Sunday, December 13, 2015


But the habit of various protestant sects of plastering the landscape with religious slogans about the Blood of the Lamb is a different matter. There is no question here of doctrinal difference: we agree with the doctrines they are advertising. What we disagree with is their taste. Well, let's go on disagreeing but don't let's judge. What doesn't suit us may suit possible converts of a different type.
                  C.S Lewis

Most people think of Thought for the Day as a religious homily plonked anachronistically in the middle of a current affairs program. But it's really much more like a panel game. Contestants are challenged to give a three minute speech explaining why two randomly selected concepts are, “in a funny way” (or "a very real sense") quite like each other. Without hesitation, deviation or repetition...

“And you know, the Great British Bake Off is very like the Eucharist, because…”

“It may seem odd to be burning Guy Fawkes on the Feast Day of St Joannicus, but in fact…”

I had been rather looking forward to writing a funny take-down of Rev. Prof. Steven Wilkinson’s contribution to the genre, which showed that in a funny way Jesus is quite like Luke Skywalker. But I was careless enough to listen to the piece before writing my critique, and it turned out to be disappointingly good. The reverend professor shows every sign of both liking and understanding the Star Wars movies and, more surprisingly, of liking and understanding God.

So, waiting for a new film to come out is a bit like the Christian season of advent: well, yes, in a funny way, it is. Studying the trailers for hints about the new movie is a bit like studying the scriptures for signs of the Messiah: yes, up to a point, it is. The films are about how something intangible like the Force is more powerful than the baddies' big machines; which is like saying that the spiritual is more important than the material. Yes, definitely. Rev. Prof. even manages to work in a twenty word defense of the prequels. They are making a deep point about “How evil can develop from an obscure trade dispute to take hold of political and military structures on the largest scale. And how easy it is to be tempted and seduced by power even when trying to battle for the good.” Well, yes. Yes they are.

I particularly respect the fact that he doesn’t press his text too hard. Star Wars is not a Christian allegory. It was a good joke for Alec Guinness to reply "And also with you" to a fan who had said “May the Force be with you” precisely because blockbuster movies are, in a funny way, quite unlike the liturgy.

So. Having no excuse to talk about Thought for the Day, I had better talk about something else.

There is a long-standing tradition that the Church of England’s Christmas advertising campaign should create some sort of stir or controversy. There was the stupid “call center in heaven” one; the impenetrable “bad hair day” one and the incendiary “fetus Jesus” one. I doubt if anyone is ever persuaded to go to church by this kind of thing. “Short, interesting talk about the Nativity Story by someone you’ve vaguely heard of. Free mince pies” would do far better. 

This year, their holinesses thought it would be a wheeze to make a cinema advert and pay for it to be shown directly before The Force Awakens. The advert consists of lots of different kinds of people saying the Lord’s Prayer in lots of different contexts, ending with the message “Prayer is for everyone”. In a funny way, this is a lot like a film about a happy family mealtime which happens to mention that Mum used a particular stock cube to make the gravy; or showing lots of English pubs full of happy yokels, and just happening to mention what brand of ale they are all drinking. Present people with a lot of positive images of churches — cute school children, chirpy black people, wedding days, an evangelical baptism, remembering a loved one in a churchyard — and they’ll come out feeling well-disposed towards God, Church and Oxo cubes. Sell the sizzle, not the sausage. I see nothing wrong with the Church using the expertise of an advertising agency in this way; in the same way I see nothing wrong with a Vicar asking a public speaking expert how to put more zing into his sermons. 

It turned out – and you wonder why no-one checked this out in advance  – that the advert can't be shown because the UK cinema chains have a general policy against religious and political advertising. A general policy against all religious and political advertising. Which is to say, they do not accept advertisements from any religious group or political party. Put another way, that means that whichever church or political party had asked to place an advert in the cinemas, it would have been turned down.

Seems like quite a sensible rule to me. Religion and politics are out of place in entertainment venues. I wouldn't be quite comfortable with a Hindu prayer, because I wouldn't quite know what I was supposed to do. (Stand up? Bow my head? Cross myself?) I'd be even more uncomfortable if someone said a Christian prayer and I bowed my head but other people talked through it or heckled. Not "get out my gun and start shooting people" uncomfortable. Just "shuffle a bit and spill my popcorn" uncomfortable. Miss Manners still advises us to keep off sex, religion and politics in casual conversation, because people hold strong views abut them and you don't want people getting cross and heated at your dinner party.

Some of you may remember how, in 1997, Birmingham Council promoted a series of municipal events between November and January under the general brand-name Winterval. And some of you may remember how the extreme right invented a lie that Birmingham Council had banned Christmas and replaced it with a politically correct festival of their own invention. However many times the true story is told; and however many times you produce the original Winterval poster, with the Word “Christmas” and a Christmas tree prominently displayed, the story still circulates. Everybody knows that councils have banned Christmas so as not to offend the Islams. Poor Colin Baker was circulating the story only this week.

The story of how the Church of England had foolishly wasted its money on an advert which it could never show has transmogrified into a new myth. According to the myth, the issue wasn't that cinema chains had a policy against religious or political adverts. It wasn't that they were enforcing their policies inflexibly, or even that they'd given the Church of England the impression that they might be prepared to relax the rules and then changed their minds. The myth says that this particular advert has been singled out for prohibition, because the Lord’s Prayer is too offensive and shocking for movie audiences. Pundits queued up to condemn the fictitious ban. Boris said that the prayer shouldn’t be banned because it was very old and informed our whole culture. [*] Steven Fry said that it was “unfair” to treat the Church of England the same as everyone else. Richard Dawkins sneered that if anybody was offended by the prayer they deserved to be offended. Giles Fraser did one of his somersaults: he pretended that he thought that cinemas had said that the Lord's Prayer itself was upsetting and offensive, and then affected incredulity that anyone could find a prayer more shocking than an 18 rated movie.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams' column in the London Evening Standard went beyond parody. He claimed that the pretend ban was part of a plot by “cloth headed persons” to avoid the terrible threat represented by mentioning the Christian origins of Christmas”. These cloth-heads were trying to “protect” the “delicate and sensitive public” from this “appalling truth”. Never mind that there are so many school Nativity plays that shops report an annual tea-towel shortage. Never mind the neon baby Jesuses spinning above every German Christmas market. Never mind rampaging mobs of carol singers and Carols From Kings live on the BBC. Or the Head of State's religious message to the nation on  Christmas day. The rejection of this one advert amounts to a general ban on mentioning Jesus in December. [**]

This kind of thing is pathetic when it’s Colin Baker moaning about “political correctness gone festive” in his local paper. When it’s an educated college lecturer writing in a national paper, it’s plain dishonest. He knows that it’s a stretch to talk about the Christian origins of Christmas. Some bits, like the nativity play, are clearly Christian; some bits, like Christmas trees, are pretty obviously pagan; some bits, like Turkish bishops flying through the air on luminous reindeer, are a bit of both. It’s even more of a stretch to say that we owe the whole idea of peace and goodwill to the story of the shepherd and the angels.

Williams is a clever man and a scholar. He knows perfectly well that the angels did not say “peace on earth and goodwill towards men”. What they said was “on earth peace to men on whom God’s favour rests” or “peace to those with whom God is pleased”. But he chooses to base his whole argument around the folk version which everyone knows. Then again, he claims that the Christmas story is “the story of a human life in which unlimited generosity and mercy were at work” and that that life is “a vision of what humans might be”, which is almost the exact opposite of what mainstream Christians believe.

I don’t, in fact, think that Rowan Williams is a pelagian. I think he believes as the Church believes, that Christmas is about God coming to earth in human form. I think he’s offering up a heresy because he thinks that his readers would recoil from the orthodoxy. I think he is, to coin a phrase, trying to protect his readers from the terrible threat of knowing the appalling truth of what Christmas is all about.

He's also weird on the actual Lord's Prayer. There is a story in the Bible about what happened when Jesus’ followers asked him how they ought to pray. Jesus tells them, in essence, to keep it simple. Don’t say long complicated prayers. Don’t pray in market places or cinemas where people can see you. Just ask God for what you need. And he gives an example. In the New International Version of the Bible it runs to some 30 words.

Hallowed be your name.

Your Kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins (for we also forgive everyone who sins against us)

And lead us not into temptation.

But this isn't complicated enough for the ex-bishop. He says that the prayer is important because it“contains the hope that there will be food and well-being for all”. Does it? I think it contains a very simple request that we should have what we need-- and a little bit more, so we don’t have to worry.

He says the prayer tells us “that we may learn not to think all the time in terms of what is owed to us but of what we might do to release others from guilt and debt”. Does it? I think it contains a very simple request to God to forgive us when we do bad things, and a promise that in return we’ll forgive other people when they do bad things to us.

The Lord's Prayer is, he concludes "a philosophy shaped by the conviction that we are most human when least obsessed with defending and promoting our self-interest and when recognizing our shared human needs.” No: no it really isn't.

It's clear enough what's going on here. Williams is trying to claim that the Lord's Prayer contains a set of ideas and an ideology that everyone can sign up to, whether or not they believe in God. Because he thinks that his readers will be shocked, embarrassed and offended if he tells them what he really believes: that we can all address God as "Father" and ask him for stuff we need.

Williams concedes that religion has done bad things, but says “We tend to forget that much the same is true of politics, capitalism, socialism, science, alcohol, sex and football. None of these seems to be a rival candidate for being excluded from the public eye.” Yes they are. Politics, capitalism, socialism and indeed sex are all on the list of things you can't advertise in cinemas. Liquor adverts are okay at the movies; but they are banned from the TV. This does not mean that the television companies have a "whiskey ban" or a "Jack Daniels ban": there's just a general policy of not accepting paid adverts for alcohol. And you never hear Jack Daniels moaning about the exclusion of whiskey from the public eye. And Jack Daniels doesn’t even get to run schools, or have 26 guaranteed seats in the House of Lords, or a ring-fenced three minute slot on the Today Programme.

Williams thinks we need religious advertising in cinemas to counterbalance the adverts and movies which promote a materialistic message. Everything else in the cinema is an advert for Mammon, so we need adverts for God as well. (He doesn’t say if he also thinks that all-you-can-eat buffets ought to carry adverts promoting fasting, or Spearmint Rhino should have stern posters warning you that if you play with it too much it will drop off.) He goes so far as to claim that when he visits the cinema he “has to sit through an assortment of adverts actively and aggressively promoting a set of values and myths that I find mostly incomprehensible or alien.”

Really? The Archbishop doesn’t understand why anyone would want pretty clothes, a smart motor car, delicious food, a big TV and possibly a bottle of posh whiskey? I get that he thinks we should suppress our desire for those things and aim at a simpler life, and maybe he’s so holy that he isn’t tempted by that stuff at all; but is he really saying he finds it weird that some people prefer the good life over the hair shirt?

He also claims that modern films are very expensive and promote myths about power. Well, some do, some don’t. There are big violent films like James Bond and little sweet ones like the Lady in the Van. You even get religious films once in a while. I watched the Hunger Games trilogy right through and was impressed by how moral (and morally complex) it was.

The Vicar/Professor on the wireless has it much more right than the Druid/Bishop in the paper. Star Wars isn’t about incomprehensible, alien values. In a funny way, and a very real sense, it’s sort of kind of vaguely a bit Christian. Whether there’s an embarrassing prayer video before it or not.

[*] What do you mean, we, kemo sabe?

[**] The fact that a particular student counselor was told not to express personal opinions to clients is also said to be evidence that some universities think that students should be protected from opinions of any kind. But he must know that non-directive counseling is a fairly standard way of helping people think through their problems?