December 2009

A Real Christmas Advert

It was only in January this year that a huge controversy was unleashed by bus adverts proclaiming that ‘There’s probably no God’. It was launched by the arch sceptic of all things religious, Richard Dawkins, though he would have preferred the slogan ‘There is no God’ as for him there is no doubt that God is figment of the imagination. It had started out as a small campaign to spend £5000 on the atheistic message on busses. Within 4 days £135,000 had been raised. Clearly, both atheists and many humanists felt strongly about the message.

The whole advert including the tagline was ‘There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ And little of the controversy seemed to look at the second sentence. It was assumed by many that faith in God somehow increased a believer’s worries and decreased a believer’s enjoyment of life in comparison to those who have no faith. Pity.

It did spark a debate that asked some very important questions, though often the answers from the Christian corner were made by the more extreme and intolerant parts of the church. Afterwards, some parts of the Christian media suggested we had won the debate. It seems to me that it was a draw, though I’m not sure if it was an honourable one. It did galvanize both Atheists and Christians to a raise their profile, though the discussion often produced more heat than light.

Part of the frustration from the atheists is that most people still want to call themselves Christian even though there is little understanding by many about the meaning of Christian faith and belief. For example:- recent research by Theos (a Christian research think-tank) reveals that 85% of people agree that ‘Christmas should be called Christmas because we are still a Christian country’.

But, the same research also shows that only 12% of adults know the facts of the Christmas story in any detail – the figure dropping to just 7% amongst 18‐24 year olds.

Atheists are (justifiably?) miffed that most people think it’s important that we are a Christian country, though they only buy into Christianity in a very limited way.

At Christmas time we are once again able to tell the story of Jesus’ birth in ways which engage positively with the public. Once again we can sing carols and hear readings and sermons that enable us to remember that God broke into history in the form of a helpless baby.

Perhaps it wont make a lot of sense to atheists – they think that there (probably) isn’t a God anyway. Perhaps it makes a bit of sense to the man in the street – though the majority will say its important but relegate it to something like a fairy tale or one of Aesop’s fables, and how many of those do you really remember?

And us? I guess the challenge is to accept ‘Immanuel’, that God is truly with us. Only then, as we celebrate Christmas in all the special worship services and in our homes, will be we both challenged and transformed. And then, without the hyperbole of the controversial advertising campaign from earlier this year, will people see in us that the Christmas story and the Christian Faith are packed with meaning for each and every day of our lives. What a real advert that is.

A favourite carols starts, ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come.’ As we sing this and other favourites, may the joy of the Lord fill you, the peace of God support you, and the presence of God Immanuel fill you with hope.