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21 October 2011

You are what you read

On the way to work this morning, were you reading the Metro, The Financial Times, the Booker Prize winner or War and Peace? Were you listening to commercial radio, Radio 4, a sermon podcast, or your iPod on shuffle? Maybe you didn't read or listen to anything, but engaged in conversation with your travelling companions, be they colleagues or children, spouse or strangers. Whatever choice you made, it informed the way you approached the day and the perspective you have on events in the world and in your world.  

Charles Moore wrote an excellent article in the Telegraph this week, which purported to be a review of 66 Books, a series of performances at the Bush Theatre inspired by each of the 66 books of the Bible. It developed much more, though, into a review of the Bible itself and its value to our society. 

Refreshingly, Moore did not focus solely on the literary merits of the KJV, as has been the temptation for so many - not least arch-atheist Richard Dawkins - in this 400th anniversary year. While acknowledging its place in the great speeches, poetry and literature of our cultural landscape, his point is not that losing a knowledge of the Bible impoverishes our engagement with great literature. Rather, he says, "If the words for the great truths are no longer held in common, how can most of us find them?"

The King James Bible, he implicitly acknowledges, doesn't just contain great stories; it contains truth.

When we had just one translation of the truth, which was chanted by school children every day, and murmured by "prince and ploughman and everyone in between" at every high-day and holy day, marking every change in season and in life-circumstance, both the words and the ideas behind them permeated the public conscience and shaped, subconsciously, their understanding of the world.

For better or for worse, we now live in a world in which there is no single source of information, no one overarching message being shared or received. Freedom involves freedom to listen to more than one idea, and to choose for yourself which ideas - or which bits of them - you accept and which you reject.

But with freedom comes responsibility. As James K A Smith points out compellingly in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, we are absorbing messages all the time, from advertising and newspaper headlines, to the values espoused in the movies we watch, and those promoted by the shopping centres we visit.

It is incumbent upon us to pay attention to the messages coming at us day after day, and to guard our hearts from being captivated and shaped by ideas which are of the world, not of the Kingdom. I suggest that the most positive, and the most effective way, is not to rant, not to write strongly-worded letters to the editor of your favoured paper, not to condemn, but to create. Smith states that "our worldview is more a matter of the imagination than the intellect". The translators of the King James Bible created a literary work which communicated truth by capturing the heart. The writers and performers of 66 Books are communicating their responses to that truth by appealing to the imagination. We will communicate truth better by telling stories than by giving lectures. So what stories are you telling about the truth of God's work in the world, and who are you telling them to?

Jennie Pollock, communications editor for Newfrontiers