God's Agents: Biblical publicity in contemporary England
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WHEN the Bible Society moved from central London to Swindon in
1983, it needed a large warehouse for its primary business of
marketing Bibles and Bible-related books. Not any more. Places such
as China no longer need imported Bibles: they have presses turning
them out at a rate of 75 per minute. Here in Britain, the problem
is not availability but credibility, because fewer and fewer people
here believe that the Bible has anything relevant or useful to say.
So over the past 20 years, the Bible Society has developed a new
emphasis on Bible advocacy - making the Bible heard in a secular
This book, by an anthropologist, records that transition. He was
given, perhaps bravely, direct access to the Society's Advocacy
Team in Swindon, and in London its parliamentary liaison staff at
Westminster and the Theos think tank that it established in
The story is mirrored in other mission bodies such as USPG (now
Us.) and CMS, about how a historic agency comes to terms with a new
context in the Church and the world. It includes attempts in
Swindon to connect with the "Christmas Angels" in street
decorations, and the "Campaign to Culture" projects in Nottingham,
Bristol, and Manchester, using commercial advertising to make
people stop and think what the Bible might have to say.
The emergence of Theos is particularly well told. It has engaged
in quality research, providing a very necessary rejoinder to the
easy assumption that secular humanism is now normative, and that
the equality agenda should trump any right to religious freedom
which gets in the way.
Underneath the story it registers a much larger question about
secularity. The aim of these new programmes has been "publicity",
getting the message into the media, but, more deeply, making the
Bible heard in the public square, and so challenge the
Enlightenment separation of the private and the public, and the
relegation of the gospel to the sphere of individual and personal
The book records how staff debated the meaning of secularity and
a Christian response, but does not fully answer the question what
they were seeking to achieve. Perhaps such uncertainty and openness
may be the right way into this new world, but, then, what is the
Bible Society actually about? With other players in what may be
called "emerging Evangelicalism", it's obvious what they're
selling. Whatever you think of the Alpha course, it is about a
clearly defined emotional experience, personal and corporate,
followed up by people joining a church, preferably one where this
kind of experience is sustained.
In contrast, Theos, unlike other think tanks such as Ekklesia -
or ResPublica, which came out of Radical Orthodoxy - is not
supposed to take up positions. The work in Parliament says nothing
about gospel-directed issues like poverty, but is primarily
concerned with Christians from all parties working together.
Historically, and to avoid denominational dispute, the Society
provided Bibles "without note or comment", and maybe this is what
they are continuing in their so-called "secular neutrality", but it
is not clear what this means in practice: a left-wing tendency to
social justice, or an excuse for right-wing avoidance of justice
issues, or simply a back door to old-fashioned conversion?
There may be hints in the background of the team members, some
of whom came from other agencies where they had signed up to
Biblical inerrancy and substitutionary atonement. It might have
been helpful to know whether they prayed together, and how. Nor are
we told how the work was funded, and by whom.
There is much in contemporary secularism which needs
challenging: the fundamentalism of the new atheism, individualism
that squeezes out the common good, an understanding of equality
which denies diversity, the kind of liberal humanism which actually
diminishes human freedom, and a grasping of the natural world as
possession. The Bible tells the story of how God both created and
redeemed the secular, and we lose its message at our peril. But is
the promotion of the Bible itself the best place to begin?
This book records a laudable effort, but in seeking to shape a
more effective Christian response to modernity, an unkind critic
might say, like the stereotypical Irishman asked for travel
directions, "I wouldn't start from here."
The Rt Revd Michael Doe, Preacher to Gray's Inn, is a former
Bishop of Swindon and General Secretary of USPG.