One of my favourite actors unfortunately died this week: James Gandolfini. Gandolfini was an American actor who became very well known for playing the Mafia boss Tony Soprano. Tony was a big man, in a number of senses; physically very large, a bear of a man; but also large in the sense that he was the head of the family, a Mafia family.

And he was troubled. You might say, of course he was troubled: because he was a bad man. He did bad things. But some of the genius of the series – if you haven’t seen it – consisted in the tension between the good and the bad sides of Tony Soprano’s life. On one level, he was the proprietor of a waste disposal company with a fleet of dustbin lorries and a waste disposal plant: nothing to object to there. But on another level, he controlled a number of rackets, some centred around a particularly dubious night-club.

He was the father of a typical well-to-do American family. A lovely Mum and two fine children, a boy and a girl, growing up, the son to follow in his father’s footsteps in the business and daughter studying at Columbia University. They lived in a fine suburban house which wouldn’t look out of place round here. Periodically the family would eat out together, perhaps on a Friday night. Tony was very good to his family, especially to his elderly relatives, despite the fact that they were not exactly angelic in many ways. Even despite his love for his family, sadly Tony wasn’t immune from falling prey to temptation and cheating on his wife.

Tony Soprano was, all in all, a very complicated character – almost a tragic hero, or certainly, an antihero; brilliantly played by James Gandolfini, who was a wonderful character actor.

But perhaps the most extraordinary feature of Tony Soprano, was that he was portrayed as recognising that he had a flawed character, that he was torn in one way or another; and so he consulted a psychiatrist, Dr Melfi.

Some of the most gripping scenes – the most moving scenes – in the series, take place when Tony pours out his troubles on Dr Melfi’s couch. We might say that Tony Soprano ‘had his demons’.

Demons. I’m not quite sure how far we can make modern parallels with the stories in the Bible [Luke 7 and 8] of Jesus’ ‘deeds of power’, of His ‘redeeming deeds’: stilling the storm, dealing with the Gadarene (Gerasene) demoniac, healing the lady who had suffered from haemorrhages and raising Jairus’ daughter. We had the stilling of the storm at Evensong last week, and Jairus’ daughter will be a lesson at Evensong tonight. They are all connected. They all show Jesus’ power.

Where ‘demons’ are concerned, I can’t imagine that a psychiatrist would last long in practice today if her therapeutic methods involved diverting people’s ‘demons’ into large herds of livestock which then became subject to collective fits of madness and destroyed themselves, as the Gadarene swine did.

You might wonder why Jesus was apparently quite content to allow the demons to go into the pigs and for the pigs then to throw themselves into the lake. As a friend said to me this week, it must have been a terrible disaster for the pig farmers involved. In St Mark’s Gospel, where this story is also told, it says that there were 2,000 pigs that died in this way. What a catastrophe for the farmers concerned! I very much doubt that the Roman government paid any compensation. Perhaps the fate of a bunch of pigs was not something that seemed very important, when seen from a Jewish perspective.

Clearly, it is quite difficult for us to understand what was really going on in these episodes from Jesus’ life. Perhaps we might colloquially refer to somebody ‘having demons’ today: we might say somebody ‘has to face his demons’, for example; but we’re not trying to make any kind of scientific statement. Similarly, healing the woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages, and, even more spectacularly, raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead, is really difficult to understand in modern scientific terms.

The whole concept of ‘powers’, forces that people might possess, was an idea that was current in Hellenistic philosophy at the time of Jesus; the power that went out of Jesus when the woman touched the hem of his garment: the evil force, the demoniac possession, in the Gadarene madman, which Jesus was able to bring out of the poor man: these powers were understood perhaps in the same way that we understand ‘super power’ in comic-book heroes: as a sort of X Factor.

‘High o’er the fence leaps Sunny Jim,
Force is the food that raises him’

That was a breakfast cereal advert many years ago. Everyone will remember the ‘Tiger in the tank’ that came with a few gallons of Esso petrol. It’s an attractive idea, that some people have something special, some special power; and I suppose that if some people have special power for good – Superman, for example, Kryptonite – then other people, you could imagine, might have special powers for bad. If Batman had his cape, Lex Luthor had a bad equivalent.

But unless I have missed something, I don’t think that either of my children, who are medics, would agree that any of this is anything other than picturesque fantasy, just stories. At which point I think there is a very important issue. One can make a coherent argument that these stories in the New Testament about Jesus’ deeds of power are simply myths, myths which illustrate the fact that Jesus was God as well as man. Some people would go so far as to say that therefore, because it would appear that the laws of nature could not possibly allow these various deeds of power to have really happened, they didn’t really happen: they are merely figurative, they are just stories, myths to illustrate a point about Jesus.

Indeed some of the Bible commentaries caution you against taking these stories too literally. You would be missing the point, they say, if you try to work out what kind of psychiatry was involved in the healing of the man with a demon, or try to work out what it was that made the Gadarene swine hurtle to their deaths. Better, they say, to look at it as being figurative. So, the expression ‘Gadarene swine’ has indeed become a figure of speech. It’s the idea of a collective madness taking over a group of people, which leads them to their own destruction.

But is it only figurative? If it is, then it could be a reason why some people have rather lost interest in the story of Jesus. Very commonly today people will say to you, ‘I don’t go to church: I don’t really think I could ever make sense of the things that go on there enough – and ultimately, I’m not too bothered.’ Those of us who do believe might find that rather shocking. But I would say that it was understandable. What we say, as Christians, is that you can, to some extent, reason your way to a belief in God, in the sense of there being an ultimate creator, but you can’t really reason your way to a belief in a god that cares for us and is involved in our lives – a god that would be worth praying to.

The reason that we do believe in that God, who is involved with us, who cares for us, is precisely because we believe in Jesus. We believe that God revealed Himself to us in the form of Jesus Christ, and the nature of that revelation is crucial to our belief. If indeed what we know of Jesus is actually a collection of myths, stories, which really have no basis in our modern understanding, then it would be difficult to say that there was any real revelation by God of His true nature in Jesus. If all that Jesus ultimately was, was a collection of picturesque stories, then the person who says, ‘I just don’t know. I don’t think I could ever really know, and therefore I don’t really bother with religion any more,’ is being perfectly rational.

If all we are doing is celebrating a bunch of picturesque stories, (even granted they are stories which illustrate profound points), but if ultimately they are just that, only stories, then, indeed, all we have in God is a blind watchmaker. But if that was the case, I just don’t think we would still be sitting here in church, a couple of thousand years later. I don’t think that Christianity would be, on a worldwide basis, if not in Northern Europe, a rapidly-growing religion, with many millions of people coming to faith each year. It seems to me that we have to accept that the Gospels are not just mythical or figurative – although there may well have been things put in to emphasise points. I think, on the other hand, that we do have to accept that something did happen, and that that ‘something’ is beyond our human understanding, beyond the reach of modern science.

God revealed Himself in the person of Jesus. It seems to me that it is perfectly possible to understand these ‘deeds of power’ as being things which went outside what we regard as the laws of nature and went beyond what we can understand or explain, but that they were there, that they did happen. It’s precisely because of that, that we believe that Jesus was who he said he was. If we really believe that, that is the ultimate elephant in the room. We can’t simply put God away in a cupboard and say, ‘Yes, we know that there was a creator. He put the mechanism together, set it off, and now, we’re working out the inexorable process of evolution – but He’s no longer involved.’

That won’t do. If we believe that Jesus’ coming on earth shows that God is not just an unmoved mover, but is actually personally concerned with us, then I really don’t think that we ought to be unmoved either.

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