LONDON—In spite of some popular television advertisements to the contrary, this is most certainly not the age of the train in Britain. Time was when railways dominated the transport landscape here. No more. Today they struggle just to keep a small share of the freight and passenger market.
There is a parallel in this story with the Bible here in Britain. In an important sense, this is certainly not the age of the Bible, either. Or, to put it another way, it is not the age of faith. Jesus Christ Himself once asked the question: When the Son of Man comes, shall He find faith on the earth?
True, the availability of the Holy Scriptures is at an all-time high, but the anomaly is that demand for biblical knowledge is at a new low. We who are trying our best to convey this precious good news in England constantly run right into this massive barrier of biblical ignorance. Our work of publishing the gospel has been greatly impeded simply because the majority of people are largely unaware of the contents of this most basic of textbooks.
The Bible of centuries past
In the time of translator William Tyndale, the people of Britain would risk death to own just a few pages of the Bible in their native language. Today we can buy the Bible in a variety of translations for relatively little money. Yet sad to say real public interest is all too lacking.
A new biography profiles the English visionary William Blake. It turns out that Blake’s closest and most significant attachment was to the Bible. As Blake’s biographer Peter Ackroyd marvels: “It is hard to re-imagine a culture in which that book was the central and pre-eminent text, through which the world itself was to be understood” ( Blake , p. 25).
Yet, according to British historian Christopher Hill, “The Bible was central to all intellectual as well as moral life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” ( The English Bible , p. 21). Clearly, at one time the Scriptures were an integral part of the British culture. No more is that true in this secular age.
How did we lose respect for the Bible as a book of ultimate religious authority? Why is it viewed by so many as just another classic piece of literature?
A great many reasons are involved, not the least of which were two faith-destroying world wars in this century in which much of British manhood was lost in the trenches. This is not to mention the earlier effects of Darwinism, which challenged the very idea of God and the authority of the Bible.
Blatant disregard for proper tradition
But there are other important reasons. One is that our modern taste for almost anything new and different has altered the scales of sound judgment in our century.
Why, for instance, did the 20th century descend, in many writers’ opinion, into barbarity? And why, as veteran Czech author Ivan Klima asks, “in a century in which human genius has achieved so much, had there been mass exterminations and death camps?” ( The Spirit of Prague , p. 146). Could all of this possibly have anything to do with our general rejection of the traditions, values and timeless wisdom of the Bible?
In 1898, Mexican writer Victoriano Salado Alvarez penned a remarkably accurate depiction of 20th-century England and Europe.
“In Europe, the advantages of urban and private comfort, a variety of cheap entertainment, the distaste for everything that has already been used and the longing to try something quite new, has brought with it a certain satedness, a degeneration, a neurosis, countless forms of hysteria and many kinds of folly.”
In some ways, patterns of living extant for thousands of years have been destroyed in less than a couple of generations. Today far too much has gone wrong in too short a time.
Effects and causes of spiritual instability
American historians Will and Ariel Durant wrapped their minds around the lessons that could be learned from the panorama of history and came up with this gem: “As the sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of the group lies in the continuity of its traditions; in either case a break in the chain invites a neurotic reaction” ( The Lessons of History , page 72).
Visionary writers and historians pick up on this theme. Ivan Klima is no stranger to it and, in fact, expands upon it.
“At a certain moment in modern history, it seemed to many that memory and tradition were merely a burden that had to be cast off. The social catastrophes that befell humanity in our century were assisted by an art that worshiped originality, change, irresponsibility, avant-gardism, that ridiculed all formal traditions and . . . that took a smug delight in shocking the reader instead of responding to the questions that tormented him” ( The Spirit of Prague , p. 38).
Of course, some traditions are manifestly manmade and are in clear contravention of the commandments of God (Mark 7:6-13 Mark 7:6-13 6 He answered and said to them, Well has Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.
7 However, in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things you do.
9 And he said to them, Full well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition.
10 For Moses said, Honor your father and your mother; and, Whoever curses father or mother, let him die the death:
11 But you say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatever you might be profited by me; he shall be free.
12 And you suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother;
13 Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which you have delivered: and many such like things do you.
American King James Version×). These are rightly to be rejected. Our concern is about those who rubbish sound traditions that are clearly based on biblical values.
So what’s the cure? Certainly we are not advocating a blind rejection of the new or saying that we shouldn’t promote or encourage creative personalities who lift the veil from stubborn mysteries and solve some of our problems.
Some do know that the cure is nearly always in the realm of the spirit if we are to save the flesh. That will be found in the Kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of men. Men and women desperately need the stabilizing qualities that emerge from true religion. As the Durants so wisely observed: “Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion . . . To the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved, the old, it has brought supernatural comforts valued by millions of souls as more precious than any natural aid”( The Lessons of History , p. 43).
Britain’s desperate need
The late J.B. Priestley wrote that “religion alone can carry the load, defend us against the de-humanizing collectives [and] restore true personality” ( Literature and Western Man , p. 444).
However, more than just “religion,” basic to the full recovery of Western religious health is the knowledge found in the Bible. There are many copies of the Bible in Britain, but most go unread and undisturbed on our bookshelves. Highly knowledgeable contestants on radio shows such as The Brain of Britain consistently display appalling ignorance when asked, for example, to name the four Gospels of the Bible.
Most Britons are unaware that many everyday English expressions come directly from the Bible. For a nation that prizes its national literature, we are all too ignorant of the remarkable lessons of history and humanity engraved in the Scriptures.
Somehow even Christians, who spend much time digging precious truths out of God’s Word, have failed to bring even a working knowledge of biblical values to the vast majority of the British public.
How can we begin to remedy this appalling lack? Chiefly by praying! We must ask that God would lead us to see how we can best disperse the rich knowledge of the Bible all the way from the geographical extremities of the south of England to the north of Scotland-and to the cities, towns and villages in between.
The apostle Paul repeatedly asked his readers and listeners to pray for the work he was doing. He expected people to entreat God, and he expected God to answer prayers of sincere concern for others. Here are a few examples from the New Testament.
Paul asked the Thessalonian brethren to “pray for us that the word of the Lord may have free course . . .” (2 Thessalonians 3:1 2 Thessalonians 3:1Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you:
American King James Version×). Because the Word of God does not have free course here in Britain, with many mass-media windows of opportunity closed to us, it is challenging to figure out how to effectively deliver the message of the Bible to the British people today. This is not 16th- or 17th-century England.
Only God can change the circumstances and lead true Christians to preach Christ’s gospel in an effective manner. Only God can soften the hearts of people to receive the gospel.
Paul exhorted the Colossian church to “continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ . . . that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:3 Colossians 4:3 With praying also for us, that God would open to us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds:
American King James Version×, 4). Again, we need additional effective doors to reach Britain with the gospel. In practical terms, Britain simply does not have the relatively unimpeded access to do the work that we thankfully see done in the United States.
But God can alter circumstances so the work gets done and the message gets out. He has done so in the past. Notice Paul’s declaration to the Corinthian brethren: “For I will tarry [wait] in Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great and effective door has opened to me . . .” (1 Corinthians 16:8 1 Corinthians 16:8But I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost.
American King James Version×, 9).
Look for open doors, but also act
God opened doors for Paul in the first century, and he can do the same for us. The apostle did not leave matters to time, chance and circumstances; he asked the brethren to pray about those doors, as ought we Christians today! Paul himself sought out new openings to preach the gospel, actively using every opportunity he found available.
Paul uttered the same request for prayer to the Ephesian church: “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit . . . and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel . . .” (Ephesians 6:18 Ephesians 6:18Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;
American King James Version×, 19).
Paul was in prison when he made this particular request to the Ephesians. How could he possibly preach the gospel while bound in chains? Yet he had the faith to ask the brethren for help, no matter what his physical circumstances.
Well over a century ago, noted traveler and author George Borrow took the Bible to Spain and Portugal on behalf of the British & Foreign Bible Society. He risked persecution and loss of life to get the Scriptures to the Iberian Peninsula.
Today we in the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic are in desperate need of many such people to make the precious knowledge of the Bible known again to the British Isles. We invite you to join us in earnest prayer that the gospel can go out in greater strength in this part of the world.