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.

… the Christmas presence you've always wanted.

… love sprouts eternal.

… God among us, God with us, God one of us, God for us.

matter matters: the Word became flesh and lived among us.

God with us. We have seen his face. Painted in the Gospels.

“redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe” (Bruce Cockburn).

only the curious get surprised: shepherds and magi.

the eternal breaks through into time. Time bleeds into eternity.

light mugs the darkness. Nothing the darkness can do about it.

hope looks despair in the eye and doesn't blink first.

… God surprising earth with heaven.

hearing amid the darkness the words “Fear not”.

being surprised by the ordinary being broken into by joy.

turning expectations of God on their head.

following a star without any security about where it might lead.

finding our curiosity inspired in surprising ways.

finding the courage to venture out of predictability and discovering that God and the world are bigger than we thought.

coming, o ye faithless, and finding that God has already found us.

giving birth amid the muck and mess to new hope, new promise, new life, new world.

hearing songs of light in the nighttime of fear.

churches rehearsing the story of why everyone is redeemable and nobody has to be lost.

daring to dance in this world to a tune that haunts us from another.

welcoming the baby of Bethlehem… and then letting him grow up.

facing the asylum seeker, vulnerable child, hunted by Herod, the poor & outsiders – asking if Jesus would be welcome now.

… interrupting the world with joy it doesn't expect and light it doesn't want.

seeing natural order restored (with #LFC on top of the #epl).

If God can be brought down to earth, then we should be able to say something about it in a tweet. So I did. But, I got a bit carried away. Anyway, I'll be preaching on this stuff tomorrow morning at Bradford Cathedral.

 

Advent and Christmas are always a bit of a strain for clergy as they try to find new, fresh or creative ways of telling a traditional story. How do you help people who know the ending be surprised again by that with which they assume they are familiar? (And, for that matter, how do the clergy keep themselves fresh in the re-telling?)

As I found to my cost several years ago (when I published what I still think is a good and useful little book about Christmas, but which didn't sell because of the controversy it generated…), questioning people's perceptions is dangerous. Question the 'story' or vary a detail and you get a barrage of anger, complaint and abuse. OK, that's how we are as human beings who need a consistent narrative against which we shape our assumptions about life and the world.

But, it goes further than this. What if our assumptions are completely wrong, but we shape our society according to them?

We are constantly told that “the church is out of step with culture” – and this, clearly, is supposed to be a bad thing. Yet, the job of the church – its vocation, if you like – is not to reflect or mimic or 'baptise' the culture, but to hold a mirror up to it and question it. That is not the same as being negative towards it, but it is about engaging intelligently with the culture(s) with a confidence that transcends the immediate fashion or drift.

This is what lies at the heart of debates about sexuality. It sometimes feels as if the church is having the debates that wider society can't seem to articulate or frame. Yet, at the same time, the church has to have the questioning humility that is open to the possibility that wider culture might have something to teach a church culture that also finds it hard to question its own fundamental assumptions about God, the world and us.

What sparked this thinking was something I saw on Twitter this morning. It is a slide from an Ipsos MORI survey from 2011. It demonstrates just how wide is the gulf between reality and common perception amongst the great British public. Look at the slide:

And now ask what might be the implications for cultural drift, political decision-making and media reflection on the world (and what people think) of taking perceptions as unquestionably valid, true or accurate.

Now back to Advent and Christmas (and preparing for BBC Radio 2's Good Morning Sunday with Clare Balding tomorrow).

 

Christmas Eve saw my wordy mind run into overdrive.

In the end this morning’s Christmas sermon at Bradford Cathedral focuses on the need to be surprised once again by the Christmas story. (A bit like I was when driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem past a Palestinian village called Abu Ghosht (which sounds like a curry, but isn’t…) and saw next to an illuminated McDonald’s sign another which read:

Sea of Life – Yes to carrots

No, I still have no idea what that was about.

Comedian Mark Thomas writes in his book Extreme Rambling:

Anyone with any taste knows that predictability is the woodworm of joy.

The surprise of the shepherds bit of the Christmas story is that they appear at all. They are the unwashed who work the hills and are probably surprised to find themselves included in the party. (I still think we might be truer to the gospel narrative if we sang ‘O come, all ye faithless…’.) Strip everything else away and we are left, like the shepherds, with the unimpressive sight of a scruffy baby in a trough – the unimpressive greatness of the small.

Helmuth James von Moltke was imprisoned in Tegel in September 1944 by the Nazis. Founder of the Kreisau Circle (opposition to Hitler), he was 37 and had a family. On Christmas Eve 1944 he wrote to his wife Freya:

My cell is a very suitable place to stay during Christmas because it makes clear that all the magic that surrounds Christmas – the loved ones and the carols, the tree and the presents – are only extras… and that it all comes down in the end to one line in the Gospel of Luke: ‘For to you today is born a Saviour.’

He was executed on 23 January 1945.

In the darkness of a world in which Syria shreds people’s lives and hopes and in which children can be shot with cold impunity in Newtown – in which people live on the streets of a civilised country and children go hungry every day – it is sometimes hard to see the light that (according to John’s Gospel) has mugged the darkness, leaving it helpless and impotent. We cry out for the light – but only agree to see it where we expect or want to see it.

Christmas shows us people who were drawn by curiosity to leave the familiar and look for the surprise. Curiosity is the antidote to joyless predictability.

It is curiosity that needs to be awoken as we encourage people (including me) to live the story in the weeks and months to come – being surprised by the God who smiles at our comforts and shines a different light into our faces.

Advent. Begins today. The start of the church's year. Already.

The point of the timing is that we live with the expectation and anticipation that ends in Christmas… which turns out to be the beginning of a story that doesn't begin or end there. God, God's world, God's people.

I spent Advent Sunday doing two services of baptism and confirmation – one in urban Bradford and one in suburban/rural Wharfedale. In both cases I met a wide range of people who have come to Christian faith and commitment not primarily through argument, but through life experience that raised big questions – existential as well as intellectual questions about why life is what it is in a world that is what it is. (This also demonstrates that some clergy are doing an excellent job 'midwifing' people into the life of God's kingdom.)

But, what struck me today – as in every Advent – is that the people of Jesus's time got stuck in an expectation that the Messiah (who would deliver them from their subjugation to the Roman Empire) would be a powerful leader who would deliver the rebellion and inaugurate the new world order. Instead they got Jesus of Nazareth. And look how they handled him.

Changing one's mind is usually something we expect other people to do.

I wonder whether those closest to Christian faith are sometimes those who find it hardest to change their mind (literally, 'repent', 'metanoia') and allow God to be bigger, more generous, less anxious than we wish him to be.

The other thing that shocks me today is that Advent, in asking us to question our fixed expectations, also invites us to look differently at who and how God is. We often seem to be obsessed with maintaining our purity – not being contaminated by the nasty or dodgy stuff of 'the world'. Yet, we are being opened up to the fact that at Christmas God opted into the world of joy and muck, and did not exempt himself from all that means. In other words, God decided that, rather than worrying about being contaminated by the bad stuff, he would contaminate the world with good stuff: generosity, grace, love, mercy, justice, hope.

That's the challenge for me this Advent: how to so shape my ministry from this way of seeing, so that the church increasingly becomes less anxious about getting dirty and more committed to shining light into darkness.

We 'do' redemption and forgiveness. So, we don't need to be afraid. Or precious. Or anxious.

So, Christopher Hitchens has died. I, for one, am sad to hear this.

Any death ends a world for those who are bereaved. And the brutality of this rupture has been brought home recently in the premature deaths – by various means – of people like Gary Speed, the young family in Pudsey, the victims of Liege. Death strips from our ‘normal’ life the veneer of self-sufficiency and confronts us with the pain of our mortality.

The odd thing about the death of Christopher Hitchens, however, is the repeated suggestion that he was in some way (and incontrovertibly) a ‘scourge’ of religious believers, trouncing by sheer intellectual sharpness the nonsense of religious belief. He wasn’t and isn’t a scourge in any sense at all. The difficulty for Christians like me (and theists in general) was that that he wasn’t ‘scourge’ enough. I don’t need to repeat the response he got from Professor Terry Eagleton (among others). Along with Richard Dawkins, Hitchens set up aunt sallies which are not only easy to knock down, but which theists might also wish to knock down. Caricatures of faith might be convenient, but they are not thereby credible.

But, that said, there was always something admirable about Hitchens’ willingness to provoke. Polemic – whether entirely rational or not – is at least interesting. It is a pity that such material will no longer come from his pen.

However, his death provokes thought not only about the impact of lifestyle choices on long-term health, but about mortality itself. We shall all die – that is the fundamental fact of life. Heidegger described human beings as ‘beings towards death’ – and he wasn’t really being miserable. Hitchens went along (as far as we can know) with Bertrand Russell’s conclusion that ‘We die, then we rot’. But, is that all there is to say?

Faith is often dismissed as a crutch on which those who cannot cope with life as it is can lean for emotional support. Apart from the fact that this (lazy) assumption rests on a further and un-argued for assumption that the non-faith world view is somehow neutral, it also fails to understand what faith is. Faith, for the Christian at least, is not some sort of credulous and escapist wishful thinking about a ‘system’ derived from fairies; rather, it is rooted in a person, a judgement and an experience. Put very briefly, a Christian is one who believes there is more to life than death, sees God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth whom death did not contain, commits himself or herself to living a life that transcends the mere satisfaction of personal needs or fulfilment, and, in the company of others who have had a similar experience of being grasped by God (including intellectually – see people like CS Lewis and GK Chesterton among others), live life to the full.

The beginning of being a Christian is coming to terms with – by facing and naming – death. We are mortal. We shall die. But, the sting of death is drawn by the conviction that death neither ends nor ridicules all that has gone before it. No escapism here.

The end is in the beginning. At Christmas we celebrate God coming among us as one of us. In being born, death became inevitable – and, with it, grief, loss, fear, and everything else that makes us alive. But, as the great Bruce Cockburn put it:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on for ever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.