Tell ’em plain…

He’s on his way from misery to happiness… Ah, wrong film…

Disclaimer: Yes this is a post largely involving the First World War. Just count yourselves lucky it’s taken this long. Stick with it, there’s good news coming…

Last night I took a trip with a couple of mates from church to see 1917, Sam Mendes’ new film, set in…well you can work it out. The critics have been raving about it, and it looks like the luvvies at the academies will to. Those of you who know me know how much I love a good film, and the bus advert told me, ‘You must see this movie!’ And all adverts on buses must be true, right?! So off we went…

But those of you who know me will also know that, since my teens, I’ve been obsessed by the First World War. It holds a fascination over me that little else does. Since first watching Richard Holmes walk around France gently explaining the Battle of the Somme, and finding out my great-Grandad fought in that Battle and at Third Ypres (losing a lung to gas) among others, I’ve devoured anything I could get my hands on about the conflict. And I’ve been longing for a decent First World War film to show things how they were. So I was understandably a little torn as we sat down to watch (not to mention the fact that one of the mates I saw the film with has an MA in the First World War as well!).

If you’ve not seen the film yet I won’t spoil it. The cinematography is great, the first person camera that everyone’s been going on about is good (even if it made me feel like I’d just spent two hours playing Battlefield 1!), and George MacKay is as excellent in this as in everything else he’s been in. So the film buff was, in general, satisfied.

However…

The film buff didn’t get to enjoy that too much. Because the historian found the whole thing so utterly, utterly, stupid. The film is set (again, hopefully no real spoilers here) around the advance of the British to the German Hindenburg Line in April 1917. The basic plot follows two Lance-Corporals as they are tasked with taking a message to a battalion about to attack this new, formidable, trench system. Without giving too much away this battalion has arrived at their attack position, dug a remarkably JCB-like trench into the chalk of Picardy overnight, and is about to launch an assault all by themselves, without any support from artillery or armour. If you’re a First World War novice, that is about as likely and sensible as the SAS being dropped in a warzone with no weapons, or even clothes, today. I won’t reveal anymore, but let’s just say there were enough absolute howlers to keep myself and my MA-owning mate going on the drive home. Although it wasn’t as horrific as I expected given some of the interviews with director and cast I have seen, this was, at best, a buddy/journey film, that just happens to have a vague First World War aesthetic.

That’s an impressive feat in one night!

And the thing is that some of these inaccuracies seem to be put in on purpose, in order to make it more palatable to a 21st Century audience. One clear example was the attempt to make the film as diverse as possible. While it’s certainly the case that black troops did sterling service for Britain in the First World War (Walter Tull is one of my heroes), if the number represented in the two battalions or so seen here was representative of the army as a whole then hundreds of thousands of black troops would have fought on the Western Front. That simply wasn’t the case. Similarly the Indian Army solider who randomly turns up in a British Army unit. I understand why film makers make these choices (again, Indian Army soldiers performed great service during the 1914-18 war), but it does seem that the true situation is changed simply to appease modern sensibilities. To allow us to feel the tension of the life and death nature of war, without feeling the uncomfortableness of being transported to the different world and culture that these men fought in just over a century ago.

And it struck me as I thought it over again this morning (when I wasn’t raging!) that so often we make the same choices when we share the good news of Jesus with people. We’re all so scared of dragging people out of their comfort zones by talking about sin, death, hell, and judgement that we just stick to the nice bits. A whole vocabulary of meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment has taken their place in the ways we often preach the gospel. We’re worried that if we confront people with the stark truth of reality as it is they might not stick with us. If we can just make the uncomfortable bits palatable enough, they might stick with the story. Now don’t get me wrong, we are all searching for satisfaction, meaning, and fulfillment, and those things really are only found in Christ. But I do wonder if we’re often tempted to use them instead of talking about wrath, sin, condemnation, and hell, rather than in addition to. Perhaps we’re guilty of trying to make Jesus palatable. Trying to fit him, as much as we possible can, into people’s existing worldview. To allow them to see the life that is in Jesus, with feeling the uncomfortableness of the death that we have chosen for ourselves.

And yet the gospel is the power of God to salvation. There really is a holy God who is angry at our sin. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and are running, laughing and cheering, to hell. But God has sent Jesus, to live the perfect life of obedience we couldn’t live, and to die in the place of all his people to bring them to his Father, by the power of the Spirit. People need to hear that. All of it. And, by God’s grace they need to repent of their sins and put their hope in this Christ, who took hell in the place of all who will trust him.

John Nelson was a bloke from round here in the 18th Century. He was saved after hearing John Wesley preach in London. He came home and went around sharing Jesus in our area, planting churches as he went. And he said this, ‘No preaching will do in Yorkshire except the old sort that comes like thunderclaps upon the conscience.’  In other words, tell ‘em plain. Don’t dress the gospel up. Don’t try it make it, or Jesus, more palatable. Give people the truth. Give them Jesus. It, and he, are actually far more impressive than your attempts to dress them up.

So get out there and tell people of Jesus. A Jesus who saves his people from the hell that he took on the cross in their place. That’s good news. It’s also the power of God to salvation.  Don’t dress it up, don’t soften it. Just tell ‘em plain…

(and if you’re at all interested in the real story of the First World War, then Gary Sheffield’s brilliant ‘Forgotten Victory: the First World War Myths and Realities’ is only 99p on Amazon at the minute. You can’t go wrong for 99p folks. Even if you’re a tight Yorkshireman…)

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