Way, truth and life
When putting together a presentation of the Christian faith, there are three kinds of potential audiences to be considered. Hugh Baker shares the benefits of a recent educational experience
You haven't heard much from me of late - I've been busy making a video [More in a later issue]. We were going to do it ourselves, but a timely bequest meant we could use Christian professionals. Doing so was a salutary experience. 'Who were we aiming at?' 'How do these people think/live/perceive life?' were their starting questions. Watching our carefully prepared script being systematically shredded and rearranged, I aged internally. Fogeydom engulfed me as I tried to get my mind round thought processes familiar to my helpers, alien to me. It was not, I realized, just that policemen are getting impossibly young nowadays: I am getting old.
Is it true?
John helped me find light in my pre-senile fog. In presenting the faith, there are, he said, three generations to aim at, each asking different questions. The first are those of whom the youngest (like myself) are the post-war baby boomers. To them the question to be asked of Christianity is 'Is it true?' Conformity to Christian belief, and consequent mores, was the backdrop to the society in which we were born; but the long, slow erosion of all this by Renaissance rationalism, supplemented by Darwinism and its triplet offspring Marxism, fascism and progressive liberalism, was taking its toll. Was the whole thing true?
AJ. Ayer, Dr Jacob Bronowski and Marganita Laski were the priests of debate as we earnestly tried to keep awake after Sunday lunch to enquire of the oracles of The Brains Trust. The title gave away the name of the game, of course. Confused by life? Trust the brains. The ultimate truths of existence were to be revealed by cerebral examination. Such belief still holds in some groves of academe, where increasing crossness is being expressed at the rest of us as we drift into New Age mumbo jumbo. Richard Dawkins' recent works are supposed to be an expose of the nonsenses of religion; in reality, they are little more than a scolding of naughty children who refuse to toe the secularist line and believe that science and its applications will solve all our problems.
This tired debate was itself the backdrop for the next generation down. Their lives were impacted by the uncritical application of Brains Trustism, as Croxteths multiplied across the land in the belief that man will live by mortgages or social security alone. The non-mobile in particular suffered as the old communities were heedlessly swept away in the quest for instant Milton Keynes for all.
Is it real?
The traditional parish churches, whose parishes were increasingly depopulated or inhabited by the municipally displaced, worshipped in a manner which was meant to enable neighbours who knew each others' foibles only too well to encounter God, and hear his Word, at a manageable degree of anonymity. This was fine, provided we knew our neighbours, and could revert to their company as we chose once Mattins was finished.
Suppose, though, we were increasingly strangers in the place where we lived. Suppose our need for human fellowship was met not in our parish, but in our place of work or recreation, many miles away. A visit to our local church meant no more than superficial contact with people who were increasingly becoming strangers to us. To those prepared to persevere with Church, but not as we knew it, the key question was 'Is it real?' This is the generation who founded the House Churches and Christian Fellowships. Their mistakes were many as they sailed through uncharted waters, but we should not view them uncharitably. They were grappling with practical problems the rest of us, perhaps, were able to ignore as long as the Commissioners' cash kept our show on the road.
The third generation have a backdrop to their lives of increasing ignorance, and to describe them as a generation is to be over simple, for this is the world of the unchurched, which in some cases goes back four generations. Those of them who had schools with religious assemblies will venture on to our premises for marriage; some, older than these, will ask you to choose the hymns for their parents' funerals. If the funeral contains little or no Christian content, they will neither notice nor mind: what matters is whether it makes them feel better, for feeling better is how they assume we come to terms with bereavement. The question here is 'Will it work?'
Will it work?
Such a critique opens wide the door to things that may be spiritual, but not of God. Feeling the need for a short rest before returning to the fray of a school year, my wife booked us in to a health spa for twenty-four hours. The food was wonderful, the accommodation sumptuous, and the treatments on offer may well have 'worked' for those who look no further than temporary relief from illnesses and problems which, perhaps, needed either thorough repentance or emotional healing for cure. We are all familiar with the nostrums available: large bronze Bud-dhas and stained glass windows depicting 'life force' promised a way round our sins, foibles and the way life is, if only we achieved 'balance'.
Such thinking is now standard in the average woman's magazine and beyond, and it issues a challenge to those of us who believe that greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world'. Centuries of dispensational theology have (in my charismatic opinion) shorn the Church of any expectancy that God will move in power among us. Even in Christ's own time there were occasions when 'he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief [John 13.58], yet the miraculous ministry of Christ was unleashed when faith was present: 'it works'.
Three different generations, each with a different starting point in their journey towards, or away from, our risen Lord: he is capable of reaching out to each of them, from where they are starting, in his own way; for he speaks directly to each as he says T am the way, the truth and the life'. I hope I, for one, will hold firmly to the orthodox faith while allowing him to use his Church to reach people where they are.
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