Freddie Whitaker has spent most of his career teaching biblical studies in a theological college training people for ministry. Sometimes he thinks he has been wasting his time, especially when students suggest, as they so often do, that serious biblical study is all very well in Cambridge but has no place in the local church. Little wonder that more than a century of biblical scholarship has barely begun to find its way to ordinary Christian believers.
Extreme fundamentalism persists but so far as debate about belief is concerned, it sets up straw men. We criticise the silliest manifestations of fundamentalism but to very little effect. It’s the us and them thing. We are not like that. We’re mainstream. We’re sensible If you are heard as directing you attention to the sectarian fringe, the message which the mainstream will pick up will always be, You just carry on exactly as you are.
Once in a while Freddie wonders whether he should finish off his career with a spell back in a local church where he might be able to be heard among ordinary believers. But really he couldn’t face it. He would much rather go back to the classroom and teach physics. Fat chance there is of that.
A serious issue drops in front of him when Beresford Hall, a partner college, invite Rev Jessica Renshaw the church’s Healing and Wholeness Officer to address them and to preach during Holy Week. The problem for Freddie is that Jessica gives respectability and credibility to what is at bottom harmful. She is a long way removed from the healers who are celebrated on the fringes of the church and who offer miracles to the faithful and astound the medical profession. For Jessica, true healing lies in the peace of mind that comes from the wholeness which Christ gives when we surrender ourselves and our ailments to him.
This may be well and good as far as it goes, Freddie suggests, and if it were to be promoted as prayers for comfort in the face of suffering then he would probably have no quibble with it. But to offer as healing outside of the circles in which this specialised vocabulary is current, is to offer healing which doesn’t happen. Healing which doesn’t involve getting better. And that is not what people will come looking for. It offers false hope and sits squarely alongside all the false therapies that do no good.
If he had left it at that, he might have got away with it. But he added a story from when he was an undergraduate physics student suffering from severe sinus headaches. A friend gave him a remedy to try. It was a green oily liquid. You put a couple of drops in the palm of your hand, rubbed your palms together and then cupped them over you nose and inhaled. A powerful vapour of mixed aromas and ammonia seemed to work quite well. The liquid? Snake oil. So Freddie, inevitably, was characterised as the clergyman who said that snake oil works better than prayer.