Monday, January 07, 2013

The First Shades of God (Jamie Bryson): unremarkable theology, but an insight into the mind of the protest-organiser

Jamie Bryson has come to prominence recently as one of the leaders of the flag protests across Northern Ireland. As Chris Donnelly pointed out in his recent post on Slugger O'Toole (and was echoed later in the Belfast Telegraph), Jamie Bryson is a well known loyalist in North Down where he unsuccessfully stood at the council elections under the banner of the new party Community Partnership Northern Ireland Vice chair of the North Down Somme Association, he was not welcome to take part in the November 2009 Royal British Legion-organised Remembrance Day service. He speaks and writes about becoming a Christian under the influence of fellow protest organiser Pastor Mark Gordon.

Figures released last week showed that one book in every twenty sold in the UK in 2012 was from the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Or as one person suggested to me on Twitter: “slightly less depressing if you say that 19 out of every 20 books bought wasn’t the Fifty Shades trilogy”!

While there’s a fine tradition of leaving the names of films and songs into sermon titles, most clerics would hesitate to allude to exotic fiction in the first of a planned series of books. But not Jamie Bryson. Perhaps his introductory words to The First Shades of God give us a clue about what he hoped to accomplish:
When I began to write this series of shades I wanted to acheive [sic] one thing only, to provoke debate and discussion. I hoped this would then lead onto the mainstream thinking of many of todays [sic] Christians being challenged by new radical ideas which literally turns it all upside down. Things need to be turned upside down, we live in a world and pacfically [sic] here in a Country where evil is potrayed [sic] as good and good potrayed [sic] as evil.
The short book is basically a series of short homilies and starts by answering the question of why young people aren’t attracted to church? “Victorian hymns in victorian formats from hymn books that quite frankly were lucky to survive the war” are partly to blame, along with “thou’s and how’s [sic]”.

I disagree somewhat with one of Bryson’s conclusions that “young people … do no [sic] want rules and regulations”. An element of discipline and respect is often appreciated by folk of all ages. Ask any teacher. Or perhaps ask any organiser of a Protestant marching band rehearsal: I bet rules are a necessary part of keeping practice night from careering into mayhem.

The Psalmist’s pleas for innocence are examined; the difference between faith and feeling is explored; the image of Jesus in Revelation; the sense in searching for love in church; finding Jesus in boredom; changing the world; and lots, lots more. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is mentioned a few times and Batman is in there too with the quote “it’s always darkest before the dawn”!

I found it impossible to read Jamie Bryson’s book – written in summer 2012 – without thinking about the flag protests. How did Bryson’s words shine a light on his involvement in the organisation of the protests, the protesters’ demeanour, and the demands of the Ulster People’s Forum.

In a long but ultimately weak chapter examining the “the use of force”, Bryson writes:
One of the most important revelations I have had is that no one is totally right but yet no one is totally wrong.
He’s referring to differing brands of Christianity, and it doesn’t seem to apply to politics! Soon afterwards he adds:
I don’t however feel God wants or expects us to be ‘sheep’ within our own culture. I have a strong feeling that many followers of Jesus are looking for human leadership, and this has it’s [sic] place, but not when it replaces the leadership of Jesus. ‘follow me’ says Jesus.

I have no doubt that leaders are needed in this world and indeed God ordains many for this role, the problem issue I have is that the ‘followers’ can become so dependent on their earthly leaders that they fail to look beyond them to the real leader, Jesus. Many look to the front of the Church and if the Pastor told them to burn their bibles they would shout with hands high and hearts abandoned ‘praise the lord’ and strike their match. Human leadership should supplement your relationship with God, not replace it or overtake it.

Humans get things wrong, and if people follow blindly it usually leads to disaster.
Surely this can apply to political leaders as well as religious ones? In the same chapter Bryson explains his feelings about a “feared grey area”.
I as a follower of Jesus believe a man has the right to take up arms to defend himself and his country … Murder. Killing.

… And to be clear I also support groups that act outside of the Government to protect their people. If the Government is incapable of protecting peoples [sic] lives, then others must assume responsibility …

It is easy for people to sit around and in the midst of enjoying their freedom forget that murder had to take place to allow them this freedom.
Given the context in which people like me are now reading Bryson’s book, he could easily be badly misunderstood and misconstrued. The kind of force he’s talking about seems to be that of one country against another: he uses the example of Hitler marching towards Britain.

The chapter concludes with an admission from the author that he had “deliberately not quoted directly from scripture” because “scriptures can be found to justify or condemn almost anything”; he wanted to “encourage soul searching” not just to “justify your pre conceptions”.

The chapter on spiritual warfare finishes with the thought:
The challenge as Christians is to realise that when humans may say things that are hurtful or attack us, this may be a spiritual attack from Satan. Do not cast down the person but instead look beyond them to the root cause and realise these attacks come from the evil one.
Deconstructing the popular hymn Amazing Grace, Bryson advises his readers to “ask God to open your spiritual eyes, to give you the wisdom to see things not through the eyes of the world but through Gods [sic] eyes which he puts not in your head, but in your heart via his Holy Spirit”.

God’s banner and the security that Christians are supposed to find when nothing can separate then from the love of God – not even separation from a flag – never seems to be how the protest organisers see the situation in which they find themselves.

Another chapter and another song, this time Everybody Hurts by REM. Bryson looks at sorrow and heartache:
Once you have been rejected once it is easy to become a prisoner within yourself living in the fear of rejection – this fear follows the heartache. Jesus Christ suffered the ultimate rejection, he was nailed to a cross and rejected by his own children in his own home. What did Jesus do? Cried out ‘forgive them father, for they know now what they do’ I would contend that ‘greater love hath no man than this’.
Bryson finishes the chapter with a poem. I’m just quoting the last few stanzas:
So wen your [sic] rejected, heartbroken or sore
Remember that Jesus went through it before
His grace is sufficient for every trial
So face all that heartache and face it with a smile
Soon Jesus will wipe every tear from your eye,
No more will you have heartache and no more will you cry.
In the end Bryson’s book failed to live up to its promise to challenge this reader with “new radical ideas”. Instead it fell flat with a series of unremarkable and haphazard observations that were theologically light and didn’t merit the book’s risqué title. A further disappointment was the complete disconnect with some of the conclusions and my perceptions of the author’s brand of civil leadership.

The other failure was the lack of editing that meant the book was quite difficult to read: dodgy spellings, the general lack of apostrophes and inconsistent capitalisation was very distracting and hugely detracted from Bryson’s message. If there are any more of these books, he needs to get a friend to proof read them.

The short book – takes about an hour to read – is available on the Kindle. If you’re an Amazon Prime customer, you also have the option to borrow it for free through the Kindle Store on a Kindle device (but not on a table or Mac/PC).

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole

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