It's not unusual to see religious messages on hoardings in Auckland, but they tend to be professionally designed advertisements, with eyecatching images and snappy slogans, footnoted by a website address and the name of some organisation. Normally the goal seems to be to attract punters to some pricey devotional event, or to sell some piece of didactic merchandise.
This billboard, though, is quite different: its author hasn't bothered with imagery, or a fancy font, or a web address. He or she doesn't seem to want to sell anything. The billboard does not even partake of the distinction, beloved amongst evangelists of all religious and political stripes, between the Elect and the to-be-converted. Rather than asking its reader to 'Join us' or 'Discover what we know', the billboard affirms the identity of the evangeliser and the evangelised. Christ died for Our sins. There is no elect: we are all sinners in his eyes.
If this billboard fascinates me, in a way that the local Anglican church's performance of Handel's Messiah or the Pontiff's latest encyclical never could, it is because it expresses a religious belief so ferociously ascetic that it seems to call into question the whole pattern of the society within which it exists. I do tend to see a lot of mainstream religion as a sort of elaborate insurance scheme, whereby believers secure a stake in an afterlife which is envisaged as a sort of bourgeois paradise - a Gold Coast where the sun never goes down, or a Las Vegas where the casino is always in your debt. Wasn't it Billy Graham, that perect symbol of the crassness of late American capitalism, who defined heaven as a place where everyone rides a cadillac over streets paved with gold?
For many Westerners, the sternly self-denying side of Christianity is undoubtedly symbolised by John Calvin, the French theologian whose brief rule of the city of Geneva was an early example of the misfortunes that result when bureaucrats are put at the disposal of intellectuals. I'm off to Wellington for the weekend with Skyler, who is attending a conference of women trade unionists there. She won't be wanting my lumbering male presence on Saturday and Sunday, so I may have an opportunity to take part in the celebrations which are being held in the city on those days to mark the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Calvin - celebrations which are being organised by the Rev Nathan Parry, the Presbyterian Minister of Island Bay and an old and dear friend of mine.
Back in the early nineties, Nathan and I used to engage in ruthless philosophical discussions on the edges of the canteen at Rosehill College, but I'd like to think that both of us have moved on a little since then. In the fascinating account of his intellectual development that he wrote to secure his Masters of Theology degree, Nathan revealed that as a teenager he used concepts like the wrath of God and the plane of Hell to comfort himself in the face of bullying from the cooler kids at Rosehill (I wish I had had that sort of self-justification to draw on). Nathan has long since outgrown his Billy Graham phase, and today his worldview combines a mysticism informed by negative theology with a commitment to political activism in support of progressive causes. Nathan thinks nothing of retreating into the bush to meditate on the God who reveals himself by his absence, but he's equally at home running an ecumenical workshop on global warming entitled 'What sort of car would Jesus drive?'
Nathan has never been an uncritical admirer of Calvin, so he won't mind me suggesting that the sort of self-denial associated with the more 'primitive' parts of the Protestant tradition is not without its contradictions. Every ascetic is, in his own way, a sort of hedonist. By rigorously circumscribing his pleasures, he intensifies the meagre enjoyments that remain to him. A cold shower becomes an orgy; a bowl of soup becomes a five-course banquet. The much-celebrated ability of the great Protestant martyrs to endure denunciation and torture probably owes much to this curious self-denial-indulgence. How else can we explain the steady voice that John Hus retained, as he recited his death-prayers on a burning pyre?
Apart from Nathan, my main spiritual advisor is Bill Direen, the lapsed Catholic whose Jesuitical attitude to many aspects of life almost makes him an honourary Calvinist (it was, after all, a Catholic clergyman who remarked that 'the worst sort of Protestants are the Jesuits'). When I stayed with Bill in Dunedin back in September 2007, we visited the city's oldest Presbyterian church, and talked at length about the long shadow that John Knox has cast over the history of Otago. I wrote a poem at the time, in an attempt to express what I see as the double-sidedness of the asceticism that Knox practiced: it hasn't been published anywhere, but I thought I'd post it here as a sort of commemoration of the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Knox's precursor.
Knox Church Windows (for Bill Direen)
The dove on Christ's brow,
symbolising the Holy Spirit;
a pair of crossed keys,
Samson, stowed in a bulging ox;
St Paul, pared to a sword.
Knox ignores them all,
looks upward, past the hammer beams
held horizontally, past the curved
rafters, all the way to the top
of the arched timber ceiling,
all the way
to his heaven,
his twelve cubic metres
of unstained air.
I'll let you know how the celebrations go this weekend. I can't imagine there'll be too much boozing.