lives they touch. Read the rest of their place of faith page -- it talks a lot of sense as well as a lot of love.

I don't like having the last word, so here's Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

[1] Although, I did like The Forty Year Old Virgin a lot, and was rather taken with the critically-panned Evan Almighty. (It is, after all, a film about sacrificial, obedient faith in a gracious, loving God. Which I suspect is rather among the reasons for its unpopularity...)

[2] Ha, in your face clever-sounding-words-which-I-frequently-get-muddled-much-to-my-embarrassment. Buscemi is inimitable (hyperbolically speaking), not inimical (so far as I am in a position to judge). But am I obtuse, or abstruse? The jury is out. Still, Mr. W is a worse culprit -- it was somewhat unsettling the other day to find myself having to explain to him the difference between moral rectitude and moral decrepitude.

[3] I was interested to learn, the other day, that in ancient Hebrew there is no distinction between the word 'know' and the word 'acknowledge' -- both (and several other) senses are expressed in 'yada'. So, in the Old Testament at least (James, like most of the New Testament, is written in Greek), the language itself implies a inseparable unity between what one understands and what one does about it.