Thursday, December 26, 2013

"The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it." - A.N. Wilson

I have previously written about the English novelist, historian, biographer and social commentator, A.N. Wilson. Here is an article published in the Boxing Day edition of The Daily telegraph (U.K.) on the fortunes of Christians and Christianity today. Well worth the read!

Is Christianity a dying religion? Anyone watching the huge crowds assembled to hear the popular new Pope’s Christmas message yesterday would have concluded that the news of the death of Christianity had been much exaggerated.

Every year, huge numbers of Chinese, Koreans and South Americans are still being drawn to evangelical Christianity. The Queen’s Christmas message, and the sight of her, with the Royal family, loyally attending morning service at Sandringham is a reminder that we are still, notionally at least, a Christian country, with – as it happens – a Head of State who is herself a committed Christian.

And yet – in spite of the vast crowds clapping Pope Francis, it is difficult to feel sanguine.

Ever since William Dalrymple published his classic From the Holy Mountain in 1997, about the decline of Christianity in the very lands which gave it birth, it has been impossible to ignore the shrinkage. In eastern Turkey – St Paul’s earliest stamping-ground – Syriac Christians have been so persecuted that they fled to neighbouring Syria. President Assad is one of the few Middle Eastern leaders to protect Christians and their ancient shrines, and since the outbreak of civil war, Christians have paid the price for being the tyrant’s beneficiaries.

In Egypt, Coptic Christians suffer harassment and persecution. In Israel, the government turns a blind eye to encroachment, or destruction, of church property, and many young Palestinians, reared as Christians, have turned to Islam. As Dalrymple has more recently said, the Arab Spring was the Christian Winter.

Meanwhile, Britain, despite our Christian Queen, grows ever more secular. Public discourse assumes that most intelligent people have given up religious belief. Anglican congregations are, on the whole, ageing, and, outside the big cathedrals or evangelical rallying points, have dwindled to almost nothing. The rising generation – many of whom do not even have nativity plays any longer at their primary schools, let alone a grounding in the Bible – simply have no idea what Christianity is, let alone whether they might believe in it. Why, there is no historical evidence that Jesus ever went to Bethlehem, let alone that his birth there, of a Virgin Mother, was heralded by choirs of angels.

The child-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have had a devastating effect in all Western countries, especially in America and Ireland, the two places which used to supply priests for the rest of the world. Priestly vocations in Ireland are more or less nil. The tsunami of sad sordid stories about the mistreatment of children did not just make faithful people think twice before allowing their child to become an altar boy; they made the world in general think that Christianity, with its long abhorrence of sex – and indeed its general distrust of the body – was an unwholesome creed, based on a fundamentally fallacious conception of humanity, and sustained by miraculous claims – about a virginally conceived saviour who rose from the dead – which were candidly incredible.

For those who try to soak themselves in the Gospel, however, the world news sends out signals that are more or less the opposite of those which a secular statistician might consider reliable.

Huge numbers of people clapping in a square – even if they are clapping the Pope – do not tell you anything about whether Christianity is actually true. Nor does the dwindling congregation at the 8 o’clock Communion at Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh undermine the truth of the Word Made Flesh – if it is true.

The Gospel is hard, and it contains within it, not the fear but the absolute certainty, that persecution and misunderstanding will always follow in its wake. It is based on the idea of dying in order to live; of losing life in order to find it; of taking up the cross, that instrument of torture, and finding therein not merely life but glory.

Yes, the hype and sentimentality surrounding the funeral of Nelson Mandela’s funeral were embarrassing, but at the core of it all was the central idea, embodied by a figure such as Archbishop Tutu, that it is possible to ignore the poison of hatred bubbling in your heart and forgive your enemies. The ANC, for long – yes – a terrorist organisation, changed its mind, and behaved, not like Jihadists, but like Christians. South Africa, riven as it is with every kind of human problem, got that thing right largely because Mandela in his prison years decided to risk all on what was a fundamentally Christian idea.

Yes, the Arab Spring is the Christian Winter because there is no truth or reconciliation apparently at work in Israel-Palestine, nor in Iraq, nor in Syria… But the Christian writings, beginning as they do with a refugee mother and baby surrounded by invading armies, and ending with world conflict, the utter destruction of Jerusalem, and the coming of apocalyptic death and plague, are not comfortable.

The paradox is that growing or shrinking numbers do not tell you anything. The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it. The hopeful thing is that, where it is tried – where it is imperfectly and hesitantly followed – as it was in Northern Ireland during the peace process, as it is in many a Salvation Army hostel this Christmas, as it flickers in countless unseen Christian lives, it works. And its palpable and remarkable power to transform human life takes us to the position of believing that something very wonderful indeed began with the birth of Christ into the world.


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