5 min read

Barbie’s rift in the universe is no doll play

How to heal it at Lent, with some help from AA too.

Julie connects Christian spirituality with ordinary life in Wenatchee, Washington State, where she teaches and writes.

Barbie stands on a balcony and waves while looking out over her city.
Barbie in Barbieland.
Warner Bros.

The Barbie movie opens with Stereotypical Barbie having a Perfect Day in Barbieland – until she has an intrusive thought about death. Everything screeches to a halt (even the music). This intrusive thought is about to ruin everything for Barbie, unless she can restore the rift in the universe (and the now resulting threat of cellulite) that it caused.  

Christians begin one of their most sacred seasons precisely here: facing thoughts of death. Refusing to name them as “intrusive” but instead acknowledging them, blessing them, and signing peoples’ foreheads with ashes as a reminder that they too will die. On Ash Wednesday, the worldwide church doesn’t rush forward to soothe this fear and move on to happier thoughts, but rather turns to face it and make the facing of it sacred. Annually, again and again. Barbie’s rift in the universe is no doll play. 

We create our own trances not only with alcohol, but with culturally acceptable addictions like obsessive thinking, performance hits, binge-watching, TikTok scrolling.

The earliest Christians began their anticipation of Easter by taking time to fast during the 40-hour lead-up to the day, knowing the psychology of short-term deprivation for long-term transformation. They wanted to anticipate the day of their spiritual liberation (Easter) from fear and death, with not only their minds but also their bodies. It was a fully integrated longing. (What is easier to feel – a hunger in one’s soul or body?) They knew the role of their body in their spirituality and discovered that often the body helped the transformation of their hearts. By the fourth century, these culturally specific fasts for Easter merged into a international consensus of forty days. Forty days which began with ... meditations on death. Lent begins by facing our intrusive thoughts of death – the rift not only in the universe, but in each of our souls as we pursue death in one thousand little ways daily. Things which, using the language of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Steps, we have become powerless to control. We create our own trances not only with alcohol, but with culturally acceptable addictions like obsessive thinking, performance hits, binge-watching, TikTok scrolling. None of us enjoy facing reality.  

And while freedom is at the top of our cultural priorities, for many of us it is not external things that limit our true freedom, but things internal to ourselves 

As Richard Rohr tells us, the old-fashioned language for addiction is “sin” – something we can’t seem to resist, change, and which perpetually has us in undertow. All of us, to an extent, are in the grip of some addiction, some thing we cannot change and that we continually choose to our own (and our deepest relationships’) destruction. Death and sin have always been held together in biblical poetry, because in many ways they are the same. We are all held in their grip. 

One of the most freeing things in AA is coming face to face with one’s powerlessness over addiction, to finally stop running from it. Step 1 says “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” But of course, there are other things we do to numb our pain. AA’s Twenty Questions regarding alcohol are a wonderful tool for diagnosing that neurotic thing lurking in the back of your mind as you read this article, and don’t want to face. Just fill in the blank: 

Has ____ ever damaged your primary relationships? 

Has ____ ever interfered with your work life? 

Do you ever ____ alone? 

For an alcoholic, the answers are easy: alcohol/alcohol/drink. But what about more socially acceptable numbing techniques: what about over-analysis? (Has thinking ever damaged your primary relationships – or interfered with your sleeping?) What about workaholism or an addiction to success? (Has an obsession with success ever damaged your primary relationships? Do you overwork to escape from worries or to build up your self-confidence?) Is there is something you do obsessively to relieve your anxiety, and is not working for you or those in your intimate sphere? Lent is the church’s annual invitation to take this obsession seriously, to stop making excuses, and to put yourself in an enforced recovery group with a bunch of other addicts for 40 days. Lent is not about restriction for its own sake, but freedom.  

Of course, you can just fast for 40 days to see if you can do it. You can do a “dry March” instead of a “dry January.” You can limit your screen time. Everyone knows the wisdom in these. But Lent is a call to the deeper freedom that these restrictions are for. Every spiritual tradition knows that without restriction, there can be no true freedom. (Every athlete knows this as well. Every musician. Every artist). And while freedom is at the top of our cultural priorities, for many of us it is not external things that limit our true freedom, but things internal to ourselves. Our freedom is not jeopardized by politics to the left or the right, but by the person looking at us in the mirror.  

To have our deepest hungers met, we have to clear away space. It is not a white-knuckling stunt.

Think of a time when you were in touch with your sense of being alive. Think of the feeling you have when watching a sunset. Or receiving the pure affection of a child. Think of that sense of happy satisfaction when you have just completed an unhurried project. Or a leisurely meal with friends. Or getting lost in a piece of music. Remember how experiences like this make you feel, and the feeling of being grounded and close to your true center.  

Now think of a time when you were cut off from your center but felt powerful – when you were able to get in the last word in a fight. Earned the top score. Rationalized why you were right. Were admired. Successful. Think of how different the energy is behind the first feeling and the second. Many traditions would associate the latter with the false self. The addicted self. The sub-self.  

Lent is about discerning each. Lent must be guided by our memory of freedom, as well as an awareness of what is keeping us from it. It is choosing a temporary restriction for the sake of being connected to our center, where God our Source is waiting for us. In the words of a famous addict from the fourth century, Augustine, “I was searching for you outside of me, but you were within me!”  

Another word for restriction is surrender  – letting go, embracing limits. (And as the Twelve Steppers know, whatever you let go of has claw marks on it). To have our deepest hungers met, we have to clear away space. It is not a white-knuckling stunt. Nor is it baptizing our culture’s fetish with weight loss or iron-man self-control. Lent helps us remember what it felt like when we felt absolutely alive, and to take clear steps towards recovering this sense. We might just find God waiting for us at our center when we do.  


6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.