A Modern Take on a Venerable Folk Tale

Who Will Help Me . . . ?

The parable of the Little Red Hen has been read to countless generations of children.  It is an old folk tale, probably Russian in origin.  Its ethical point  is delightfully made.  “He who will not work, let him not eat”, said the Apostle Paul, to which the Little Red Hen says, “Amen”. 

There are countless applications of the parable, but one in particular caught our attention recently.  It concerns the wistfulness sometimes expressed by moderns for the “good old days” by which is meant a  longing for Christian ethics and values once held by society, whilst rejecting Christian metaphysics and theology.   The particular occasion was a review of a series of radio programmes in the UK featuring a prominent Guardian journalist, Madeleine Bunting,  bestowing her reflections about Holy Week upon her listeners.

Charles Moore, writing in The Telegraph, reviewed her ruminations, thus:

The striking and original Bunting method was to select a series of Christian-inspired ideas, some of which, she admitted, she missed in the post-Christian world, and to ask what has become of them. These were: glory, sin, salvation, patience and sacrifice. She noticed that modern secular society employs inferior echoes of some – celebrity culture instead of glory, unredemptive self-loathing about body image, weight etc instead of sin and forgiveness – and jettisons others at a high cost.

She was particularly good on patience. She had given it no thought, she said, until she had children, when she came to realise that it is “a vital organising principle of life” and one which is being beaten out of women (who traditionally embody it better than men) by modern time-poverty (“speed and greed”) and the emphasis on worldly success. She pointed out that, from his hour in the garden of Gethsemane onwards, Jesus became entirely patient (hence the word the Passion) until his death, and through this achieved his glory.

Also sacrifice. Ms Bunting spoke of how a pregnant woman might lose hair and teeth and weaken her blood for the child she is bearing. She praised “an altruism beyond calculation”. With the weakening of such concepts, the springs of action fail. The loss of the idea of salvation helps explain the feebleness of modern secular politics, particularly the decline of socialism. She quoted Clement Attlee’s promise in 1945 that Labour “will build Jerusalem”, and complained that a post-Christian society could muster no “salvific vision”. She saw what she called “techno-optimism” as a poor substitute.

Moore then cites Attlee’s bald claim that he could hold on to the ethics and social fruits of Christianity without any of the “claptrap” that undergirded it:

Attlee is supposed to have said of Christianity, with characteristic brevity: “Like the ethics: don’t like the mumbo-jumbo.” 

Ms Bunting appears to be forlornly  wishing that she could preserve the ethics without the Lawgiver.  But remove Him and the ethics crumble into a mocking perversion or an empty cavilling.  The acquaintances of the Little Red Hen wanted the bread without the cost of growing the ingredients, harvesting them, and formed the loaf and cooking it.  Ms Bunting and her ilk are similar.  They want Christian ethics, without the Christ and His Cross.  Sorry. No sale. 
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