(Spoiler Alert: If you are a fan of the BBC show ‘The Great British Bake-Off’, please note that the winner of that competition is named below…just in case you haven’t seen it yet.)
I have just come back from a week’s vacation in Britain. Our kids were delighted to see me back, along with my youngest child. I suspect part of that was because they love us, and I know that it was also because I arrived with a suitcase filled with British ‘sweets’. Each bag of ‘Jelly Babies’ and ‘Chocolate Fingers’ is a nostalgia trip all of its own, taking me back to a childhood spent in small town England, where even the weather was about average. It was Thomas Wolfe who said ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’, writing of an author who writes a book with frequent and less than flattering references to his home town, much to the chagrin of its residents. One of the points of the novel is that it is hard to live into a life that you no longer can find yourself in. As I wandered along the aisles of the grocery store, picking out packets of unnecessarily high calorific value one at a time to the giddy delight of my five-year old daughter, I did question what it was that I was up to. You can’t eat your way back into the past, although I think there are some of us who have tried.
It turned out that the topic of food and belonging was high on the national agenda the week we were there. The BBC were expecting their highest ratings of the year for the final of the ‘Great British Bake-Off‘. Three newly minted mini-celebrities in their own right were competing to claim the other crown available to subjects of a monarchical system of government – the crown of public hero number one. The British love a common man or woman hero, and the eventual winner of the bake-off was right in that mold, Candice Brown, a physical education teacher in her local public school, a somewhat ironic profession for someone who has now beguiled a nation into eating themselves into the winter and perhaps beyond. She cried when she won and I suspect one or two others did with her. Record viewing figures of people watching three strangers bake on national television.It’s a great and odd story all at the same time.
The other major story – which seems to be always the other major story on that side of the pond – was Brexit. I think that it is safe to say that the United Kingdom is now officially in the depth of the Brexit-blues. In the space of our singular week there all of the major banks had threatened to leave London’s financial heartland for a more Euro-friendly destination on the continent; Prime Minister, Theresa May, was revealed to have warned Goldman Sachs in a private gathering of directors of the perils of a ‘leave vote’ before the summer referendum only to be all but silent during the then Cameron government’s public push for the remain campaign; and British Universities had seen a 9%-12% drop in EU applicants for their places the coming academic year. Incidents of racist hate speech, intimidation of ethnic minorities, and shameful comments made by one individual that refugee children from the just-closed ‘Jungle’ encampment in Calais were staying ‘three days too long’ in his Kent village while they were being processed for settlement in the UK brought the week’s sorry news cycle to an unsavory end.
It is safe to say that Brexit has laid bare how right Angela Merkel was when she publicly stated a couple of years ago that multiculturalism was a failed experiment. Add to that the rhetoric of our own presidential race, and it can be argued that much of the progress that we had taken for granted had been won in terms of multi-ethnic diversity and integration, women’s rights, and our sense of what it means to belong to a 21st century social democracy is now under question. I can’t help wondering if the fascination with a baking competition also serves as a timely and perhaps needed respite from what must at times seem like an ever-decreasing circle. And for those who have a connection with both sides of the pond, as I do, that our own reality TV winner should now be within a hair’s breadth of the Presidency is a parallel that I still find hard to fathom. Yet here we are, at a place in time when sectarianism is seemingly all the rage, and London’s 2012 Olympic vision of multicultural unity in our diversity seems now like a distant and even far-fetched dream.
And so, we might well ask, where now is our hope? Theologians, when faced with such époques of apparent disintegration are less inclined to be nostalgic about a supposed golden age of the past (which makes my recent investment in the British candy industry doubly problematic) and much more interested in articulating what is called an ‘eschatological hope’. Such a hope, whilst with it sights set well beyond in the consummation of history and the reconciliation of all creation to its Creator, is rooted in the daily struggle of here and now and it does so not with a sense of defeat about the present moment but with deeply founded hope. Christians are called to be eschatological people, human beings who can see the already but not yet fulfilled kingdom of God in their midst. It is because of this that people of such a faith are able to see the bridges that join us one to another even in seasons of deep division and mistrust. They are able to see such bridges not because they trust in humanity’s capacity for goodness as much as they have set their lives upon the subversive power of a God whose love is so vulnerable and self-donating that it is able to withstand even the most over-cooked ego. Christians have this hope because in the end God’s grace is always more than our pride and privileging of the self over others.
And so, I wonder whether this might be a time for people of faith to call the people around them to a holy curiosity for one another, the kind that I suppose does turn a nation’s gaze to a PE teacher’s baking talents and weeps with those who weep for joy, sharing somehow in that moment of simple human connection. German theologian Paul Tillich called the divine the ‘Ground of All Being’, which to oversimply it is to say that you and I all get to share a space for existence that transcends any attempts we may muster to set us apart from one another. Multiculturalism does not need to write its obituary in the back pages of Brexit’s socio-political fall-out any more than the American dream of a great melting pot of humanity should concede defeat in our own season of political discord and polarization. If a baking competition has the power to remind people that they can still share life with one another, albeit via their television screens, perhaps you and I are capable of sharing life too.