The comedian/commentator Russell Brand is a stimulating and fascinating cultural icon. This week I was so moved by one of his vlogs that I sent him the following letter:
Forgive the informality but I figured you're not one to stand on formality. And forgive the format – but I don't know how else to get to you. I assume you get thousands of pieces of fan mail, offers and pleas every week so why would this one get to you? Hence the more public format.
I also figured that you are very open about the most deep and personal things in public, so you wouldn't mind as I follow suit – if you ever read this.
In a way, this is a bit of a fan mail. Ever since my son came to me years ago and pleaded with me to watch your interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, I have been a fan. I have to confess at the time I was a wee bit prejudiced. All I knew about you was largely tabloid and mostly involved some scandal about Andrews Sachs, the actor who played Manuel in Fawlty Towers – I'm sure you remember that particular farce!
I am so glad I overcame my prejudice and listened to you, not only then but many times since on everything from God to drugs. It astounded me to hear how you think, the depth of your feelings and just the sheer brilliance of your analysis. And yet there was also something more – a frustration that you seemed to come so close to the truth and yet remain so far. But most of all a desire for you to come to know the one who claimed he is the truth – Jesus Christ.
This hit me forcefully recently – not just with your latest discussion with Ricky Gervais, or your comments on Covid, but that amazing clip when you asked why everyone is googling prayer. Myself and my friend Steve have a kitchen table chat and you featured heavily in the last one.
It got me to thinking about what Jesus might have to say about your comments. I'm not claiming to have a hotline to Christ, as though he is directly telling me what to say to you - although in one sense every Christian has that because he has left us his words, words which he says will never pass away even though heaven and earth pass away. Powerful words!
So looking at the four gospels here is what Christ says about your comments:
You are right to talk about how easily we get addicted to the material things of this world. Jesus says it won't do you any good to have all the riches in the world and yet miss out on the one thing necessary.
He knows that we are trapped by our addictions (what the Bible calls idolatries), lies, deceits, greed, self-absorption, false religion and fear of death. He said that he came to set us free from the systems of this world as well as our personal sins.
You say that the holy is "the presence of the limitless that is always present by his nature...." There is truth in that. God is omnipresent. But there is more to holiness than that. God is pure – morally. He cannot even look upon evil. There is a deep beauty in holiness. Holiness is not a miserable religious person looking down on everyone else – but what the Bible calls the 'beauty of the Lord our God'. Most of all we see that beauty in the person of Christ who is 'the altogether lovely one'. To know him is to know ultimate love, truth and beauty.
There are lots of things that we could call a sacred experience – I can think of several – from walking in the Scottish mountains, to listening to Madame Butterfly at Sydney Opera House, from seeing my newborn son's face to watching a godly old man leave this world. But the ultimate sacred experience – the ultimate coming into the presence of God – is through coming to know, love and serve Jesus Christ.
That's why when you talk about prayer, I can agree with so much and yet I still want to ask: who are you praying to? Prayer in and of itself is not a good thing. It is the one to whom we pray who is good – and who takes our prayers like incense and uses them to change our world. I was seriously ill and almost died in 2011. It was a cathartic experience in many ways. When I eventually got out of hospital there were hundreds of cards waiting for me. The one that amused me most was the one from a couple of atheists which simply said 'we are praying for you' – to which my immediate response was 'to whom?'!
And that is my response to you. You talk about prayer powerfully and beautifully – but who are you praying to? I said at the beginning about offers and pleas. I was going to say that this is not what this letter is about. And yet in a way it is. Christ gives us an amazing offer. He says that we can know the Father; he says that we can have his Spirit; he offers us new life – a new birth. He offers us forgiveness, grace, mercy, love and eternal life. He says that we can have immediate access to the very throne of God – without the need for religious intermediaries or systems. Is there a better offer in the world?
And he pleads. He really cares. He stood looking over Jerusalem weeping because he knew that the people would not accept his offer of peace. He cried with sorrow and rage at the grave of his friend Lazarus because of his hatred of death. He pleaded with Peter and the disciples to follow him. And he does the same to us. To you.
Smart as you are; influential as you are; you can't make it on your own. I think you know that. And you don't need religion or some human guru. And I'm well aware you know that no political or economic system will bring you salvation. Only the truth can set you free.
There is so much more but I had better stop before this turns into a longer epistle than the Apostle Paul wrote! But let me leave you with this.
You recognise the spiritual – Jesus says that his words are spirit and life. He says that he will give us his Holy Spirit. You talk about the need to rethink and have our minds renewed. You are so spot on – real Christianity is not someone telling you what to think but rather having your mind renewed by the Holy Spirit.
You want to know how to pray together. Jesus answers when you pray 'our Father in heaven' and there follows the Lord's prayer.
You said that you were asking God to show you. In the midst of all the noise. I think he is. You seem a somewhat restless person – perhaps that is where you get so much energy and effervescence? But ultimately we all need rest. As St Augustine said of God: we were made for You, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.
Jesus said, "come to me, all you who are weary and I will give you rest."
Russell, is it not about time you answered his plea? O Lamb of God I come....
May the Lord richly bless you and draw you to himself.
Your mitigated fan and wannabe brother,
David Robertson is director of Third Space in Sydney and blogs at www.theweeflea.com