December 13, 2021

Hey Christians, when it comes to Advent joy this Christmas, Coles has us on toast.

Have you see the Christmas 2021 media campaign from Coles grocery chain? It’s beautiful and emotional and joyous. It’s a religious experience which even taps into the whole liturgical idea of Advent, and all without even mentioning Jesus. Pretty smart huh?

Truly wonderful. And truly reflective of the generally non-religious – in the traditional sense – of our nation. Turns out, that the joy we have all been waiting for has arrived, and we don’t need a capital “S” Saviour to obtain it. Coles has got it covered in a deeply religious, secular manner.

Have a look and a listen.

*Sniff (blows noise loudly).

If that’s not the best sermon you’ll hear all Christmas, then I don’t know what will be.

And It’s at this point the church pastor is supposed to say in his sermon (after showing this ad as I did yesterday), “That’s not joy. This is joy!” and then proceed to scold Coles for being so non-transcendent and secular during this most religious of times.

But let’s face it – that Coles ad does depict joy. Real joy. There’s nothing joyless about it at all. And it is deeply, deeply religious. It is transactional in its religion, but for most pagan Aussies, even the Christian religion is viewed as a transactional relationship. Do the right thing by God and He will do the right thing by you.

This Coles ad is religion within the immanent frame. It’s as close as we get to the “good news of great joy for all the people”, without ever mentioning Jesus. The cover of Neil Diamond’s song Beautiful Noise, is the secular carol.

The problem is not the desire for joy of course, the problem is the source of joy. The Coles ad rightly taps into the fact that humans are hardwired for joy. We were created to be relational pleasure seekers. That much is true. But as CS Lewis rightly observes:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

It’s true of course, with so much joy on tap in a nation such as Australia, we may seem too hard to please. But Lewis is right of course. Faced with an immanent frame, a non-transcendent take on reality, the wonderful gifts of the Giver are as high as we can aim. And while they are beautiful and true and right (who could watch the faces of joy in that ad without feeling moved), they are dependent on so many circumstances in order to maintained. Open borders being just one of them!

But this Christmas, this advertising campaign surely gives us an “in” to our cultural conversation, if we can grasp it without coming over all grinchy.

There’s an ache for lasting joy in our society isn’t there? The desire for true joy is present, it’s just that source is too low a bar. We’re not aiming high enough. Our biggest hope culturally, is that we run out before our joy does. For run out it surely will. In fact that’s why we in the West have become such an addicted culture. We’re scared that the stepping stones of joy that we navigate across the perilous river of modern life, will become too few and too far between and that we will end up being swept away by a tide of misery. So in a precarious world, we work harder to manufacture and maintain joy.

In her book Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, Anne Lembke posits that, rather than be too hard to find, pleasure and joy and desire fulfilment have become too easy to find. Dopamine – the body’s hardwired pleasure chemical, is available at the touch of a screen:

“Because we’ve transformed the world from a place of scarcity to a place of overwhelming abundance: Drugs, food, news, gambling, shopping, gaming, texting, sexting, Facebooking, Instagramming, YouTubing, tweeting . . . the increased numbers, variety, and potency of highly rewarding stimuli today is staggering. The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation.”

And, like any addict, we’re scared that the supply will dry up. And when it dries up, our joy dries up. Lembke observes that the actual effort to discover and partake of joy and pleasure is part of what makes them last. Joy on tap – at least from the wrong sources – won’t satisfy! Hello porn/drug/shopping addiction!

The Coles campaign is a superb piece of marketing. Not because it is selling us turkeys and pavlovas and crackers. But because it is selling us a story, a narrative of yearning. And it’s a noble yearning. So I don’t want to be a Christmas grinch about it. The story Coles tells, the picture it paints, is true and right. It falls short only because it thinks its the complete story, the full picture.

Coles head of Marketing, Lisa Ronson, said that the supermarket chain did the hard work before it wrote anything down. And what was the hard work? They actually listened to people and their desires:

“…the majority of people are feeling really grateful for their family and friends. It was overwhelming, 85% are grateful for their family and 60% also of their friends.”

They tapped into gratitude. Coles’ marketing team “got people” often far better than the church gets people. And that’s 100 percent right. They got the story right. It is about being grateful. And maybe that’s a reminder that before we as pastors and leaders launch a thousand sermons (or at least 52 sermons in 2022), listening to what people are actually saying would be a good idea. We might learn something!

The key difference of course with a Coles Christmas story and the actual Christmas story, is the difference between being “grateful for” and being “grateful to“. Who do we thank for all of those families and friendships? The immanent frame has no-one to be grateful to! That’s why, after hearing the good news of great joy, and visiting Mary and the child, how do the shepherds respond?:

… they returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:20)

Grateful to God. That’s the joy that is truly untouchable this Christmas. It is not dependent on lockdowns or borders being shut. It’s a joy that is not shaped by circumstances, but can withstand those circumstance; that empty chair this Christmas, that broken relationship. It doesn’t require a transaction to obtain it. It’s a gift given to us.

I do love the Coles ad and its depiction of joy, but the fact is we live in an increasingly joyless nation with a huge spike in anxiety, depression, political upheaval, fear of the future, angst about climate change, increasingly strident polarities about government interventions and vaccinations. And those things will still all be there on Boxing Day.

As God’s people we live between two advents: The first coming of our Saviour and his second coming, when the immanent frame, the non-transcendent bubble-life accepted by the secular world, is breached finally and forever, and the one who is our Joy is revealed to the world. It’s what makes it possible for St Peter to say this:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials,  so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,  obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:6-9)

And when the true Joy that we have all been waiting for appears, I reckon we’ll make a truly beautiful noise together.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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