Is the Bible irrelevant in 21st century society?
It’s hardly surprising that people are asking this question and that Christians are not always confident in the answer.
Over the years of the 20th century, and particularly in the period following the Second World War, churches and church leaders were increasingly encouraged by society to go back into their buildings and address topics such as faith and prayer, bible reading and personal piety - but they were heavily discouraged from meddling in politics. That movement was actually often echoed by the church itself, as leaders seems to feel that it wasn't a Christian's job to comment on those things - our job was basically to deal with issues of personal spirituality, not issues of national and international significance, particularly not politics and economics.
So those two streams, one outside and one inside the church, coalesced together for a period of church life towards the end of the 20th century that saw an absence in the church of a prophetic voice. If you’re not sure what the word prophetic means in this context, it is the capacity of the church to speak truth to power with the authority of Christ. And that's been our calling since the foundation of Christianity 2000 years ago.
However there's been a sense in which we've neglected that calling. It's been easier to focus on internal, personal piety concerns. It’s much riskier to address questions of politics, economics, morality, education and so on. The regular diet of most of us, if we go to church at all, has centred on the personal and the spiritual, a little bit about the family and marriage, perhaps, not much on the world of work, and almost nothing on the world of economics and politics.
I passionately believe that this has been a mistake for the Christian church and that as we have abandoned the public square and been pushed back into the ghettos of the churches, we are reaping a perceived sense of irrelevance in contemporary society. What on earth have we got to say about the issues that face our world at the moment, such as migration, violence, fake news, poverty, climate change, etc?
It is a tragedy of enormous proportion that we haven't allowed the Bible to speak to the cosmic issues of the day. Because a simple reading of the text of the Old and New Testament invites us into a world of ethnic cleansing, of violence, of sexual and racial prejudice, of a whole range of issues that we're grappling with every day in our lives. And my appeal is that we must not view the world simply through the lens of the media as it's presented to us, whether that's social media, or the print media, the internet or the television. We have a duty as women and men, at the beginning of the 21st century, to be saying to one another, 'what is real?' and for Christians to say, 'we believe that the Bible has eternal things to say, not simply historical references to make.’
We live in a world that has what CS Lewis described as 'chronological snobbery' - it assumes that the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present; that what is happening now must be right and it must be better than anything that's happened before. But what Christianity claims to be is something not locked in a point of time, the first century, but it claims to be something as permanently relevant as breathing or eating. It claims that the human condition hasn't changed, and that humanity needs to be in line with God's purposes for the planet.
Even if you don't believe in God, the way the Bible ordains human society, the way it advises about the civil contract between various groups is relevant today, and some of the civic teaching and the societal norms that the Bible espouses, particularly in terms of the way it invites us to think about relationships between human beings, are worth exploring and embracing today. And a reminder that the experimentation that is taking place in the social contexts all over our country and the western world are just that: experiments. And so, important as it is to address issues around sexuality, gender and family with kindness, sensitivity and wisdom, we need to understand that we are embracing change without knowing what the long-term effects will be. And the Bible reminds us that there are permanent, indeed it would claim, eternal values, which underlie these relationships.
Of course there are all sorts of difficulties in the Bible. It's absolutely not a book for the fainthearted. The idea that it's somehow accessible to anybody, with no problem, is simply untrue. It is God's Word, however, Christians believe, and it has deep contemporary relevance. And that means that Christians believe that the Bible has something to say about human brokenness and societal fracture. So, Christianity is believed by its followers to say, I am broken as a person and as I am replicated to the six billion on the planet, there are six billion lots of brokenness around.
Many years ago, the London Times as it was then, ran a competition. 'What's wrong with the world?' was the question and essays were invited to answer it. There were lots of replies. The world is corrupt, people in business, lying politicians... it's interesting actually if you read the story. Nothing much changes in terms of what people thought was wrong with the world. However the winner of the essay was a certain GK Chesterton, who wrote saying this: “Dear Sir, I am. Yours sincerely, GK Chesterton.”
Christians profoundly believe that they are broken and that the world is broken and that God in his love for humanity sent the cure for brokenness in his son. He did this so that a personal engagement with the healer of the brokenness would bring personal salvation, and corporate engagement with the healer of the brokenness would bring societal renewal and reform and community health and strength. That is what Christianity claims and that is why I believe that the Bible really does have a lot to say to us now in the 21st Century.