An organisation called the Churches Advertising Network has just launched a Christmas campaign that includes a painting of the nativity scene set in a bus shelter rather than in a stable. The painting is by Andrew Gadd.
It’s an excellent image (I speak as an atheist who likes religious art. If you’re wondering how an atheist can like such images – it’s not much different to an atheist liking religious architecture or music such as Handel’s Messiah or Christmas carols). It’s also a very good idea. I expect that some Christians won’t like the concept very much though, because it distorts the Christmas story – after all, Jesus was born in a stable. (The bus shelter is an inspired parallel for the stable in my opinion.) One of the reasons that I like the image is that by setting the nativity in a bus shelter the creators of the advert have (I assume inadvertently) pointed to a particular truth about the nativity – the truth that Jesus wasn’t actually born in a stable at all. The whole story about Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem in order to take part in a census, and on arrival finding the place full of travellers so that there was ‘no room at the inn’, is a myth. The story of the census originated as a way of making the birth of Jesus conform with an old Hebrew prophecy which predicted that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. The census (for which there is no historical record) was invented as a way of getting Mary and Joseph to travel there. The need to have Jesus born in Bethlehem conveniently offered the perfect excuse for siting his birth in a stable, thus emphasising the humble aspects of his nature. The bus stop in the present advertising campaign is a perfect modern parallel for that stable, and for me helps to emphasise the fact that the Christmas story has always been an idea that has been adapted to fit into contemporary life, and not a factual truth. The image is somewhat in the style of Italian renaissance nativity paintings (such as the one by Domenico Ghirlandaio below), and reminds me of the way that such paintings transferred the event from Bethlehem to 16th century Italy.
All round it’s a very good advertising image, and it knocks spots off the very dreary and unimaginative Atheist Bus Campaign currently under way by the British Humanist Association, which features the wording “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy life.” (shown below). This is a shame, because I’m with the humanists.
For me this ad fails on several levels. Firstly, it’s simply a bland, flat statement – it needs a bit of humour or drama to lift it (If it’s meant to have humour in it, I certainly can’t see it). As a result of its dreariness it gives the impression that atheists are rather unimaginative individuals whose minds exist purely in the realms of ‘mundane’ rationality. This isn’t very appealing to potential converts. Secondly, I’m not too sure about the “So stop worrying and enjoy life” part. Stated like this, in this context, it can easily be interpreted as meaning “Stop believing, and become a selfish hedonist”. The argument that atheists lack moral principles is a common accusation made by some people of a religious disposition (although it’s totally false of course, as I can attest, being an atheist and also having morals) – so anyone of an even vaguely religious sensibility may read this advert and think that this slur may indeed have a grain of truth in it. The whole ad campaign is a bit of an own goal as far as I’m concerned. Just one last thing about the humanist ad. It was originally conceived as a riposte to an ad by the Alpha Course (below). Their ad was similarly purely text based and was on the sides of buses. The opening statement was “Where Are We Going?”. See – humour!