Yesterday, as my kids opened the first door on their advent calendar, one of them remarked how it has felt like advent for ages. “Why?” I asked. “Because the Christmas ads came out ages ago.”
Two weeks isn’t exactly my definition of ‘ages’ but he had a fair point: the launch of the big retailers’ Christmas ads has become synonymous with the start of the Christmas season.
Heart-warming, humorous, and nearly always containing a moral message, these much anticipated micro-films have become the de facto Christmas sermon by the High Priests of Retail.
At first glance, or to the cynical eye, they’re little more than a shameless consumerist exploitation of the concept of giving at Christmas. But in a society where people trust retailers more than clergy or politicians, we’d do well to take a closer look at their message and meaning.
This year we have an over-stretched father who longs to be with his family, a girl (and her pet dog) who want to bounce, a sister with an annoying younger brother, and a highly efficient wife making Christmas that bit extra special. Sound familiar? That’s the idea: they all reflect back to us what it’s like to be an ordinary Brit in 2016 faced with yet another Christmas.
What is fascinating is that their underlying message affirms family values and selflessness – spending time with our loved ones, having fun, feeling part of a family, making amends and, of course, eating and drinking aplenty. Clearly, these are all things that people want Christmas to be about.
You could be forgiven for wondering what they are really advertising as very few products are actually shown. But retailers are using these highly sophisticated marketing tools to meet people where they’re at, to say “Hey, we know what it’s like, and we can help.” Unsurprisingly, those whose very existence depends on the commercialisation of Christmas are telling us that the answer is to buy more stuff!
Whatever we make of the adverts, it’s encouraging that people’s desire for a more meaningful, relationship-centred Christmas has been recognised and that life’s struggles are acknowledged for what they are. They’re a great talking point about how belonging to Christ, and his church family, bring these gifts all year round – and all without the need for a single credit card.
Siobhan O’Reilly Calthrop
Siobhan is a freelance writer, author and blogger, with a background in international development, who now writes about parenting, faith and mid-life issues. Her personal blog is www.everyoneelseisnormal.com.
I want a niffler. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s probably because you haven’t seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the newly-released Harry Potter spin-off film.
For those of you who (unlike me) are not borderline obsessed with JK Rowling’s magical world, let me take a moment to explain. Nifflers are long-snouted creatures with fluffy black fur. They are irresistibly attracted to sparkly objects, meaning that they’re fab if you’re hunting buried treasure, but making it ‘inadvisable’ to keep them as household pets. They are, however, completely adorable, and the film portrays them as affectionate, cheeky and mischievous.
But when you look past the cute, snuffly, cuddly outside of a niffler, you realise something a bit more worrying: a niffler is essentially an embodiment of greed. In an opening scene, one gets loose and wreaks havoc in a bank with an inability to control its overwhelming desire to find and collect shiny items. It remains arguably the cutest creature in the film whilst doing so (rivalled only by Picket the Bowtruckle), but it still leaves destruction in its wake.
We humans are funny, aren’t we? Couch something in a cuddly, cute costume and we are liable to overlook its actual substance. Our instinct is to make excuses for its bad behaviour if it appeals to the eye, or to let something negative slide if it’s done by a creature we secretly want to adopt and cuddle forever. It’s only as I’ve reflected on this (and googled whether niffler stuffed toys are a thing yet) that I’ve realised what they really represent.
So, nifflers aside for a minute, it may be helpful to do some self-reflection and think more deeply about the things to which we are attracted. Do we like it because it represents things which are ultimately good, or because it is cute and cuddly? If this thing was less aesthetically appealing yet still displayed these characteristics, would we still be attracted to it?
There isn’t a nice, end-of-article solution to this thought, I’m afraid. It’s more of a self-reflective piece, a challenge to myself – and to anyone else who wishes to get involved – to be more discerning of our desires and affections. I’m not sure what it’ll ultimately look like, but I hope I might gain something from this observation in the long run.
Right now, though, I still want a niffler.
Nell is Culture Projects Leader at LICC.
The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a dish. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
There are Christians this very day in prison for their beliefs, some in daily expectation of death. They have not deliberately courted martyrdom. In most cases, they have simply sought to live out their faith in a society that allows no dissent from the official religion or ideology. In some cases, they have, like John, spoken out about the evils practised by those in authority.
John’s mission in preparing the way for the coming of the Lord was to call people to repentance, and he didn’t shrink from confronting the king himself about his forbidden marriage with his brother’s wife.
None of us today has a unique mission like that of John. Nor do we, in Britain, live in a country in which our lives are in danger if we speak out about the evils of our society. But – hypothetical though the question may be – I sometimes wonder how long I would hold out if under pressure to renounce my Christian faith. Could I endure torture? And, if so, for how long? What if I was threatened with a lingering, painful death? What if my children were tortured in front of me? How would I fare?
In spite of the fundamental liberties that are enshrined in our law, there are, these days, increasing attacks on freedom of speech. Christians feel a creeping unease about assaults from militant atheists and adherents of other religions. So our present dilemma is more subtle. Afraid of giving offence, or of being labelled ‘fundamentalist’, many mainstream Christians have remained quiet about the wrongs and injustices in our society or workplaces, and in the face of misrepresentation and ridicule. Paul sums up Christian witness like this – that ‘you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life’ (Philippians 2:15-16). The gospel is indeed the word of life for everyone, and if we are not ready to offer it, nobody else will.
The simplest way to avoid being shot at is to keep our heads well below the parapet. After all, if we make ourselves invisible nobody will bother to shoot at us. And what might John – or Jesus – have to say about that?
Yesterday, 20 November 2016, marked the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. See here for information and resources to help Christians and churches pray for those suffering in various parts of the world.
“Things are going to slide, slide in all directions.
Won’t be nothing,
Nothing you can measure anymore.
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it has overturned the order of the soul.”
I remember Graham Cray playing Leonard Cohen’s electrifying new song ‘The Future’ to a group of us who’d gathered, in the early 1990s, to try to re-imagine Christian worship for a changing world. It was exciting and bewildering, tuning in to this poetic, prophetic Canadian voice, and responding with fresh words, sounds, metaphors of our own…
Cohen died this week – a week, coincidentally, in which the word ‘post-truth’ was named by the Oxford Dictionaries as their Word of the Year, following Brexit, Trump et al. He was a Jew, whose “deep tribal sense” of faith (plus an appreciation of other forms of spirituality) invigorated his music, his poetry, his worldview.
“I know there’s a spiritual aspect to everybody’s life, whether they want to cop to it or not,” Cohen told the New Yorker in October. “It’s there, you can feel it…”
And he seemed able, uniquely, exquisitely, to tap it, and express it, through songs described by Bob Dylan as “prayers”. Songs such as the immense ‘Hallelujah’, which so poignantly evokes both “the holy” and “the broken” hallelujah in us all, exemplified (in the song) through the creativity of King David.
Cohen’s own creativity was attuned to what Jews call the Bat Kol (or ‘divine voice’). “You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time,” he explained, “[though] much of the time you can’t decipher it.” Instead, perhaps, you listen, intuit, and respond…
The result – songs such as ‘Anthem’, whose famously liberating lyric invites you to “forget your perfect offering – there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
As the world indeed slides in all directions, sadly the explosive energy of those early ‘alternative worship’ gatherings I experienced seems to have dissipated. Much of our contemporary corporate worship defaults to a diet of coffee, doughnuts and Coldplay-lite choruses.
But imagine being inspired afresh by the divine voice! What might our responses be? As Cohen sings prayerfully in ‘If It Be Your Will’ …
“If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you.”
Imagine, then: that our holy, and broken, hallelujahs may yet ring true, post truth.
For details about Brian’s work, visit www.briandraper.org
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’
Was it because of his imprisonment that John the Baptist had this crisis of faith? John apparently embraced his prophetic role with his eyes wide open – separating himself from the comfort of conventional living and denouncing sin, even when this led him into direct confrontation with Herod. John’s action was deliberate, and the consequence predictable: he ended up in Herod’s gaol.
So this was hardly enough to bring about his anguished question. Was it, rather, that Jesus was not following the script that John and other disciples had written for him? There was still no sign of his becoming the deliverer that the Jews had so long expected. So had John invested his life in a spurious cause?
It was, most likely, not the imprisonment itself that threw him. But no doubt it gave him time to brood on the awful thought that perhaps his confidence was based on a fallacy – that all that he had believed and proclaimed was in fact untrue.
Even the most steadfast Christian may be assailed by doubt. Sometimes it may be caused by suffering, though Jesus never promised his followers exemption from that. More often, perhaps, undergoing pressure or enforced inactivity – maybe through a time of unemployment or unexpected change – we may suddenly find ourselves questioning the very things on which we have built our lives.
It may be our professional work. ‘I have worked so hard all these years, and what have I achieved? What difference has it made?’ Or it may be our faith. ‘Has being a Christian made any difference to my life? Can I be certain of one answered prayer? What if it really isn’t true?’
Jesus’ answer to John was twofold. Take another look at the evidence (in our case, evidence that John could not have dreamed of). And ‘blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me’ (Matthew 11:6). The friend of sinners, the crucified deliverer, has never followed the scripts that humans have written for him. But he is still the author and finisher of our faith, the one who will bring to completion the work that he has begun.
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