In the Days of Rain

In the Days of Rain is Rebecca Stott’s biography of her father, Roger Stott.  He was a leading figure in the Exclusive Brethren, leaving the movement in 1970 when he was in his early 30’s, and when Rebecca herself was just 5.  His story was pieced together after his death in 2007.  The book won the author the Costa Biography Award in 2017.  It illustrates the power of a religious community to damage people profoundly.

The story is told sympathetically, in spite of the author’s painful childhood experiences, both before and after her father’s break with the Exclusive Brethren.  He struggled to come to terms with a deep sense of bereavement after parting company with a community which had shaped his whole life until that point. He stopped believing in God.  He became a compulsive gambler, drinking heavily.  His marriage fell apart.  He was convicted of embezzling money from the company he worked for and spent time in prison.

Stott is portrayed as a victim as much as a villain.  Bullied by his own father, he was compelled as a child to submit to the strict discipline of the Exclusive Brethren and to keep apart from the world beyond its borders.  In spite of its privations, it did not prevent him taking up a place at Cambridge University to read English Literature.  The broadening of his intellectual life that resulted from this did not lead to a loosening or breaking of ties with the Brethren, rooted as they were in deep and long-standing family bonds.  In fact, no “loosening” was possible – you were either in or out.

The 1960’s were a time of increasing rigour and extremism among the Exclusive Brethren, under the global leadership of James Taylor, the “Man of God”.  Stalinist purges took place within the movement and the demands made of its members to live separately from others multiplied.  Stott and his family were trapped in a system of close personal ties, dogma and religious practice that demanded discipline and loyalty.

The end eventually came when Taylor was exposed for being drunk, foul-mouthed and sleeping with another man’s wife at a Brethren meeting in Aberdeen.  Stott was shaken and bewildered.  For a while he continued to preach at “Non-Taylorite Exclusive Brethren” gatherings, but within a few years abandoned Christianity altogether and began a steady decline into compulsive gambling, drinking, debt, criminality and the neglect of his family.

Roger Stott’s story may be seen by some to illustrate the destructiveness of any religious belief.  The Exclusive Brethren, however, were a small religious cult quite untypical of religious groups in general.  But there are similar cults in existence, and probably always have been, in most if not all religious traditions, and in that sense it is a warning about the destructive potential of religion.

The story is better seen as an illustration of the immense power of religious faith to inspire devotion and loyalty, and to create community.  It is hard for those who deny the validity of any kind of religious faith to explain the source of this power.  There is something about our human condition that longs for the transcendent; that thirsts for God.  Extreme religion, for all its potential to do harm, reveals how deep-seated this longing is.  Religious faith needs to be acknowledged as important and brought into the open, to be talked about in a serious way.  Destructive extremism is fostered in a closed, exclusive environment where it is not exposed to challenge or debate.  The more religion is relegated to the margins or ignored, the more dangerous it is likely to be.

In the Days of Rain also demonstrates processes that encourage extremism.  The author describes the power of a close community to control the emotions and behaviour of individuals within it.  Within such an environment people’s freedom to think, to explore ideas and to make decisions for themselves can be restricted or even stolen from them.  It is not only religious communities that are guilty of this, of course.  If this is to be avoided, communities need to encourage their members to think for themselves.

Another force in the growth of extremism is the role of the charismatic leader.  A frequent feature of dysfunctional communities is a leader whose authority is accepted without question.  The leader’s status is identified with the welfare of the community as a whole, so that to question it is seen as profoundly threatening.  To prevent this, the community needs to develop a strong sense of its own identity, quite apart from the personalities that rise within it, and that can survive their departure.

Reading Rebecca Stott’s book would benefit anyone preparing for ministry or leadership in the Church.

Peter Shepherd (February 2018)

Unseen History

An intriguing aspect of the ministry of Jesus is his reluctance to seek publicity.  His claims and deeds pointed to a status that was unique, but he often asked that people keep quiet about it.  The parables, which made up a large part of his teaching, are open to a variety of interpretations and they sometimes seem deliberately obscure.  Some of them explicitly make the point that God’s work in building his kingdom is a hidden activity – its results can be recognized, but not how they were achieved.  When asked directly by his opponents whether he was the Son of God or the Messiah, Jesus does not deny it, but neither does he unequivocally affirm it.  His preferred title for himself is “Son of Man”, which although having Messianic associations, is open to a variety of interpretations.

William Wrede suggested that the “Messianic Secret” was an invention of the Gospel writers to explain the absence of any explicit claims by Jesus himself.  This has never seemed convincing to me.  Others have suggested that Jesus wanted to play his true identity down because of the risk of being misunderstood, or of prematurely provoking a violent reaction.  Certainly, contemporary notions of Messiahship, involving the overthrow of Roman rule, were very different from how Jesus understood his ministry, and the claims to divine status that he did make, or imply, were vehemently rejected by those in authority as both ridiculous and blasphemous.

The fact is that every aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry took place in obscurity, from birth to ignominious death as a common criminal.  His reluctance to promote himself publicly is consistent with this.  In the end, his claims and his ability to teach and heal could not be kept secret, and they led to his crucifixion, but it seems that Jesus wanted to keep them out of the public domain as long as possible.  To the end, he refused to call on the crowds who gathered around him for support, and his loyal followers remained few.  This is one of the reasons why he alone was executed; he led no others to their deaths.

This hidden character of Jesus’ ministry suggests something important for all those who want to follow him, and something important for everyone who wants to do good in the world.  The best things are achieved not in the glare of publicity, but in hidden places.  Jesus knew that the work he came to do – which would ultimately change the world and transform the lives of millions – could only be done quietly, without fanfare, and often without recognition except by those immediately involved.  This pattern is one we would do well to acknowledge for ourselves.

Our history books are full of heroes.  The rich, the popular and the powerful are praised as the movers and shakers of the world.  They are the figureheads of social and political movements, leading people and nations because of their personalities and gifts.  But they are not the real shapers of history at all.  Behind every hero or heroine are the hidden people (or perhaps just the hidden person) who made them what they became.  Historical events or social movements that change the life experience of millions of people always have their origins long before their leaders hit the headlines.  Theories may subsequently abound as to their causes, but identifying definitely why and how they arose is an impossible task.  Take the Reformation, for example, or the Industrial Reformation, or the First World War, or, more recently, the Brexit referendum.

We honour those who work in the glare of publicity.  They do important things often in difficult circumstances.  But those who want to make the world a better place can take heart from the example of Jesus, and be challenged by it.  It is the hidden, unacknowledged acts of kindness and goodness that really make the difference.  That is the way the Kingdom of God works.  Every small good deed changes the world, and may have more profound consequences than we can imagine.

As we try to understand the world, we should not be misled by claims that the people who have statues in public places or biographies on library shelves have made it what it is.  Equally significant, and probably more so, are the people who have long been forgotten and who will never have a memorial.  Jesus’ place in history is unique, and the Church acknowledges him as Lord, but this should not obscure the remarkable fact that nothing of what he did and said at the time was publicly acknowledged or celebrated.

Peter Shepherd (February 2018)