Why are we so fascinated by lists? As a teenager I made lists endlessly. Lists of people mostly. My fifteen all-time Welsh rugby greats. The ten preachers I would most like to hear. It’s a game that many people play. And the BBC is playing it at the moment. Last year the BBC carried out a poll of 30,000 people and asked them to nominate the Greatest Britons of all time. The resulting list of “the 100 Greatest Britons” has been published. And now the BBC is running a series of programmes about the top 10, inviting viewers to rank them in order. They’re assessed on five criteria: their legacy, their genius, their leadership, their bravery and their compassion.
Well, it’s a bizarre list. And it tells us more about the minds of TV viewers today than it does about great Britons. Currently top of the list is Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great 19th century engineer who built the Clifton Suspension Bridge and designed the Great Eastern steamship. Winston Churchill comes in at no 2, Charles Darwin no 3, Shakespeare no 4, and Princess Diana at no 5 – ahead of Isaac Newton (6) and Elizabeth I (7). John Lennon is there at no 8 ahead of Oliver Cromwell (9) and Lord Nelson (10).
John Lennon? Genius? He wrote some good pop songs, that’s true. Leadership? Well, there’s no doubt he led a lot of young people into self-destructive lifestyles by his example. Bravery? He had the “bravery” to pose naked with his wife Yoko Ono on the cover of one of his LPs. But what else? Compassion? He sang songs telling other people to imagine a world where there’s no money but built up a vast fortune for himself. And legacy? Yes, he left a legacy – a generation of young people whose idols were sex, drugs and rock and roll.
As you go down the list it becomes more and more bizarre. Lots of entertainers – pop stars, comedians, DJs. Michael Crawford (17), David Bowie (29), Eric Morecambe (32), Boy George (46), Julie Andrews (59), Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols (87) and many more. But strangely, only three “sportspeople” with David Beckham (33) at their head.
Half a dozen explorers including Ernest Shackleton (11), James Cook (12), Scott of the Antarctic (54). About the same number of royals – they include Queen Victoria (18), the present Queen (24), the Queen Mother (61), Henry V (72). Lots of scientists and inventors – I counted eighteen including such worthies as Alexander Fleming (20), David Attenborough (63) and Tim Berners-Lee (99), pioneer of the Internet. That’s apart from engineers like George Stephenson (65).
Not a lot of space for poets or novelists. Blake’s there at 38 and Chaucer at 81, but no room for Milton, Cowper, Wordsworth, Browning, Tennyson or T S Eliot. Jane Austen (70), Charles Dickens (41) are placed, plus of course, the greatest novelist of the 21st century – J K Rowling (83). But no room for Thackeray, George Eliot or Daniel Defoe, or any of the Brontes. Elgar (60) is the only classical musician or performer. No painters, sculptors, architects. Tom Paine (34) is our only great philosopher.
Soldiers? Well, there are a few. “The Unknown Soldier” – the nameless victim of war – is there at 76. Apart from him, we have Wellington (15), Montgomery (88), Lawrence of Arabia (53), William Wallace (48) (but then he was a nationalist freedom fighter, like Owain Glyndwr at 23 and James Connolly at 64). Not many politicians – Margaret Thatcher (16), Nye Bevan (45), Enoch Powell (55), Lloyd-George (79), Tony Benn (97) and of course that icon of leadership, bravery and compassion, Tony Blair (67). No Pitt or Fox or Palmerston or Gladstone.
What do I learn from the list? Well, firstly, it’s a frightening illustration of how little history people know. Around a quarter of the 100 people reckoned as Greatest Britons are alive today. Around 40% have lived within my lifetime. Secondly, the list reflects the present obsession with science. I suspect that a similar list drawn up a hundred years ago would have been dominated by soldiers – Kitchener, General Gordon and so on. They were the heroes of that age. But scientists are our new heroes, bravely exploring the world and extending human power over creation. People trust scientists where they don’t trust politicians.
Most of all, the list tells me about the power of the media. It’s dominated by “media personalities” – ie entertainers – and people who have been made famous by the media – would Jane Austen have been there but for a string of recent TV costume dramas based on her novels? The media tells the nation who is truly great – and the nation agrees. And the list tells us how quickly fashions change. Apparently Robbie Williams is in fashion (77). Elton John is out. Michael Crawford (17) is in. Wayne Sleep is out.
But I do draw one encouragement from the list. Even the power of the media cannot quite erase the impact that Christians have made on British history. Isaac Newton, perhaps our greatest scientist and a Bible believing Christian is there at no 6. Oliver Cromwell, “God’s Englishman” (9), our greatest statesman, the preserver of England’s liberty, was driven by his strong Puritan convictions. King Alfred the Great (14) held back the forces of barbarism from England in the 9th century and kept the light of Christian learning and freedom alive. Michael Faraday, (22) “the greatest of all experimental physicists”, was a humble Christian man and an elder in an evangelical congregation. William Tyndale (26) the 16th century Bible translator shaped the English language for all time. William Wilberforce (28) spent his life fighting almost single-handedly against the slave-trade and won his battle. Sir Francis Drake (49), first English round-the-world navigator, and hero of the battle against the Armada, was a devout Christian who led his sailors in daily prayer. John Wesley (50) led the 18th century Evangelical Revival which transformed the face of Britain. William Booth (71) founded the Salvation Army, preached the gospel and fought against poverty in Victorian Britain. James Clerk Maxwell (91), again one of the greatest of physicists, was an elder in a Scottish presbyterian church who worshipped with an evangelical baptist church when in London. He filled his letters to his fiancée with mini-sermons from Paul’s letters! David Livingstone (98) the Scottish missionary opened up Darkest Africa to the gospel and to trade: he died on his knees, praying for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.
Eleven great Bible-believing Christians in the world’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons. We’d surely add many more. John Knox, the single greatest force in shaping the Scottish character; John Bunyan, whose Pilgrim’s Progress is recognised as the greatest work of prose in the English language, barring only the Authorised Version of the Bible; Lord Shaftesbury, the greatest of social reformers. And what shall I more say? For the time would fail me to tell of Anselm of Canterbury and Grossetete of Lincoln, Bradwardin and Wyclif, Cranmer and Latimer, Owen and Baxter, Whitefield and Rowlands, Carey and Martyn, Hannah More and Robert Raikes, Spurgeon and Barnardo, Mary Slessor and Gladys Aylward. Through faith, they rebuked kings, reformed cities, preached to angry mobs, faced the stake undaunted, established universities, built orphanages, travelled to distant lands to preach the gospel, followed Christ to heaven. Of whom the world was not worthy.
These all served God’s purpose in their generation and fell asleep. Our nation owes them more than it knows. They are our heroes, our role-models, our Great Britons. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. And let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Pioneer and Finisher of our Faith.