The Princess Phenomenon

My daughter is three and likes pink. She likes to wear dresses and tiaras and wants to be a princess. This is not great surprise. And yet this phenomenon angers some people, like Laura Penny in The New Statesman. Which is also no great surprise. Ms Penny blames the $4bn Disney Princess industry. I have no idea what Disney Princess she is referring to – since our daughter doesn’t really watch Disney at the moment. Her TV favourites are Charlie and Lola, Octonauts and Winnie-the-Pooh. But she likes to dress up as a princess (which overlaps with being a fairy, an angel and a ballerina) and, when she has to wear trousers, she is sad because, in her own words ‘Princesses don’t wear trousers’.

This phenomenon in my daughter seems to have emerged organically. We never pushed the ‘Princess Experience’, but we don’t see any need to crush it, distract her from it or frantically promote something else. I suspect that in ten years time, she will be rather bored of princesses and have moved on to ponies or pop music. Or playing the piano, painting or Purcell.

So why the eye-rolling at the desire of little girls – and big girls – to be a princess? Like most enduring images, and romantic tales, it gets to the heart of what it is to be human.

It is fine and practical to tell a young girl that hoping to marry a prince is not a good life-plan. But most young girls probably know this. There just aren’t enough princes to go round. What is the cause of the yearning? Surely it is a desire to be loved, cherished and adored? Who doesn’t want that?

We can pretend that men and women are identical in every way, ignoring the fact that men can’t ovulate or give birth. We could pretend that men and women are emotionally identical in every way, and that the desire to be a princess is purely the capitalist conditioning of the Disney corporation. But we know this is simply not true. Tales of princesses, princes, knights, dragons and maidens are ancient and timeless.

Likewise, we could pretend that acknowledging the differences means that one is superior to the other, or descend to other childish debates. Or we can conclude that the Princess phenomenon demonstrates there is clearly an enduring, even eternal, desire within in many women to be beautiful, to be loved and cherished – just as there is a desire in many men to be strong, to protect and be respected, like a knight in shining armour.

So why the fury at Kate Middleton? She was a ‘common’ girl, who has become a Princess. Laurie Penny argues that “the cult of princesshood is, at root, a cult of social mobility.” She is right. The pleasant but unremarkable Kate Middleton has found favour with a prince – and now she is a Duchess, and may one day be Queen, or very nearly. The celebration of this tale is, for some, a denegration of the virtues of effort, industry and application, albeit framed in a feminist narrative. Why celebrate the unmerited favour of a prince?

And yet, unmerited favour is something we all cry out for.  Little girls want to be princesses who are cherished. Little boys want to be knights who are respected. And we crave these things because we know in our heart of hearts that we are unworthy of them. These stories are so successful because they tap into that unfulfilled desire.

In some ways, this is why Christianity is so hard to stomach – because it is about finding unmerited favour with a Prince, in the case, Jesus. (This is not a great surprise, either) The Christian is not someone who, by character or hard work, is worthy of Christ’s approval, love and sacrifice – but the recipient of those things. If we want those royal spiritual robes – and the acceptance and respect on offer – hanging around the palace or demanding to be let in will be a fruitless endeavour.

Our response may be to turn away, and decide we don’t want the approval of anyone, and that we only need to justify our lives and ambitions to ourselves. But ultimately, if we do that, we will find that ourselves with the harshest and most unjust and unforgiving task master of all.

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What’s so Good about Friday?

Being an annual event, Good Friday doesn’t seem particularly odd. And yet the reason the nation is granted an extra day to wash the car and go and buy garden furniture at B&Q is because Jesus Christ was crucified this Friday – the Passover Friday – nearly two thousand years ago.

The passion story, and the crucifixion itself is not a pretty scene. It is ugly, brutal and distressing. Jesus, an innocent man, is flogged, whipped, spat on, forced to carry a cross, then nailed to it, and hung up to die. It is an inventively cruel mode of execution that is deeply unflattering to the society that not only dreamed it up but carried it out many times.

There seems little Good about the Friday in question, then. And it gets worse. It would be bad enough if this Jesus of Nazareth were merely an innocent man. But he is not. He is Jesus of Heaven too. When he was born, he was called Emmanuel – which means ‘God with us’. And we tried him, beat him, mocked him and killed him. In the grand scheme of things that is not a Good day. It is possibly the worst of all days.

In one sense, Good Friday represents the darkest, strangest, sickest joke: God became man and walked the earth. He made the lame walk, he made the blind see and he commanded storms with his voice. Even if you’re not a Christian, you have to admit that this man Jesus lived a wonderful life.

And yet our reaction two thousands years ago is depressing and yet unsurprising. We killed him. We didn’t even do it in private, hoping no-one would notice, but in plain view of the world – with the authority of the religious community and the state.

What is even stranger about this event is that the Jesus Christ of the New Testament was able to raise people from the dead. Three such instances are testified. In the most famous case, in which he raised Lazarus who had been dead in the tomb for three whole days before being called out, many witnesses reported back to the Jewish authorities, who were furious and declared that Jesus would have to die. It seems a curious action plan to dispose of this troublesome man, given his astonishing powers.

The crucifixion itself is steeped in all kinds of irony. Jesus was ‘crowned’ with a crown of thorns. A sign was written up saying ‘This is the King of the Jews’. They all thought it a hilarious joke, and yet that is exactly what he was. True King of the Jews – a direct descendant from David and Abraham. Priests mocked Jesus saying ‘He saved others, but he can’t save himself!’ But he could. He just chose not to. What is going on?

The clues are all there in the story. It is Passover. The day when God’s people would slaughter a perfect lamb, daub the blood on the doorframe and escape the judgment of the angels – and allowed leave their slavery to Pharaoh, to go freely into the land, to be the people that God made them to be.

By allowing himself to be slaughtered, Jesus showed himself to be the true lamb of the Passover, giving his life so that his people could escape the judgment that is referred to throughout the Bible; to live freely in the land, to be the people God made us to be. Jesus saves from our slavery to the madness of sin, rebellion and hatred, the kind of madness that blinds our eyes and makes us kill those with power to open truly blind eyes. Despite gruesome appearances, that day on which Jesus died, that Friday, was a Good one.

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The Best Fit For the Facts

Ricky Gervais has written a pleasant and personal Holiday Message – partly explaining his atheism – here. In it, he respectfully argues that his atheism stems from childhood when he couldn’t help but feel that his belief in God was a lie. And that he had been lied to. It’s interesting that he abandoned his faith because of an experience.  When his faith was challenged, he didn’t seek proof or evidence, but gave up hope in the possibility of a god. In the same article, Gervais also says this:

Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence – ‐ evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along… I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist… But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true. The existence of God is not subjective. He either exists or he doesn’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.

This is a popular and widespread view – that science is definitive and factual and that religion is purely sensory and imaginary. This may be true of some faiths and spiritualities which make no claim to have any factual or scientific basis.

But it puzzles me that many people still make this charge against Christianity, which claims to be sensory, but also factual. It is the very thing we celebrate at Christmas – Jesus as God Incarnate. He is also called ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God with us’. Christianity does not worship a distant, silent God who is unknown and unknowable. Christianity is based around the Christ of Christmas. in which we celebrate God himself born on earth as a baby, who grew up to be a man of flesh and bone. Unless we’ve been thoroughly beguiled by some silly Dan Brown theories that have no credence within academia, no-one is seriously contesting the existence of the man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived for 30-odd years before dying on a cross.

And if this Jesus had lived a dull, uneventful life and died at the age of 70 and was buried, the claim that Jesus was God would surely have less credence? His short life was far from uneventful. He performed miracles to a sceptical crowd. He taught strangers how to live in ways which astonished them. Without writing a single book, composing a single song or holding a single position of earthly authority, he became the most notorious, intriguing man in all human history.

Now, if we’re being open-mindedly scientific, surely we need to take a look at the facts again? To assume they are invented is to prejudge them. To insist that his miracles can’t have happened is to discriminate against them.

Followers of Jesus Christ aren’t suggesting for a moment that anyone can heal the sick, walk on water or raise the dead. But they are insisting that one man can. Christians don’t have faith in this because they are trying to convince themselves it’s true in spite of the facts. They are saying that Jesus’s claim to be God himself are the best fit for the facts.

Maybe, this Christmas, we could be more like the good scientists who take one more look at the facts. The results may be surprising.

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Joseph Registers The Birth

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register… Luke 2

“Three. There are three of us.”

Septimus looked up at the last man to be checked in that day. It was getting dark and very soon he would be drinking in a tavern nearby. He didn’t care for this town, nor its people, but at least they made decent wine. It made up for the fact that their local fare was revolting.

“Long queue,” said the man, nervously. “Ha ha.”

Septimus shrugged his shoulders. The length of the queue was not his problem. The Galileans only had to queue for a day. He was a servant of the Roman Empire and would have to be there for nearly a month, writing down the names of people who didn’t matter in this furthest corner of the Empire.

“Head of the household?”

“That would be me. Joseph. Son of Jacob. That’s J-a-c…”

“I know how to spell Jacob. Unfortunately,” he said with a sigh.

It hardly seemed fair. He had been singled out for this duty, purely because he was the only soldier in his barracks who owned up to being able to write. Still, it meant that he was exempt from crucifixion duty – not a task he especially relished. Some of the people nailed up really deserved their fate, but now and then, he had found himself inflicting cruel violence on someone who clearly didn’t deserve such an inventively vicious punishment. But it kept the peace and that was the most important thing.

“Wife’s name?” said Septimus.

Joseph stood to one side so Septimus could see his wife, carrying their baby.

“Let me guess,” he went on, looking down at his paperwork. “Mary?”

“Yes!” said Joseph.

“Huh.” How many Mary’s were there in this God-forsaken place?

“She’s here. With our newborn.”

“I don’t need to see it. No offence.”

“Baby’s name?”

“Guess,” said Joseph, feeling a little bolder. “It’s a boy.”

“Joshua?”

“Almost. Ha. Jesus. It means ‘God Saves’.”

“That’d be nice,” he muttered. “Jesus. Right.” Septimus scribbled down the name.

“Lastly, trade?”

“I think he’s a bit small for one of those,” said Joseph. Then, realizing the soldier was not amused, “Carpentry.”

“Carpentry. Fine. Shut the door on your way out.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. Sorry if you thought I was going to write down the life story of you and your offspring.”

“No, it’s fine. I just thought…”

“That’s not happening. Good night.”

“Good night.”

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Why I’m excited about Christmas & the birth of Jesus generally.

One of the great Christmas traditions these days is being told off for missing the point of Christmas. From now until Boxing Day, vicars, archbishops, politicians and monarchs will encourage us to think about the true meaning of Christmas.

No-one ever got fired for sending a boring Christmas card.

It’s not about shopping, eating or flashing lights. We know that. We suspect it’s something to do with Peace. ‘Peace on earth’ seems to be the safely inoffensive, non-denominational universally-agreed message of Christmas. So we send each other slightly bland but peaceful Christmas cards with a dove or a candle or a snowy scene.

But we know to there’s has to be more to it than that. There have been 2000 or so Christmasses and nothing seems to have changed. The world is still ravaged by war and carved up by despots. Even at the family level, we know that peace is a long way off. Christmas wedges families together in overheated rooms, with heavy food and plentiful alcohol. And then we remember why we don’t live closer together. The only consolation for most people is that their Christmas isn’t going as badly as Christmas on Eastenders. (It’s very decent of the BBC every year to give us some kind of context.)

So what is this peace that we crave? You could be forgiven for missing the point.  That’s one of the things most peculiar about the first Christmas. God sent his son to earth to be born as a baby – but no-one really paid the blindest bit of notice. The civic powers were busy doing a head-count. There were some mysterious visitors from the East who turned up, gave strange gifts of gold, incense and myrrh and then left – and are never again mentioned in the Bible. The only other visitors were shepherds – but in this, we find a clue to this ‘peace’ that we celebrate at Christmas.

You’ll probably be quite familiar with these words from The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

This passage is so clichéd that it’s easy to miss a couple of big surprises in. The first is that the angels proclaim the birth of The Saviour to a field of sheep and a few shepherds. The obvious place to make this announcement would be the Temple in Jerusalem. Or Herod’s palace. Even the town square Bethlehem would have got more traction. It would be like Prince William and Kate Middleton announcing their engagement in the back room of a Lincolnshire pub with no internet access. Maybe the landlord hears. A few locals and possibly a travelling darts team. In the same sort of way, the angels announce the long-awaited saviour of the world to a startled flock of sheep and a handful of big, burly men.

But it seems that God isn’t doing things our way – because the other thing he has done is sent a baby. Not a Superman. Or a Che Guavara. Or even a Spartacus. But a baby of pink flesh, unable to feed himself, or fend for himself. Let alone fend for others or save a nation. Or bring peace. It’s some irony, announcing Peace with a newborn baby.

And when the baby grows up, the man, Jesus, doesn’t become a soldier, or a rebel leader. How is this humble man without even armour to defend himself ever going to save Israel – let alone bring peace to us two thousand years later?

And yet, we know there’s something in this. Our culture has stories of superheroes. But we also have other stories. Better stories. Mythologies littered with the humble and the weak overcoming the mighty evil. It’s why we love the story of four children going into Narnia and defeating the White Witch; four Hobbits leaving the shire and defeat Dark Lord Sauron. It’s why the Tortoise defeats the Hare.

But that story contains one other hidden surprise. It’s a clue about that peace that we all long for. If you look, the angels actually say “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favour rests.”

The peace we celebrate at Christmas is to those on whom God’s favour rests. It’s not something we can achieve by ourselves, as individuals, or communities or nations. It’s not something we can do with will-power, legislation or deep pockets. So how?

There’s another clue hidden away you could be forgiven for missing (I’m not trying to be Dan Brown, honestly). The angels call Bethlehem ‘the City of David’. This is the David who saved Israel by defeating gigantic Goliath, without even armour to defend himself.  He had just a sling and some stones. This David was the humble young shepherd who “went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem,” according to the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel (17:15) And here we are hundreds of years later, with the angels announcing a new David to shepherd in the fields near Bethlehem.

But this would be a bigger, better David who can bring permanent and everlasting peace between nations, heal divisions in families and help us deal with our own failings and guilt. This new David, Jesus, does it, not with armour, weapons, or slings. Not even words. But with a cross. It’s curious, isn’t it? Almost comical, in fact. Jesus Christ, God’s Son and the true King is born in a manger among the animals. And he dies on a cross, among the criminals, a death hinted at in the Christmas story. The gift that’s impossible to spell, myrrh, is a type of embalming fluid.

But God isn’t doing things our way. And this is a good thing. Our way leads to discord, division, disappointment and despair. Peace on earth is never going to happen if it is left to us – which is why it needs to come from God. It’s why we need his favour.

That favour can be found in this intriguing man-god, Jesus. He rejects violence and war and yet we dealt out death to him. He speaks only truth, and we told lies about him. He lives the perfect life, and yet we pinned crimes on him and had him brutally killed.

What are we like?

We are not the people we want to be. He is the person we want to be. We are not naturally at peace with each other. Or ourselves. And certainly not with Jesus. But we need this peace that Jesus brings.

And that’s why I’m excited about Christmas, and the birth of Jesus generally. He is the only hope for our world.

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The Last Place You Look

The thing you’re most looking for is usually in the last place you look.

In fact, it’s always in the last place you look. Because once you find it, you stop looking. But the idea behind the expression is that one can exhaust all conceivable possibilities before looking in the unthinkable place – and finding what you were looking for.

GK Chesterton found this to be true when it came to Christianity. And it would be daft to put his experience in anything other than his own words – that can be found at the beginning of his whimsical masterpiece, Orthodoxy:

“I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool…

“… I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England… I never in my life said anything merely because I thought it funny; though of course, I have had ordinary human vainglory, and may have thought it funny because I had said it. It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t. One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively the more extraordinary truths. And I offer this book with the heartiest sentiments to all the jolly people who hate what I write, and regard it (very justly, for all I know), as a piece of poor clowning or a single tiresome joke.

“For if this book is a joke it is a joke against me. I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious. No one can think my case more ludicrous than I think it myself; no reader can accuse me here of trying to make a fool of him: I am the fool of this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne. I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it… When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion. The man from the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was [Christian] orthodoxy.”

In the same spirit, then, is this blog. Welcome.

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