Summary: I do personally believe that the greatest thing that holds people back from following Jesus, and that so often holds us back from truly giving ourselves to Him, is fear.
Those of you who tune in regularly to my online forum will know that there’s been a lot of discussion lately about Christopher Hitchens’ new book, "God is Not Great - how religion poisons everything".
The publishers, Allen and Unwin, had sent me a review copy that I passed on to someone else on the forum, who wrote a review of it for us there, and we’ve been talking about it online ever since.
Christopher Hitchens is one of these new breed of atheist academics who, along with people like Richard Dawkins, bear a surprisingly close resemblance to the last generation of atheistic academics. The arguments have not changed, and neither has the air of intellectual superiority that these characters tend to emanate.
One thing that most of these critics of religion generally have in common, is a tendency to offer a psychological explanation for religious belief. Religious belief is, such persons say, a form of wish-fulfilment. We wish so deeply that there were such a thing as ‘God’, that we will not accept his or her absence. Therefore we create a mythical being who satisfies our unsatisfied hopes and dreams.
Freud’s analysis is one of the most well-known. To Freud, God was an idealised father-figure, who offered real (if illusory) protection from the many dangers of the world. As a child grows up, she learns that dad cannot really shield her from all the vicissitudes of life, so she creates an ideal father who will ultimately shield her even from death, and in the case of a boy, there is the additional incentive, that the idealised Heavenly Father is not in competition with the lad for the affections of his mother (though that takes us further into Freudian theory than we need to go).
The guts of it is, at any rate, that we grow up wishing that we had a true father-protector, and since we cannot find one, we create one in our imaginations - an ideal Heavenly father who is the fulfilment of all our hopes and dreams.
One of the difficulties in maintaining this sort of analysis of religion, at least when we look at the religion of the New Testament, is that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ does not appear to be the ideal answer to all our hopes and dreams.
The God of the New Testament does not fit our human hopes very neatly. Our Lord Jesus was not the person that religious people of the first century were expecting or looking for. Instead of being the answer to everybody’s dreams, Jesus had a tendency to upset people‘s hopes and dreams, and on some occasions at least, as in today’s Gospel reading, an encounter with Jesus concluded with people pleading with Him that He might go away and leave them alone! So much for Freud!
The story I’m referring to is one that I suspect many of us are familiar with. It’s the story of Jesus and Legion - the crazy, demon-possessed psychotic - that we read of in Luke chapter 8. It’s a story that I remember well from my youth, and one that I always felt would make a great movie (perhaps with Arny Swarchzenegger playing the role of Legion)!
I remember wondering as a lad what it would have been like to have seen this strange and dishevelled, yet powerful and muscular 1st century version of Conan the Barbarian! I remember, as a boy, even feeling a bit iffy about catching ‘Legion Taxi Cabs’ on account of this story.
The story takes place in the Gadarenes or the Gerasenes, or the Gergasenes, depending on which version of which Gospel you read.
It is indeed one of the problems with this story that none of the three Gospel writers who recorded this incident - Matthew, Mark and Luke - seemed to be entirely clear about exactly where Jesus had this encounter with this shadowy character, and even the earliest copies of Luke’s Gospel that we have, are not in complete agreement as to exactly which of these three places it was.
There is a good and straightforward explanation for this I think, as whichever place it was - the Gadarenes or the Gerasenes, or the Gergasenes - they all had one thing in common. These were places outside of Israel. This was pagan country, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. No self-respecting Jew would visit any of these places, and I suspect that the reason that nobody could quite remember which of these places it was, reflects the fact that none of these Gospel writers had ever been there - neither Matthew, Mark, nor Luke. Nor were they ever likely to go there!
The place where Jesus decides to travel to is somewhere out on the periphery of the civilised world. Strange people live there, who worship strange gods. They eat pigs over there, which no self-respecting Jew would do, and they have one very strange ambassador, coming out to meet Jesus - dirty, dishevelled, completely naked, and moaning with some horrible guttural moan that echoes the darkness that infests his system.