Saturday, 4 June 2011

A radical challenge in "Heavens Above!"

We recently watched the 1963 Boulting Brothers' film "Heavens Above" in which Peter Sellers gives an endearing and convincing performance as a Liverpudlian vicar with a committed Christian conscience - not the "flabby" kind often associated with an institutionalised, "dead" Church.

Due to an error, he is appointed to a living, in a respectable middle class parish, but true to his beliefs follows his conscience from the start, telling his flock in his first sermon that there were "not enough Christians in this parish to keep the lions alive" (in the Roman arena). He shocks his wealthy, landed-gentry parishioners by inviting gypsies and West Africans to worship freely in his church. The selfish landowner has "ears to hear", sells off her shares and pays for free food to the whole parish, causing not only her family's company to collapse, but also the economy of the town with loss of its jobs.

There is a Thatcherite observation, well before the Iron Lady's time about the people really wanting "jobs not charity". Maybe she saw this film and agreed with the local people? Due to the repercussions of generosity, Peter Sellers is finally hounded by a howling, angry mob carrying banners "Profit, not Prophets!". Run out of town, he is then run off the Planet - in a missile. 

The film's idea was dreamed up in his pre-Christian days by satirist, later evangelical and then Catholic convert, Malcolm Muggeridge. The clash between the teaching of Jesus on holding material things lightly, and the real world is heightened for the purposes of satire.

But this film makes one think. The "Peter Sellers" character strongly believes that Christians can only help recreate the Big Society and public service by living as an example of loving generosity. He is, of course naively deceived by scroungers and crooks, but he has elements of the type of "prophet" we sorely need today to rekindle a non-toxic society.

This film also shows how money, once it is considered as all important ("Profits not Prophets") soon kills relationships and ultimately Love, leaving behind it empty religion and class war. People then judge others by the size of their bank account, when in fact, the best things in life are indeed still free.

If we are serious Christians, we must think about whether we are indeed storing up treasures on earth and not in Heaven. There is an argument for taking care of ourselves so that no one else has to, but the issue of the excessive hoarding of wealth is highly relevant today.

The banking crisis revolved around awarding huge bonuses (while billions were starving to death), creating many modern equivalents of Jesus's  rich man with his wealth in many "barns", who before he can sit back and enjoy having it all, suddenly dies without salvation.

The message of Jesus was preached in an age without pensions (though people lived shorter lives). But we must ask the question: "What is really "enough"? At what point must we actually say: "There are billions starving today and I have enough to feed some of them, so I must give my excess or even some of my income to the poor" - or risk not getting into Heaven. We can be generous in our Wills, but that does not create regenerative Love in this life.

"Heavens Above!"  reminds us that the teaching of Jesus will always be so radical that it will be counter-cultural and, possibly even make "economic bad sense" in the short term.

But His demands are uncompromising:  real "Love" and eternal salvation does not come cheap. Sacrificial giving is at the heart of Christianity - come what may.


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