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Good to talk?

James Cary

Remember earlier this year when it looked like we'd have a Labour government? Or at least a coalition of the Left. If 2015 has made us relearn one lesson it is this: Don't trust opinion polls. Even the prime minister thought he was moving out of number 10 and handing back the keys to Chequers.

Two days before the election, I stumbled across a statistician called Matt Singh who had carefully worked out the extent to which people consistently lie about voting Conservative, or being a 'shy Tory' as they are politely called. Singh suggested that the Tories would do much better than expected, but even he didn't quite believe his findings and advised caution.

Since the election, other pollsters scrambled to say they also suspected a Tory surge but thought those results were outliers. So even when pollsters have the correct information, they have no way of knowing that it is indeed correct.

Let us keep this in mind, then, when we approach 'Talking Jesus', which sounds like an ill-advised religious toy. It is, in fact, a survey partly commissioned by the Church of England. The idea is to gauge attitudes towards Jesus, and how talking about him tends to go down. It was undoubtedly compiled in good faith but, as with all surveys, another layer of deception is added: the journalist looking for an angle.

In the Guardian, Andrew Brown was able to use the figures to have a go at people who like evangelising. The headline in the Telegraph was similarly negative, saying that 'Talking about Christianity could just put people off'. Lots of coverage enjoyed how ignorant the general public were about Jesus's very existence. Four in ten don't realise he was a real person, we were told. The survey results were a little more nuanced. Sixty per cent said he was/is a real person. Twenty per cent said he was a mythical or fictional character. Eighteen per cent had the grace to admit that they didn't know.

The reason journalists, sub-editors and commentators were able to read their prejudices into the survey results is because the results themselves were not in the least bit surprising or controversial. In Christianity Today, Ruth Gledhill wrote, 'The survey also suggested Christians who spoke to non-Christians about their faith did not always get a positive response.' Er, yes? That fits in with most people's experiences of talking about anything personal or important to them, be it faith, politics, or a pyramid selling scheme.

The Telegraph went on, 'Non-believers were asked if a practising Christian had ever spoken to them about their faith. Of those who said yes, only 19 per cent said it made them want to know more compared with 59 per cent who said the opposite.' If anything, 19 per cent is surprisingly high. So, if you know a hundred people and talked to them all about Jesus, nineteen would be interested. That's something.

The only real story about this survey is how unsurprising it is. So I was in turn surprised that the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Rev Michael Hill, said the findings had been 'greeted with disbelief'. Don't these figures fit in with what Jesus says about what it means to follow him? Christ is very open and honest about how following him will result in rejection (maybe 59 per cent of the time). Plenty of people who were face to face with Jesus Christ himself, God incarnate, were unimpressed and walked away. As Gledhill writes, 'Nearly half of non-Christians said they were "not open" to an experience or encounter with Jesus and nearly one-third actually felt uncomfortable. More than a quarter felt more negative towards Jesus after a Christian shared their faith with them.' Yup. Jesus found that too. The rich young ruler walked off. Nicodemus probably 'felt uncomfortable'. Simon the Pharisee was mortified. when he had Jesus round for dinner. This survey is not news.

And not only did people walk away from Jesus, he did not run after them. He did not beg to be liked, respected or honoured. I wonder if the church wants to be liked more than Jesus did. Remember that when Jesus sent out his disciples to preach the message of the coming kingdom, he was quite clear: 'If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.' Then he said, 'you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues.' Maybe we should be glad we're not in that situation. Not just yet.