Bartlett and the Bible

Glynn Harrison has written an extraordinary article in the new edition of “Solas”  “The long shadow” with a very telling insight into the impact of the sexual revolution on our society, from a Christian world view. It is a challenging critique of how the church has failed to respond to this revolution, been caught napping and generally been unable to speak the good news into it. “Our culture has a good sense of what we are against, but what are we for?”  With some noble and notable exceptions, the church has, in the heat of the debate, been found wanting. There has been a deficit in intellectual integrity, a deficit in creativity, a deficit in articulation and a deficit in humour. In contrast the sexual revolution, which was a revolution of ideas, held all the cards and knew how to present the case: the use of the media, being one of the principal planks of that presentation.

For me, nothing exemplifies this more than “Bartlett and the Bible” a scene from the television series “The West Wing”. Jed Bartlett is the president of the USA and throughout the series he exudes a quality of humanity that somehow you do not expect in a politician, far less in the leader of the “free world”. You cannot but warm to him and take to the way he acts, how he responds to his aids and his family, how he seems to genuinely care for the people and takes the responsibility of his office so seriously and even how he shows his failings. It is very endearing. He comes over as such a genuinely good man that people often say they would vote for him if his name was on the ticket. Many have even tried to persuade Martin Sheen, who is a real person, to do just that to stand for president.

The scene in question can be found at but there is hardly any need to supply the link as you would have to be a stranger to YouTube or social media not to have come across it.  It is a very clever, funny and accomplished display by the president of the United States of America where he wipes the floor with the priggish upstart of a radio presenter, in what has become an iconic put down. At a stroke he exposes the inconsistency, hypocrisy, sheer stupidity, and the censorious and unloving attitude of the conservative biblical right. It’s a great laugh and so often as I have engaged with a facebook discussion on the subject it has been brought in to the thread to prove a point and it does just that. It is the killer punch which finally finishes off the argument. There is no more that can be said. The argument is won and lost.

But take a moment to look at the clip, for it is a perfect example of how the media can be used, not simply to make a point but, to close an argument. Ged Bartlett is a fictional character and the scene has been invented in someone’s mind. The dialogue has been written. It is not a real discussion. In fact it is not a discussion at all more of a monologue in which the president berates the limp presenter with a series of quick fire questions.  He does not allow her space or even the opportunity to answer the questions. The implication is clear. There are no answers. Any fool would see that.  He roundly castigates, viscously mocks and abuses her verbally, in way that would make any misogynist proud. It is a blatant display of merciless bullying by a powerful man, while his staff and advisors stand pathetically bye, sheepishly silent, unwilling or unable to take him to task. It ends when he completes the ritual humiliation by forcing her to stand, as everyone must do, in his presence. It is from every angle an appalling display yet I have heard nothing but applause for it and the way people continue to share the clip shows that they see nothing wrong with that aspect of it.

Leaving the bullying and the abuse to the side, the fact that there is no space for a response, a challenge or even offering answers to the questions, shows how propagandist the piece really is. Given the space and the opportunity, which any fair minded person would, there are very obvious responses that could be made. There are answers to the questions too. Timothy Keller at gives a perfectly reasoned and convincing response to the charge of inconsistency and others have done so too. But in the media world, these voices are hardly ever heard and it is left to a few to speak out, to challenge the omnidirectional flood of thought, to stick a head above the parapet and face the torrents of abuse and even death threats that come with the territory.

Glynn Harrison’s challenge to the church is simply to tell the good news into this long shadow. “The good news that God has not left us alone. In scripture he not only reveals who he is, but he shows us who we are: he speaks our identity to us.”. That will need resourcefulness, intellectual integrity commitment, creativity and courage, but more than anything, belief in it.

Crawford Mackenzie

A Purposeful Habit 3

Telling the Good News

leaving 2

It was a bright Saturday morning in September. With a fresh breeze and a clear sky we were sailing across the Clyde from  Ardrossan to Brodick, coming late to join a team on a mission to bring the Good News to the hordes of young folk from Glasgow crowding into the Island for one last fling before the winter . It was “Operation Arran”. We were not the only ones who missed the connections the night before and we gathered on the top deck to get reconnected. Among us was Captain Stephen Anderson. He was an evangelist, a former farmer and soldier whose parents had high hopes, at one time, that he would become  the Raj of India, before independence changed all that. He had turned his back on his former life and worked full time, to use the gift that God had given him, to tell the Good News of Jesus to the high and mighty, the ordinary folk and odd balls, the smart guys and rough diamonds and anyone and everyone he met, wherever he went.

Our paths had crossed before on two occasions. One was at Port Seaton holiday camp on the forth estuary. I clearly remembered arriving at the site and being dropped off by my future in-laws who, on seeing the down at heel huts and the noisy crowds made a quick exit. I was to sing for a children’s event outside the tiny wooden chapel at the centre of the camp. An evening service had been interrupted the previous week when a motorcyclist drove throughout the main door up the aisle and out through the south door. It was hot and sweaty and the crowds of children loud and sticky and over enthusiastic would hug you and leave you with the strong desire to start scratching. When I came to sing, I was crowded in and could hardly hear my own voice far less the guitar but when I began something strange happened. The crowd of children and young folk and hangers on were suddenly hushed and seemed to be hanging on every word and when I finished my set Stephen spoke to this rapt audience about Jesus and in his characteristic winsome way.

The second was in the BBC studios in Queen Street Edinburgh, to record a series for “thought for the day” on what was then called the Home Service. The equipment seemed ancient and the microphone looked like it came from the ark. There were lots of tests and misfires before the recordings were put down. I had simply to sing a line of a song as an intro and then stop. There was no cutting and pasting.  While we were sitting in the studio with the producer and technician next door, trying to sort things out,  Stephen suggested we pray. So right there in the dark panelled draughty room with the floor covered in coiled cables and  strange pieces of equipment and quite unaware than anyone was listening,  we bowed our heads and  prayed that God would use this time to bring the message to many across  Scotland . When the team came through to get us started, they were clearly moved.  The prayer had come right through to the monitor.

So there we were, up on deck with crowds of others in the warm sun gliding across the Clyde when Stephen said ” Do you have your guitar with you? Get it out and let’s sing” I was shocked and didn’t like the idea but he was persuasive and we did. Others pulled their instruments from there cases and we gathered in a circle and sang through many of the songs that had become part of our life. Now everyone was listening and Stephen used that moment to speak directly to the crowds of fellow travellers, sitting on the benches and hanging over the deck and gazing out to sea , to tell them who were we were, why we were going to Arran and in the simplest and natural way  why Jesus. On the Sunday afternoon at three when the pub up the hill, discouraged its customers, we were sitting around in the local church hall. Many revellers were diverted into the hall and joined in with the singing, taking over the venue. It became very raucous and we felt we had just about lost control. One of the girls sang “Amazing Grace” recently made into a hit by Judy Collins and the crowd became strangely silent. When she finished, a hush descended and once again Stephen seized the opportunity and speak directly to the crowd.

I learned so much from the man and this was all brought back to mind recently, when I was asked to convene the evangelism committee in our local church. I knew I was not an evangelist. That gift had not been given to me. I do know those for whom the gift has been given and it is a wonderful thing to see, but I knew that was not me.  But reading Paul’s letters, I discovered that Timothy didn’t seem to be an evangelist either yet Paul still encouraged him to “do the work of an evangelist”. So it is for everyone who is a follower of Jesus. We may not have the gift but if we love him, it must be part of our DNA to tell the Good News, for that is what evangelism is.  Leslie Newbigin put it succinctly when he was talking about the difficulties in communicating the gospel to the people of his inner city parish in Birmingham

“How can this strange story of God made man, of a crucified saviour, of resurrection and new creation become credible for those whose entire mental training has conditioned them to believe that the real world is the world that can be satisfactorily explained and managed without the hypothesis of God? I know of only one clue to the answering of that question, only one real hermeneutic of the Gospel: congregations who believe it.

Does that sound too simplistic? I don’t believe it is.  Evangelism is not some kind of technique we use to persuade people to change their minds and think like us.  Evangelism is the telling of good news, but what changes people’s minds and converts their wills is always a mysterious work of the sovereign Holy Spirit and we are not permitted to know more than a little of his secret working.  But – and this is the point – the Holy Spirit, is present in the believing congregation gathered for praise and the offering up of spiritual sacrifice, scattered throughout the community to bear the love of God into every secular happening and meeting.”

 So we could ask ourselves why is that, as followers of Jesus, we seem to be so poor at this task? Why do we seem so reluctant to tell this Good News? Why do we drag our feet and need to be coerced and organised into doing it? The answer, which we would probably not really want to think about and could be quite disturbing, is that maybe we are not ourselves sure if we believe it.

In the past week, I met up with people on two occasions who bounded up to me, their faces full of joy and excitement, with a generous hug and desperate to tell me-  “I’ve got Good News!” One was over a new job the other that her mother’s visa had at last come through and she was able to come and visit.   And I thought “Yes – that’s it”

Crawford Mackenzie