South of the Hugh River, NT 2016

Master Chef and the Dilemma of the Minister

Masterchef has consumed Australian TV viewers. Its ratings have been the highest non sport ratings in history, or something like that. Six nights a week, people have tuned in to watch the progress of amateur chefs towards the final of the contest. Every few nights someone was eliminated from the competition. Even I watched Master Chef. It has the obligatory house of Big Brother reality TV, but was genuinely interesting in its teaching of cooking, and its human interest. It was gentle, in contrast to the gratuitous bitchiness of Big Brother. It was not a mere exploitation of the contestants. And there was a real competition.

We have begun to learn how the show works. Much of the show, which lasted some 28 weeks was already filmed and finished by the time it began to appear on our screens. It was not the daily live drama that we followed. It appears people who were eliminated had been back at work for weeks before they appeared on the 7pm Project the night after their elimination. Judging of dishes often took place hours after the cooking was finished, in contrast to the immediate response we saw on TV. The final occurred weeks after the last cook off, not two days after the last Master Class. Even then, judging took place much later than the filming of the cooking. On TV, it all seemed immediate.

I'm not telling Australian readers anything new here. We all know. Occasionally we would spot the signs! One contestant had changed her earrings, apparently, between the cooking and the moment of her elimination! It didn't happen live like the TV said; the elimination and her leaving of the Masterchef Kitchen were hours, if not days apart. This little glitch in continuity was even highlighted in her exit appearance on the 7pm Project, which is run by the same TV network! No one minded. It was an occasion for laughter.

WE have been immersed in the myth of MasterChef. We know it does not match factual reality, but we have been a part of it anyway. Even my son, who has a hair trigger b-s meter. Although it does not match factual reality it still works for us. It still touches us and speaks to us of the hero battling against the odds. It celebrates achievement and growth. It reminds us of the power of generosity, and how much we like decent people who give each other a fair go.

MasterChef has been a nightly liturgy, reprising our national aspirations and hopes. It has ministered to us.

The liturgy and the myth of MasterChef is alive and vital. By contrast Rudolph Bultmann made the

declaration in 1941 that the mythical framework of the gospel was defunct. We can no longer believe in angels and demons, he wrote; the doctrine that sin is perpetuated through male sperm, that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that he rose from the dead on the third day and ascended into heaven are no longer credible...

It was not that Bultmann was no longer a Christian, as many concluded. He decided that

since the worldview undergirding the myth is no longer cogent, that myth has to be translated into modern terms. pp4 Robert Funk in The Once and Future Faith, by the Jesus Seminar, (Polebridge Press 2001)

In other words, the reality of the Divine is still there. The desire of humanity for a deeper connection and meaning is still there. But the story which once connected the two has failed to work.

After another season or two, MasterChef will begin to fade. Ratings will fall. Results will be leaked. We will lose interest. Our national aspirations and hopes will be substantially the same, but the liturgy will have lost it's power. The myth will begin to decline in efficacy.

Karen Armstrong writes

Today we have lost the ability to think mythologically, as people by and large did in the modern world. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scientific rationalism made such huge strides and achieved such astonishing results in the west that reason and logic became the only valid means of arriving at truth. The more intuitive approach of myth was discredited. As a result, in popular parlance, a “myth” simply means something that is not true. That means that we interpret our scriptures in a wholly literal way, instead of seeking the metaphysical and allegorical interpretations that mystics, kabbalists and theologians relished before the advent of modernity. Not surprisingly the mythos of the Bible has become incredible to many people. Karen Armstrong pp 23 "Suggestions for a Second Axial Age" in The Once and Future Faith, by the Jesus Seminar, (Polebridge Press 2001)

I am not sure she is quite correct. Especially because of the chatter and fear campaigns of religious conservatives, we do indeed tend to think of the biblical mythos in a wholly literal way. The discussion of mythological, versus scientific or other ways of thinking, is not part of the popular culture. But we are mostly showing our loss of understanding in that we fail to recognise some literature as mythological. No one thinks Master Chef is quite real, but it engages us and holds us and moves us. It gladdens our hearts. No one thinks NCIS is real either. We don't think it is at all real. But the blend of off beat humour, and integrity and justice done, speaks to us of our aspirations and hopes in the face of a reality that is often very different and very unfunny.

I think we do myth all the time. Some myth, like Big Brother and Days of our Lives, is impoverished and destructive. Other drama is healing and uplifting. Australians, with our self deprecating humour, are very good with myth. Look at the advertisement for Mitsubishi Pajero: the ”Paj” will take us anywhere. We're off to Muttaburra, wherever that is. The whole thing is a piss-take, right down to the two boys lined up among the bushes. (I can hear someone in my house saying, “Well, we hope it is!”)

In fact, the discussion of the earrings on the very network that airs the show, and the discussions of how you manage the logistics of filming something that has to look live, but cannot be, shows a very healthy appreciation of myth.  That session on the 7pm Project is very like the minister and the liturgist discussing the best way to manage the flow of the service next Sunday!

It's just that with religion, many of us have gotten confused about what the myth is. We've been confused about where the truth is, what the story is, and what the literal facts are. We know the difference in Master Chef, but have lost the difference in church.  And for many, in and outside the church, the myth does not work any more. It is a TV series that has run its course. It no longer carries the truth. We need to find another myth to retell the stories and re-link us to the divine.

This re-linking and re-telling is a key calling for clergy, unless we see ourselves as some kind of tradent who will change nothing. It also means, inevitably, that we will be seen as unbelievers by those of our congregation for whom the old story or mythos still works.

Clergy are called to be in this position almost by definition. We are to challenge and lead our people. The problem is that we have traditionally done it from a the same mythological starting point. Now, for some of us, that same starting point is not a valid place to be.

As a layperson, it seems to me that one could “keep one's head down” on Sunday, so to speak, and continue to search and seek to grow. I'm not suggesting that is particularly easy or pleasant; some of my lay friends find their local church almost unbearable. I did it for a few years, while not based in a parish placement, but mostly by just not going to Sunday worship!

For clergy there is a different dimension. We are called to publicly restate the myth each Sunday. The Sunday liturgy is a retelling of the story; a story some of us find no longer carries truth for us.

This is true in a “liturgical” church which uses a prayer book, but just as true in a gathering where everything the minister says is apparently extempore. The most determinedly “non liturgical” church re-tells its story each Sunday; it's just that part of their story is that Jesus doesn't like written liturgy!

Let's push the Master Chef illustration a little further. I suspect that in twenty years time we might see a late night re-run of this show and find it more than a little hokey. My online dictionary defines hokey as “1. Mawkishly sentimental; corny. 2. Noticeably contrived; artificial.” I would add the following to that: “A bit embarrassing to watch and admit that once it hooked us in!”

I am confident that this will likely be the case with Master Chef because occasionally I see reruns of favourite old shows I loved as as a kid, and yes, they're hokey. And then I hear music that tweaks my heart strings because it was current when I was young. But when I listen to the words, hokey is the least of it. Some of it is offensive. It often reflects gender and racial stereotypes we no longer accept, for example. In fact, some of those songs are downright oppressive of people in what they advocate.

At some point, a show or a popular song can cease to be merely old fashioned. It ceases to be something from which we can still draw a lesson, even if we would tell the story differently today. Nostalgic as we may be, it ceases to be true, and may be downright offensive and oppressive.

(And we will notice that some of our friends and family still love it. They don't see the problem. It still works for them.)

The dilemma of the clergy person and church leader is that the old story hangs together very well. It is not easy to just fiddle with the formula and add a few characters or take a few out. That kind of thing, on TV, is usually a sign of the beginning of the end of a series. The old story, as Bultmann and many others have said, is no longer cogent. It doesn't need tweaking. When the ratings get this bad it needs full scale reform. We need a new story.

It's at this point that Armstrong's words about myth carry enormous weight. The people who are watching the TV have forgotten that the liturgy is a myth. They think it is factual rather than truth carrying. They are not happy when the story changes if they have made the story, rather than what the story points to, their truth.

For someone who gets introduced to cooking, Master Chef may be liberating. It will improve their health. It may occasion a great growth of family as father and child learn to cook together. I can think of situations where being able to cook, rather than helplessly buying pizza to eat, would do an enormous amount for self esteem.

If we find somewhere in the future that MasterChef is a total hoax, (let's say the winner is found to be a set up from the beginning) this person may well be disappointed. They'll never watch it again. But they will go on because they have learned to cook for themselves. What a different story it will be for the person who thought the show itself was the truth.

For me, as a minister, there are some serious issues in all this.

One consequence is that there can be no renewal of a congregation while we insist on an improbable, implausible, impossible mythology. That is how the outside world sees us, even if we don't see it that way. So why on earth would we expect them to join us? We would be making them twice as much a son of hell as ourselves, as Jesus said somewhere. We are asking them to volunteer for and commit themselves to a deceit, and call it salvation! (One reason some non church people get so shirty with a Bishop Spong may be that the church has stopped doing the work of believing the impossible for them!)

For a minister it seems dishonest to continue working with a congregation in this context. If they insist we renew things using the old story, why are we taking the pay and leading them along a path we quietly believe to be wrong? The only honest thing to do is publicly redirect the path or leave. There is a time for thinking and searching, and devising strategy, and maybe the strategy will take a long time, but it has to be put into action sometime.

The dilemma is that the reality we are seeking to approach and direct people towards, is still true and real. It is not simply a matter of walking away from a church which is wrong. The church still has the keys of the kingdom! The divine still is. Jesus still is. The real question of courage is whether instead of walking away, I will have the guts to try and retell the story. Will I endure the struggle and heartbreak of retelling the old myth each week, as I try and find and communicate the good news of a new way of telling the story? Will I endure the pain and hatred that may come if some parishioner, or the denomination itself, decides to make an example of me? Walking away is easy. Being true to the calling is a lot harder.

Andrew Prior July 2010

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