Hugh Baker on the elemental Jesus

The Romans arrived at Bath long before my wife and me. They decided to keep what they found. Out from the Somerset hills poured a chalybeate spring hot (evidently) from the underworld. Such a place had to be holy, and proof of such came from the prophecies uttered by those who made their home among the sulphurous vapours. (To your sceptical writer’s mind, such prophecies, like those of the Delphic Oracle in her fume-filled cave, illustrate the fact that the demonic finds it easier to manipulate humans when they surrender their faculties to a state of trance.) The goddess of the place was named Sulis, revamped by the invaders as Sulis Minerva, the whole being marketed as Aquae Sulis.

Inside the Box

They built, of course. The pediment of the Temple of Sulis Minerva is large and complex. The guide gook says it is ‘redolent with meaning of Celtic and Roman significance – if only we could interpret it!’ To my own eye, it seems to incorporate in its symbolism the four elements: earth, fire, air and water, of which the ancients (and their modern New Age and oriental adherents) considered the world to be made up. If you contacted the elements, they thought, you were making friends high up the spiritual tree, perhaps the highest forces one could hope to contact. The Creator, above them, was unknowable, for these people lived in a closed universe, whose Ultimate Source(s) were unknowable. Life was lived Inside the Box.

It was natural for them to think like this, for they had none of the inheritance of Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution, or the rest of British history which makes us assume that the Government is meant to be the servant of the Governed, and not vice versa. To them, the Emperor was distant, unknowable, uncaring but all-powerful, and so to be reckoned with and obeyed. You curried favour as far up the Imperial tree as you could reach; if you weren’t a friend of the Consul, you tried to become a friend of someone who was. Similarly, to gain good things from unseen powers, you used someone – fortune teller, medium, soothsayer or priest of Sulis – who was better in with them than you were. (As I write, Cherie is being ridiculed in the press for consulting crystal wavers and having a lifestyle guru. ‘Plus ça change…’).

Blowing up the Box

They were, in the real sense of the word, pagan. In Alexander the Great’s precise koine Greek, ‘paganos’ means ‘of a village’. ‘Paganos’, as time rolled on, came to have overtones; ‘parochial’, ‘yokel-y’, ‘small minded’. I’m told that, when our parish system was set up, the average Englishman met four hundred people in his whole life. The world, for most, was a very small place.

Christianity didn’t merely encourage people to think outside the Box. It blew the Box up. Not only was the Creator held to be intimately involved in the Creation, he intervened in its affairs. Though he made the rules by which his world ran, he was not bound by them. Furthermore, he offered to change the position in the whole Order of Things of the humblest artisan or slave. ‘God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 2.6, NIV) Paul declares. Small wonder the early Christians were prepared to face the lions. They considered themselves, literally, above the Emperor, and it showed. (The nearest we can get to understanding the power of the martyrs’ witness is to view the television’s egregious ‘Fame Academy’: at the show’s climax, the muffled drums roll for a good ten minutes as the tension is manufactured. In the same way, the baying crowds encouraged His Imperial Majesty to give the thumbs up or thumbs down. The Christians were supposed to cringe, plead and grovel. That they didn’t, made for poor entertainment, but good witness.

Over the Elements

I sometimes speculate as to whether early Bible hearers saw Jesus’ superiority to the elements displayed in what they heard. Did they hear of the violent earthquake (Matthew 28.2) and think ‘There’s earth overcome’? Did Sodom and Gomorrah show his Lordship over fire? Certainly his rebuking the wind and waves (Matthew 8.26) indicates victory over air and water, and whatever powers may work through it. As the world reels from the consequences of Adam’s fall, the very substance of things goes awry. Communication between man and his maker begin to break down (Genesis 3.8–9); the animal kingdom begins to degenerate and become combative (Genesis 3.14–15); childbirth and relationship between the sexes are marked by pain and tension (Genesis 3.16) and plant life becomes aggressive and competitive (Genesis 3.17–18). Conversely, the prophesied return of divine order with the coming of the Messiah ends in Eden restored (for example, Isaiah 65.6–9, 23–25), yet is inaugurated by the elements (as Corporal Jones would say) ‘not liking it up ’em’. The coming Messiah has a literally ‘earth-shaking’ effect on the whole universe in the course of his return. The very elements flee from his presence: ‘Earth and heaven fled from his presence, and there was no place for them’ (Revelation 20.11b), ‘The first earth had passed away, and there was no more sea’ (Revelation 21.1b), and they do so as he establishes final rule over the cosmic usurpers who rule now. The entanglement of these powers with the very fabric of our doomed universe means that passages concerning them can be translated in terms of the material the universe is made of Matthew 24.29c, NIV ‘and the heavenly bodies will be shaken’ or in terms of the powers themselves Matthew 24.29c, AV ‘and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken’.

Back in the Box?

Galatians is the only Pauline epistle where the apostle wades in to his readers without a preface of praise, and it is significant that he sees them as abandoning their position – of putting themselves back in the Box, beneath the Elements: ‘When we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles (AV ‘the elements’) of this world’ (Galatians 4.3 NIV), ‘how is it that you are turning back to these weak and miserable principles (AV ‘weak and beggarly elements’) all over again?’ (Galatians 4.9 NIV).

As our culture places itself back inside the Pagan Box, Christians need to resist. For too long, what has passed for theology has pushed the Church inside the Box, in the hope that the world will find us acceptable. The church that conquered Europe and established Christendom did so precisely because it opened the Box, offering all and sundry a relationship with the Creator himself. Anything less isn’t Good News.

Hugh Baker is Vicar of Canwell in the Diocese of Lichfield.