Sunday, 18 March 2012

Lessons from Literature Part 4 – An Example of Negative Piety

As with parts 1, 2 and 3 of ‘Lessons from Literature’ the following extract comes from Jeff Lucas’ ‘How not to Pray’ Chapter 8. Unlike the other segments, this one is the retelling of a story D.T. Niles told at Princeton University.

Sometime after World War II, during the reconstruction of Europe, the World Council of Churches wanted to see how its money was being spent in some remote parts of the Balkan Peninsula. Accordingly it dispatched John Mackie, who was president of the Church of Scotland, and two brothers of the cloth from another denomination – a rather severe and pietistic denomination - to take a jeep and travel to some of the villages where the funds were being disbursed.
One afternoon Dr Mackie and the other two clergymen went to call on the Orthodox priest in a small Greek village. The priest was overjoyed to see them, and was eager to pay his respects. Immediately he produced a box of Havana cigars, a great treasure in those days, and offered each of his guests a cigar. Dr Mackie took one, bit the end off, lit it, puffed a few puffs and said how good it was. The other gentlemen looked horrified and said, ‘No, thank you, we don’t smoke.’
Realising he had somehow offended the two who refused, the priest was anxious to make amends. So he excused himself and reappeared in a few minutes with a flagon of his choicest wine. Dr Mackie took a glassful, sniffed it like a connoisseur, sipped it and praised its quality. Soon he asked for another glass. His companions, however, drew themselves back even more noticeably that before and said, ‘no, thank you, we don’t drink!’
Later, when the three men were is the jeep again, making their way up the road out of the village, the two pious clergymen turned upon Dr Mackie with a vengeance.
‘Dr Mackie’ they insisted, ‘do you mean to tell us that you are the president of the Church of Scotland and an Officer of the World Council of Churches and you smoke and drink?’
Dr Mackie had all he could take, and his Scottish temper got the better of him. ‘No, dammit, I don’t’ he said, ‘but somebody had to be a Christian!’

Piety, if not truly Jesus-centred, can poison.