This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

Icelandic isn’t one of my languages, but I learned recently about something called Jolabokaflod. It literally means ‘Yule Book Flood’ – a tradition where Icelanders give each other books on Christmas Eve and then spend the night reading them.

Of course, what this Jolabokaflod tradition suggests is that reading is a good thing and worth investing in. Reading – especially fiction – awakens the imagination and has the capacity to get around the intellectual defences to reach the parts propositions don’t usually reach.

Former US President Barack Obama said in an interview with writer Marilynne Robinson: “The most important stuff I’ve learned I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy – with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to work for that.”

Clearly, there is something powerful about reading beyond your own experience and looking at the world through the eyes of characters who are different from yourself. It is how good stories work: opening us up and not closing down our capacity for reflection.

The Christmas story is no different. A million Nativity plays have the power to make the story of the birth of Jesus either remote and fanciful or just dulled by familiarity. It isn’t hard to see why some people assume the whole thing is a quaint fantasy. But, this is to miss the point. The Nativity smacks of real people, real human experience and the real world of politics, injustice and fear.

Jesus wasn’t born in a school hall or at the front of a church in England. Rather, he was born to bewildered and conflicted parents in a part of the Middle East occupied by the Roman Empire … who were not known for their philanthropy or human kindness. This was a world of violence in which life was cheap and survival everything.

And, yet, the gospel writers shine through this scene of childbirth-against-the-odds the light of hope and possibility. They suggest that light has shone in the darkness of a complex world and whispered a hint of newness into the human lives that we know – with all their pain and joy and doubt and confusion. The power mongers scheme to keep the world shaped in their own interest while a vulnerable baby breathes in the air of freedom – the freedom of one who will grow to challenge the powers, the ‘this is just how the world is’ merchants.

In other words, whatever dominates the news and crowds out our consciousness can be challenged by the leaking in of a different light. That’s Christmas. Is Jolabokaflod worth a go, even if I can’t quite pronounce it?

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This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. In the studio were Lee Mack, Paloma Faith, Tom Kerridge and Catherine Tate and the Kingdom Choir. Last time before Chris moves to Virgin after Christmas.

‘Tis the season to be joyful, ‘tis the time to be glad. Apparently. And so it should be, too. Christmas is about God surprising earth with heaven and leaking some hope into the stuff of human life.

A remote fairy tale? Some might think that, but the stories in the gospels tell of ordinary people – sometimes the unlikely people – finding light interrupting their darkness and opening up a new future.

So, ‘tis indeed the season to be joyful and a time to be glad. But, ‘tis also the season to have humdingers of arguments and family squabbles. How do I know this – when my own family exemplifies perpetual and imperturbable peace and harmony, (of course)?

I read in a newspaper on the train yesterday that it’s good to argue with your partner and bad to keep it all in. The article was actually about couples where one vents their feelings and irritations and the other keeps schtumm – keeping in what really needs to get out. It seems it’s bad for your health to do this.

And, as Christmas approaches with the speed of a kid running away from the sprouts, we all know that tensions rise and tempers flare. The pressures of money, time and relationships all pile on, and some people cope with it better than others.

I know people this Christmas who will be spending the day in a church or community centre with people who are alone, lonely or otherwise isolated. Many bishops will be going into prisons where ‘happy Christmas’ sounds a bit hollow. I will be in two cathedrals (because I am greedy and have three of the things in my Diocese), conscious that apparent joy can hide grief … and it needs someone to help it out.

So, ‘tis the season to look out for your neighbour – to look behind the tree and the tinsel to the flashes of pain and grief that might be lurking underneath. But, it’s also the time to belt out the carols – even the ones that have a baby who never cried – , be surprised by heaven, and to have your imagination grasped by a God who comes among us as one of us and whispers behind our defences: “I am with you, I am on your side.”

I knew I shouldn’t have done the interview with PA the other night. That said, I did, and I take responsibility for what followed.

For the record (unlike the Daily Mail’s rather selective quotation which is now getting further transmitted and re-shaped – I haven’t seen the original PA copy), what I said in answer to questions was this, the nuances being clearly too subtle:

There are Christians who worry about whether they can or cannot speak about their faith at work. This is a fact. There are Christians who worry about it. However, that is not to say that their concern is justified. Furthermore, we cannot – and should not – extrapolate from (for example) one media report of a Christian being disciplined for doing so to a judgement that all Christians are concerned. This is patent nonsense. Theresa May was following a report that said we should grow up and use common sense.

I did not use the word “scared”. I did not “slam” (as I am being reported to be doing) anyone. I also said clearly that this is not a concern for me and that we should get on with it with confidence.

The bit about secularists was simply that there is too often an assumption that there is a potential tension between the faiths and that others might be offended by Christians talking about their faith or the content of Christmas. This also is nonsense. However, there can be an illiberal element to some liberals who are tolerant only of those who consent to their understanding of liberalism or tolerance. That is true. However, it is not to say that all liberals are illiberal.

Not quite how the story has run, is it?

This is the text of the sermon preached on BBC Radio 4 at Ripon Cathedral in the Christmas Day service at 9am:

It was only very recently that I heard about the tradition at Ripon Cathedral of giving out apples at the end of the Christmas service. I bet the kids can't wait for Easter when they'll get chocolate instead.

I'm now wondering what hidden traditions the other two cathedrals in this diocese have stored up for today. But, given all the traditions that accompany Christmas, at least Ripon still has the power to surprise. Apples on Christmas Day. Really.

Yet, this is what Christmas is supposed to do to us: surprise us … with the presence of God – what John in our gospel reading calls “his glory” – where we least expect it. After all, the people we read about in the original nativity stories had been longing for this – to know that they had not been abandoned, and that God would be among them again. Decades of military occupation by the Roman imperial forces had driven deep the stain of humiliation – the Creator of the Universe apparently defeated by the pagan gods of power and caprice. Where was God to be found when all the evidence of experience and our eyes tells us that he is not here … where we are?

Well, there is a theme running through the biblical story, and it isn't particularly comfortable. For people who think that God is only present where everything is sorted, every problem resolved, every indicator positive, Christmas becomes the epitome of embarrassment. For here, in the birth of the baby in Bethlehem, we are dared to look differently … and see God among us while everything in life remains a mess. The Romans are still here, still fleecing the people, still crucifying the protestors. Life is cheap. And pagan victory is rubbed in the faces of the poor, deluded people who keep hope alive in the face of 'reality'.

But, the people among whom God comes in Jesus of Nazareth are invited to re-think reality – not to be optimists, just hoping everything will somehow get better for them, but hopers who see through the transience of today's powers to the haunting shadow of God's smile: I am for you – Emmanuel, I am with you. Not to make everything nice and tidy. Not to take you out of the world's mess. But, to come to you and stay with you – right where you are, whatever happens, however long history takes.

And this is what goes to the heart of Christmas. God appears not to invade the present in a display of power and glory, but to be born as each of us has been born, and to slip into a tired, complicated, threatening and unsuspecting world at a particular time and in a particular place. No God of generalities or airy-fairy spirituality here – just one who gets stuck in, is down to earth, and who opts in to all that the real world is, and does not exempt himself from it. For those whose world has changed at Kellingley Colliery last week and the Redcar steel industry in recent months, this is particularly relevant where practical hope has to be encouraged and nurtured in the months and years ahead.

Let's just pause for a moment and think about who it was who got invited to the first viewing of the scrap of humanity lying in the feeding trough in that obscure town in that obscure part of the ancient empire. Shepherds are workers, doing their stuff out on the hills, minding their own business, expecting nothing. Yet, they, the religious outsiders, are first to get a Christmas surprise. Later – probably several years later – it is pagan astrologers who come in from the cold in search of something they probably expected to find somewhere more interesting or significant. Again, outsiders to the religious establishment of the time.

It's as if we are being surprised by a God who somehow climbs around the secure walls of our expectations and slips through our prejudices – especially the prejudices about God favouring either our pet religious projects or our self-condemning hesitations about our own worthiness. No, here we hear God whispering about a new way, meeting us where we are, but opening our eyes to a glimpse of living in a new world right in the heart of this world – opening our ears to the haunting echo of a different melody, a rhythm that invites a different dance.

That's what was happening in Bethlehem that night. And that is what we are celebrating this morning. Not just the warm familiarity of a myth that makes us feel better, or the reminder of a fantasy that temporarily anaesthetises us from the horrors and uncertainties of our complicated lives. But, the invasion in the present – as it is – of a new and surprisingly realistic hope.

In fact, the invitation of Christmas might be summed up as this: we need no longer be driven by fear, but can be drawn by hope.

Why? Well, simply because the hope we will glimpse in Jesus as he grows from the baby of Bethlehem to the man of Calvary is one that is shaped not by some formula for self-improvement, nor some political or military project for sorting out the “wrong sorts of people”; rather, it is rooted in the person of God whose face we will see in Jesus and in whose person we will be dared to trust.

Drawn by hope, not driven by fear. In this world, but not of it. Down to earth, but not bound by earth. Invited not to escape from the real world, but, trusting in the faithfulness of God, to plunge ourselves into the depths of the real world as it is now.

So, today we should be tempted – not by apples, perhaps; that one didn't end so well, after all, did it? – to be surprised by the smile of God in the midst of experience. To see in this baby the seed of an inconceivable fruitfulness – that even in and through us, where we are , how we are, as we are, God might give birth to a tiny glimpse of that light that no darkness can extinguish.

A happy Christmas, indeed.

This is the text of an article (about the persecution of Christians) commissioned by the Times today:

Religious special pleading is rarely convincing or attractive. Overblown complaints about being picked on run the danger of diminishing or trivialising genuine suffering.

So, it is remarkable that when Christians are specifically targeted for the most appalling persecution, either politicians or media commentators find it difficult to name it for what is. To identify the persecution of Christians is not to diminish the targeted suffering of others.

It is reckoned that Christians represent the most persecuted people on earth in the twenty first century. And we are not talking here of a bit of ridicule or silly marginalisation. We are talking about men, women and children being singled out because of their Christian faith or identity and put to an unimaginably cruel death. Or, of course, being driven out of home, away from livelihood, deprived of identity and dignity. Or, for women and girls, being forced into sexual slavery and subjected to rape-at-will.

Everyone knows about ISIS/Daesh – how they systematically brutalise those they deem unholy. Yet pressure on Christians is being applied with renewed vigour and imagination in some surprising places. Just last week the Sultan of Brunei banned the celebration of Christmas on the grounds that this could damage people's commitment to Islam. And those who defy the ban face heavy fines or imprisonment. Who will defend Christians in Brunei?

It was timely, then, that 60 UK parliamentarians published a letter this week asking for government pressure to persuade the United Nations to designate ISIS persecution of Christians and Yazidis as genocide.

The specific nature of anti-Christian persecution in many parts of the world make it difficult to identify a single solution. What happens in Nigeria clearly has a different local manifestation from in Pakistan or Syria (or Brunei); but the complexity or ubiquity of the phenomenon should not lead to embarrassed silence on the part of the largely religiously illiterate western intelligentsia.

The first demand of such a phenomenon is to name it for what it is. Where Christians are being persecuted, then the word should be used without embarrassment. When my Christian brothers and sisters suffer in Sudan (and they do), they rely on the rest of us to tell their story and to use what powers we have to bring political pressure for an end to such suffering. The Anglican Communion and the links forged between dioceses across the world are essential in fulfilling this demand and vocation.

 

It’s clearly a truth universally acknowledged (at least by journalists) that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good headline – especially when, it seems, they have had their Christmas party early.

According to the Daily Mail today, I have claimed “that the TRUE meaning of Christmas is sitting around the telly with the family watching the depressing Eastenders festive special”. The Times and the Telegraph also gave us their take on the article.

Put simply, I wasn't writing about the “true meaning of Christmas”. I also wasn't writing about turkey farming, the origins of the Christmas tree or the ethics of mistletoe.

The Radio Times asked me to write an article for their Christmas edition about the value of families watching tv together. In it, I merely supported the idea that, with the ease with which we can now view programmes on our own, telly still has the power to bring us together.

So, not the “true meaning of Christmas” exactly; but, nevertheless, watching telly together can have meaning, at least more meaning than merely slagging off the outfits, left feet or judges’ remarks on Strictly (for example).

Doesn't Gogglebox (for example) show how it can be a springboard for all sorts of discussions around values and world events – and even the ethical dilemmas raised by EastEnders? Seeing how others react can help us develop our own response and opinions. (And engaging with real people has got to be better than a constant diet of peoples’ perfectly curated lives on Facebook.)

In a world of solo, multi-platform viewing (and even though my own day is punctuated by frequent reference to Twitter), surely shared experience has always got to be more powerful than private browsing.

Here’s the original Radio Times article:

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of presenting an award to one of our leading television writers, Tony Jordan, for his series that re-told the Nativity story on BBC One. Tony was one of the driving forces behind EastEnders for many years, who has since gone on to create many a small screen hit, most recently Dickensian, the mash up of Dickens stories on the BBC this Christmas. So, when I asked him what made him choose the Nativity – after all, it’s fairly well-trodden as a narrative path – I knew I was picking the brains of a master story teller. He replied simply: “I know a true story when I read one.”

Well, this is why millions of people go to carol services and nativity plays – to re-live the Story together. We engage with stories because they bring us together in ways that create a common experience. And not only did Tony Jordan shine a new light on a familiar story, but he also set off a wide conversation about our response to that story. How? Because people clearly watched it together on the television.

Royston Robertson, used with permission

Now, I don't think this is peculiar to Christmas, but there is something about this particular season that encourages us to share our screen-watching experiences with those around us, and not hive off to spectate in splendid isolation.

It isn't all that long ago that the prophets of media doom were confidently predicting the demise of the television as a medium for common conversation – that is, for example, a family sitting together and watching the same programme at the same time and in the same place. Well, they have been proved wrong. Despite a plethora of platforms, most of them individualised and personal such as mobile phones and tablets, television has generated renewed capacity for the shared experience. Does anyone watch 'Strictly' all alone? Why do people still talk about Gogglebox and sports games they have watched in company? We really want to do it together.

What I do know is that in a world in which anyone under the age of forty has to be surgically removed from their phone or tablet, the screen on the wall or in the corner still has the power to get people to sit together and watch together. Indeed, in a recent poll of 2,000 parents [reported in the Daily Mail last September], watching television was seen as one of the top activities for family bonding.

The exciting new manager of Liverpool FC, Jürgen Klopp, recently told an interviewer that his aim in life is not to be the greatest manager, but to “live in the moment”. I guess this is why he seems always to enjoy himself, whether being asked odd questions on the telly or watching his team play on the pitch. And his phrase is relevant to how we celebrate Christmas, too.

So, here's a thought: for those lucky enough to have someone to share the remote with this Christmas, put down your mobile, switch off your tablet and, like Jürgen, live in the moment. You may be surprised by what you can do. Whether joining in a carol service from a distance, watching an imaginative re-telling of the Christmas story, debating the merits of Dickensian, or the latest relationship catastrophe in Eastenders, the telly still has the power to bring us together… and give us the perfect excuse to ditch the personal devices and detox from the solo habits. Live for now with the people who are there with you.

In the original Christmas story, it was groups of people who came together to meet Jesus together. Presumably, this also meant they could talk about it all when they went away. Wise men from the East travelled together and, after a bad brush with a mad tyrant, worked out together where to go afterwards. Shepherds had an encounter on the hills with choirs of angels – no one-on-one experience here. Shared experience is always more powerful than private browsing.

In a world of instant news, multi-platform viewing, privatised experience and customised catch-up, let's hear it for the telly at Christmas. There's life in the old screen yet.

[Cartoon by Royston Robertson, used with permission]

 

#Christmasmeans being drawn by hope, not driven by fear. See Jesus.