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09 May 2014

Filling the void

Filling the void

I don't claim to fully understand the fast-moving crisis in the Ukraine but I have no doubt that President Vladimir Putin's sense of humiliation following the downfall of the Soviet Union is a highly significant factor.

And it makes sense to me to believe that he is playing the 'Messiah' card, with Russia's heroic stand in the Second World War providing the compelling background narrative.

I am grateful to Mark Franchetti for this helpful insight. Writing in last week's Sunday Times, he suggested: "After years of searching Putin appears to have settled on a unifying national idea to fill the ideological void left by the collapse of communism: the Great Patriotic War as Russians call the Soviet Union's defeat of the Nazis."

"Critics say the Kremlin' spin doctors have hijacked memories of the Soviet war effort which claimed at least 20 million lives to whip up passions over the crisis in the Ukraine. Millions of Russians are told every night on the evening news that pro-Moscow militias in Eastern Ukraine are fighting 'fascists' in Kiev."

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to support his argument on Wednesday when he demanded a full investigation into the death of dozens of pro-Russian activists in Odessa. "For many years, Europe has been turning a blind eye to how fascism has been gaining new supporters, how its proponents are recruiting new followers," he asserted. "What happened in Odessa on May 2 is pure fascism."

As I read Franchetti's absorbing article I couldn't help thinking of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce is best known for his determined opposition to the slave trade, but this was but one of his passions. Wilberforce operated on the understanding that the Britain of his day needed more than a change of legislation. As he saw things he needed to challenge its core value -which is why he embarked on a determined mission to make goodness fashionable.

Wilberforce was involved in more than 60 different causes either as a campaigner or a key supporter. They were all very different but they all flowed from his fundamental conviction that the Bible offers us a compelling and fulfilling understanding of 'life, the universe and everything'.

As Martin Robinson and Dwight Smith have written in Invading Secular Space (Monarch Books), Wilberforce was convinced that: "The biblical narrative offered an inspiring vision of justice and of the basis for sound human relationships."

And those who thought like Wilberforce were not disappointed as Robinson and Smith have demonstrated: "It is clear that something happened in the early years of the 19th century that was sufficiently important to bring hundreds of thousands into the churches. It was not the revival as such. To borrow the phrase used by Lord Mead it is as if the interaction between religious institutions and the nature of their social environment was somehow altered so that the surrounding culture changed its view of the value of the Church. That fundamental shift in the attitude of society to the Church laid the foundations for the astonishing growth of the Church in 19th century Britain."

Oxford theologian Alister McGrath said something similar in a recent Christian Today interview in which he made the bold claim that reading CS Lewis can change your life."When I came to faith in 1971," he recalled, "I was faced with lots of questions that needed answering. I had an inquiring mind, and wanted to sort things out properly. Sadly, I never really found someone to help me with these questions until 1974, when someone suggested I read Lewis. Lewis was someone who reassured me that Christianity made sense, and helped me discover its deep logic and imaginative appeal."

It seems to me that this is one of the major challenges facing the British Church today: how can we live and love in such a way that the "deep logic and imaginative appeal" of the biblical narrative can capture the hearts and minds of our nation once again? There's certainly a void to fill.

Rob James is a Baptist pastor in Pembroke, west Wales, and chair of Evangelical Alliance Wales executive.