John Hughes R.I.P.

The Revd John Hughes, Dean and Chaplain of Jesus College Cambridge, has died in a car crash on his way home from an Ordination service at Ely Cathedral. His funeral is taking place there today, attended by UAL Lead Chaplain William Whitcombe, and many others who knew him personally and professionally. I met John only once, finding him possessed of a kind and thoughtful intelligence. He was what is known as a rising star in the church – as you can read about here. In addition to being a much-loved pastoral priest, he was a respected academic theologian, with published work on ‘The Crisis of Global Capitalism‘, and the consequent ‘questioning of dominant neo-liberalism, which has raised theological questions about the ultimate ends of the economy. The market is fundamentally cultural, therefore we did not have to end up here. The present crisis is not a natural happening, but was due to specific, ideological decisions’,  he said.

John’s death was also reported on the Daily Mail website, where I read the following comment:

This is not an opinion, more a question…….I’m wondering how his family and friends who trust in God feel when a tragedy like this happens? – Tezz, South UK

I have to admit that it is not so much God that I have trouble trusting in when I read this, but the basic humanity of those who use such an occasion to grind their atheist axes. But that is uncharitable of me. I understand that, while it would be easy to answer How do you think they feel?, that is not really the issue. The real question is perhaps more clearly expressed in the next comment:

I would like to hear how the church explains this. He certainly works in mysterious ways does he not? – Kiernan, Manchester

Once again, it is easy enough to answer this by saying that of course the church has thought about this. It did so when the early Christians were martyred, and it continues to do so whenever people die in tragic circumstances, which let’s face it has happened quite often over the past 2000 years. In fact, it has thought about it so much that there is a name for it: Theodicy, about which reams have been written, some of which you can read here if you like.

But I prefer to remember that the shortest verse in the Bible is: Jesus wept. He did so because he was he was ‘greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’ by the death of his friend Lazarus.

But comments/questions were raised on that occasion, too:

Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying? – Anon, Bethany

Well, he did more than this – he proceeded to raise Lazarus to life again. (John 11.28-44)

But what is often forgotten in this story is that Lazarus would eventually die again, like we will, and like even Jesus did – except that in doing so, he conquered death, and rose to eternal life… and so Christians have the assurance that we too shall be raised on the last day.

Of course, that is not quite the end of the question, and in any case, I can already hear Kiernan et al commenting on ‘pie in the sky’.

But it’s not – it’s about how we live both here and now, and from now on…

I can’t explain why God allows suffering in this world, except that it must have something to do with respecting us as children of God, growing into maturity, ‘to the measure of the full stature of Christ’. (Ephesians 4.13). In other words, as persons.

What does this mean? Well, the late John Hughes could probably have explained it very well in terms of theodicy, but as I am more accustomed to idiocy, I will simply refer to the work of his late namesake, the director John Hughes, who made some of the best-loved films of the 1980’s, including Planes Trains and Automobiles, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Breakfast Club. In case you haven’t seen the latter (or even if you have) here’s the title sequence for you, in all its hunky-doryness:

In The Breakfast Club, five misfits are locked in Shermer High School for detention one Saturday. Their jailer is the assistant principal, Richard “Show Dick some respect!” Vernon, who commands them not to speak, move from their seats, or sleep, all day. He assigns a 1,000-word essay to the students in which each must write about who he or she thinks they are. He has no real interest in the question, however, because he has already decided who they are. Although he is absent for most of the time, he can hardly be said to have forgotten about them, because he never really knew them, except as their caricatures: ‘criminal’ John Bender, ‘athlete’ Andrew Clark, ‘brain’ Brian Johnson, ‘basket case’ Allison Reynolds, and ‘princess’ Claire Standish. As such, he has no respect for them as persons; and the thing is, they half believe this of themselves.

But by suffering their detention – although emphatically not on Mr Vernon’s terms – they find out who they are as persons – or could be, together. I’m not suggesting it’s intended as a spiritual metaphor, but it can certainly be read as one, with the ‘assistant principal’ a devil figure who has trapped people in a kind of half-life, isolated in their own fragile egos. And where is God in this? Seemingly as absent as Mr Vernon, because each student has in their own way been forsaken. And that Saturday is a kind of (minor) descent into hell for each one of them. But then something happens…

‘… what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…
and an athlete…
and a basket case…
a princess…
and a criminal…
Does that answer your question?
Sincerely yours,
the Breakfast Club’

‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18.20)