White wine in the sun: an atheist’s Christmas carol

Coffee with the King is on a… coffee break, until January 5. To tide you over, here’s our Christmas special, where we look at Tim Minchin’s Christmas song, White Wine in the Sun. What might a Christian response be?

Merry Christmas & have a great break!

White Wine in the Sun

Like most Christmas specials, this is a repeat from a sermon in December, 2011. But I think the sentiment is still current. It takes a look at Tim Minchin’s song, White Wine in the Sun, and looks at how Christians might respond to it.

(But first, in the highly unlikely event that Tim Minchin reads this post, let me make three points:

  1. I’m a huge fan. My favourite songs are You grew on me like a tumour, and that Gershwinesque number I’d rather not name in present company. Very clever.
  2. I also learned the piano instead of guitar, and in the 90s that didn’t get me very far either. Now I’m a New Testament lecturer.
  3. The basis of my faith in Jesus is nothing like what is described in your song about your friend Sam and his mum’s cataracts. I believe not because of various unexplained coincidences between prayer and events in the world. But because I find the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection compelling. But more on that later…)

As well as being a comic song writer, he’s also famous for being a rather aggressive atheist. Although it’s not just God he’s opposed to. But anything supernatural or spiritual that can’t be observed or empirically verified. He’s a sceptic. A scientific rationalist.

Yet despite that, he’s written a Christmas song. Called White wine in the sun. He wrote it a few years ago as a concert encore, and it quickly went viral. To the point where it was released as a single in 2009. It struck a chord with many people. Because – well, it sums up how lots of people around the world feel about Christmas. It’s a kind of atheist’s Christmas carol. Have a listen to it now, otherwise the rest of this won’t make any sense.

(By the way, if you’re a traditional Baptist, any time you hear the phrase ‘white wine’ it’s just a metaphor for Maison. OK?)

So what’s this song doing? What’s its message?

An atheist’s Christmas carol

When you think about it, this song is doing something rather bold. It’s redefining what Christmas is all about – for people who don’t celebrate it as the birth of Jesus. People for whom it holds no religious significance. It’s reclaiming the holidays and traditions and family gatherings – for people who don’t believe in God. And it rejects two things.

The first thing it rejects is that Christmas is about the birth of God in human form; the son of God stepping into human history. Instead, it’s just the story of what Tim Minchin terms a ‘dead Palestinian’ – in two words rejecting Jesus as the living God of Israel.  It’s just dismissed as tradition. An idea that’s been around for a long time – but that doesn’t make it right. We’ll talk more about that later.

The second thing the song rejects is something we’d probably agree with. It rejects the materialism that’s attached itself to Christmas. Although we don’t see Jesus as a ‘dead Palestinian’, we do resent the fact that he’s been ‘press-ganged into selling PlayStations and beer’. And all of the other trappings of Christmas that make December such a source of stress and financial strain. And musical travesties. Like many people, he’s sick of that aspect of Christmas, too.

But the song isn’t all bah humbug. In place of religion and materialism, he sells us a different image of Christmas. A celebration of family. An idealised picture of a warm, Christmas afternoon out in the backyard, by the pool, drinking white wine in the sun. A yearly ritual without religion, that connects us with our loved ones. One of the constants of life we can rely on. Something you can always come home to, no matter how far you’ve strayed. That is the essence of Christmas, according to Tim Minchin. And to many of the people in your school, your family, your workplace. A ritual celebration that grounds our lives in the bond of family .

What do we say to this? How do we respond to a world for which this is Christmas?

Maybe what’s needed are a few visitors. In the tradition of many a Christmas special, maybe Tim needs a visit from the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Why does Tim Minchin need a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past? Why does our world need a reminder of the history of Christmas? I think it’s because of this line in the song, and what it represents:

‘I don’t go in for ancient wisdom // I don’t believe just ’cause ideas are tenacious it means that they’re worthy’

Is that what Christmas and Christianity are? ‘Ancient wisdom’? Just ‘tenacious ideas’? Philosophies and human traditions we’ve handed down through the centuries. We believe them, just because they’ve been around a long time.

I mean, you’ve gotta admit, we humans are pretty good at doing things out of habit. Out of tradition. Particularly we Baptists. We don’t have our traditions enshrined in church law or a prayer book, but you’ve only got to do something a couple of times in a Baptist church and it becomes inviolable tradition.

True story: a number of years ago we started a Christmas Eve service, because we couldn’t fit everyone in on Christmas Day. Now the very first year we did that, Christmas Eve was a Friday. So we started the service at 7.30, to let people get home from work, or last minute shopping, or wherever. It went well. Then the next year, year two, Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday. So the pastoral team decided that the best time to start was 6pm. It wasn’t a work day for most people, and it meant kids could get to bed on time. But I had two people on two separate occasions come up to me during December – and they asked, quite indignantly, why we’d changed the service time. And both of them said to me: but we always have it at 7.30!

As I said, it’s easy to start a tradition in a Baptist church.

Is that all Christmas is? A human tradition – something we’ve always done that way? Is that all Christianity is? A tenacious set of ideas; a philosophy that’s been around a long time?  If that were true, then Tim Minchin would have a point in rejecting it, wouldn’t he?

But that misunderstands what Christmas is all about. It’s a common misunderstanding. It neglects the historical origin of the Christian faith. More than that, it fails to grasp the essence of what it means to follow Jesus. It ignores two things.

Firstly, Christmas isn’t just the festival of an idea. It commemorates an historical event. It celebrates a particular time in history when the Creator of this world turned up in a particular place. The life of the person Jesus is verifiable from historical records outside the Bible. And the eyewitness testimony collected in our Bibles – which many of the eyewitnesses went to their death for – argues that this Jesus was killed, and then rose from the dead. Giving evidence that he wasn’t just a nutcase. Or the founder of a new branch of human philosophy. But that he was who he claimed to be: God himself.

Now people might disagree with our evaluation of this evidence. But let’s get this straight: Christianity isn’t just an idea someone came up with and passed on as tradition. It’s based on a widely-attested historical event. So Christianity should stand or fall on the basis of the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. It can’t just be dismissed as a nice tradition. And so our message to Tim Minchin, and the millions of people his ideas represent, should be this: look at the evidence. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Yes or no? And then make your mind up, on that basis. (Not on whether Sam’s mum’s cataracts were miraculously healed after prayer.)

The second thing that gets ignored is this: Christianity is not a set of ideas. It’s about an historical person. A person who cannot be separated from the gospel message. And this is something that makes Christianity unique among world religions.

Think of many of the Eastern religions. They’re essentially philosophies. Rules for living. How to live this thing we call life, and do so well. They’re a set of tenacious ideas. But get this: they are not dependent on the person through whom the ideas came. Take Buddhism: sure, the historical person of Buddha was the source of this teaching. But Buddhism would be fundamentally no different if another historical person had come up with those same ideas. Same with Confucianism. The teaching would be no different if it had been invented by Gary, your next-door neighbour. (Just a little less marketable in fortune cookies, I suppose.) A philosophy or a set of ideas like this is essentially independent of the person who thought of them.

Or take Islam. This claims to be no human philosophy, but a direct revelation from Allah, through his chosen vehicle – the prophet Mohammed. But still: if Allah had chosen someone else to reveal his will to the world, Islam would essentially be no different. It claims to be an historical revelation, but the revelation is independent of the person through whom it was revealed.

Christianity is different. Christianity doesn’t even make sense apart from Jesus. He’s not just an historical figure through whom a message came. He is the message. He is God in human form. Which rules out Gary, along with Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, and everyone else who’s ever walked this planet.

More than that, the fact that Jesus is both God and human is essential to the gospel. Jesus could only die in our place as a human, sharing our flesh-and-blood. But only God could remain sinless, die for the sins of many, and then be raised to life again. (Not Gary.) He’s not some ‘dead Palestinian’, he’s the Living God. Jesus is inseparable from Christianity not because of what he said, but because of what he did, and ultimately, who he is. Emmanuel – God with us.

We go back to Matthew chapter 1, the angel speaking to Joseph:

Mt 1:21-23 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will…

…give everyone some food for thought, a few good principles to live by, some quotable quotes for desk calendars worldwide? No. For he will…

…save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him…

…”Gary”, which means, “that bloke next door who gives good advice”? No. They shall name him…

…“Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

The reason I follow Jesus has nothing to do with tradition or tenacious ideas. It’s about historically verifiable truth, embodied in an historical person, who is no less than God himself.

This Christmas, when you talk to the Tim Minchins at your school or workplace or over Christmas dinner – point to the evidence. Show how it’s not about proving that my idea’s better than your idea; or that my philosophy works better than your philosophy; or my invisible friend can beat your invisible friend. It’s about the historically verifiable truth of God-with-us. Point people to the evidence, and let them judge for themselves.

The Ghost of Christmas Present

Speaking of Christmas dinner, here’s where we part company with the Ghost of Christmas Past, and get our next visitor. The Ghost of Christmas Present.

Because it’s the present aspect of Christmas that Tim Minchin celebrates. He looks past its historical roots to what it means for us now. And for him, that’s not ‘a visit from Jesus’, as he puts it. It’s not a celebration of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Instead, it’s all about family. He’ll be seeing his dad, his brothers and sisters, his gran and his mum. Drinking white wine in the sun. And let’s face it, if it doesn’t rain, the kids don’t fight, the toys don’t break immediately, and everyone at least pretends to get on with each other – then Christmas afternoon can be a great experience.

Yet in the song, it’s more than just catching up with family. It’s depicted as one of life’s great constants. An anchor, grounding us in the love of family. As he sings to his baby girl:

‘Wherever you are and whatever you face // These are the people who’ll make you feel safe in this world’

More than that, this Christmas lunch represents a home that’s always waiting. A fixed point to which we can always return each year. Again, to his daughter, he says:

‘And if, my baby girl, when you’re twenty-one or thirty-one // And Christmas comes around and you find yourself nine thousand miles from home // You’ll know whatever comes // Your brothers and sisters, and me and your mum, // Will be waiting for you in the sun, whenever you come.’

Isn’t that what we all want? Even if we’re out in the big bad world chasing our dreams, whether we’re experiencing success or messing it all up – we want that promise of a home to come back to. A safe place to return when we’ve finished our wandering. People who will accept us no matter what’s happened. A great image. And nothing wrong with it. That’s what family should be.

Except it’s a pathetically pale imitation of the homecoming we’ve been offered as a result of Christmas.

Jesus himself told what’s become a very famous story. Of someone who had wandered many miles from home. Messed up their lives big time. Found themselves broke and starving, and in a foreign land. Not only that, but they’d rejected and shamed their family in the process. And so with great trepidation, they went back to try and get a job as one of the family’s servants. But here’s the extravagant reception they got:

Lk 15:20b-23 ‘But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.’

Jesus told this story, at least in part to show us the welcome home party that’s on offer. That God created us to be in relationship with him. And although we’ve rejected him, rebelled against him, wandered many miles from our home – he’s still waiting expectantly for our return. Not just with a nice bottle of Chardonnay, but with all the joy of heaven:

Lk 15:10 ‘Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

That yearning we feel for a place to come home to – God put that there. The desire for an anchor. An unconditional welcome, not matter what we’ve done. That’s what’s on offer. All because God stepped into our world in the person of Jesus. Not just lunch with the family, as nice as that is. But forgiveness and acceptance and a sense of identity in belonging to God and his people. No matter how many miles from home we’ve wandered. No matter what we’ve done. Whether we’re 21, or 31, or 71. God is waiting expectantly for our return, with open arms.

Let’s not let the redefinition of Christmas-as-family-homecoming blind us from the bigger picture. Inoculate us with a little dose of safety and acceptance, so that we suppress that deeper yearning for a more permanent homecoming. This Christmas, ask those around you, ask yourself: have you embraced the offer of forgiveness? Of a loving welcome on your return to God?

Because Christmas isn’t just about a past historical event. It’s also about a present offer of restoration.

The Ghost of Christmas Future

But no Christmas special would be complete without a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future as well. What would he say to Tim Minchin? I think he might warn against idealising things that might be good, but in reality are far from perfect. We have the tendency to do that all the time.

For example, parents reminiscing about how good it was ‘when the kids were little’. Calling to mind their mental snapshots of the peaceful cuddles & cute moments. And suppressing memories of the 2am screaming. Or the 3am nappy explosion where it’s coated the inside of the jumpsuit and every press-stud makes a squelching sound as you open it. I didn’t have to go there, but I did. Deal with it.

Or people my age remembering their high school days in idealised terms. In the words of Bryan Adams, ‘those were the best days of my life’. Airbrushing out all the acne, moodiness, and social insecurities that come with the teenage years.

Now it’s OK to remember the good things in life. But if we’re not careful, we can end up idealising past moments. Setting them up as little idols, which we try to recreate. But of course, we can’t always do that. Like all idols, a lot of the time they end up disappointing us.

The danger of idealising Christmas – that misty snapshot we keep in the photo album of our minds – the danger is that it’ll distract us from what we’re really longing for. It’ll stop us going deeper, to find the itch that really needs scratching.

Because we’re ultimately looking for something more than a nice lunch. We’re looking for something that won’t be another faded memory come Boxing Day. Something more permanent, of which Christmas lunch is merely a shadow. An eternal homecoming, where we get to remain with God, with our brothers and sisters in Christ, forever.

In Jesus’ time, they had this kind of expectation. They described it as great banquet at the end of history. When the Messiah, God’s chosen one, would come. And bring peace and health and prosperity. We see it as far back as the prophet Isaiah, 700 or so years before Christ:

Isa 25:6 ‘On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.’

(That wouldn’t be… white wine, would it?) A little later, in between the writing of Old and New Testaments, Jewish literature increasingly looked forward to this picture. For example, in 1 Enoch we read:

1 Enoch 62:15 ‘They will eat and rest and rise with that Son of Man forever.’

Jesus himself picks up on this banquet imagery:

Matt 22:2 ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.’

And he knows that it’s his death and resurrection that’ll make it possible. At the Last Supper, he says:

Matt 26:29 ‘I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’

And in the final few chapters of the NT, the book of Revelation records the following invitation:

Rev 19:9a ‘And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”’

What is this banquet, this wedding feast that the Bible looks forward to? It’s not a faded Polaroid of a family BBQ. It’s the celebration of the fulfilment of God’s plan to save the world. When God has gathered his family together for good. When there will be no more hunger or sickness or death. When everything will be put right, once and for all.

So in a sense, Christmas isn’t just about a past historical event, or a present offer of forgiveness. It’s also about a future expectation of a perfect world. Perfect relationships – both with God, and with one another. And a perfect enjoyment of God’s creation. Not just an idealised photograph, but a concrete and eternal reality.

White wine in the sun with family is nice. But it’s a pale imitation of what’s on offer. Don’t just settle for it this Christmas.

3 thoughts on “White wine in the sun: an atheist’s Christmas carol

  1. Elizabeth Mackay says:

    Thanks Tim. I found this note very helpful when responding to facebook posts dismissing Christianity as a fairytale. One status was recommending the book ‘Jesus was Caesar’ which is about an apparent misinterpretation of Mark. Not knowing anything about this book I was able to provide the link to Investigatating Jesus.

  2. Phil Lowe says:

    Thanks Tim, a great post. Even the nappy explosion! Resonated especially because of your extremely pertinent line, that Christianity is not ‘my invisible friend can beat your invisible friend. It’s about the historically verifiable truth of God-with-us. Point people to the evidence, and let them judge for themselves.’ because of how I started my Christian journey last year. Looking for evidence. I had listened to Tim M’s Christmas song last year and wondered, “Where do I start?” And then, “Boy, I’m not even equipped to pull it apart (those Christian training wheels), so thank you for writing a post filled with humour, grace and evidence.

    • timmacbride says:

      Thanks Phil. I find one of the hardest things is to get Christians to understand that it’s based on the resurrection evidence – particularly those who’ve grown up in a Christian home.

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