On cookies and kindness

I really enjoy watching the “The Great British Baking Show,” but at first I couldn’t quite say why. I could only testify that somehow it made me feel better — that it was comforting to take a break from worrying about pandemic-related things and instead fret with the contestant bakers about whether their cakes were done or their gingerbread had enough “snap.”

I soon discovered that I wasn’t the only one who loved the show. Every time it came up in conversation, people I assumed would scoff at the idea of sitting around watching people bake surprised me by making proclamations such as, “Oh, that show is the best!”

Each season begins with 12 bakers gathered together under a tented, open kitchen located in the countryside. Their number is whittled down week by week as their “bakes” are evaluated by two judges. The bakers seem to all reside in the U.K., but are fairly diverse, representing different ethnicities, ages, genders and sexual preferences. Contestants aspire not only to make it through till the end and win, but to be named ”Star Baker” on individual weeks along the way.

So, you might be thinking: What’s so captivating about this? It’s just a contest, with winners and losers, like so many others. What makes it “great”?

“They are just so kind to each other,” fans of the show tell me, over and over, when I ask. “They help each other even though they are competing,” they say. “They are genuinely sad for each other when something goes wrong and happy for them when their bake goes well.” Watching the show, I see that this is true. One baker stops doing his own work long enough to help his competitor calm down and remember that she does know how to make pastry cream; another pauses to congratulate her competitor on his stunningly decorated cake. It’s as though they’ve just read Romans 12 and are trying to act the way Paul says Christian communities should act: rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep, honoring all and helping even one’s enemies.

I suspect people like the show because it gives them a glimpse of what human communities can look like, but too often don’t look like, these days. We are so cutthroat in American culture. So divided. So willing to disparage others to get our way, gain more power, secure another vote or win the contest. The baking show reminds us that the truest wins in life are not achieved when we are over and against others, but when we are with and for them, and they with us.

What binds the contestants together is their shared story. Without all those weekends together under that hot tent, covered with flour and vulnerably trying to create side by side, there would be no community. If everyone baked their cakes at home, showered and rushed over to the studio to have them judged, there would be story swapping but no story sharing — no real participation in the stuff of each other’s lives.

Certainly, we need both to listen to each other’s stories and to tell our own stories well. But if we want to depolarize our world, we also need to figure out how to participate in each other’s stories. Are we willing to share our life spaces (e.g., baking, worshipping, working) with those whose stories we do not yet share? Are we open to the new understandings that will come when others find themselves in our stories and we find ourselves in theirs? Are we courageous enough to develop common stories that can serve as scaffolding for deepening friendships and sharing life? If so, let’s get to it. As they famously begin every baking show: “On your mark, get set … bake!”

Cynthia Rigby

Cynthia L. Rigby is professor of theology at Austin Theological Seminary in Texas.