Should we be offended by Sausage Roll Jesus?

The high street baker Greggs released their first Advent Calendar last week and, as you will no doubt be aware, caused controversy by replacing Jesus in the manger with a sausage roll. There was the little flurry of ‘angry Christians protest’ stories, because newspaper columns only look interesting if there is conflict, and the more entrenched and visceral the dispute the better.

Simon Richards, chief executive of the Freedom Association, tweeted: “Please boycott @GreggsOfficial to protest against its sick anti-Christian advent calendar.

“What cowards these people are: we all know that they would never dare insult other religions! They should donate every penny of their profits to @salvationarmyuk.”

My first reflection was ‘Who on earth are the Freedom Association?’ and ‘Why have they been quoted?’. It seemed odd to me that a group called ‘right wing’ were advocating for donations for the Salvation Army, who have always struck me as rather socialist—and this all demonstrates that most journalists are desperate for an interesting reaction to events. Lesson #1: be pro-active in getting in touch with your local and national press, so they come to you for a quotation—unless you are the self-appointed leader of a weird ‘Christian’ group.

In response to the ‘humourless Christians take offence’ line, others were more irenic. Martin Saunders of Youthscape, writing for Christian Today, suggested that this was a good opportunity for Christians to show they had a sense of humour—by not taking offence.

Those who know we’re believers will probably ask if we were offended by the stunt, so it’s a great opportunity to let them know that we’re fine with a bit of playful humour, and that as Christians we’re primarily offended by global poverty, racism and sexual violence, rather than an apparently-blasphemous sausage roll.

Lesson #2: life is less frustrating when you have a sense of proportion. Martin went a little further, and began to offer a theological reflection on the connection between the humble sausage roll and the humble Jesus.

The point of the way in which Jesus came to earth is that he completely turned upside down the expectations of these who were awaiting his arrival. They were waiting for a mighty king; he came as a defenceless baby. They expected a powerful man who would revolutionise their society by taking his place as their leader on earth; he was born into the humblest conditions and created a revolution from outside of the power structures…If you’re going to reach for a metaphor, Jesus was far more sausage roll than fillet steak – even though that’s what the people waiting for him had ordered.

This making of theological connections was extended even further by an anonymous piece at The Conversation. Jesus caused offence by his claims—and in John’s gospel, Jesus caused deep offence by suggesting that he was meat and bread and should be eaten.

The Gospel of John first describes people’s disbelief of what Jesus says – they doubt he is the bread he claims to be. But the real outrage comes when Jesus declares that he’s made of meat, and that people should be eating him. Even his followers, his disciples, have trouble with this: “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” (John 6.60). Jesus, seeing that what he’s said has offended them, doubles down on his claims – and some of his (nameless) disciples decide to leave him (John 6.66).

Not unlike the current furore over Jesus the Sausage Roll, the Gospel of John depicts uproar and offence at Jesus being compared to food. It seems that comparing Jesus to food has a long history of causing outrage, then, but that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong – the Bible itself recognises both the comparison and the ensuing offence.

I can’t quite make out whether this argument is serious, sarcastic, or plotting a careful course between the two. I’m not sure there is any real sense in which the Greggs stunt is really comparing Jesus with food.

Perhaps the best take on all of this was from Ship of Fools, who pointed out that ‘Lord Jesus’ written backwards spelled ‘Susejd rol’.

Something else is going on, and Danny Webster, spokesperson for the Evangelical Alliance, got behind the headlines to highlight what it is:

There seems to be a play book for this sort of thing, and it’s getting easier to spot each year. There’s a manufacturing of outrage for commercial gain. I would have known nothing about Gregg’s advent calendars (retailing at £24 at selected stores from Monday 20 November), if this ‘outrage’ hadn’t been created. Not only do businesses realise that (even mildly) controversial adverts often get the most attention, but journalists know that if they can get someone (anyone!) to call for a boycott, they can turn it into a news story. We need to be aware of this and not sing along to the marketeers’ tune.

Danny is including a mild rebuke to Christians reacting to these stories (a point he makes slightly more strongly in his piece for iNews)—but he is highlighting something more serious and cynical. Somebody, somewhere in a marketing office, decided that the best way to promote their product was to plan an ‘offensive’ take on Christmas, provoke Christians into reacting, and gain some impressive product placement as a result. There are at least two offensive things here: first, it’s fine to mock someone’s belief for financial gain; second, there are no actual limits to what we might trample on in the pursuit of commercial goals. Nothing should be treated as sacred.

This is made even more plain in the growing trend for luxury ‘Advent’ calendars which contain, behind each window, trivial or expensive gifts that have no connection with Christmas. The London store Liberty’s ‘Advent’ calendar sells for £175; half the stock had sold out online before the store opened 8.30am, making it Liberty’s fastest selling and most successful product. It’s all rather odd in our age of ‘austerity’. I was asked for a response to this phenomenon by the Daily Telegraph, and this is what I said:

First, there is something of a deep irony in these kinds of calendars. Christians use Advent as a time to remember two things. The first is Jesus’ own coming to us in poverty from the riches of his glory at the Father’s right hand: ‘though he was rich, for our sakes he became poor’ (2 Cor 8.9). That is the basis of the Christmas hymn ‘Thou who was rich, beyond all splendour, all for our sakes becamest poor’. It is a reason why many hold on to the stable tradition in the nativity, even though it is not actually mentioned in the biblical texts. The second thing Christians remember is God’s promised future coming in judgement—when he will hold all people to account for their greed and selfishness. So it is doubly ironic that people are using Advent to celebrate greed and wealth.

But my second observation is that the adaption of religious symbols for such secular ends appears to demonstrate the absolute power of consumerism. It appears that there is no limit to the ideas that can be trampled on and colonised. This colonisation of the sacred by consumerism leaves no area of life as sacrosanct, and we are all the poorer for it.

They quoted quite a lot of this in their piece the next day, and it was also reproduced in the Daily Express. Lesson #3: if you can produce something quickly which has a little bit of punchiness, then they will use it. I don’t know how well the final comments meet Danny Webster’s call for us to make the message of Christmas known—what do you think? But it felt like a good first attempt.

The end result of the Greggs story is that, despite apparent expressions of regret, the company has no intention of withdrawing their ‘offensive’ product—and in fact the final greeting is ‘Happy Greggsmas’. They seem to be happy literally putting themselves in the place of Christ.

37 years ago, in 1980, Richard Foster began his book The Celebration of Discipline with a damning indictment of contemporary live: ‘Superficiality is the curse of our age.’ This superficiality prevents us from growing in faith, and it prevents others from coming to faith. The Greggs sausage roll represents the triumph of superficiality and triviality at the heart of our culture. It signals that nothing is sacred, and that commercial interests trump all others. Martin Saunders, in his Christian Today piece, is hopeful that such stories present us with the opportunity to talk about the real meaning of Christmas. But I suspect the wider effect is to simply displace Christmas with trivia, and by changing language, it obscures the historical and theological roots of the ancient pattern of our calendar. If that means people are less likely to ask questions about the meaning of life and why they are here, doesn’t that seem like something worth being offended by?

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14 thoughts on “Should we be offended by Sausage Roll Jesus?”

  1. Brilliant Ian – and your comment to the Daily Telegraph was inspired! I think Martin Saunders is right that it is an occasion for sharing our faith – though I wouldn’t follow his points of contact. I hadn’t heard of the advert until a non christian -indeed quite anti christian – sent it to me and in discussing it I explained it pained me because it substituted/mocked/insulted the person who means more to me than anyone else in the world.

  2. Maybe the rot set in (as far as commercialisation of Advent is concerned) with putting chocolate behind all the little doors? No-one wanted to be a killjoy, Christian groups produced their own fairtrade versions…. It’s all a bit tricky.

    Personally I think the Greggs stunt was a cynical marketing ploy.

    Time for churches to “reclaim” Advent with a real sense of preparing spiritually to celebrate Christ’s birth.

  3. Thank you an excellent article, I fully support your message to the Daily Telegraph, we then need as always to pray for those who do not yet know Jesus our Lord and our God.

  4. I think your point about the ‘commercialised Jesus’ being a direct opposition/inversion to/of the humility of his birth is right on the money, and a very astute observation I’d not heard before.

    The other point you make alongside -equally potent-; that this is an attempt to make God fit our modern image of him as a non-threatening ‘cute baby’ kind-of-God is again, brilliant.

    Demolishing tradition is dangerous, and as a form of social cohesion commercialism cannot hold the weight we as a society are expecting it to bear.

  5. “It signals that nothing is sacred….”

    Christians are also being pressed into the mere ‘I’m offended’ category when it’s somewhat deeper than this. As has been said, this tramples over the love of God in Jesus. Of course the non-Christian doesn’t believe this but that doesn’t reduce its offence and the attitude which doesn’t care about giving offence. At best it’s ignorance and at worst it’s cheap minded, insult based, economic gain.

    As an ironic and half baked music reposte….#Is nothing sacred anymore”# Meatloaf (1998)

  6. As always this is a thoughtful and informative post, Ian – thank you.
    When I first saw the ad I thought it was the kind of prank that kids enjoy and I wondered about the age of the marketing manager (or whoever sanctioned it.) Then I had similar thoughts to those that Danny Webster had and I thought it was rather unsavoury of Greggs to put one of their savouries in a replica crib of the Prince of Peace, just as a marketing gimmick.
    Given that some staff at Greggs apparently can’t tell the difference between the Prince of Peace and a sausage roll, maybe they need to be looking for a good optician 🙂

  7. So, with a bit of Photoshop (or cheaper equivalent software) Greggs ‘desecrates’ the already shop-worn and commercialised ‘Adoration of the Magi’ iconography which considerably exaggerates aspects of the biblical account.

    Yet, after hundreds of years of Western art proliferating the world with a Jesus and Holy Family of Caucasian heritage and a Church which echoes this in its discernment of vocations what now causes offence is to Insert a sausage roll into this caricature.

    And the commentary here is that: ‘there are no actual limits to what we might trample on in the pursuit of commercial goals’

    Long before that, there were no actual limits to what the Church would trample on in its service of imperial conquest and colonial glory.

    The Greggs calendar merely compounds a previous offence.

  8. David -I’m with you in protesting Western art’s removal of Jesus’ Jewishness, and also the commercialisation of the Magi motif, but I personally think Gregg’s calendar’s cynical sacrilegious substitution of Jesus for a sausage roll is a difference in kind not of degree.

      • Yes, what is more annoying than offensive, is that these ads will have been churned out by an ad agency which neither understood nor cared about Christianity. They had one motive, to take your money. In that respect they have depicted one of the most important events in the Christian calendar and mocked it for profit.

        The comparison with the’ Cleansing of the Temple’ is a loose, and not particularly good one, but given Jesus’ propensity to get annoyed when greedy people abused the Temple, I can’t see him explaining this one away.


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