Bishop Nick in the Radio Times Christmas edition

In the Christmas edition of the Radio Times, three regular voices from Radio 4's Today programme offer their thoughts for Christmas Day.
This is Bishop Nick's:

I doubt whether some of the Today team who dismissed Thought for the Day as boring in this very magazine last month will be going to church this Christmas. But who knows? They might surprise me. It might be part of their ritual every year.

And this, for me, is the challenge of Christmas.

Familiarity means that we lose the experience of surprise that Christmas offers. OK, apart from a handful of people caught up in the events of Bethlehem (a tiny village in an obscure part of the Roman Empire) on the first Christmas night, the rest of the world just carried on. Choirs of angels and worried shepherds didn’t intrude into the consciousness of most of the world’s population.

And maybe that’s the point. It was the right time, in the right place, and with the right people.

Yet, the whole narrative is about surprise, not dull familiarity. Shockingly, when God breaks in,  surprising earth with heaven, he does so not with war horses and apocalypse, but in the cry of a tiny babe (as Bruce Cockburn put it). Thus are our expectations of God and the world subverted. And it’s a bigger surprise than anything that comes out of a cracker.

That’s why two thousand years later we need to make space for being confronted by this story afresh - trying to enter into it as if we were there and didn’t know what was going to happen next.

However, creating space for thinking new thoughts is not easy - it doesn’t come naturally. Albert Einstein famously said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Or, as the BBC statue of George Orwell cites: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Daring to think differently is not always comfortable.

The BBC is unique in making such space six days a week when news commentary finds itself silent while someone thinks about things from a different - a religious - perspective.

It is clear from my own inbox that it is not just the odd Today presenter who dislikes Thought for the Day because they don’t like religion. Others assume that there is some neutral space (occupied by themselves and other atheists) from which anyone with a religious world view should be excluded. Still others want the spread of contributors to be wider. Some just sneer dismissively, thus excusing them from examining their own prejudices. Some listeners welcome being invited to think differently, even if they conclude that the ‘thought’ is nonsense. Surely, though, shining a different light is a good thing to do.

Like it or not, Christmas will see churches and cathedrals packed for multiple services. The story will be re-told and re-imagined. Celebration will be tinged with mystery. No brains need be disengaged. But, minds might just be opened to re-think and re-imagine how God, the world and we might subvert our tired complacencies, and be surprised by surprise.

Think about it?

Nick Baines
Bishop of Leeds

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