December saw a new series of The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond are back with their banter and outrageously expensive cars. But Top Gear long ago ceased to be a programme about cars. It is pure entertainment. TGT is essential a never-ending middle-aged road trip. The jokes are the same as ever, the outcomes predictable, but the locations are stunning.
What, though, is the secret of the appeal of The Grand Tour? I think it is because Clarkson et al are the court jesters of contemporary culture, or more precisely the jesters of middle-aged male culture.
The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal asked "Why do kings have jesters?" In human terms, they have everything anyone could want. The answer, according to Pascal, is that the jester prevents the king from thinking about the one issue he really needs to face up to – death.
Hugo Rifkind unconsciously recognised this when he reviewed the first episode of the new series of TGT in The Times. He wrote: “The presenters of The Grand Tour are not normal. They’re three florid multimillionaires in wallpaper shirts who only leave the Cotswolds for work… And yes, they are anti-PC, instinctively sexist and inclined to laugh at people for things like “being French”, but none of that is ever the point. They don’t talk like this because they mean it. They talk like this because life and existence is a gaping void of nothingness and we are all cold and lonely and going to die. All male conversation – cars, football, politics, woodwork, the merits of the M6 Toll, how you work a tank – is basically the same conversation. It is white noise. It blots out the fear… [it is] holding sadness and despair and terror at bay through the sheer power of inconsequential taking the piss… Weird, mad and pointless, but all the more real because of it. Bantering perennially into the void.”
In the end, if there is no hope beyond death, this makes logical sense. We need our jesters to help us make it through. Our culture craves entertainment to divert us from reality. But these entertainments cannot provide a real hope.
Jesus, however, does. He is the answer to the deep angst we feel. “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15v20), so that death has been defeated and can be faced head on with confident hope. There is no need to ignore it, or to just try to make the best of life before the inevitable. We are not condemned to “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15v32). We can look forward to being with Christ the other side of death, which is better by far (Philippians 1v23).
So rather than a banter-full 2018, I pray you a truly Happy New Year founded on the solid hope that Jesus offers. (with thanks to John Stevens)
with every blessing
Philip de Grey-Warter, Vicar