A whole new world of exciting career prospects opens up for theologians, professional or amateur, lay or ordained.
Until now, their job prospects have been limited at best, bleak at worst. Academic openings have been few, and those for religion columnists fewer still.
The study of this discipline could of course be part of pursuing a priestly vocation. Yet ordination isn’t a path open to everybody and, truth be told, today’s churches tend to discourage excessive interest in theology. God forbid an initiate starts pondering the meaning of Christianity, only to realise that, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury has neglected to put in the same effort.
But, if you’ve decided to dedicate your life to the study of this subject, worry not. There are now many vacancies at the Home Office for theologians ready to use their recondite expertise in their daily work.
An Iranian convert to Christianity has found this out the hard way. According to him, the man converted to Christianity because it’s a religion of peace, whereas Islam, contrary to what our politicians tell us, isn’t.
Since the Iranians, in compliance with their sacred texts, take a rather dim view of apostasy, the new Christian justifiably feared for his life. Hence he applied for asylum in Britain – only to be turned down on theological grounds and thereby effectively sentenced to death.
Evidently the first intake of theologians at the Home Office has already settled in, and they pointed out to the poor chap the error of his ways. Islam may or may not be a religion of peace, they explained, but Christianity certainly isn’t.
And it wasn’t just a matter of opinion frivolously expressed. In the best tradition of exegetic scholarship, the Home-spun theologians supported their postulate with textual evidence, nailing the misguided Iranian to the wall of folly.
They helpfully elucidated their point by citing numerous violent passages in both Testaments. The Book of Revelation, for example, is “filled with imagery of revenge, destruction, death and violence”, they wrote to the applicant.
And even before we get to that book, didn’t Jesus himself say that he brought not peace but a sword? Of course he did, if you believe in the Gospels as much as you claim you do. There you go then. Case closed.
As to the Old Testament, don’t get them going on that sanguinary narrative. Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy all depict violent scenes, with some violence meted out by God, some visited by some people on others, but all appalling.
In his letter of rejection, a Home Office theologian explained to the hapless Iranian that: “These examples are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful’ religion, as opposed to Islam which contains violence, rage and revenge.”
I don’t know how the recipient reacted to these profound insights, but I for one am impressed. Theologians unattached to government offices have been interpreting the Bible for millennia, but seldom have they been able to express themselves so lucidly and unequivocally.
Yet a modest and still anonymous theologian blessed by the laying of Home Office hands was able to overturn the traditional understanding of Scripture – including the Book of Revelation with its apocalyptic visions, whose allegories have been known to baffle even the most learned of saints.
Heirs to those inadequate interpreters will doubtless try to hold their ground. They’ll argue that the Bible is written in the language of poetic imagery that doesn’t always lend itself to a literal reading.
It’s also an historical document that depicts real events as refracted through revelation. And history is violent because human nature is.
The Bible depicts a never-ceasing struggle between good and evil and, while showing a clear path for good to triumph, it also shows that evil has never ceded its position easily, nor ever will.
Pagan cults widely practised at the time the two Testaments were written involved rituals like both male and female prostitution, and also human sacrifice at the altar of multiple gods.
God punished such evil, either directly or through human agents, for timidity in the face of evil would have guaranteed its victory. But God also visited grace on the righteous and he was merciful to sinners.
His commandment was to love others as oneself, but he and those through whom he spoke knew that, on the way to reaching that ideal, many would try to sabotage it and extinguish the light of love. Such evil had to be resisted, by violence if regrettably necessary.
However, to see the Old Testament, traditional theologians would claim, as a call to violence or its endorsement is the same as suggesting that it glorifies polygamy (practised by the kings and patriarchs), drunkenness (Noah), incest (Lot) and killing people with slingshots (David).
As to the New Testament, it’s full of love and grace. Unlike Mohammad who, by way of introduction, decapitated several hundred Jews with his own sabre, Jesus submitted to agonising crucifixion as a way of redeeming the world.
Yet he and his apostles knew they were adumbrating the most sweeping (and, I’d suggest, the only successful) revolution ever. It was to change the fundamental understanding of man and everything human life involved, including morality, aesthetics, social and political organisation, religious worship, economic activity – everything was to be created anew.
Yet there was destruction implicit in that creation, for the new ways could only vanquish if the old ways were ousted. Thus the sword Jesus mentioned was symbolic in two ways.
It symbolised the severing of all ties with the evil of the old world – and also the knowledge that the old world would fight every step of the way. Hence the great Christian revolution was to rend asunder not just creeds and tribes, but even members of the same families – such was human nature, and the Scripture acknowledges it sometimes with chagrin, sometimes with joy, but always realistically.
It shows the human soul as it is, but also shows how it can become better than it is – how it can be healed and ultimately saved.
Both Testaments prescribe steps to be taken on the road to salvation. And, though both acknowledge the existence of violence and sometimes a necessity for it, their commandments call for loving our friends and even, in the Sermon on the Mount, our enemies.
In neither Testament will one find commandments specifically calling for violence, such as those in the book on which the rejected applicant was brought up.
“Slay them wherever ye find them…”, “Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends…”, “Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush”, “…If they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them…” – these are the explicit commandments that indeed made the Iranian convert turn renegade and risk being slain.
Yet his desperate act couldn’t penetrate the wall of theological expertise now resident at the Home Office. As Christians are being slaughtered throughout the Islamic world, those savants chose to shove another one towards a sword that, alas, has nothing symbolic about it.