Does religion deserve to be treated as a joke?

Unthinkable: Some ridicule may help the Irish church to recover, says pastor Fraser Hosford

The word according to Father Ted. ‘Humour is a large part of Irish life  so a truly Irish church should be conversant with such humour and able to laugh at itself,’ says Christian pastor Fraser Hosford.

The word according to Father Ted. ‘Humour is a large part of Irish life so a truly Irish church should be conversant with such humour and able to laugh at itself,’ says Christian pastor Fraser Hosford.

 

Ireland has had a messed up relationship with religion for a long time. A once noble tradition of scholarly theology got hijacked by a moralising class of cleric as our independence dawned and their rule has since between displaced by a culture of mockery – but even that summary of Irish faith is open to debate.

It would take an army of psychotherapists to work through the feelings of hurt, shame and rage that the Catholic Church inspires today, and another army of historians to figure out what went wrong, and when, in an institution that purports to be good.

While the majority faith in Ireland experienced the greatest upheaval in recent years, all religions face a major challenge in communicating their message. Rather than moaning about it, however, Christian pastor Fraser Hosford says the Irish church – in the general sense of that phrase – needs to accept that it deserves to be laughed at.

An economist who also works at Dublin West Community Church, a small evangelical congregation near Blanchardstown, Hosford has written a book. Down With This Sort of Thing: How Is the Gospel Good News in Contemporary Ireland (Praxis Press) seeks a fresh start in how we talk about religion.

The title’s riffing off a Father Ted catchphrase highlights an obstacle facing preachers in Ireland today: How not to be treated as a joke. Hosford has been posting messages online during the Covid-19 lockdown on his church’s Facebook page and while most of the comments are positive, the odd snarky remark making fun of his beliefs inevitably surfaces.

“The church can struggle to accept such criticism but it needs to remember that Jesus was an arch-critic of religion. He called the Pharisees of his day ‘thieves and robbers’ and pronounced judgment upon them for their hypocrisy and self-righteousness,” the Dubliner says.

“So I’m afraid much of the ridicule is deserved and I think the church needs to listen well to its critics. In addition, humour is a large part of Irish life and culture and so a truly Irish church, one where the faith is ‘incarnated’ into Irish culture, should be conversant with such humour and able to laugh at itself.”

His core argument in the book is that the future of the Irish church lies in “retreating from the centre of national life” and finding a new existence at the margins. That would mean larger religious institutions than his own surrendering serious power – a big ask. But, as the saying goes, God loves a trier.

Hosford is this week’s Unthinkable guest.

What do Christian churches in Ireland need to give up to get to a better place?

“The book details how the Irish church’s influence in society was part of a ‘Christendom model’, referring to how Christianity switched from being a marginal religious sect on the fringes of society, to one endorsed by the emperor himself, Constantine the Great, in the fourth century. Christendom became shorthand for the union between Christianity and secular power, and the old way of influence was one of command and control.

“But this model has already fallen, and Christendom cannot be rebuilt. And it was more a case of it being taken away than given up. Yet the church still needs to reflect on its posture of public engagement.

“It can be a difficult transition for the generations who grew up when the church was at the centre of national life, but I suggest their present circumstance is less a form of persecution and more a loss of privilege. Adjusting to life on the margins will be closer to a Jesus position anyway. The kingdom of God spreads through personal influence, not through laws and regulations.”

Taking the Catholic Church, it continues to exert power over the education system, forcing many parents and teachers to simulate Catholic belief to access its State-funded schools. Is surrendering such control the kind of reform you have in mind?

“I am not an expert in these issues and I don’t see it as my place to tell the Catholic Church what to do. As a principle, it seems to me that Jesus let go of power and that his life was about service, not control. He relinquished power when he entered into this world as a human person and he submitted to corrupt powers in his own persecution, trial and execution.

“With regard to divestment, intricacies will arise where it is felt that a fruitful service of others requires a particular ethos. It is more about divestment of a certain attitude. Telling people what to do just isn’t going to cut it.

“Forcing people to simulate belief, as you say, is actually self-defeating as it devalues faith to a merely cultural or nominal level. In a land which is now obsessed with the idea of freedom, albeit largely reduced to the notion of personal choice, the church needs to persuade people to make that choice in a Jesus direction.”

You write in the book the Christian future “gives meaning to our present” but, in truth, it gives one meaning among many possible meanings. Do religious leaders still need to come to terms with this?

“In a pluralist society, no one worldview should have exclusive claim to morality and meaning in the public square. People today draw meaning from many different sources, from relationship and family, to career, pursuit of justice and even sport. All of these sit comfortably within the Christian worldview.

“However, there is a level of meaning, an ultimate meaning, which is tied to the purpose and destiny of our lives. I think it’s reasonable to argue that worldviews which don’t believe in an ultimate purpose to or destiny of the world, can’t provide this level of meaning to people’s lives.”

In your role as a professional economist, what weight would you give advice from a priest or bishop on the economy?

“The church should have something meaningful to say in all areas of life. However, on issues which require specialist knowledge, the church should tread carefully, although not remain silent.

“I do have to confess some frustration with a few clerical interventions in the past which just repeated populist errors. But I’m not sure that the level of debate is much below the general economic debate in our media and politics.”

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