Faith & Reason: The Archbishop and the Odalisque

Christians are often suspicious of the secular Xmas. But the tradition of puritan asceticism serves them ill, argues The Rev John Kennedy.

Two intriguing Christmas notes chimed together last week. I found that Safeways is selling chocolate body paint. And the Archbishop of Canterbury is to broadcast to the nation from an Asda supermarket. Together they raise awkward questions about incarnation and carnality.

The Safeways stuff comes in a handy 500g jar. The label carries a tasteful copy of Ingres' voluptuous Odalisque - a really shrewd marketing ploy. Most of us would feel shy if coated in corporeal confectionery. But the message here is that you can share this delight even if you are built for comfort rather than speed. And of course the greater the surface area of the customer, the larger the volume of product sold. There are liturgical possibilities too, but of a pagan rather than a mainstream Christian sort - though the brush supplied looks a bit prickly, so it may produce some sensation of self-mortification. What is fascinating is that it is now established in the commercial mainstream; this is Safeways' own brand chocolate body paint.

Which brings us to the Archbishop. His pre-recorded message will figure in a service of lessons and carols at the Asda store in Gravesend tomorrow. The service will be transmitted live by satellite to the company's stores nationwide, on what the company calls "Asda FM" This is part of a growing trend, which the Archbishop first spotted and is now making his own. He stands in the great tradition of Wesley, who took a robust celebration of the faith into an increasingly paganised Britain. Dr Carey is right to celebrate the Nativity of Christ like this. He is acknowledging that the Word is made flesh, earthy, embodied.

The project has its dangers. Safeways might respond with a chocolate body paint demo tape, beamed live by satellite to all their stores - Asda FM v Cocoa TV. When I rang the company, they asked me to make clear to readers that they have no plans to "position their product against the Archbishop". I'm happy to do that. And anyway, the point is not to pose some moral contrast between these commercial competitors, the Archbishop and the Odalisque, nor to protest against rampant, spreading commercialism.

The point is to suggest how uncomfortably the Christian tradition lies in our extraordinary times. It is the age of unprecedented experimentation in relationships between men and women; there is an unabashedly Pagan element to this kind of adventure in human living, made visible - if risible - on our supermarket shelves. But this experimentation results in increased family break-up and has begun to affect public policy. Thus the bounty hunters of the Child Support Agency roam among us, and the Government has set up its workhouse regime for single parents, to cries of outrage from its own supporters. The flesh has shrugged off the Word, and is unprotected even by normal pagan prudence.

The present age has also exposed the vulnerability of the Christian notion of incarnation, now that society no longer imposes the sanctions of poverty and ostracism on those who take part in this experimentation. Our view of incarnation is inadequately carnal. Charles Wesley spoke wonderfully of "our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man". Yet it would help more if we understood Him as usefully made human. The early Christian Fathers held that God could redeem human nature only if he took it on completely. We now know human nature to be richer, stranger, more complex than we imagined. That knowledge helps us to recognise in Jesus one who is aware of those complexities, and who reserved his fiercest judgement for those who had a simple, narrow view of that humanity.

In contrast, the asceticism of the Christian tradition makes it difficult to explain ourselves to our hedonistic society - of which the Christian community is part. Only the most exclusive Christian sects are exempt from the consequences of these experiments in intimacy. It is not simply a matter of pagan and Puritan living in mutual bafflement - often the two exist in the same person.

Society may possibly again become more conservative in its management of intimacy. But we are unlikely to revert to a serenity in intimate life that the Christian tradition can again find comfortable. Some day that tradition must come to terms with the fleshly reality lived by the faithful. The alternatives seem to be deepening hypocrisy or sectarian obscurity. The Archbishop can hardly share these thoughts with the good folk of Asda, and it may not yet be time for the Wise Men to offer gold, frankincense, myrrh - and chocolate body paint. But the implications of incarnation cannot be shirked for ever.

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely