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A Very Modern Religion

What is true religion? Who is the true Messiah. What are true riches? It could hardly be more be more contemporary.

Is there anything left to be said about what is known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son?

Probably not but nothing ventured…

The elder brother is of course deeply religious. The unrighteous Pharisee of the story. To describe his religion as contemporary must border on the anachronistic but then is our self-righteousness not always both of today but, despite our hubris, also nothing really new? The same old sin in some fancy new clothes?

The younger son had taken responsibility for his rebellion, been remorseful, surrendered his rights and recognised how he had wronged his Father. So he arose and went home.

Met by the longing and loving embrace of his Father he has been rescued, resurrected, reconciled to his Father, restored as a son and heir and is back in renewed relationships- a large animal for a large community feast, where he’d be feted.

But his big brother is having none of it- there is no hint in him of his Father’s love, compassion and mercy. The elder brother knew exactly what the rules were and just how impeccably he had kept them. The youngster had made his bed in the pigsty and should lie in it. “This son of yours…” he tells his father: at best the kid might abase himself and be a servant.

How familiar is this to us. The New York Times wishes to imagine Harry Potter without his creator because J.K Rowling believes that the word “woman” refers primarily to a state of biological being than a state of mind. The creator of an imaginary character herself imagined out of existence.

Examples such as this are legion and the point is not whether we agree or disagree, what we think of micro-aggressions or powerplays or people’s social media histories being trawled or vicarious offence or trigger warnings. The point is the utter ruthlessness of it all- if certain all-important “rules” are broken there is no way to restoration, only, and at best, to servitude to the prevailing culture.

Our elder son of 2,000 years ago does indeed show that humanity changes little: commit the wrong offence against the wrong person and there is no way back into civilised society. This is his religion. It does not matter how much the Father seeks him out and entreats him his little brother is beyond the pale. He should accept that being dehumanised husk of a non-person is his fault and all he deserves.

He is to be cancelled.

Nick Cave, the Australian singer and songwriter has said,

“As far as I can see, cancel culture is mercy’s antithesis. Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world. Its once honourable attempt to reimagine our society in a more equitable way now embodies all the worst aspects that religion has to offer (and none of the beauty) — moral certainty and self-righteousness shorn even of the capacity for redemption. It has become quite literally, bad religion run amuck.”

“Mr. Bean”, Rowan Atkinson said that cancel culture is like a,

“…medieval mob looking for someone to burn.”


If there is one thing that is definitely not new in religion it is celebrations and, almost without exception they are meals or feasting of some kind. The elder son’s religion is no different. He too believes in celebratory meals.

“‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.’”

And what is going to be celebrated with his friends? Why no more than himself as a superior moral being. And note it’s his friends- not his Father, or the household, or the community but his chosen circle. Presumably his friends agreed with him and wanted to celebrate such unimpeachable morality in him, and in doubtless in them.

Richard Bach is one of the more celebrated American authors of the 20th Century. Now in his late 80’s he embodies the values of that country and particularly California over his lifetime. In his last book in 2014 he concluded this,

“Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself. Being true to anyone else or anything else in not only impossible, but the mark of a fake messiah”.

The firstborn son would be on all fours with him. He too knew he was worth celebrating and so much worth celebrating. His brother’s return with all that it said about his Father’s love, mercy compassion and all it meant to his lost brother was not to be celebrated, but he in his self-righteousness unquestionably, was.

Just as Nick Cave asks what is true religion? Richard Bach asks what is a true Messiah?

And his answer together with the elder son is “I am”.

“I am to be celebrated as relatively but uniquely wonderful”.


The modern world commoditises people and things when it reduces everything to units of monetary value and so too, horribly could the ancient world.

That’s what the elder son’s religion does- he worships the market, he loves money and not much else. That is a cardinal tenet of his religion. He thinks his brother has wasted, probably a third of the family wealth and now he is back the other two thirds has to stretch to three. The prized possession of the fatted calf was now gone, along with a robe and a ring, a big party has been paid for and he resents it all.

The elder son knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. His little brother has been given his life back and they could all be joining in a celebration of all that is good in their Father’s house but that is of no worth to him.

University of Nottingham Philospopher Philip Goodchild has written about how money becomes a religion. To him the value of money is transcendent- a promise taken on faith. It is the supreme value because it is both the perspective through which we value the world and the means of making value real as well as our underlying reasons, the discipline for our conduct and the pivot around which material and social reality is continually reconstructed.

That is the gospel of the elder son. He sees all that the Father has done for his brother and in the final analysis commoditises it at the value of a young goat. Particularly so, if it is his goat for him and his friends.

Everything is commoditised.

“Sinners” cancelled, the self celebrated, everything commoditised and in common with all false faiths, it is incoherent. The Big Boy’s “religion” defines itself by resentment of the Father, demands his approval and depends on His gifts- where is the goat going to come from? And so too with us- it’s still God’s world. Take what we want, make an idol of what we worship, demand our rights and entitlements- it’s still all His.

What is true religion? Who is the true Messiah. What are true riches? It could hardly be more be more contemporary.

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