‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’: three ways in which the Incarnation is radically subversive to western secular culture and transforms our understanding of what it means be human.
The year was 1969. A college student named Gil Scott-Heron was sat watching a baseball game in his dorm room. Inspired by a phrase already in use among US civil rights activists, he put pen to paper and wrote his song ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. From Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, to the Arab Spring and global campaigns against nuclear disarmament, that lyric has been declared across political movements for decades, becoming one of the most poignant phrases of the last century.
Well over 2,000 years ago, an even greater politically significant set of lyrics were sung by an ordinary woman carrying an extraordinary baby. Found in Luke 1 and sometimes referred to as the ‘Magnificat’, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung.”
A teenager with no status, significance, or wealth is told she is to carry the divine incarnate, God in human flesh. Mary’s life is turned upside down. So filled with praise and faith, she sings about how this reversal of her own social status points to a greater upheaval to come: through her son, God is going to bring down rulers from their thrones and exalt the poor. He is going to turn the whole world order upside down.
Sometimes in our reminiscing of the Christmas story, we downplay the beginning of the greatest revolution of all time. Not only did it challenge and subvert the powers of evil and darkness in the biblical age, but it very much continues to do the same in today’s secular age. In a similar way, at Christmas, we tend to emphasise the divine nature of the baby in the manger. God becoming visible, knowable, and tangible. However, if Jesus is both fully God and fully human, not only does He show us what our revolutionary God is like, He also shows us what revolutionary human beings are meant to be like.
Amidst a culture that elevates the self, the Incarnation gives us humility.
In our glossing over of the Christmas story, we often also miss its historical significance. Priest and academic Michael Lloyd tells us that humility was not even a recognised virtue in the pagan world before the introduction of the Gospels. God’s revolutionary act against evil and darkness was not one of military strategy or political power, but a baby born into poor and unlikely circumstances. Through His birth, we are introduced to the self-emptying nature of Christ; we see “the humanity of humility”.
If we flash forward to today, this truth continues to subvert and challenge. Whether it is combatting mental health, thriving in your relationships or even (according to the M and S 2023 Christmas advert) how you should spend Christmas this year, the dominant narrative of today is “love yourself”, put yourself first and all will be well. The world’s answer to humanity is not humility but to turn inward, to look to the self for survival, security and a route to flourishing. And yet, the Incarnation exposes self-aggrandisement for the de-humanising thing it is and asks us as Jesus does, to protest it.
And yet, the Incarnation exposes self-aggrandisement for the de-humanising thing it is and asks us as Jesus does, to protest it.
Amidst a culture that looks to avoid others or fragment, the Incarnation invites us to participate
Secondly, in the same way that Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics were a rallying cry to Black Americans to leave behind passive behaviour and strive for social change, the Incarnation shows us that to be human is to commit to the world’s restoration. Not to detach or numb ourselves by choosing to check out from the suffering around us. Nor to only cling onto people we find similarities with – those who look, sound, vote, spend and live like us. Instead, in Jesus’ model of true humanness, we are to enter suffering, leave our comfortable thrones and get up close and personal with those different to us. It is along these lines of reconciliation, not polarisation, that Jesus’ revolution is fought.
Amidst a culture hunting for authenticity, the Incarnation gives us assurance
When I’m not occupying my time with the Being Human project, I spend a lot of my week with students. As a student pastor, I hear a similar question spoken in different ways in the worries of young adults – the fear that to follow God more deeply, they must lose the essence of who they are. They must give up the things that make them tick and instead conform to a life of Bible study, prayer and the odd good deed (basically a journey into the life of a church-robot!).
The Incarnation couldn’t paint a more radically different picture. As the true human, Jesus was both fully God and fully man. In the same way, the more godly we become, the more human we become. The only thing left behind is sin. Following Christ adds to and enriches our creative opportunities. Nowhere is this more beautifully displayed than with Mary. Both her presence and Jesus’ exist together – nothing about Mary is compromised or threatened. In a culture that craves authenticity but struggles to know where to find it, the incarnate Jesus assures us that we can be fully and wonderfully ourselves.
To return to the meaning behind Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics: you cannot be a passive participant in a revolution. As Jesus chose Incarnation, He later chose resurrection and ascension, declaring that we are now the carriers of His revolution. We are to join God’s invitation to seek restoration, subvert the ways in which our culture de-humanises, and live fully human lives. And the good news is that we know we are already on the winning side, and as kingdom-carriers, hope-bringers and culture-makers, we can echo Mary’s praises: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.
As Jesus chose Incarnation, He later chose resurrection and ascension, declaring that we are now the carriers of His revolution. We are to join God’s invitation to seek restoration, subvert the ways in which our culture de-humanises, and live fully human lives.
 Lloyd, M. (2005). ‘Incarnation’ in Café Theology: exploring love, the universe and everything.