Yep, I’m a sucker for all that stuff, and there seems to be a lot of it around. Perhaps it’s something to do with it being August and the silly-season and people wanting to focus on the lighter side of life, but there seems to be no end of authentic this and genuine that on TV, in the papers, and at the bookshops. I’ve even found myself googling the virtues of a Weber Smokey Mountain grill compared with a Landmann Tennessee Smoker (not that I can afford either – let alone this ultimate BBQ).
The desire for the authentic is surely a luxury that only a prosperous society could afford. The poor tend not to worry so much about whether their bread is organic or mass-produced. It also reflects a growing unease that what our prosperity produces is inherently plastic. I think Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected lead in the polls to be next Labour leader is a reflection of this. It is difficult to think of a politician further from the groomed and sophisticated figures who have dominated politics the past twenty years – and who in their slickness so often appear false. Corbyn – badly cut hair, unfashionable clothes – comes across as more, well, authentic, somehow.
The irony is that in seeking the authentic further pastiches tend to evolve. I poked my head into a restaurant that was being refitted locally. “It’s going to be all stripped wood,” said the foreman, “all authentic.” Which of course it isn’t – rather, it is a fabrication of an idea of authenticity. Often, ‘authentic’ is just another marketing mechanism.
Not that all pursuits of the authentic are to be sneered at. I bake my own sourdough bread, because I enjoy the process, and think the end result tastes better than what is sold in supermarkets. I also buy my flour from a local mill, that produces stoneground, organic flour. I like this: it’s very good flour. But, regardless of the taste, I do so because I like the sense of connection with the miller, and via him to the farmer and the ground. It feels more authentic.
It’s the same kind of emotion that means I’d rather buy wine direct from a vineyard, or meat direct from a farmer – that sense of connection, of a story being told, care being taken: yes, of something authentic going on rather than the mediated and processed life that modernity submits us to.
I’ve been away on holiday, in Cantabria – rural, northern Spain. One of the great pleasures of continental travels is the availability of proper tomatoes. Huge great juicy things, packed with flavour and delicious on their own, with cheese and bread, or (best of all) gently roasted over a charcoal fire. Tomatoes like that are hard to come by in the UK. Even in the summer, our supermarket tomatoes are hard and tasteless. I eat them every day, but it is the eating of making do rather than a considered pleasure.
Tomatoes are tomatoes; but not all tomatoes are authentic.
This week, back in the office, my primary task is mapping out what is going to be preached at Gateway church over the next twelve months. This is a demanding task. When planning public teaching it is too easy to slip into merely content filling, or – worse – crowd pleasing. If the preached word is to mean anything it needs to be genuine; it needs to be real.
When January comes around we are planning on preaching through Philippians, a letter that deals with what is truly authentic. It describes a saviour who took on the likeness of man, yet became the most genuinely human. Jesus (if I can use this analogy without sacrilege) is no insipid supermarket tomato but the full-bodied reality!
August is a month when perhaps more than most it is easy to get distracted by the trivial. So much of our modern world is plastic, and so much of what markets itself as genuine is plastic underneath, but this month and every month Jesus is authentic. There is no spin or marketing with him. He is the real deal.