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God Our Contemporary by J.B. Phillips


Born in London in 1906, J.B. Phillips was ordained in 1930. In 1940 he became Vicar of the Church of the Good Shepherd, London. He is noted for his work in the field of Biblical translation, and in particular for two books: Letters to Young Churches and Your God is Too Small. Published by The Macmillan Company, New York. Copyright by J.B. Phillips, 1960. Fifth printing 1966. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 9: A New Look at Christianity


Although the moral standards and ethical judgments of this country have long been permeated by Christian teaching, there is a widespread ignorance both of the actual history of the Christian Faith and of its revolutionary character. Generally speaking, there is no intake of Christian information and consequently no attempt to see the relevance of basic Christian principles in modern situations. It is not, I repeat, that the thinkers, the writers and the leaders of popular thought, in whatever media, have for the most part studied Christianity and rejected it as unhistoric, impractical and outdated. It is simply that they have not studied it at all! I believe their attitude of almost total ignorance to be quite indefensible, and I find myself in agreement with a friend of mine who was to discuss on television the Christian position with four leading London journalists. He asked them simply whether any one of them had given five consecutive minutes (minutes, mark you! ) to the serious study of what Christianity had to say, and every one of them admitted that he had not. Whereupon my friend remarked kindly but firmly that if that were the case no real discussion could possibly take place. In my own experience I find it perfectly extraordinary that men and women of unusual ability in their respective spheres have rarely taken the trouble to give their adult attention to such a unique way of life as that proposed by Jesus Christ. I am happy to admit that there are exceptions, but how often has one met otherwise intelligent people who have dismissed the whole Christian Faith because, for instance, they cannot believe that the first chapter of Genesis is true to science, that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, that unbaptized babies go to hell, or that heaven is above the bright blue sky! Because the Church has been guilty of many glaring faults over the centuries, because Christians have frequently failed to be Christians through cowardice or lethargy, because an archbishop has said a foolish thing, because the methods of some evangelists are not approved, or because of some other quite trivial or irrelevant reason, some people appear to think that Christianity is finally discredited and its challenge can be honorably ignored! Such people are worse than "grandstand critics," for not only are they criticizing a game in which they are not themselves involved, but they have seldom taken the trouble to acquaint themselves with the rules!

If this ignorance is prevalent among the leaders of popular opinion, and I believe it is, we cannot be surprised that most ordinary people have no idea what Christianity is all about. Many of them have no use for the churches, regard clergy and ministers, as a class, with suspicion, but nevertheless have a certain vague respect for the personality of Jesus. The situation is not made any easier by the fact that almost their only source of knowledge of what modern Christians are thinking and doing is their daily newspaper. They therefore get an entirely negative impression; they are apt to read about only such things as a denunciation of gambling or Sunday amusement, a condemnation of modern moral standards, or, now and again, the story of some unhappy parson who has "gone wrong." They read nothing in the national Press of what Christianity is all about, and they are given negligible information about both the aims and the work of Christian churches throughout the world. It would therefore hardly be an exaggeration to say that very many people look upon Christianity largely as a repressive system, designed to spoil the pleasures of life and offering a man a rather dubious heaven in some vague world to come. I believe that if it were possible to get people to listen with fresh and unprejudiced minds to what Christianity is really saying, they might not accept it, but at least they could not dismiss it as a hangover from childhood, a beautiful but impractical dream, or as mere "religion" quite irrelevant to modern living.

Let us for the moment forget all about the churches’ reputedly narrow views, their "dressed-up bishops," their peculiar language and their apparently naïve ignorance of how life has to be lived by millions of people. Let us forget the churches’ failures over the centuries and their present disagreements -- in fact, let us for the time being forget the churches altogether and get back to the source of the Christian Faith. For Christianity begins with an historical fact, indeed its starting point is the most important event in the whole of human history. The Christian religion asserts that nearly two thousand years ago God, whose vast and complex wisdom science is daily uncovering, visited this small planet of ours in Person. Naturally the only way in which he could do this was by becoming a human being, and this is precisely what Christians believe that he did. This is the heart and center of the Christian Faith, this is the Gospel or Good News which those who had witnessed this extraordinary event went out to tell the then known world. That God so inserted himself into the stream of human history, and that we are consequently living on a visited planet, are statements audacious enough to take the breath away, and no reasonable person could be expected to accept such a belief as fact without considerable thought and careful examination of the evidence. To have had God, reduced to the stature of a human being, but indubitably God playing a part in the earthly scene, is a staggering thought. But this is where Christianity starts, this is the rock on which it is founded, and this is the point where men are compelled by the nature of the event to make up their minds as to whether it is true or false.

Let us not concern ourselves about how this startling event has been smothered in decoration, blunted by overfamiliarity, or overlaid by merely secondary considerations. Nothing must be allowed to distract us from considering with adult minds and hearts whether this is true history or a beautiful myth. The decision is so important that it must not, indeed cannot, be avoided. Yet this is the point at which so many people take evasive action. They begin to hide behind clouds of criticism of the Church or of particular Christians, or they create a diversion by arguing about the historicity of the Old Testament stories, or, for example, about the Church’s attitude toward war or divorce. I believe that each one of us must eventually face the real issue, which is quite simply: do I believe after adult examination of the evidence that Jesus Christ was what he claimed to be, or am I prepared to assert quite definitely that he was wrong in his major claims and that, though much of his teaching is beautiful, he himself was a self-deceived fanatic?

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