We are too easily lured into skirmishes on the edge of the real battlefield.
When William Laud was appointed to Canterbury in 1633 he wrote: “There is more expected from me than the craziness of these times will give me leave to do.” Three and a half centuries and 26 archbishops later, Dr. Robert Runcie will want to be reminded that Laud’s fears were realized—under the executioner’s ax—largely because he made a wrong diagnosis of the ills facing the church.
Be that as it may, the craziness of the times is still with us. In a nearby town is a magnificent new hospital with up-to-date facilities for caring for the sick and for teaching medical students. In its spacious entrance hall is a bookstore. Idly I picked up a paperback in it. Said the cover: “A classic compound of grue, gore, insanity and incest skillfully blended.” That should keep the psychiatric unit busy.
Here is an anonymous doctor in a medical journal: “Doctors are doing their utmost to free these neurotic patients of the guilt complexes which bedevil their lives. But the churches, by their old-fashioned philosophy, seem to be doing their utmost to instill such guilt complexes by telling them how sinful they are and frightening them with threats of punishment in the hereafter.”
Some time ago, the Lord’s Day Observance Society was refused permission to display the Ten Commandments on Glasgow underground trains because of a rule that no religious ads are to be displayed on vehicles. Glasgow’s city motto is: “Let Glasgow flourish through the preaching of the Word and the praising of His Name.” (No one will feel surprise that the motto is generally abbreviated to the first three words.)
My newspaper tells of a film currently showing, which recommends itself as “offering brutal violence, inhuman rape, nauseating cannibalism.”
Police in the south of England have suddenly taken action against several open-air preachers. The charge against two of them in Eastbourne was dropped when Christians in influential positions protested. In London, however, one man was fined five pounds for preaching the gospel in Leicester Square, and another is due to appear before the magistrate shortly. The charge: obstruction. The police commissioner, himself an evangelical, is incredibly reported as having said the police could not differentiate between them and street traders.
A 12-person team monitored British television for one week. During that time they reported that our three channels featured 194 examples of swearing, 116 of blasphemy, 213 of drinking alcohol, 176 of violence, 169 of sex jokes, and 89 of sexual activity.
To protest or not to protest? We in Britain seem to do this far less than our American friends. Even those who wage wordy warfare in the Christian press do not always extend the battle into the secular field. It is a devious argument that sees a mark of the true church in the lack of impact we make.
The mass media listen more than we think. After hearing an ill-balanced view of “fundamentalism” on a radio program I wrote to correct errors of fact (I find this the best way to go about it). The producer called and we had a friendly chat. Fundamentalist defenders, I gathered, did not normally write courteous and reasonable epistles. That was a humbler that got me thinking.
Protesting can insidiously become a way of life; we come to know certain people for what they are against, those for whom crusading against one sin seems to diminish their view of sin generally, or whose defense of the fundamentals is taken as a license for graceless speech. It seems self-defeating to uphold the inerrancy of Scripture at the cost of violating at least two fruits of the Spirit.
Samuel Butler warned about those who “Compound for sins they are inclin’d to / By damning those they have no mind to.” An inordinate preoccupation with one sin, for example, might lose sight of the fact that 1 Timothy 1:9, 10 condemns “whatever … is contrary to sound doctrine.”
It is extraordinary how we have got into the frame of mind that thinks otherwise, one that, perhaps inadvertently, gives the impression that there are some things that are outside the orbit of the evangelical’s compassion. William Temple rightly reminded us that our fellowship with Christ is rooted in His compassion.
To develop this more generally would Communicate Anxiety, and remove me once for all from the woeful category of those about whom all men speak well. The imbalance extends to good causes also: is there not a grave danger of Christians getting caught up in some time-consuming, significant crusade which ultimately is peripheral to the real issue? It is fatally easy for one’s energies to be absorbed in arid controversy and in coping with the craziness of the times, whether it be the nuclear threat or abortion or homosexual permissiveness.
Let me be masochistic and edge out on the limb a bit further in saying that I have some misgivings about the current concentration on simple lifestyle—an expression I find unsatisfactory, for it has about it a whiff of things subjective, comparative, temporal. “Humble” is a much better adjective. Francis of Assisi is reckoned a master of the simple lifestyle, but he put the accent in the right place, and went far beyond the lesser goal when he said, “My brothers, you will convert all men by your word, if in all things you humble yourselves.”
But I digress (and doubtless I’ll smart for it). What I was trying to say was that the good things sometimes take us away from the best things. We are too easily lured into skirmishes on the edge of the real battlefield.
A much more humble seventeenth-century archbishop than William Laud saw this clearly. Robert Leighton, who condemned the persecution of Covenanters in Scotland as scaling heaven with ladders fetched out of hell, once gave the harassed ministers a gentle lesson in right priorities. Asked by a group of them why he did not “preach up the times,” he asked who did. “We all do,” they replied. “Then,” said that archbishop of Glasgow, “if all of you are busy preaching up the times, you may forgive one poor brother for preaching up Christ Jesus and his eternity.”
The same note was struck earlier this year when Billy Graham conducted a mission that had a remarkable impact on Cambridge University. Three days before the end, he indicated his intention to refer next evening to the world situation. There is no doubt that he would have handled it with the right emphases, but his young colleagues were a little uneasy. Diffidently they sent him a message, “We’d rather have the Cross again for the next two nights, please.” Being the good listener to local counsel that he is, Billy Graham at once saw the sure-footedness of that approach, and gave them the Cross. And that is the answer, one on which even the craziness of the times cannot place limitations.
J. D. Douglas is an author and journalist living in St. Andrews, Scotland.
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