Christmas: "Spectacles Not Spectacle"

The Revd Brutus Green

When I was about 8 I decided I didn’t believe in God. I know what you’re thinking - how childish, how silly; but it was just a phase I was going through and all children like their little rebellions. On the particular day, I remember going to my middle brother with a number of questions. Probably in the background were certain matters following Santa-gate; perhaps some disappointment concerning doubts cast over the gods of Roman, Greek and Norse mythology. These days I imagine children become disillusioned self-inflicting GBH at King’s Cross platform 9, or trying to work out whether Sherlock Holmes is 30 or 130. In any case, what I would say is that it wasn’t a failure in reason that led to disbelief. It wasn’t that I was a particularly stupid 8 year old - or that I got cleverer when I got a little older. But it was a failure - of what, though, I’ll come back to.

Today is the twelfth and last day of Christmas. We are, however, still open to receiving gifts. This year I gave Christmas novels to my colleagues; Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, 50 Shades of Tinsel, that sort of thing. You will be able to test them afterwards as I’m sure that by now they’ll all be read. One of my books was a biography of C.S. Lewis, creator of the Narnia stories. Before he uncovered Narnia, during the war, he became a superstar in Britain and America for a series of talks for the BBC, which argued the case for Christianity - Mere Christianity. His own coming to faith in his thirties was a quiet affair. Rather than some sort of religious experience, he came slowly to the opinion that Christianity made sense. (Given that he was an Oxford don this shouldn’t surprise us.) While moral nihilism was let loose on the continent, he tried to impress on the British that there is a universal moral sense in humans and that it leads us to God.

Oddly, between the wars, it was the fashion for writers to have public conversions. G.K. Chesterton converted to Catholicism in 1922, Graham Greene in 1926. T.S. Eliot, author of the anarchic The Wasteland in 1922, became Anglican 5 years later. Evelyn Waugh whose novels (including Vile Bodies and Brideshead Revisited) almost all begin in hilarity and end in misery went Catholic in 1930. Waugh described it in this way: “Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.” We can see this literary sort of conversion in C.S. Lewis as well: “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.”

Now, obviously, we don’t all get to spend our days reading poetry. And, belief should not always follow what we wish were true, or what seems most pleasant, convenient, charming or self-flattering. What these writers are hinting at though, is that conversion is less about facts and more about vision; less about trying to figure out details, and more about having the imagination to try to see the world a different way; trying to see it as if it really mattered.

To go back to myself as an 8 year old, I did not fail in my ability to reason. The failure was in my ability to imagine. To adapt one of C.S. Lewis’ metaphors, I was stomping round the house looking for the architect, assuming he’d be there like the furniture, next to the hat-stand, or perhaps up in the attic. Mere Reason tends to treat God as though he is another object or another resident in the universe. It takes imagination to look beyond a simple view of the world as a collection of things - one of which called God may or may not be there. It takes a vision to look for a God who is not just a bigger version of ourselves.

Jesus did not attempt to prove the existence of God. Neither did he directly try to prove that he was the Son of God, he often resisted that. Jesus was trying to give people a vision; a vision of God, the world and other people. This is what the Church has tried to preserve and what Christianity offers. Not an additional set of objects: gods, angels, devils, sins, miracles, prayers etc. to be uncovered; but a different way of seeing the world, where love takes the highest value, where truth, beauty and goodness are the ultimate end of humans’ faltering desire; where every action and every person really matters, really is loved by God, eternally. By comparison, the best an atheist vision can offer is a short-lived pursuit of happiness, or power and influence, in a sea of meaninglessness, ending in an untidy shuffling off of this mortal coil.

C.S. Lewis’ concern in the war broadcasts was not to prove Christianity, but to share its vision. He tried to show that it was a reasonable way to see the world that took in the best aspects of humanity, many of which atheists unthinkingly and without reason already took for granted, and which the great atheisms, Nazism and Communism, endangered.

His view of poets was that they should not be a spectacle but spectacles. Their work should not be there just to be admired; but it should show the world in a new way; they should reveal something new about it, or show it in a different light. Likewise, Christianity is not primarily a spectacle with its liturgies and music, its buildings and carol services to be admired as curiosities in a museum or players in a theatre. You are a congregation not an audience (as our musical team occasionally forgets). It is spectacles through which you might see yourself and the world in a different way; a way that gives life meaning.

Perhaps you read a book over Christmas, perhaps you saw a good film. Perhaps you managed to get away. There’s nothing like travel to broaden your horizons. Often it’s people, sometimes just a chance conversation, that can, however slightly, shift our perceptions. Great storytelling, say in novels or films, creates worlds in which the imagination can roam, and in which we can come to see our own in an expanded way. Saint Augustine’s famous prayer declares that our hearts are restless until they rest with God. C.S. Lewis’ friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, paraphrased that God had willed that “the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein.” The imagination is the pilot of the soul here. It might not lead you immediately to Christianity, but every time we are struck by the reality of moral judgment, every time we feel the presence of good and evil, every thrill we get at the transcendence of beauty, every glimpse of the eternal truths - takes us one step closer to Christ.

Now this may seem like an odd sermon, very far from John’s Gospel we heard earlier. But it’s all here. John states his purpose at the end of the Gospel: he is writing that ‘you may believe, and believing have life in his name’. Like Jesus, he does not attempt to convince you by proof, by science, history or philosophy. He tells us a story. He gives us the vision he has received to see if we will catch it. ‘The Word was in the world… yet the world did not know him.’ He is asking in this prologue if we can see what he sees: the discreet Word made flesh, whose glory John has seen. This is the light of the world. Not so much something to stare at - after all one shouldn’t stare at the sun; but the world illuminated by that light. This is what John is asking - can we see a world in the light of God?

The last verses of the prologue read today are some of the most important. “No one has ever seen God. [It is Jesus] who has made him known”. Jesus gives us a vision. A vision by which we can see God, ourselves and the world. That vision is characterised by love and so challenges us to look at all the world with love. All of us of course, suffer from myopia, the sort of short-sightedness that puts ourselves first and finds it hard to imagine another perspective. The arts are a tool that can help us to see from other perspectives, just as travel and friendship are, and perhaps more directly. These spectacles need constant adjustment though if we are going to see the world aright. And for this we need not the spectacle of religion, or even a good book; but the spectacles of faith. To give the last word to Lewis, whose death just hours before JFK’s in 1963 went almost unnoticed in the press; he said that we are like

... a seed patiently waiting in the earth: waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking. I suppose that our present life, looked back on from there, will seem only a drowsy half-waking. We are here in the land of dreams. But cock-crow is coming.