Speakers’ Corner and Stained Glass: Impressions of England

speakers corner

As many of you know, my husband and I recently returned from a trip to England. We went there in order to attend the London Book Fair and meet my wonderful publisher, Jo Holloway, and some of her other authors. It was a great trip, and I hardly know where to begin writing about it because there are so many things I could say!

Two images linger in my mind, however, putting questions in my head. The first is Speakers’ Corner, a spot on one end of Hyde Park in London that is fair game for people to come and say anything they want. It can be political, religious–anything that people want to talk about. Tight little circles gather to listen in as two people in the middle go head-to-head on a topic. (An interesting side-note: just because someone had something to say, didn’t mean they automatically got listeners; one fellow on a chair failed to gather a single person to gather ’round!). I loved the sight of freedom of speech in action!

Most of the circles seemed to be focused on good-humored Muslim/Christian debates. A baseball-capped Texan smiled and responded calmly to a very well-versed Muslim man in a white gown who asked “If God knows everything, and Jesus is God, why does Jesus say in the Bible that ‘No one knows the hour . . . . ‘ I couldn’t hear the rest of it or the Texan man’s response, but it was clear that the Muslim man thought he had “trapped” the Christian man into saying that Jesus didn’t know everything and so must not be God.

The questions that linger in my mind are many: Would I be able to defend my faith in such a circle? Would I know as much about Islam as the Muslims in those circles seemed to know about my Bible? Do I know as much about my Bible as they do? Should we be able to defend out faith in such a debate, or is it enough to just believe and tell people that it’s a matter of faith?

We also visited the Oxford home of C.S. Lewis on this trip, a man who spent his life defending the Christian faith through books, broadcasts, and other means to both children and adults. He obviously thought we should be able to articulate what we believe and why. His friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, also a strong Christian, continues to speak to people through his writings today. On Tolkien’s grave lie evidence that his work matters: handwritten letters and fresh flowers are still strewn there, decades after his death.

It was at a visit to Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford that really made me wonder what we have lost as a society when we don’t know the faith that moved people to create the cathedrals in the first place (whether we believe in it or not). The guide pointed to a stained glass window of an angel stomping on a serpent, and a young German woman knew exactly who it was and that it was from the book of Revelation. I was impressed, but when it came to identifying the Jonah window, where the prophet Jonah sits under a fig tree watching to see if God will save the wicked Nineveh, she and the others in the group looked completely flummoxed; nothing was familiar to her about the story–no large fish swallowing Jonah and spitting him out–nothing. It made me wonder how she knew the other one, and how she could know absolutely nothing about a Bible story that is one of the first that children here seem to learn.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. I just keep coming back to the many Muslims at Hyde Park who seemed to care deeply about their own faith, and yet who knew my faith well enough to argue with the few Christians who dared try. Even at the London Book Fair, free Qurans were available from several very large booths, and Muslim publishers were well-represented. I did spot a few Christian publishers besides my own, but they were tucked in small places and seemed quietly inconsequential.

I guess that leaves with me one more question for myself and you: Do we Christians love Jesus enough, and care enough about others, to tell them that Jesus is Good News–and why we believe it? Do we, in this country that’s built on ideas like freedom of speech, still believe that we can carry on a good-natured, old-fashioned debate on a controversial topic, or is that even possible anymore? For all the talk about tolerance, can we as a society actually tolerate diverse views? It’s looking more difficult every day. I pray that we can!

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ Romans 10:14-15

 

About Sonja Anderson

I write novels and picture books for children, and occasionally an article or short story for adults, too. I grew up in Ohio, and I have lived in Chicago, Connecticut, Boston, Tokyo, and Seattle. The beautiful Pacific Northwest inspires me every day.
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5 Responses to Speakers’ Corner and Stained Glass: Impressions of England

  1. vallypee says:

    An interesting and thought-provoking post, Sonja. I grew up with Speaker’s Corner and in the days of my youth people used to stand there and talk about the Cold War, Nuclear threats and politics in general. Religion was just one of the many topics and mostly just warning folk that the end of the world was nigh. I don’t ever remember seeing Christians and Muslims in debate, so Speakers Corner really does reflect the times we live in. I can’t answer your questions, but you’ve definitely given me some pause for thought!

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  2. Thank you for reading, Val, and for taking the time to respond! It’s so interesting to think about Speaker’s Corner being there year after year and day after day. We think we value free speech in the United States, but sadly, the tone of discussion about difficult things is “My way or the highway!”

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  3. Christina Kloker Young says:

    Thank you Sonja for your insights while in England. The times I have been able to talk about my faith with someone who asks me why I am a Christian are momentous times and I treasure them. I quickly pray for the words to answer their questions and always wonder if I was able to inspire or open the door for them to learn more. I love the song ” Take time to wonder at the world in which we wonder, Never hurry by an open door for we live in a universe full of miracles galore” Having a door open to speak on a Speakers corner or one on one about our beliefs is truly an “open door.” So grateful you and Jeff had this opportunity. Love to you, Christina Kloker Young

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    • Thanks for reading, Christina! I appreciate it! I love the line you quoted about “never hurry by an open door.” It’s been my experience that if we hurry past an open door, thinking it will always be there “later” when it is more convenient, inevitably that door is closed for whatever reason and the opportunity to share is gone.

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  4. A thoughful post. In our local town a man regularly stands and reads his bible, few listen, many walk past, but he has the freedom speak. I think this is what I take from this post, here in the UK we respect everyones right to speak their own truth. Sometimes that right is abused, but in the main we are a tolerent nation that many aspire to. Also, like you, I am amazed at the people who build magnificent buildings to celebrate their faith.

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