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Reconnecting with our storytelling roots

02 November 2006


In the face of thinking and unthinking atheism, Christians need to begin reconsidering how to explain their faith, says Alister McGrath, as he concludes his series on unbelief and its contemporary challenges

WE HAVE BEEN exploring in recent weeks some aspects of contemporary unbelief, noting both its criticisms of religion, and some of its own difficulties. In this concluding article, we shall consider how Christians can respond to and engage with unbelief.

To begin with, it is important to appreciate that real concerns often underlie unbelief's criticisms of religion. One of the most important - and surely the most valid - of these is the perception that Christianity has enjoyed a privileged position within British society.

We need to take this concern seriously. If Christianity has a future in this nation, it will be on account of its present merits, not its past history. As individuals and Churches, we need to give serious thought to the social, moral, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of faith. What difference does faith make - for example, to the way we see the world, and act within it? Many scientists find that their faith gives a new energy and motivation to their research. Professor John Polkinghorne is one of many to point out that when Christians study the works of God they gain an enhanced appreciation of the beauty and wisdom of God.

A second atheist criticism that needs to be taken very seriously is that many Christians simply take their faith on trust, and do not think about it. Richard Dawkins describes religious faith as "blind trust". While this is clearly inaccurate, there is a grain of truth here. To put it bluntly, there are too many unthinking Christians around. (Yes, that's true of atheism as well - but we must put our own house in order first.) Christians need to think about their faith - its basis, its ideas, and their implications. We ought to use every resource that God has given us to help us "know Christ more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly" (Richard of Chichester).

This process of growth and maturing involves a "discipleship of the mind", in which we take the great themes of the Christian faith seriously, explore their implications, and discover the riches of our faith for ourselves. Instead of passively accepting our faith, we ought actively to explore it, seeking to go deeper and understand more.

So how can we connect our faith with the post-modern culture around us? Happily, there is an enormous amount that we can do, and I have space to mention only two important possibilities. Post-modern culture has a particular interest in images and stories, while disliking (perhaps even distrusting) arguments. While this at first sight might seem a little disconcerting, it is soon clear that this opens the way to a rediscovery and renewal of many traditional ways of reading the Bible.

Thirty years ago, Hans Frei's landmark book The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative was published. His argument? That the rise of the Enlightenment led to a neglect, then marginalisation, of the fact that the Bible told stories. With the passing of the Enlightenment, we can retrieve this aspect of the Bible which should never have been overlooked in the first place. The parables of Jesus are a case in point.

Stories are immensely accessible. The parable of the prodigal son tells a story that engages its audience. It allows for multiple perspectives: we can read it from the father's point or view, or the son's. The parable tells of the unconditional love of God for his children, without using abstract concepts or complex arguments. The story possesses its own power to captivate an audience. Instead of arguing that God loves us, it shows us that he does so.

Or, again, consider the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15.4-7). The story of the shepherd's quest for the unfortunate animal has its own inner logic, and its own special appeal. What could the shepherd do but go out in search of it? and, when he has found it, carry it home on his shoulders? and, when he returns, celebrate his joy with his neighbours?

It is a parable of incarnation (the shepherd going into the wilderness, which is where the lost sheep is to be found) and redemption (finding, returning, and restoring the lost). And here is the point: if we are asked to tell our friends or neighbours what Christianity is all about, we can use these parables as ways of opening up great Christian themes - such as incarnation and redemption - in a very accessible and unthreatening way.

The Bible also uses a rich range of images to illuminate our understanding of God. Many find the image of God as shepherd (Psalm 23) deeply moving, as it conveys the idea of a loving, caring, guiding God, who journeys with his people through life. He is with them even in their darker moments, as they pass through the valley of the shadow of death. One image that has particular relevance to our culture has to do with Christian understandings of the difference that faith makes to life. This is the New Testament image of "adoption".

Through Christ, we have been adopted as the children of God (Romans 8.23; Galatians 4.5). This image, drawn from Roman family law, is seen by Paul as casting light on the privileges and place of Christians in their relationship with God. Its basic theme is simple, and resonates powerfully with our culture. To be adopted is to be invited into a loving and caring environment. It is to be welcomed, wanted, and valued.

In a fragmented culture, people feel a deep need to belong somewhere - that they are accepted and wanted. The success of the American television series Cheers illustrates this point perfectly. The series, based on a bar in Boston, began in 1982 and ran for 271 episodes. Its immense success centred on its strong sense of community. Here was somewhere that people felt was special. It was somewhere everybody knew your name. Outside was a crowd of indistinct, unidentified people. But inside, you were special. You mattered. You belonged.

This is one of the points made powerfully through the image of adoption. Adoption celebrates the privilege of invitation, in which the outsider is welcomed into a context of faith and love. It is an idea that we need to understand, but its appeal is to the heart, as much as to the head.

The importance of the appeal of the Christian faith to the heart needs to be appreciated. The surge of interest in spirituality in our culture has not automatically led to an increase in church attendance. There are several reasons for this. The Church needs to do more to build bridges to those who are touched by an interest in the "spiritual", but do not see any link with Christianity.

This failure to see any connection between "spirituality" and the Church needs to be addressed. Many "spiritual" people tend to think of Christianity simply as a set of dogmatic ideas or absolute moral values, and fail to realise that something spiritual lies at its heart. What, they wonder, has reciting a creed got to do with personal transformation and the quest for meaning?

This point was made powerfully by Steve Hollinghurst of the Church Army, in a recent interview ( Features, 28 October 2005). As a result of his researches into post-Christian Britain, he realised the need to present Christianity to unchurched people as something with a compelling spiritual vision. "Christianity has to show that it does have a vision for human life, for the Kingdom of God on earth, that actually makes sense and looks like liberation and good news for people."

The new interest in imagery, narratives, and spirituality has given a new importance to Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Both have demonstrated how a thoughtful use of imagery and story can make a powerful appeal to the human imagination. Our natural inclination tends to be to try to show people that Christianity is true, and then persuade them to accept it. Lewis, following a line of thought developed by Blaise Pascal (1623-62), adopts a quite different approach, especially in his novels: make people wish that Christianity were true - and then show them that this is so.

For Lewis, an appeal to the imagination and to human longing thus comes before a rational defence of the Christian faith. While Lewis was no mean hand at offering this kind of defence - think of Mere Christianity - he realised that a purely rational or intellectual presentation of the gospel was inadequate. As he pointed out in Surprised by Joy, Christianity connected with the human heart and imagination, not just reason. In a post-modern culture, suspicious of the past abuse and manipulation of reason, there is a compelling case for exploring how to commend our faith in terms of its attractiveness and beauty, not just its truth.

This article has raised many questions, and suggested a number of ways in which we might connect up with our culture. Yet it is important to appreciate that much work is being done on these questions by church agencies and others, who are more than willing to share their wisdom with parishes and other church organisations. Yet my main aim in writing these articles has been to inform and encourage. Yes, there is much that we need to do to engage our culture of unbelief, but there is also much that can be done.

The Revd Dr Alister McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology in the University of Oxford, and President of the Oxford Centre for Evangelism and Apologetics. This series has been based on a series of Lent lectures Professor McGrath gave at Salisbury Cathedral. His books include The Twilight of Atheism and Dawkins' God: Genes, memes and the meaning of life.

1 What is your favourite parable? What is it about it that you especially like? How might it be helpful in explaining some aspect of Christianity to an unchurched friend?

2 List some biblical images of God. Which is your favourite? Again, how might it be helpful in explaining some aspect of Christianity to an unchurched friend?

3 Perhaps as many as half a million people now attend New Age fairs every year in Britain. What does this say about what people are looking for in life? And how could the churches connect with this spiritual questing?

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