The new yellow submarine and its theology of sinking

A few decades ago, the Beattles were launching a famous hit, a very catchy song called “The Yellow Submarine”. Very colourful, very nice tune, too, very nice cover pictures for the LP vinyl disk, a very avant-guard video version, also. The chorus had everybody singing with great joy “We all live in our yellow submarine, yellow submarine, yellow submarine, We all live in our yellow submarine, yellow submarine, yellow submarine”.

In a funny way, I started to look at this stormy discussion stirred up by the loud and not very wise confessions of Joseph Ton, as to a way of living together in one big, yellow, noisy submarine, which, hopefully is not going to sink us altogether, but rather wake us up to reality. This is why, in a rather curious way, maybe one should rather thank Joseph Ton, not for his theology, but for providing his contemporaries with such an unexpected opportunity to go through a hectic, mad and, at the same time, lively experience of self analysis before God.

Not-being-a-cessationist, or being-a-cessationist have become the hot subjects of the day in the Romanian Baptist community. Being a Watcher (see the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch), or a Watchman (“strajer”, any link with Watchman Nee?), or not being a watcher or a watchman in the biblical sens, or being a poor biblical watchman, for that sake, has reclaimed a lot of the time and web pages of so many Baptists, Pentecostals, Charismatics and non-affiliated everything-else-type of evangelical Christians in Romania.

Of course, Ton cannot be right, theologically. How could he be? He feels, for instance, that he has made a major discovery, one of the greatest since the times of Reformation, suggesting that people should focus their Christian life on the Gospels, and not on the letters of Paul… Is this reinventing the ideea of Canon, or suggests, instead, with Kaesemann, the need for a Canon within the Canon, or is he playing right into the welcoming and suffocating embrace of Eastern Ortodoxy and of Roman-Catholicism, who have advocated a similar view since the Reformation? Has he become an out-of-reform and un-reforming would-not-be-evangelical-anymore believer, or is he a newly discovered charismatic-yet-still-would-be-traditionalist?

Then, of course, comes this rather naive claim that one would like to help the Watchmen movement in order to cleanse and keep their theology from excesses and heresies, quite clearly present at the present in their current practice and maybe theology (although I am not sure they could really boast with something that could be called a theology)? The charismatic movement has been around for some 50 years by now, with ups and downs, and nobody has yet reformed it theologically or made it safe from excesses; is Ton really thinking he would be the one to bring order into this happy hodge-podge of enthusiastic worshippers enamoured with themselves, cherrishing a new personality cultus and hypnotised by the captivating and mesmerizing sounds of modern instruments, and so often, of heresy, as well, and that he would, indeed, be able to embark successfully on such an educational entreprise, now, towards the end of his career and ministry?…

So, theologically, he appears to be on the wrong side, through and through. Ethically, his blunders are also impressive: was he right when he wrote against charismatic gifts and charismatic baptists, or is he right now when he has become one of these little brothers, worth defending, and claims spiritual gifts in a new fashion, so much at odds with what he got his friends and sympathisers used until recently? Was he right when he spoke in tongues but denied it in the open and fought against it, or now when he confesses it and probably, grooms it? He expects everybody else in the pentecostal and charismatic fold to welcome him in eagerness, yet their reaction has not been as enthusiastic as he might have thought.

In my opinion, all these, and many other objections along them, would not amount, really, to something entirely new. It is well known that Joseph Ton has always been a great educator, and more so than a great and subtle theologian. A fine analyst of ideologies and an intelligent debater, whom God has won for himself and attempted to reform, a gifted communicator able to challenge people, political structures, even states, playing dangerously with his ability of giving them the appearance of cooperation or the lack thereof… He would have liked to be an unchallenged master of meanings and appearances, of simple or double games, as they come, and of cultural, ideological projects, at a grand scale… And, of course, people would remember him as a steady advocate of personal holiness, and of the need for a deep personal relationship with God, one for which he could not find a better word than „love” (in a long and venerable, although not so often quoted Christian tradition, at least not amongst evangelicals)…

The question, to my mind, should be different, however. Instead of asking whether he was correct theologically, one should rather ask whether Ton was correct ideologically. Indeed, let us ask this question now: is Ton ideologically right?

Is there a way, by any chance, in which Romanian evangelicals are sadly going the downpath of traditionalism and institutionalism, of party building, of power games and struggles, looking for politically correct attitudes and alliances, or just for alliances – without any correctness at all, are they building a sort of high and dry type of new (yet old) protestant spirituality? Well, for if evangelicals are doing that, then, they are not in a position to be supported in this entreprise by the state, as in the case with Germany’s Lutheranism, or with England’s Anglicanism, in order to increase, or at least secure, the impact of Christian lives and Christian evangelical creeds on this world. Romania has got its traditional Eastern Orthodox Church, and that’s what the state seems to be supporting in a sort of candid semi-democratical way. Where is the real love for the Lord, then, the fervent quest for personal holiness, the solid Christian challenge to the paradigms of present day society, the sparkling spiritual intelligence at work and in mission, in the church and in the public agora, the spirit of ministry, all these traits that used to be the characteristics of Romanian evangelicalism? Are Romanian evangelicals any longer mounting a spiritual challenge to Romanian society, at large, or have they become a well integrated, quiet, not much troublesome, happy-going, well fed and well asleep type of modern religious community that the Lord might call “lukewarm”?

Ideologically this body seems in need for a sound of trumpet, of a spiritual battle trumpet. All right, it is not correct theologically to side up with the Watchers, Watchmen, whatever and whoever they might be. But is it correct to overlook quietly and without any reaction the increasing number of dying churches, where there is no dynamism, no joy, barely any inspired and inspiring message, and no transforming spiritual life? Is it correct to loose one’s vision about the Lord and his Kingdom to come, while striving for the small cakes of the present governments and falling for the future garlic and ducks of the United Europe, while loosing sight of the vivid horizons of the Holy Spirit works and of the our Lord’s great Commission?

I don’t think that Joseph Ton is right, theologically. But, in terms of long term sighting, he has allerted the Romanian evangelical world to a problem: who is in need of spiritual reform and why? This is ideology, indeed. Spiritual ideology. Shocking, but thought provoking. Like Isaac, many ages ago, looking through some heavy theological eyebrows of a late, venerable age, we should ask ourselves whether evangelicals are not, by any chance, feasting on a religious meal without knowing, really, whether it is Jacob or Esau that’s feeding them.

Otherwise, merrily treading on the waves of life, we might look like sailing all together on a fancy submarine that keeps everybody happy with a smooth and cheering song, without any need for spiritual reform, with a good and happy company where criticising has become a sin and sinking might look like a funny and desirable experience. Frozenly and shiningly dressed up in theological self-righteousness and protocoli-gorically correct, we then might well invite each other to sing altogether now:

As we live a life of ease
Everyone of us has all we need
Sky of blue and sea of green
In our yellow submarine.

We all live in our yellow submarine,
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
We all live in our yellow submarine,
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine