Do stay for tea and coffee: On God and time
Paul Kerensa has a theory
I’ve got a theory. It’s a bit work-in-progress. In fact, I might disagree with my own theory by the end of this article. It’d be good to see if it has legs though, so let’s take it for a walk and see if it turns out I’m just dragging it along.
Here’s the theory: if the Church has struggled to engage everyday folk for the past century or two, it’s partly down to accountants, IT professionals and flight attendants. (I never said it was a good theory.)
First up, is my assumption correct? Has the church struggled with that aforementioned folksy engagement? There are resurgences and revivals, certainly. But church-wise, it’s fair to say the population doesn’t go en masse like the olden days. Perhaps the same proportion of Christians still go – I guess in days of yore, many attended simply because they had to. B&Q didn’t offer Sunday trading for another few hundred years. We can’t deny there’s been a drop-off though – that sort of thing happens when it’s not compulsory. At least today’s worshippers go of their own accord. Isn’t that better than spiritual hostage-taking, hoping that Stockholm syndrome will force unwilling churchgoers to fall for their captor eventually?
There are obvious historical landmarks that affected church attendance, from Darwin to Netflix. But I just wonder if there’s something we’ve overlooked. Till the 18th century, the most common jobs were agricultural. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a farmer or labourer. Who’d then throw it back, because we worked with our hands. Like David and Goliath, we were shepherds and field workers, of all shapes and sizes. So those biblical stories rang true.
Jesus’ parables speak of sowing seeds and lost sheep. He’s the good shepherd, the gate for the sheep, the true vine and the Lamb of God. At least a third of the disciples were fishermen, so Jesus instructed them to fish for people. And let’s not forget Jesus’ own family trade: carpentry. At the Sermon on the Mount, that advice to get the speck out of our neighbour’s eye only after de-logging our own eye, comes straight out of Jesus’ occupational background. He knew the lingo, and knew his audience knew it too.
Which brings us to the question of why Jesus was born then, in the time of Herod. Why did a timeless God choose that moment to intervene in earthly history? Galatians 4:4 says: ‘When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.’ It could have happened any time from the days of the dinosaurs to the days of the Daleks (I know, I know, do we definitely know that dinosaurs existed? Go with it; it’s a theory…) but God knew the time was right. Perhaps one reason was that it left 18 centuries of agricultural connection among those who’d hear the Gospel. All that time of farmers, fishermen, carpenters and labourers, connecting with those tales – before factories arrived with new, alien jobs.
The Enlightenment brought philosophers and sceptics, and the industrial revolution brought engineers, then those accountants, IT professionals and flight attendants. Career-wise, we stopped shepherding, fishing and seed-sowing in quite the same way. In a short space of time, those parables and miracles aged. Where they previously sounded current and relatable, they now sounded ancient. Where, apart from Bible stories, do we now hear of shepherds? Alright, there’s always Countryfile. That aside, I wonder if we’ve lost some connection with those stories over the last couple of centuries.
It’s just a theory. And because it’s a theory, I haven’t got a solution as such. If we start updating our language to appeal to modern professions, we do a disservice to the Bible. It’s lasted this long – I’m not seeking a new translation with briefly fashionable language from the worlds of marketing or tourism, though I write this just one day after the Pope tweeted that ‘Mary became… without social networks… the first “influencer”.’
They say that most children born today will have jobs that don’t even exist yet – so perhaps we needn’t update ageless tales of a timeless God to appease today’s workforce. Phrases briefly in vogue will be replaced soon enough. But if the earthly Jesus is also the timeless God, then he’s the good shepherd but also the good data architect; the gate of the sheep and the airport gate of international flights. He’s Alpha and Omega and Amiga and Toshiba, Wonderful Counsellor, Everlasting Life Coach, the Deliverer beyond Deliveroo. He’s all. And while our jobs may change like the wind, it’s good to know someone is more reliable, our God for life.
Paul Kerensa is a comic writer, performer and broadcaster
This article was published in the March 2019 edition of Reform