thinking

bits and pieces of clouds, ether, maybe even ideas

fintan o’toole on grace

The Irish Times – Saturday, January 16, 2010

Grace, disgrace and saving face

Behind the buttoned-up, hellfire-guaranteed preaching of the evangelism favoured by the DUP is a flashy, fleshy extravagance that revels in the drama of damnation, writes FINTAN O’TOOLE

“With the same hard demeanour, she was led back to prison, and vanished from the public gaze within its iron-clamped portal. It was whispered, by those who peered after her, that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way of the interior.”

– Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter

LAST SUNDAY, as 1,600 worshippers made their way into the huge Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on the Shore Road in Belfast, they could not have missed the large billboard outside proclaiming the virtues of family life. Or the large scarlet letters scrawled across it, spelling out the single word “adulterers”. The Whitewell tabernacle, presided over by the veteran evangelist, Rev James McConnell, has been the most favoured place of worship for the first family of Northern Ireland politics, Peter Robinson and his wife Iris.

After complete trust in the Bible, the second article of faith of the tabernacle is that “We believe in the total depravity of man”. Keeping up the cheery tone, the Rev McConnell also preaches the “punishment and the judgement of the ungodly in the lake of fire, which the Lord Jesus himself mentions several times as ‘Hell Fire’. This is the solemn fate of the Christ-rejecter.” There is, it may seem, cold comfort for a sinner like Iris Robinson in the hard Puritanism of Belfast’s radical Protestant sects. The speed with which the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) moved to expel her entirely from its ranks – a gesture whose superfluity made it all the more symbolically potent – suggested a need to cast her into the exterior darkness or to cut out a vile contagion.

And yet, like the scarlet letter A that the adulteress Hester had to wear in Hawthorne’s classic novel of puritan America, Iris Robinson’s shame might cast its own lurid gleam along the dark passage-ways of evangelical Protestantism. The ferocity with which Iris Robinson has been cast aside reveals the contradiction at the heart of evangelical Protestantism. Its Puritanism doesn’t come from a disdain for sex but from an awestruck fear of its dangerous attractions. Beneath the buttoned-up exterior that the DUP projects is a flashy and fleshy extravagance that has to be kept in check by constant vigilance.

Those steeped in a Catholic culture tend to regard low-church Protestantism as irredeemably dour. In fact, it is often much more flamboyant and passionate than Catholicism. It may not have the “smells and bells” or the sumptuously ornate vestments and churches, but it is much more emotionally expressive. In the Free Presbyterianism that dominates the DUP, the extravagance lies in the grandiose personality of Ian Paisley and above all in the luxuriant language of the puritan preaching tradition.

A PAISLEY SERMON may be scarifying but it is not dour. It revels in the drama of damnation: “Oh, there is an unmasking day coming for the hypocrite. My, when the cold river of death flows at our feet, when the great summons to meet God reaches us, when the curtains of that great corridor of death are drawn aside, when a hand greater than eternity seizes us and urges along that dark lonely journey through the waters of death, out into the great eternity, I tell you, all your hypocrisy will be unmasked then.” The Pentecostal tradition in which the Robinsons worship (they are allied to the Elim Pentecostal movement, founded in Monaghan in 1915) is, if anything, even more dramatic. Its belief in the “second anointing by the Holy Spirit” of some preachers sanctions visions, speaking in tongues, healing and prophesy.

(Rev James McConnell of Whitewell Tabernacle had a vision as a young man in which he was told that “many visitors will come to you by aeroplane and by ship to see what the Lord has accomplished among you” and another in 1973 when God told him to “prepare to receive those from the dunghill”, after which “an influx of terrorists, alcoholics, prostitutes, divorcees, drug addicts, and homosexuals, both Catholic and Protestant, began to converge on Whitewell”.)

In the US, this sense of being specially anointed and informed by private visions of God has created preachers who are both highly charismatic and unusually scandal-prone. On the one hand, being chosen by God generates passion and conviction. On the other, it does not fit easily with notions of accountability. The sexual and financial scandals that break out every so often – the most high-profile protagonists being Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Ted Haggard – make the Robinsons’ troubles seem tame. It’s Coronation Street compared to Dallas.

The historian of working-class Protestant Belfast, Prof Steve Bruce, has noted that “Especially strong in working-class areas, a gospel hall and Pentecostal tradition serves as a way out of the everyday world”. It has, in other words, large elements of escapism. Against this background, it is not surprising that Belfast Protestant working-class culture has produced heroes who go completely against the grain of the dour stereotype. If anything, George Best, Alex Higgins and Van Morrison are closer to the clichéd images of Irish Catholic creativity: instinctive geniuses touched by some divine spark.

And yet it is not surprising either that all three had trouble accepting and enjoying that gift. Best and Higgins were broken by alcoholism and were at war with their own talent. Morrison has been vastly more successful at nurturing his genius but he has seldom appeared to be at ease with it. In a culture where “the total depravity of man” is an article of faith, it is hard to embrace the pure pleasure that Best and Higgins could produce in sport or Morrison in music. The easier it comes, the more suspect it must be.

There is, in this, a curious interplay of grace and disgrace. Grace is a pure and miraculous release from the normal condition of shame. In Rev McConnell’s theology, for example, the utter depravity of man means that “because of that depravity he cannot save himself. Only an act of divine mercy and grace can save him.” Humans are powerless creatures, tossed about in a sea of sin and driven on to the shores of righteousness only by a divine wind that may or may not blow in their direction.

This means, oddly enough, that sin is to be expected. If we are all depraved, poor Iris Robinson was merely being typically human. For the Pentecostals at least, disgrace is the default condition of humanity. And there is nothing much anyone except God can do about it. One is not saved by works (human actions) but by faith (God’s grace).

The flip side of this rather grim theology is that grace is always available to those who seek it. American evangelical culture has fed into global popular culture through Hollywood’s love of redemption stories. Being bad can be rather exciting if it is a prelude to becoming good. Autobiography is a primary form of evangelical preaching, and it almost demands the dramatic arc of sin and salvation, of a wallowing in perfidy followed by a blessed epiphany, of disgrace transformed into grace.

Iris Robinson presented a huge challenge to this whole culture and exposed its internal contradictions. For those who believe in the kind of salvation that is preached in the tabernacles and meeting halls, she ought, surely, to have been embraced rather than expunged. In her own statement, she said that “I grieve that I have damaged my profession in Christ but I am comforted that He was able to forgive even me.” In a theology that stresses the personal relationship with Christ, her belief that she has received divine forgiveness cannot be questioned.

AND IF CHRIST has forgiven her, who are the DUP to say otherwise? That they chose instead to cut her out as completely as possible from the body politic says much about the tensions within evangelical Protestantism. There is, on the one hand, a rigid Calvinist ideology in which the world is divided into the saved and the damned. There is nothing worse in this view than to have been saved by divine grace and then to have persisted in sin. In the words of a Paisley sermon, “You stubborn, obstinate, hard-willed, hard-hearted sinners, brought up in the evangelical Protestant tradition, God says you are just as filthy and iniquitous in your sin as a pagan idolator who bows down to wood and stone.” For Pentecostals on the other hand, there is no division between the saved and the damned – grace is always available to every sinner. There is a crucial fault-line here between the Free Presbyterianism that dominates the DUP and the Pentecostalism of the Robinsons. It is the difference that the American historian of religion, Anthea Butler, cited in explaining why Pentecostal preachers often survive scandals: “Calvinism is [God’s] grace, one time. [Pentecostalism] is grace after grace after grace. You can mess up 1,000 times.”

In the human drama of this extraordinary story, the final twist is that Peter Robinson is caught between those two sides of evangelical culture. As the leader of a largely Calvinist party, he is forced to disown and expunge his sinning wife. As a husband and Pentecostalist, he is drawn to forgive and embrace her. Thus far, Calvin and political expediency seem to be winning the struggle for his soul.

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