We're naked apart from a Christmas cracker crown, or why Prof Brian Cox has it all wrong...
I was reading the Radio Times the other day. It made me weep. Like many of us, my emotions are shot to pieces after nine months of Covid-19, so that might not be entirely surprising. You should have seen me reading jokes in a Dad's Joke Book I got for Christmas. I couldn't finish many of them because I was crying too much. Reading the Radio Times though, it wasn't jokes or even a soppy article that brought tears to my eyes, it was Brian Cox.
I love Brian Cox - he has a brain as big as Saturn and Jupiter put together. So, what went wrong in our relationship? Well, it was probably the heading he was writing under that started it:
Look to the stars: Prof Brian Cox says that 2020 shows science has all the answers.
Brian, is that what you've learned in the last nine months? Science has all the answers. Not me. I've been reminded that over the last decades, we've been sold a lie - that humanity can solve all the problems in the world. And now, we're starting to realise, that we're naked apart from a Christmas cracker crown.
Don't get me wrong. I am so thankful for scientists. In 2020, scientists have found multiple vaccines for one of the most destructive viruses ever. Doctors have kept very sick people alive on ventilators, produced very quickly, until they have recovered, in some cases, months later. And yet, most of us are not celebrating Christmas saying, 'Hooray for science!' We're celebrating (or limping through) Christmas thinking, 'What just happened?' Many of us are exhausted, bitterly disappointed and trying to make sense of the loss we've all experienced.
Brian Cox recommends a focus on what humans can do. And there's good stuff to say here: think Captain Tom, or the Black Lives Matter movement, or Clap for Carers or the selfless care workers who locked themselves in their care home for nearly three months to stop their residents catching Covid. But, you might also ponder global warming, modern-day slavery, instances of police brutality, Covid rule-breaking, fake news, political arrogance and toilet roll stockpiling. Can we really save ourselves?
With the focus on humanity to solve our problems, Brian recommends listening to Mahler's 10th symphony while we contemplate our glorious achievements. Did he not see the irony? Mahler's 10th is described by Wikipedia as 'arguably his most dissonant work'. What does that mean? Like Brian Cox's argument, it just doesn't ring true. Mahler was in absolute turmoil. He knew his wife was having an affair and, aged 50, he was seriously ill. Mahler never finished the work. Can humanity solve our problems? It didn't work for Mahler. His life was utterly miserable when he wrote this work and he died before it was finished.
Can we really make our own meaning out of Covid-19 and the triumph of science, as many of us in the UK wake up in Tier 4 with limited freedoms? Perhaps, even the poorest in the world will receive the vaccine in 2020 and we'll finish the year totally clear of Covid-19, but many of us have suffered loss and science can't bring that back. We've missed out on being able to sit exams we worked for years towards, on going to our graduation, on our prom, on sitting with grandad, on having friends and families together for our Wedding Day, on hugs from our friends for nearly a whole year. We've had people die. Science can't and won't bring any of that back.
Ironically, we're pointed in the right direction by the radio series that Brian Cox is part of on Radio 3. It is called 'Light in the Darkness'. Where have I heard that before? Oh, yes. It's the Bible, in a reading often included in carol services.
Isaiah writes this:
"The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned."
"For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end."
The light in the darkness is not science, brilliant though it is. It can help us in the darkness, but it has limitations. It's not the light in the darkness. The light in the darkness isn't music, even though I love it. It can help us feel better in the darkness, but it's not the light in the darkness.
A child born in Bethlehem is the light in the darkness. Jesus is the light in the darkness.
But, that was 2000 years ago, are we not better off now looking to science? Can Jesus bring meaning into our most tragic and heart-breaking times today?
That same Radio Times holds another article, that gives hope in the darkness. It's about The Christmas Repair Shop, showing on Boxing Day. There, Reverend Steve Stewart talks about the tragic death of his daughter Tamsin aged seven. What would Brian say about that? Would he really turn round and say, 'I've got good news about science - it's going to save us'? In the darkest time, when science has been shown for what it is - severely limited - when science has run out of words, faith in Jesus Christ speaks. Steve says:
"I have faith in Christ while witnessing other people's suffering, so how could I lose my faith when the suffering was mine and my daughter's? When you're in a place where there's nowhere to go, but to pray and to trust in God, I found God didn't let me down."
Steve writes elsewhere that he has three children - Shona, Tamsin, now with the Lord and Hetty. He has hope and it makes a difference now.
Science doesn't have the answers to the suffering, loss and disappointments we have faced in 2020, but faith in Jesus still speaks loud and clear - comforting and constant.
Jesus is the one who brings meaning to the universe. He is with us in all of this. Even though our closest friends and family may not be able to visit us in the ICU, or in Tier 4, or in a care home or even in our own homes. Jesus will never leave us, not now and not in eternity. And as Jesus is with us, there is hope, whatever the New Year holds.
If you want to think more about this, have a look at the song 'Hope of the nations' here or get in touch.
Jesus is the light of the world and, so, there is hope.
Dave Thornton is author of 'Raising the Bar: Nearly everything you need to know about Christian youth ministry'. Buy the book here.