By Seán Mullan
(From the July - September 2019 issue of VOX)
In our frequent but random conversations, Jim and I cover everything from the big issues of justice or life beyond death to politics and the football results. He has an interest in faith and in religious leaders like Jesus but is suspicious of contemporary organised religion.
A while back we were discussing football – the ball on the ground type – and he mentioned a well-known club manager who heads a rival team to the one Jim supports. He talked admiringly about the man’s qualities as a manager and then added, “And I’d say he’s some kind of a Christian.” A few weeks later, he sent me a text with a link to an interview with said football manager where the man speaks about the central importance of Jesus as a world figure and in his own life.
“I knew it!!!” proclaimed Jim’s text.
“Interesting!” I replied. “Remind me what made you suspect that.”
“Just the way he was talking about football - he has an interesting life philosophy. He smokes and drinks and curses too, so he’s rock n roll about it, lol”
“Rock n roll about it.” I knew what he meant. The man in question, constantly in the media, wasn’t consistently beating a big Jesus drum but when asked, he was happy to talk about why following Jesus mattered to him.
The video clip and comment reminded me of another conversation I read about recently. It’s centuries old but perhaps surprisingly relevant. Again Jesus figures but he is in the background. A man who has been blind from birth but can now see claims that Jesus is responsible for his healing.
If you’re sceptical about that kind of claim then don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of company. In this case, a group of religious leaders become involved. Far from being “rock n roll” about a good thing that’s happened to a poor man, they start an immediate interrogation. In the right hands the whole story, as it’s recorded in one of the gospels, could be turned into a brilliant comedy skit. But it’s also a bit tragic.
The healing is a big problem for these religious leaders. First they refuse to believe the man was ever blind. They interrogate him and then his parents and then him again. They end up accepting that perhaps something unusual has happened, but have a problem that the healing took place on the Sabbath – Saturday in Irish terms but the holy day for them. Eventually they become so indignant at the man and his replies that they throw him out on the street.
As an exercise in missing the point, it’s a classic. Politics and power plays are a significant part of the backstory. But the main point is this. They are with a man who, by his own account, is able to see for the first time in his life. There are faces to look at, skies and trees, streets and gardens waiting to be seen for the first time. There are his parents and siblings whose voices he knows but whose faces are undiscovered artistic masterpieces. Of course the religious crowd can choose to believe him or not, but to make him spend that first seeing day answering their “who, what, when and how” questions is unforgivable. And all because they fear the religious apple cart is being upset.
Religious leaders are not alone in their talent for missing the point because they don’t know what it is to be “rock n roll” about anything. Shortly after our text exchange, I caught the end of a football match featuring that manager’s team. They had just won an extraordinary victory. Team and back room staff stood, shoulder to shoulder, in front of the home fans as they sang their hearts out. It was one of those spine tingling moments, even for people who have no interest in football. And the TV reporter on the pitch never stopped talking through it all. The camera zoomed in on him while he tried to analyse the game and interrogate the players - another classic example of completely missing the point.
There are times in life when analysis and understanding need to take a back seat while we make time to savour a moment, to recognise that something extraordinary has happened. If help is needed, find a child and watch. Wonder comes naturally to them. Follow their example. You may be amazed at what you see.
Seán Mullan has been working in church leadership for many years. He has developed a project in Dublin City Centre called “Third Space”.