King Edwin of Northumberland’s conversion and the sparrow in the storm
Came across this lovely story from Bede while reading Gene Fant’s God as Author. It’s a book I enjoyed and picked some lovely gems from it. May post some more sometime. But he recounts this story to illustrate the way in which our experience of the world (as general revelation) interacts with our understanding of worldviews and life, especially when we encounter special revelation.
The Venerable Bede (c673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus. Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:
“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”
The adviser was stating the insight that something he had observed in nature had created in him an imbalance, a longing for something more. Clearly drawn on a personal experience of watching such a sparrow’s flight, the adviser heard the gospel of redemption and eternal life as the restoration of that balance that had been lost. Moreover, Coifi, the chief priest, revealed that he too had found in his own observations of life and nature an imbalance.
“I have long realized that there is nothing in our way of worship; for the more diligently I shought [sic] after truth in our religion, the less I found. I now publicly confess that this teaching clearly reveals truths that will afford us the blessings of life, salvation and eternal happiness. Therefore your majesty, I submit that the temples and altars that we have dedicated to no advantage be immediately desecrated and burned.”
God as Author (pp82-83)
Now Bede was probably indulging in not a little bit of artistic licence and historiographical imagination here (especially with Coifi’s speech – that seems pretty unbelievable – or am I just being an old cynic?). But I did find the image of the sparrow a very powerful and suggestive one indeed.
I like these more obscure entries which find their way onto your blog. How do you find time to read so much and so widely?! You have some great recommendations – thanks!
This extract from Fant’s book resonates with a similar historical and missionary encounter here in the Eastern Cape which allegedly occurred in the early 19th century and it has prompted me to explore it further. Your comments about the role of general revelation (and subsequent witness) in the salvation of the evangelised (King Edwin and Co.) prompted me to ask why Ntsikana (highly regarded as the first Xhosa convert/prophet/preacher c.1810) was able to articulate his faith in such a culturally relevant way, when he had had barely – if any – contact with western missionaries (one of whom later was, ironically, my namesake – Rev. James Read Jr, of LMS!). He (Ntsikana) wrote several hymns which are still sung over 200 years later, but sadly (like many Christians in the UK and their ignorance of the carriers of the gospel – Augustine, Columba et al) his legacy as someone who articulated the gospel in a genuinely indigenous way, is all but forgotten.
Anyway, I’m rambling on about something I actually know very little. Thanks for the entry and keep them coming!
Jamie Read (BIEC, Port Elizabeth)
Thanks for the encouragements Jamie! Nsikana sounds fascinating. Would love to know more. I’ve just looked him up on the fab Dictionary of African Christian Biography (do you know about? a wonderful and evergrowing resource).
But it sounds like you could add some bits…
Yes the DACB website has rescued me a number of times and who knows, I might get around to writing something soon on Ntsikana – there’s some good local sources/leads.
In case you are interested (though that is unlikely), I was named after King Edwin of Northumbria. I grew up in the North East of England, and my dad was a great lover of local history. I’m relieved that he didn’t decide to call me Bede.
I AM interested! – though i’m ashamed to say I know very little about him – but certainly intrigued enough to dig around more. Have you suggestions of where to dig?
All my reading about him has been in books about Northumbrian History. I exhausted the section on local history in the Sunderland central library during my A Levels.
He gets very little press in most church-history books.