by David Easton.
In January the i newspaper ran a column by Simon Kelner in which he wrote of a young colleague of his who went to see Darkest Hour, the latest film about Churchill. She had said that at the end of the film ‘people were standing up in the cinema, applauding and cheering’ and that she joined in. Kelner went on to suggest that this might have been because the audience contrasted Churchill’s inspirational style with the ‘political leadership that is so lacking these days.’
Churchill was not, of course, without his critics, even in his own day. Nor was he without a number of flaws which would be only too readily exposed in today’s age of less deference and the re-tweeted remark. But you don’t have to agree with the man to accept that he could inspire both the public and the House of Commons. Harold Nicholson’s diaries, for example, record that he was able, by sheer force of personality, to win over a doubtful House.
So, who are those who are able to inspire today? Scarily they often seem to be – although not universally – people whose views I for one could never embrace. You won’t be surprised that I am thinking of Donald Trump, and Nigel Farage but also, in the more acceptable spectrum, people like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Emmanuel Macron. Whatever you think of what they say, you would surely be hard-pushed to deny that how they say inspires large numbers within various populations.
Where does all this leave the Church? How do we, if you agree that we should, inspire people with ideas today? When Wesley consented to make himself ‘yet more vile’ by preaching in the open air, was that an inspirational act? In some ways it must have been although I surely cannot be the only one who has read Wesley’s forty-four sermons and who has wondered how they managed to inspire the crowds who gathered to hear him – even allowing for the fact that we receive them in written form. Whitfield was, by all accounts, better at ‘working’ a crowd.
Even if we don’t follow Wesley’s example of standing in a public place, how do we speak to the so-called ‘person in the street’? And more significantly, how do we speak in a language that will inspire and be understood? My observation is that a lot of what we would broadly call ‘Christian apologetics’ is written by and addressed to the educated and erudite. There are exceptions, for example Ailster McGrath, who has done a lot of work on how Christianity may be made ‘plain’, although when you first meet him your first thought would not be ‘Here is a man who can get down and wrestle with the masses’.
I am not arguing for ‘dumbing down’ but I am pleading, for example, for sermons that are inspirational and accessible rather than in the form of a lecture. I am pleading for a Church and for individual Christians who can engage easily and readily with those outside the formal parameters of the Church.
I look at the ministry of Jesus and I see someone who spent a lot of his time on the street. So, how do we, how do I, communicate the heart of what we believe with inspirational street talk? And how do I/we do that with integrity and not by playing on people’s baser instincts – which seems to be the way of some of those individuals I have mentioned? We sometimes speak of ‘the theology of the Word’, but we need, just as much, the word that speaks of theology. And, in all of this, how far am I, how far is the Church, prepared to make itself ‘yet more vile’ by stepping outside of the four walls of its familiar comfort zones and ways of speaking?