In which John Betjeman asks a quick question of Alain de Botton

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true. — Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists

From John Betjeman’s poem, Christmas:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare —
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Bored, Alain?


5 thoughts on “In which John Betjeman asks a quick question of Alain de Botton”

    1. *picks self up off floor*

      Thank you for commenting! (I’m assuming that is you… 😉 )

      It is indeed beautiful. However, ISTM that Betjeman’s point is precisely that its aesthetic appeal is not enough: what matters is that (and hence whether) the story is true; that the “best bits” (as your advertisements put it) are precisely what you have to relinquish once you’ve decided the story isn’t true.

  1. Taking the story literally, whether you decide that it’s true or false, kills the multiple meanings that can be teased out of the story. It also ignores the many other great stories which follow the same mythological pattern: Isis and Osiris, Orpheus and Eurydice, Inanna and Dumuzi. The endless arguments about whether miracles can really happen, whether the earth was created, and whether God was really a man in Palestine, are boring to people who want to move on from the question of whether the story is literally true, to whether it will help us to live well.

    1. Thanks for this. Hope you don’t mind my editing your comments to combine them into one.

      I think that where we are probably going to have to agree to disagree I’d this: your argument may be right, if the gospel (as summarised in Betjeman’s closing couplet) is just another human attempt to “live well”. But that’s begging the question, because ISTM that the whole point of the gospel is that it wasn’t enough for humans to try to “work their way up” towards God; we needed God to come down to us.

      If that didn’t happen, then the Christian story loses most of its power. Yes, we get another nice story that may help us to live well, but we weren’t short of those.

  2. I don’t mind at all about the editing – I posted the comment from my phone and the comment box wouldn’t expand.

    We will indeed have to agree to disagree. For me (and most Unitarians), the power of Jesus’ story is in the values he lived out, not the alleged miracles and resurrection.

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