Thursday 9 December 2010

The street preacher

At five o'clock in Sydney the shops and high-rises empty their contents on to the streets, people blinking in surprise at the sunlight, everyone either rushing to get someplace else or lingering to avoid it. On George Street I passed a woman with a spray can, doing portraits on big torn sheets of butcher paper. Someone handed me an ad for a Chinese restaurant or a topless bar, I can’t remember which. I got coffee and stopped a while to watch a boy playing a decrepit homemade guitar, his fingers conjuring aching Spanish music, as if by magic, from the acoustic stump. I stayed for two songs, then a guy in a suit called out a request, some pop song, and you could see the boy was humiliated but he played it anyway, I could hear the sad half-hearted improvisations as I walked away. At the corner a preacher thundered about judgment and Sodom and Gomorrah and the weight of sin that drags us down and drowns us. A born-again biker, picture perfect with his beer gut and angry black goatee and leather Jesus jacket, he was talking about damnation and repentance when his beady black eyes saw me. He saw me peering out at him from the perishing faces of his beleaguered congregation. He saw me drowning in Sydney’s sea of wickedness and threw me a lifeline, a hideous gospel plea, have you sinned? have you been born again? Nervously I averted my eyes, pushed my hands into my pockets, hiding my sins from him there like the stones in Virginia Woolf’s overcoat, heavy and precious and inexplicable.

Why do I shrink from the street preacher? Why do I hide from his piercing eyes and scuttle away and try to lose his voice in the consoling anonymous clamour of the street? As much as anyone else that day on George Street, I have to hope he’s wrong, that his implacable rage against the city is not the rage of God, that the face of God is more than blood and thunder and holy indignation.

But what if he’s right? I was losing myself in the crowd, but his words echoed behind me, something about horror and the Bible and salvation. What if he’s right, and salvation means rescue from a bottomless pit of divine hatred? Could I accept redemption on those terms, could anyone? Could I be born again? Or should I ask the preacher to lead me in a prayer of unredemption, ask him please don’t save me, please let me stay in hell with everybody else? If Sydney is Sodom and Gomorrah, wouldn’t it be better to stay and be swept away than to flee for the lonely mountains? Could I explain all this to the preacher? Would God accept my testimony if I chose to bear witness in hell instead of heaven, if I loved those God hates more than I love God?

The preacher wants my sins. He craves them like a wild and hungry thing, famished with righteousness. He would ask me to confess; he would suck the marrow from the bone. I heard his last words, if you die tonight, before his voice was swallowed up and lost in the city’s godless clamour. I went down the steps to the Town Hall station. Beside me on the platform two teenagers were making out. The girl’s ear was studded with silver, her body pushed up against the handrail. A man with a briefcase was talking into his phone, sweaty and earnest, probably a wife or mistress. I watched the rubbish on the tracks and waited. I wondered if the preacher had been a prophet or messiah, the last hard truth at the world's end. I hope I’ll never see him again. Sometimes it’s better to be damned and ruined than left naked without a name. Sometimes your whole life is just one dull sin after another, and you can’t honestly repent of all that, not even if you wanted to. I buried my hands in my pockets, counting out my sins one by one like pathetic rosary beads as the man on the phone said no fucking way and the girl with the earrings moaned and the train rattled into the station, drowning everything at last in a grey monotonous thunder.


Erin said...

Man, that hits the spot, thanks.
I want to distill it for some people, but no. When you're tired it feels like you either get it or they don't.

Anonymous said...

can't help but thinking that both characters have similarly bleak/monochromatic views of god, sin and salvation.

R. Alexander Tracy said...

In a similar vein, I highly recommend _The Word on the Street_ by Stanley Saunders and Chuck Campbell. Campbell is now at Duke, and has been very interested in "extreme" forms of preaching; he was known for having his students stand up and start reading Scripture on MARTA trains in Atlanta as part of the exegesis process for preaching. That way they had an experience of the Word in the midst of poverty and the ordinary lives of people outside the pastor's study. Definitely a different take on street preaching from what is described here, with a much greater influence by Martyn and newer apocalyptic readings of Paul. At the Academy of Homiletics a few years back, Campbell made a stir with a paper on naked street preaching, which I guess would be an "extremer" form of homiletics.

Josh said...

Good post.

Anonymous said...

You may have met Graham Long, pastor of Wayside Chapel, Ben. He sees the struggle of humanity every day, and the search for love and acceptance in the eyes of his Wayside people and thinks he's the most blessed guy on earth.

Anonymous said...

"Sometimes your whole life is just one dull sin after another, and you can’t honestly repent of all that, not even if you wanted to."

No, but when you become aware of it - and the fact that it is serious (a preacher in my tradition said "small sins become big when they are considered small") - should we not repent (like the Jesus prayer). Doesn't repentance clear the air, help us breath free from that which suffocates and sears?

Ephesians 5:3 always haunts me.

And yes, I think God's love trumps justice, and yet, he does talk about hating the sinner. Hard stuff.


kim fabricius said...

Spoken by a true - and compassionate - student of Augustinne, who realised that most sins are "commmited by people weeping and groaning", and that "a person who is afraid of sinning because of hellfire is afraid, not of sinning, but of burning."

On the other hand, the guy is too kind about about Sydney. I hear it makes Sodom and Gomorrah look like Disneyland.

Anonymous said...

I would advise anybody who wants to explore the psyche of Sydney, and indeed the rest of this incredibly beautiful (in every sense of the word) country, to take a look at the film "Wake in Fright" (1971).

Erin said...

Ben I reposted this on my blog so that my church is exposed to it. 'Linked/credited, etc. but I don't understand how to do the track-back thing. I imagine LA has a lot in common with Sydney

Paul Tyson said...

In evangelical preaching judgement is all too easily a function of guilt regarding sexual sins of the mind, or self righteousness, or self hatred, or powerless resentment, then project onto God in “all too human” Freudian fashion. And more pragmatically, the hardened Man of God has no shame in emotionally manipulate people through their moral vulnerability if it is an effective means of saving a lost soul. Thus, via proven guilt and shame enhancing techniques, an evangelist’s ministry can ‘succeed’, and success (including vilification for ‘righteousness sake’) affirms the minister’s vocation, and this in turn upholds the minister’s very identity as a chosen tool of God. (Pardon the vulgarity, but I have known not a few “tools of God” of this ilk.) But… judgement itself need not be how we typically see it used by street preachers. I vaguely feel that the discomfort Ben senses has too sources. Firstly, there is something profoundly wrong with a gospel that centres on sin and judgement and then understands grace as a free pass out of gaol (and what a gaol – a prison of inescapable torture with no remand, no appeal and no end!). But secondly, there is something right about the message of judgement itself, and the reality – indeed good news – that, as Kierkegaard and Barth note, none is righteous before God. And then there is the sheer non-conformist guts of the abrasive and thoroughly out of place people who preach it in the street; guts we seldom see in more civilized Christian circles. And then again moral failure (i.e. sins rather than Sin) is something no-one wants to hear about, and a gospel without conviction, repentance and transformation is as vacuous as a gospel of sin and eternal torture escape is false. With Ben, I find that it is very discomforting hearing a street preacher ply his craft, and the causes of discomfort are largely just how bad this craft itself is, but – most disconcertingly – such preaching is not unmixed with truth and courage.

Unknown said...

/considers/ As a post of experience and feeling this is beautiful, and something that I empathise with, quite absolutely - am a chronic relapsing Christian myself, so no fingers pointed here.

As a theological post this is perhaps not so attractive when read in isolation. Take for instance, if I loved those God hates more than I love God? . Unbelievable narcissism in that statement.

eknekron said...

I thought this was an example of an incredibly well articulated common experience. Made me think of this poem:

'The Killing' by Edwin Muir

That was the day they killed the Son of God
On a squat hill-top by Jerusalem.
Zion was bare, her children from their maze
Sucked by the dream of curiosity
Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind
Had somehow got themselves up to the hill.

After the ceremonial preparation,
The scourging, nailing, nailing against the wood,
Erection of the main-trees with their burden,
While from the hill rose an orchestral wailing,
They were there at last, high up in the soft spring day.
We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw
The three heads turning on their separate axles
Like broken wheels left spinning. Round his head
Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn
That hurt at random, stinging temple and brow
As the pain swung into its envious circle.
In front the wreath was gathered in a knot
That as he gazed looked like the last stump left
Of a death-wounded deer's great antlers. Some
Who came to stare grew silent as they looked,
Indignant or sorry. But the hardened old
And the hard-hearted young, although at odds
From the first morning, cursed him with one curse,
Having prayed for a Rabbi or an armed Messiah
And found the Son of God. What use to them
Was a God or a Son of God? Of what avail
For purposes such as theirs? Beside the cross-foot,
Alone, four women stood and did not move
All day. The sun revolved, the shadows wheeled,
The evening fell. His head lay on his breast,
But in his breast they watched his heart move on
By itself alone, accomplishing its journey.
Their taunts grew louder, sharpened by the knowledge
That he was walking in the park of death,
Far from their rage. Yet all grew stale at last,
Spite, curiosity, envy, hate itself.
They waited only for death and death was slow
And came so quietly they scarce could mark it.
They were angry then with death and death's deceit.

I was a stranger, could not read these people
Or this outlandish deity. Did a God
Indeed in dying cross my life that day
By chance, he on his road and I on mine?

Martyn J Smith said...

A beautifully written piece that evokes a poignant image of city life and its travails, beauty and pain...
Everyone has a reason for the stuff they do - it just might not be a GOOD reason (the question then, of course, becomes 'GOOD' according to whom...?)

-JcB. said...

Great post. I've often felt the same way in similar situations. Prophet? Lunatic? Both...? Or just a perversion of the gospel with an agenda of hate?

Anonymous said...

The preacher might have been skewed, the city miserable, but that is no excuse for you to flee from the reality of God's wrath and righteous indignation at this sinful world and seek refuge in the anonymity of the crowd. Fleeing from wrath is to flee from salvation, for it is only as we are confronted with how dire our situation is that we can be overwhlemed at God's love for sinners in the blood of Christ: God's love for us who would prefer to hide in the crowd of the unrighteous than to stand boldly with the justified sinner, the lunatic preacher, the biker in all his faith inspired short comings.

Anonymous said...

Great post and thank you Ben..again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post!

Andrew said...

I remember an essay by Chesterton which argued that the true patriot loves their country not right OR wrong but right AND wrong. A true lover or friend is prepared to acknowledge and even name the faults in the object of their love.

I wonder whether the street preacher and the God he believes in doesn't at heart saying that God in fact loves the sinful and their city and wants to see them transformed.

As a sinner and a preacher myself I would not want to assume that another's mothervation is helfire and brimstone when it may in fact be God's anger born of love, a love which is offering hope and transformation.

Martyn J Smith said...

Am I missing something or is it a symbol of post-modern irony that the person condemning you for your desire to gain anonymity in the crowd posts on the thread anonymously? Epic LOL...

XtnYoda said...

The drunk on the corner assailed the street preacher...

"You don't really believe there is a literal hell... if you did you wouldn't be standing there voice and bible raised against sin... if you really believed there is a hell after this life... you would be on your face... crawling though all the broken glass, vomit, and stench... tears streaming... weeping and wailing... over this city."

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