Friday, 24 August 2007

How Sweet the Sound

I've been doing some more reflecting on the film "Amazing Grace' of late. Its been a couple of weeks since I saw it and so I've had a bit of time to chew it over. Like a tough but flavoursome steak. Or something like that.

One of the things that strikes me more and more as I think about it is the depiction of John Newton and, specifically, his experience of grace, about which he so famously wrote. When I was growing up, John Newton was a bit of a legendary figure at church, like King Arthur or Robin Hood. We would often sing "Amazing Grace" and the pastor at the time (Adrian Tepper, of hallowed memory) would never fail to mention Newton and give a brief outline of his story before we commenced the singing. He had run a slave-ship, we were told. He had been converted. He wrote this song. That was the template of his life I understood as a boy.

With the kind of religious atmosphere that surrounded us, one got the impression that it was a clean cut. Like those weight loss 'before' and 'after' photos. Once he was evil. Then he was good. Whether or not something like this was said explicitly, that was the impression one received because that was how conversion was generally treated. One's life was divided into pre-grace and post-grace with the yawning abyss of a single moment dividing the two (one took pride if one could remember the date of that moment). This all seemed perfectly normal. Grace worked like that.

At first, as I watched "Amazing Grace" I expected the depiction of John Newton to fall in line with my boyhood impressions. And at first it does. William Wilberforce gets up in a tavern, gives a short spiel about Newton's life to a bunch of slave-owners and then sings the first verse of the song. Exactly like we used to do at church. Imagine my surprise then when I saw how John Newton himself is depicted in the film.

In "Amazing Grace" we only ever see Newton well after his conversion. His slaver days are long behind him. And yet he is a man haunted by his sins. "Every day," he says, "I am haunted by 8000 African ghosts- ghosts of the men who died on my ships." His faith is no less sure. When we first meet him, he is reminiscing and advising William Wilberforce. Yet he seems keenly aware that the sins of his past were not committed by someone else but by him, and that that is something he has to live with, something that does not go away. When William Wilberforce asks him to aid the Abolitionist cause by writing a memoir of his slaver days, he cannot bring himself to do it.

The film does not leave him there, however. Near the end, after the passing of years, Wilberforce comes to visit him again. Newton is blind now ("I once was blind but now I see," he muses, "I wrote that, you know."). Yet it is now that he can summon the strength to write down the sins of his past life. "Only two things I know:" he says, "I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Saviour." At the end, when the crucial vote is cast, he is in the mezzanine overlooking Parliament.

Grace builds on nature, as the Fathers were so fond of saying. Grace is not magic. In the life of John Newton, its action was not instant but like yeast in bread (actually didn't someone else use that same metaphor for something similar? Luke 13:20-21).

It is perhaps only relatively recently in my Christian walk that I have come to appreciate the fact that both sin and grace are realities. That may sound like a strange thing to say. But there is a certain form of Christianity which treats them rather like legal decrees. One sits under a sentence of condemnation- that is what sin is. Then one receives a pardon and is declared acquitted- that is what grace is. There is a certain warrant for this biblically, if one restricts oneself to a particular set of passages, but not as much as one might think (none whatsoever, according to N.T. Wright) and a reading of the entire Scriptures offers a rather different picture.

The image I have found more helpful is that of a drug addiction. There is a moment when you cease to take the drug, when you have your last bong or whatever. But then you've got the consequences to deal with, the damage the stuff has done to your body, the cravings, etc. Sin is a poison. It is an acid. It eats away at our souls. It cripples us, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and sometimes even physically. That doesn't go away in an instant.
Human beings are creatures of time and process. Grace does not treat us as though we were not. It builds on our nature rather than obliterate it. The poison must be sucked out. The burns must be healed, not just bandaged over. Grace alone can do it- I certainly can't do it on my own, any more than I could do my own open-heart surgery.
But grace is not a diploma, a title. It is life itself. It is the Blood of Christ in my veins; the sap of the True Vine; the antivenom. It has to be pumped through my system, get to where the poison is and nullify it.

The cravings will one day stop. There will come a day when the work of grace will be complete, when I will no longer desire the drug of sin, that everything contrary to God's will will repulse me. But that day is not yet. I'm still in rehab. My system is still being purged, my soul still being cleansed. Grace is a reality though. And it is effective. It effects real change in me. As long as I submit to it, the work will continue apace. This is called justification.

John Newton's life, as depicted in the film "Amazing Grace", is a reminder to me that the life of grace is a journey (and that that shouldn't surprise me), and also that that journey has an end. And you know what? Suddenly that song takes on new meaning for me.

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