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?
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?