In a media landscape that feels overwhelming both in its scope and negativity, it’s easy to see why something like The Great British Baking Show (which just launched its new season on Netflix) is appealing.
Food shows in general are the epitome of pleasant, escapist, non-cynical entertainment. In addition to being refreshingly apolitical and non-partisan (usually), these shows—Chopped, Chef’s Table, Parts Unknown, to name a few—acknowledge and celebrate the goodness of local culture. Each episode of Chef’s Table spends as much time on the place of the featured chef’s cultural context as it does the food itself. Each stop on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives takes special note of the city or state associated with the (greasy but delicious) food being spotlighted.
These shows shine when the encultured nature of food—its ties to a specific land, people, tradition—comes through. That’s why The Great British Baking Show is particularly good. It celebrates the specificity of culture in its very title. This is not just a baking show; it’s a British baking show.
In a globalized world where “culture” is ever more abstract, mass-produced, and detached from tangible people, places, and times, a show like this is quietly radical and worth cheering. It reminds us of something we are prone to forget in these days when our attention can so easily be drawn everywhere other than where we are: God puts us in specific places and cultures for a reason, and faithfulness in loving one’s neighbor begins there, in the local and proximate.
Delighting in a Culture’s Specificity
It can be easy in today’s social media world to be so inundated by the bits and pieces of news, updates, and glimpses of life around the world that we can feel like we know more than ever about “culture.” But it is often an impersonal, surface knowledge, not a deep understanding of any particular culture (and culture is always particular). It’s a vague and broad awareness that can keep us at arm’s length from truly knowing, appreciating, and loving anything in a specific way.
For Christians, this dynamic often translates to our relationship with the local church. The internet, Christian Twitter, meditation apps, podcasts, websites like TGC—these can all be helpful as part of our Christian lives. But they can also be unhelpful if they replace or take precedence over the local church. Without a solid rooting and deep embedding in a local church and specific Christian community, one’s faith can become chaotic and scatterbrained, abstract and untethered, tossed about by the all-over-the-place whims of whatever this or that website, tweet, or YouTube video declares. Far from a constricting burden, the local church is profound gift from God. It frees us by limiting us, situating us in a tangible place, with real people we can know and be known by, with real neighbors we can love and serve.
Far from a constricting burden, the local church is profound gift from God. It frees us by limiting us, situating us in a tangible place, with real people we can know and be known by, with real neighbors we can love and serve.
The beauty of the local is one of the great lessons of The Great British Baking Show (called The Great British Bake-Off in the UK). The show is delightfully, specifically, proudly British. The judges, the hosts, the contestants—most all of them are British, whether they sport Cockney, Geordie, or Liverpudlian accents. The setting is a big airy tent on the manicured grounds of a Downton Abbey-esque rural estate. “God Save the Queen” practically oozes from the TV as you watch. But the food itself is the most British thing about the show. Whether the bakers are concocting tea cakes or treacle puddings, Bakewell tarts or Battenburg cakes, a Bedfordshire clanger, or—in perhaps the most British thing ever baked—a Jane Austen-inspired, Earl Grey-infused steamed school pudding, it’s heartening to know there are still local food cultures that haven’t quite made it “across the pond.”
Healthy Culture Is Local
There is something beautiful and refreshing about the fact that the British bakers on the show know these foods, grew up on them, learned them in mum’s kitchen, and can whip them up with as much ease as your average American grandmother could concoct an apple pie. An American baker dropped into any given episode of The Great British Baking Show would be lost, and that’s a relief.
True, healthy culture—not the mass-marketed stuff of the “culture industries”—is local. It is specific. It grows out of its particularity in space and time. It is modest and satisfied with the givenness of its confines, more interested in preserving something locally good than pushing for it to become globally consumed.
Again, there are lessons here for Christians and churches. While the allures of “platform” are tempting, pastors should delight in and prioritize the proximate: the people, the context, the challenges of the local. Christians should challenge themselves to invest more in serving and growing in their local church community—uncomfortable as it might be—rather than engaging in pointless online feuds with faceless masses.
Healthy culture is modest and satisfied with the givenness of its confines, more interested in preserving something locally good than pushing for it to become globally consumed.
Patrick Deneen has recently written about how most of what passes as “culture” today is “profoundly presentist and placeless,” created and sold in a generic void with no respect for the natural limits, offerings, and demands of a specific place. A healthy culture, on the other hand, “takes into account local conditions (place)” and “intends to maintain fecundity over generations (time).”
Deneen says this sort of localized culture is ironically the kind that most translates and appeals across cultures. This paragraph sums up well why a show like The Great British Baking Show connects so much even with Yanks like me:
Culture takes into account local circumstances, often drawing sustenance and inspiration from facts of local geography and history. It passes memory down through generations via story and song, not the sort packaged in Hollywood or on Madison Avenue, but arising from voices in particular places. And as the word suggests, it is nearly always linked with “cult,” understanding the local to be bound to and ultimately an expression of the universal and eternal, the divine and sublime. Such practices give rise to the only real form of diversity, a variety of cultures that is multiple yet grounded in human truths that are transcultural and hence capable of being celebrated by many peoples.
Ironically, when culture is most modest and local it becomes most powerfully transcultural. It’s a mysterious truism of great art: the more specific it is, the more universally resonant it can be. It’s why films like Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, or The Rider can resonate with people of all backgrounds, even as they tell specific stories far from many audiences’ contexts. It’s why The Great British Baking Show is one of America’s most popular cooking shows.
Engage Cultures (Not ‘The Culture’)
Part of why “the culture” is so bankrupt today, so toxic and troublesome, is that we talk about it in terms of “the culture,” denying its specificity and perpetuating its consumeristic trajectory. Christians have been as guilty as anyone of this (myself included), taken as we are with pragmatic discourse about “engaging the culture.” But in so doing we abstract culture and make it a monolith. And monoliths cannot be “engaged,” let alone enjoyed.
As much as the internet (and particularly the decontextualized conveyer belt of social media) pulls us into the maelstrom of “the culture,” the reality is there are only cultures (plural). Each must be appreciated and understood in its own specificity and on its own terms—preferably with patience and some semblance of proximity.
As much as the internet pulls us into the maelstrom of ‘the culture,’ the reality is there are only cultures (plural). Each must be appreciated and understood in its own beautiful specificity and on its own terms.
It is not a bad thing that technology has made local cultures “global.” Technology allows people in California or Kansas to watch and celebrate shows about British baking. We now have access to documentaries and films about specific people and places all over the globe—stories we might not otherwise come across. The key is that we access these things not as ravenous consumers amassing exotic cultural artifacts, but as sincere appreciators eager to discover those authentic local cultures that, as Deneen says, express “the universal and eternal, the divine and sublime.”
Dignifying God’s Gift of Culture
For Christians, part of dignifying God’s gift of culture—the specific ways his image-bearers in different contexts make sense of the world—is by appreciating the specificity of it, celebrating things that (on the surface) are foreign to us or unrelatable. This may require a more intentional approach to culture than we are used to, but it is one way we love our neighbors and savor the spectrum of God’s diverse handiwork.
For Christians, part of dignifying God’s gift of culture is by appreciating the specificity of it, celebrating things that (on the surface) are foreign to us or unrelatable.
This may mean challenging ourselves to be okay reading subtitles, watching films with unknown actors, or straining to understand a Cockney accent and exactly what they mean when they talk about “biscuits,” “puddings,” “Eton Mess,” and “Genoise” versus “Victoria” sponge. It may mean expanding our palates to be open to daunting things like Banoffee pie and Cornish pasties; maybe even a Bedfordshire clanger.
But it will be worth it. Because when we take time to go deep with a particular culture, relishing and learning from its beautiful particularity, we not only dignify that culture/neighbor, but we remember to appreciate our own particularity too. When I watch The Great British Baking Show and enjoy its delightful Britishness, I also delight in the specificity of my own Southern California context (tacos and avocado, oranges and kale salad). I learn to love where God has placed me, to love others in their own places, and to love God more for the beautiful diversity of it all.