I’m busy trying to get a poster framed for posterity. I have surprisingly made the front page and headline of the Daily Star.
Some tabloid headlines become unforgettable.
“Freddie Starr ate my hamster” is one of those.
As it happened Freddie Star was a vegetarian, and so this was at the very least unlikely to have bene true. In fact, the story was completely manufactured by the notorious Max Clifford, his agent, who used it to get publicity to increase sales for one of Freddie’s tours.
But the headline never left him. In fact, when he died the witty scribblers at the Sun published “Freddie Star gone to join his hamster.”
With me, the headline was less effective but still attention grabbing: “Novelty Easter treat branded ‘the devil’s work! Very hot cross buns. Queen’s former chaplain hits out!”
Toasting forks were everywhere.
The backstory was a bit more subtle. The day before I had received two phone calls from the Daily Telegraph, one interesting and the other dull.
The interesting one had asked me to help with the Queen’s obituary (always updated because that’s how obituaries work) and the dull other, a reporter asking me if it mattered that Sainsburys were filling their hot cross buns with chocolate?
I found myself wondering about the Hot Cross Buns.
In the scale of things going wrong in the world at the moment , they could hardly matter less. But thinking about it a little more, I wondered how filling them with chocolate and maple syrup helped with the obesity crisis and our increasing addiction to sugar and salt? So perhaps, not so good for our physical health.
But then they are not just buns. They are symbolic buns, meant for centuries to be wheeled out on Good Friday, the day that Christ died on the cross.
For Christians, this is one of the most moving days of the year. God comes to rescue us from ourselves; and by taking our place, he lifts the burden of moral failure from our shoulders and clears our moral and spiritual debts. And in doing so, He suffers agony for the sake of (sometimes unrequited) love.
It’s a deeply poignant love story. And matters greatly to those who discover its power and beauty.
It happens also to fit in with the archetypal narratives of love and self-sacrifice that weave in and out of our literature and songs.
There is a symbolic link between this small piece of spiced bread, the cosmic love of God, our need for forgiveness and the promise of heaven
Maybe this little symbolic bun is not so un-important after all.
But like most symbols, it does its job not by taking central stage, but by pointing to something more important. The spices in the bun were as important as the cross on top. They were reminiscent of the spices that the women tookto embalm the body of Christ in the tomb, mistakenly thinking the Jesus was permanently dead.
Of course, people are free to eat spiced buns with crosses on top and fill them with any goopy extras they want. But as they titillate our inner gluttony, they also change this small thing from a symbol of spirituality to a symbol of consumerist self-indulgence.
Do we lose anything as a society by doing this?
Julia Hartley Brewer of Talk radio, a prominent well-educated atheist, told me in our interview she had literally no idea that hot cross buns had anything to do with Good Friday and Jesus’ death on the cross.
Christian culture is evaporating fast it seems. As another example, when I was teaching in a Literature department at a university, a large section of literature became inaccessible to students because they were almost completely ignorant of the Bible, its characters and parables which informed our most wonderful creative minds and formed Western civilisation.
More dramatic than that, I found in the disappearing Christian story the key to confronting the mystery of the existence of evil. It was as I was learning about Auschwitz as a teenager that I first became convinced thatthere was an external, intelligent agency of evil in the world whose purpose was to set out to corrupt human beings.
I did not believe that humans were capable of the Holocaust and that level of degradation all by themselves.
Christianity seemed to me to offer the most convincing and accurate insight into the conflict between good and evil in our world. (Only Zoroastrianism comes close to it,I felt).
Secularism by contrast insists that humans are born moral blank slates, and you improve them by educating them and passing laws to shape and restrain them.
Rousseau laid the platform for this in the eighteenth century and it has guided progressive politics ever since. But there is no evidence to show it works. In fact, followed widely in the twentieth century, it seemed to make things considerably worse.
William Golding’s powerful book ‘Lord of the Flies’ had always struck me as one of the most realistic protests against Rousseau’s naivety.
If we really are poised between Good and evil, and if the symbolism of the Good Friday spiced bun with a cross on top points to something real; if forgiveness trumps revenge and love overcomes hate, it’s not impossible that any corruption of the pointers and reminders of this powerful hope have a rather darker origin than the simple ambitions of supermarkets to get richer and us to get fatter.