On Sunday morning, with the worship songs at chapel we sang this cheerful chorus from way back.
It takes St Paul’s words – I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 KJV) – the bit that says ‘I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’, and expands that with the joyous assertion, ‘Jesus is alive in me!’
I apologise if I’m about to ruin a happy song with a caveat, but there’s a thing in this making me uneasy.
I can still remember the jarring jolt at my core when, as a young woman in church on a Sunday morning about three decades ago, I heard the missioner reporting to the congregation on the previous evening’s evangelistic meeting: ‘The Lord was really working for us last night.’
Well, I (as you know) write fiction. Christian fiction, in fact. I write to bring goodness alive in people’s imaginations, to expound the Gospel, to make biblical texts come real, to enable readers to grasp the heart and soul of New Testament teaching.
When I’m writing (this happens to all novelists), my characters somehow take on a life of their own. I sit down knowing what I mean to write today, and before I know it they’re off on some track of their own, developing a preoccupation I didn’t even know they had. They surprise me. I can hardly keep up. I don’t feel like author and creator, far from it, I feel like a fly on the wall. They seem to have personalities quite independent of what I dreamed up. I even wonder if they do, sometimes, so real do they seem – I wonder if, in the creative process, we tap in to the universal unconscious and actually travel in time and place to other lives, meld with the lived reality of people long ago and far away. Like the thing on Star Trek (what’s it called?) where the people in the space ship could bring up before them the person beamed down to the alien planet, to have a quick chat. A kind of cosmic skype, or something.
So, I don’t know quite what happens in writing fiction, but I do know the characters seem to be real. I can’t even quite bring myself to say they’re not. And what about dreams? Where we so vividly encounter strangers and wander in places we’ve never been – but sometimes do later in life discover. What’s with that?
Our minds with their many layers – conscious, sub-conscious, unconscious; our imaginations; our astral bodies roaming the universe – Shakespeare had it about right: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
Because of this, I think one can easily fall prey to a misconception when speaking about the risen Jesus. There’s an inevitable tendency to muddle up the objective reality of Christ with the projections of my own imagination. When I sing ‘Jesus is alive in me’, it’s easy to slide into mistaking the imagined Jesus, Jesus the character in my unfolding internal story, for the real risen Christ.
From this, it’s a short step to the ‘God is really important in my life’ syndrome. ‘My faith is a big part of who I am.’ The little God and the big Me.
I don’t know how it would be possible to avoid this happening. Human beings make up stories, that’s how they’re made. The stories tend to have one facet or another of ‘Me’ as the central protagonist.
But, look. Jesus may be ‘alive in me’, but he’s alive not-in-me too. He is risen, he is real. He’s not a character, a projection, a personification, a Harry Potter patronus or a Jungian animus.
Jesus is objectively, actually, independently risen and alive.
One reason it’s important to get a handle on this (apart from because it’s true) is that the ‘Jesus is alive in me / God is really important in my life’ mentality leads to other displacements and projections. The subjugation of women by men, beating children, exclusivity, religion, hierarchies, fundraising, pre-eminence of buildings and accoutrements, all kinds of power trips and abuses of trust. The manipulation of community for personal ends. And – and oh, dear me, have I not come across this in the upper echelons of church authority – the projection/displacement onto others of egoistic ambitions in oneself. Because, if ‘Jesus is alive in me’, who could possibly challenge any agenda of mine?
Bottom line: do my habits, my life, my emphases, my choices, look like and accurately reflect those of Jesus in the Gospels? No? Then the Jesus that’s alive in me is a character I made up. No cause for despair – because the real actual Jesus is alive and risen and well capable of leading me out of my own deluded fantasy Christianity into something altogether more solid and workmanlike.