A TV series I recently enjoyed immensely was the Story of England by Michael Wood, and I am now working my way through the book. Despite its title, the book does not, as you might expect, focus on the rich and important people of our past, or directly describe the momentous events that have changed the course of our destiny. Instead it concentrates on one small village in Leicestershire – admittedly with extremely good records – and records how the settlement began back in the mists of the Iron Age and how it grew and developed over the centuries until the present day.
To me, this has always been real, authentic history. There is something I find hugely evocative about finding out how ordinary folk lived in times past, the challenges they faced, and the opportunities that were open to them. Of course discovering who they were and when they lived can be a real challenge. Most history is written by the rich, educated, the famous. They not only concentrate on their own achievements, but they tend to overestimate the effect they have had on real lives. For example, they might record the glorious conquest of another nation, and the dazzling heroics they performed in achieving this fear. But they won’t tell you that in most respects the ordinary lives of ordinary people carried on much as before. The official language may have changed, or there might be a new lord to whom they had to pay taxes, but the cycle of birth, death, sowing, harvest continued pretty much as before.
And this is one reason why I love the gospels. Because although they are the record of the life, death and resurrection of one extraordinary person, they also represent real, authentic history. What strikes you when you read the gospels is how little mention is made of emperors, and kings, and foreign powers. The gospels contain fishermen, tax collectors, failed idealists. The stories are the stories of everyday lives, with lost coins, and seed planted in the ground, and observations about the weather. Completely different in focus from an official history like that of Josephus which records the lust, passion and tyranny of the rich and famous, and only gives Jesus the briefest of mention. But I know which reflects the real narrative of the time.
This leads on to another observation. Because so often as a church we give the impression we’d really rather concentrate on appealing to the rich, the famous, the influential. We aren’t, on the whole, that good on drawing alongside ordinary people, telling stories in their language, listening to their hopes and their fears, and presenting the gospel in a way that is readily comprehensible. But if you look at Jesus, who does He concentrate on? The poor woman in the crowd who has been bleeding for twelve years, the widow putting her mite in the collection, the widow leaving Nain with the body of her dead only son. You don’t find much written nowadays on down-to-earth, incarnate parish ministry. But if you want to make history, it seems to me that this is where it’s at.