5 min read

Faith, chaos and carnage

Remembered rituals comforted many who mourn. As Easter comes around again, Graham Tomlin examines the underlying hope found when all is carnage and chaos.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A photographer, standing next to a tripod, atop a pile of rubble is a destroyed factory.
Peter Herrmann on Unsplash.

One afternoon in that week after the Queen died back in September, I spent a short while watching the live video footage from Westminster Hall of people filing past the Queen’s coffin as it lay in state. Ordinary members of the public, after their nine hour wait in the queue, stopped for their precious few seconds in front of the coffin before being ushered on to allow others to have their moment. It was clear that many of them were not quite sure what to do. Some just stood silently, but most felt they needed to do something. Some bowed or curtsied, others seemed to utter a quiet prayer, others crossed themselves in a slightly awkward fashion as if it was something they weren't really used to doing.  

It was clear that people needed some kind of gesture of respect, and it was significant how many turned to some kind of religious action to do that, whether bowing a head, signing the cross or muttering a few words of prayer. 

Throughout that week, at every turn, from the ceremony to recognise the new king, to the lying in state, to the funeral itself, everything seemed to happen in a context of Christian prayer. They were all deeply religious ceremonies and came in for surprising little resistance, despite our increasingly secular frame of mind as a nation. It was as if at that moment, in that difficult week, it felt as if the Christian faith held the nation’s grief for a short while. 

Having taken many funerals in my time, I recognise the same dynamic in more ordinary circumstances. Many people who maybe have a dim recollection of Christian faith from their background find the rituals and ceremonies of the church - a hymn vaguely remembered from school, a vicar saying prayers, the rich and hopeful words of resurrection in the presence of death - a valuable handrail to hold onto at a time of deep instability and profound change.  

It might seem that this outbreak of religious observance at the death of the monarch was just a temporary thing before life returned to normal, but perhaps it pointed to something much more significant.  

It always feels a little odd with the beginnings of spring, daffodils and sprouting flowers in the garden, but Good Friday is the bleakest moment of the Christian year. It is the moment when we remember how, for Christians at least, the most complete human being who ever walked the planet, Jesus of Nazareth, was executed in a huge miscarriage of justice. If this really was the day we killed God, it was the darkest moment in human history. 

And maybe that is part of the genius of Christianity – its ability to hold people in moments of grief and pain, when there aren’t easy answers to be found.

Good Friday is followed by Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus’ body lay still and decaying in a cold grave, and everything seemed to be at an end. Of course, we know that Resurrection and the joy of it was just around the corner, but they didn’t know that on the first Good Friday, and you have to go through Good Friday and even sit with the devastation of it all through Holy Saturday before you get to the joy. And maybe that is part of the genius of Christianity – its ability to hold people in moments of grief and pain, when there aren’t easy answers to be found. 

Nick Cave’s recent book, co-authored with Sean O’Hagan, has as its title, not the traditional trio of Faith, Hope and Love, but Faith, Hope and Carnage. The book explores Cave’s re-discovery of faith in part through the tragic death of his 15-year old son Arthur, and the capacity of faith to hold and sustain him in the middle of carnage, despair and tragedy. As Rowan Williams put it in his recent interview with Nick Cave: “The book reveals the way in which faith, without ever giving a plain, comforting answer, offers resources to look at what is terrible without despair or evasion.” 

The Christian understanding of evil is not that is it good dressed up in dowdy clothing. It does not tell us to believe that somehow premature death, cancer, or childhood leukaemia are somehow good for us. It says that they have no point because that is the nature of evil – that it is pointless. It has no meaning because it is the absence of meaning. It has no purpose because it is the absence of purpose.  

That is why Christians gladly say they have no neat answer to the problem of evil. Because evil is the absence of answers. It is nonsense because it makes no sense. Instead, we believe, not because we have found an answer to the problem of suffering, but despite that fact that we haven’t. We believe because we have heard a more compelling story that does make sense of everything else - the unlikely and sometimes scarcely believable hope of Resurrection, which makes sense of so much else – even the mysterious rebirth of nature that emerges from the seeming death of winter into new life in the Spring. Only unlike pagans, Christians see the natural rhythms of the world as an echo of the central story of the Resurrection of Jesus, rather than the other way round. 

Christians see in the events of the first Easter the turning point of history. That when we tried to kill God on the first Good Friday, he did not stay dead, but rose again, bringing with him the promise that those who face death or tragedy hand in hand with Christ, will somehow come through the carnage and the chaos with a life and a future.  

When you’re in agony you don’t need an explanation, you just need someone to hold you.

Of course, when you’re in the middle of pain, it’s hard to see that. When you’re in agony you don’t need an explanation, you just need someone to hold you. And that’s exactly what Christianity offers – someone to hold you. Someone who has been through the worst that life and history can throw at him and knows the worst that can happen. It offers the presence of God in the Jesus who is no stranger to pain – as it says over and over again in the Bible “I will never leave you or forsake you.” It is, as Sian Brookes explains in her excellent review of the film Allelujah! on Seen & Unseen, what we will all need at the end of our lives - someone to be with us.  

Christian faith still holds out the hope of Resurrection. Easter Sunday does come around after Good Friday. But even when you’re stuck on Saturday, waiting for a Sunday that never seems to come, when Resurrection is hard to believe in, when all around you is carnage and chaos, you are invited to hold tightly and determinedly to that mysterious presence that stands with you in the darkness, whether you feel it or you don’t, while you wait for the light to dawn. 

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.