The Truce on Christmas

Oh I’m a Christian holiday; I’m a symbol of original sin.
I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and bow-tie on my chin!
Oh I’m a pagan heresy; I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy, with a lazy eye, and a penchant for sublime.
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy; I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.
For I make no full apology; for the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest; I’m a construct of your mind.

-Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn

Though an atheist, I still enjoy putting up Christmas decorations, and I’m not alone in that regard.

On my fireplace, a long plastic evergreen bough snakes between an Irish Santa Claus, a Polish Angel, and a sitting Buddha. To the right is my childhood Christmas teddy bear, wearing a red sleeping cap trimmed with white fur, and to the left are Christmas cards from friends and family. In my refrigerator, a turkey from some Muslim friends waits patiently for the tandoori treatment, while homemade peppermint ice cream slowly freezes below. On my Christmas tree, fragile glass ornaments from my wife’s family intermingle with clunky ceramic trinkets from my youth as well as those I’ve collected from my various skeptical and atheist organizations. Hanging behind it are stockings for our son, our two cats, and one that reminds children to fear the wrath of Krampus. Opposite the tannenbaum are a family of snowmen surrounding a menorah, driedel, and gelt. All are framed by glittering white lights that wash the entrance to my house with a warm glow, echoed by seasonal candles in every window.

I think Tertullian would approve:

“Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.”

-Tertullian of Carthage, “On Idolatry”

No surprise then, to find out that this patristic Grinch didn’t celebrate Christmas. Indeed, it wasn’t even until the end of the Fourth Century that St. John Chrysostom in Antioch sought to make the 25th of December the official day to recognize Christ’s birth. A day which, as it happened, also celebrated the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Natalis Solis Invictus), though Chrysostom dismissed the coincidence: “But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

Thus the early Christian fathers snubbed the original “reason for the season,” namely axial tilt.

Cultures the world over, and throughout human history, have celebrated the annual death and rebirth of the sun, typically with feasting, lights, decorations, and singing. These serve a practical purpose as well as symbolic; the solstice is the darkest of the dark days of winter, when good cheer is at a premium; also heralding the beginning of the coldest months of the year, during which extra livestock become a liability. At this time, the beasts are slaughtered, the new wine is drunk, and the candles are lit while all engage in revelry.

“The delusion you’re trying to cure is called ‘Christmas,’ Duncan. It’s the crazy notion that the longest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens. It becomes true. Works every year, like clockwork.”

-Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

In many ways, the history of Christmas is the history of Christianity itself. As the Western and Eastern churches solidified their power and influence over Eurasia, Christmas adapted itself to the particular cultural mores of each society. The Catholic bishop of a minor Turkish town, whose only notable career achievement was being present during the routing of Arianism during the Council of Nicaea, inexplicably spawned a tradition of gift-giving among the children of Germanic people who lived a thousand miles away. Though the precise origins of this practice are lost to the mists of history, the myth has clearly eclipsed the man.

Saint Nicholas, usually with an unsavory helper (such as the demonic Krampus in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands), settled into the well-worn route first used by the perennial visits of Odin during the midwinter festival of Yule. With Nick and friends were blended other traditions, such as the blood-sacrificing Wrenboys among the Celts, the harvest-celebrating Wassailers among the British, and the life-affirming Mistletoe throughout Northern Europe. Thus did Holy Mother Church pacify the newly-baptized heathens, by recontextualizing their idiosyncrasies within the ever-expanding boundaries of orthodoxy.

Undoubtedly, it was this Catholic indulgence of paganism that gave the Reformers absolute fits about the holiday. Martin Luther evicted the papish Nicholas and conscripted the Christ-Child himself to distribute holiday presents, and John Calvin (though he personally found moderate Christmas celebrations acceptable) through his theology influenced the Calvinist Reformers to abolish the holiday in Geneva in the 16th century, as well as in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

“…holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”

-Church of Scotland, “First Book of Discipline (1560)

This theology emigrated to the United States with the British Puritans, and though they could not always ban festivities, made it reasonably clear that European-style revelry was not welcome in the New World. As Cotton Mather suggested (when speaking of not celebrating Christmas), “Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it…” Indeed, the traditional American Christmas was in danger of being stillborn, were it not for the “Knickerbockers,” a literary circle that included Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Clement Clarke Moore. The former was the author of much of America’s early mythology, and reimagined the rowdy English customs of yore as quaint, cozy, and centered on the family. The latter is best known as the poet responsible for the 1822 verse “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), which reoriented the European figure for an American audience.

It was just this gift-giving character that thrilled Yankee merchants eager to sell toys and other trinkets to parents who were increasingly becoming softer in their child-rearing. Thus this refocus on the commercial aspects of the holiday season also depended on the emphasis of familial connection, both of which persist to modern day. Between Thomas Nast and the Coca-Cola Company, the standardization of the Santa Claus imagery and costume by the beginning of the 20th century had become an internationally-recognized signal of the season. From there, it was really only a matter of time before Kris Kringle replaced the Kristkindle as the primary representative of the holiday, along with the department store endorsements, coruscating displays of excess, and pink aluminum Christmas trees that lead many to recoil from the season’s consumerism (though Libanius noted similar excess regarding Saturnalia/Kalends in the fourth century).

“I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

-Charlie Brown, “A Charlie Brown Christmas

As a boy, one of my earliest memories of the holiday is of the Ku Klux Klan seeking to and succeeding in placing a cross on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, in competition with a menorah that had been erected to recognize the Jewish solstice festival of Hanukkah. Although the specific ramifications of the First Amendment to the Constitution were beyond my grasp at the time, I do recall understanding that, at least within a public space, even if one doesn’t like the message being presented, fair is fair.

Which is a concept seemingly inaccessible to the likes of Bill O’Reilly and his co-combatants in the War on Christmas:

Though his protestations and presumptions are likely to send atheists and Christians alike into apoplexy, O’Reilly voices the oft-irrational concerns of the common American: in this case, that the godless heathens are coming to take our Christmas trees away. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. What the long-suffering President of American Atheists (and, I daresay, most of the infidel contingent he represents) would like to see is for the holiday to resign from its government position, and instead to spend its time exclusively in the private sector. And certainly, when it comes to overtly religious displays (like a nativity scene or an angel or a cross) on public property, I think Silverman is justified in his push for state neutrality.

But I’m willing to consider a truce at this point.

In part because I love Christmas so much, in part because squabbling over the public square diminishes my enjoyment of the season, and in part because I think the holiday has already outgrown its religious heritage, especially here in America. Here’s what I propose: Christmas shall henceforth be treated as a secular holiday open to the interpretation and enjoyment of all. Christians are welcome to revel in the theological implications of the day’s symbolism, while atheists and others may pick and choose those aspects of the day which resonate with their own particular values. The Christmas tree in the square will be a malleable and inclusive symbol, able to support the weight of Magi, Menorahs, and Mohammed, as well as any other marginalized culture that would appreciate a little bit of cheer in the darkness of winter (including we joyless atheists).

Black night behind the tamarisks—the owls begin their chorus—
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors—let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if “faint and forced the laughter,” and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

-Rudyard Kipling, “Christmas in India

Is such a truce possible? Would it hold? I think so, and I think that many of us have already negotiated something similar with our own consciences. After all, if anything has been demonstrated over the past couple centuries in America, it’s that Christmas is a major part of our culture, and it has been able to adjust to the demands of a changing history. I think it can handle a few atheist decorations on the branch.

Christians and Homosexuality—Part II

Historically, Christians have lost in the public arena. That is how it all began, in fact, with the greatest loss, the death of Jesus of Nazareth. His policies were not forced or voted upon to be implemented. He did not rally like-minded people for His cause. He gave up, lost, humbled himself. He loved while still proclaiming his message.

What would it cost a Christian to love without pretense? We hear of our offenses against those whom we invited to this or that social function if only to “witness” to them. Our message is so great we belie its patience and humility through our forced “boiling down” of the message and trickery. What if we gave up this battle against homosexual unions? What would it really cost us?

We tire of “the left” preaching tolerance when it seems to have tolerance only with its like-minded constituents, which is agreement, not tolerance. Yet we pretend to accept everyone with our gospel message while declaring war on them. Are we afraid that we don’t possess enough love? That God can’t love people despite their sin? Are we so sin-free that complete repentance is demanded of everyone else before we will give them an opportunity?

I want to take things a step further. What do we lose even if homosexuality is merely a preference? What battle are we really fighting? When did the gospel—allegedly our greatest responsibility—take a backseat to the issue of American citizens’ rights to homosexual civil unions? I ask because I don’t see the stand against intoxication, which is already legal. I don’t see the stand against obesity, which is already legal.

The point is not to give up and allow anything and everything. The point is to pick our battles against the right things. We are battling sin; not homosexuals. How much greater would our message of hope and love be if we conceded all the ground we feel entitled to in order to present a humble, weakened, compassionate, understanding Gospel? What impact has the gospel had in our lives that we attribute to Jesus campaigning and dividing the country on political issues? None—we proclaim his humility, his love, his willingness to die with the sinners and become one himself.

Can we still point sinful people toward the gospel? I certainly hope so. The world is sick and Jesus is its healer. Sinful people need to be pointed toward Jesus. We don’t need any more people being pointed toward homosexuals and pretending they are the enemy. We don’t need any more bad logic that says allowing homosexual unions means not preaching truthfully about sin. Do we really need to identify everyone’s individual sins before we can feel good about preaching the gospel? We are all born into sin, into a broken system. Suppose you do “fix” that gay girl or guy, what about their pride? What about their lust? What about their anger? What about their idolatry? What about their greed? Do you also need to beat them over the head about those things? Or can you stand firm in the truth of the Gospel that all are under the power of sin and all need freedom from it?

Picture this: you support homosexual unions and can tell a gay couple that you fought for their civil rights because you believe in their humanity and dignity as such; not as trickery or a “foot in the door,” but as a true display of humble love. You then let them know that you have tried to love as Jesus did, by humbling yourself even where you weren’t sure or disagreed; not to add another church-goer but because such a message of love ought to be proclaimed. You refused to dehumanize them because you love them. That is tolerance. You might have been sure that homosexual activity was sinful, but how sure were you that you needed to oppose it like you did? How sure were you that it was “the” issue it has become? How sure were you that you spent as much time sharing the gospel or sending money to impoverished people?

How much time did Jesus spend condemning people and fighting against their public rights?

How much time did Jesus spend welcoming outcasts, feeding the hungry, proclaiming hope despite sinfulness?

Christians and Homosexuality—Part I

I say “Christians and Homosexuality” instead of “Christianity and Homosexuality” or “Christ and Homosexuality” because I cannot speak on behalf of the latter two with any real confidence. I can suppose, derive, conclude, and assume; but none of those things would prove official enough. I can, however, speak on behalf of myself—a Christian—as well as on behalf of those Christians with whom I have spoken. Perhaps “Some” should go at the front of the title, but I’d like to retain enough gravity without the presumption.

Talking Past One Another

Christians who understand homosexuality as a personal preference do not understand why such a thing should carry so much weight. Of all the personal preferences humans have, why should this one make the headlines, alter legislature, or assume civil rights status?

Others, including some Christians, who understand homosexuality as equal to race or color do not understand why opponents would cite an ancient text in defense of limiting the civil rights of a group of human beings.

Do you see where we talk past one another? Both sides have a responsibility that each too infrequently assumes.

For Christians opposed to homosexual practice (as opposed to attraction without practice only) there needs to be a realization that, throughout its history, Christianity has been willing to bend and flex with science without risking biblical authority. With six years of formal exegetical training under my belt, I am fully aware of the limits within which the exegete must work. In other words, the Bible can only say so much and we can only make so much room for interpretation before we run out of textual warrant for the various interpretations we make. This does not mean that anything goes, or that anything is possible, nor that we cannot be fairly firm in our convictions about what the Bible teaches. It does mean, however, that we cannot be as reactionary. If patience is a fruit of the Spirit, our public presence should reflect that. If we are truly confident that God’s authority is behind the Bible, then we need not worry.

We need to decide what is really at stake in this discussion. I have yet to hear of such phobia, anger, outrage, and push for legislation over divorce—an infinitely more devastating problem than homosexuality could ever pose to traditional marriage. Two gay guys getting married has absolutely nothing to do with the sanctity of my marriage. It just doesn’t. Me not loving my wife like Christ loves the church? Me feeding sexual urges outside of my marriage? Where are the picketers for that? Where’s the presidential statement against that? Until I see people lined up outside of court houses protesting another divorce between two church-goers, I’ll not take seriously anyone’s “defense” of the sanctity of marriage or arguments against homosexual unions outside of those same court houses.

For others, including some Christians, defending homosexuality as a civil rights issue, please exercise patience and good judgment and take the time to actually explain things. Emotional outbursts and marches and parades certainly bring awareness and have their place; but they seldom teach anything to anyone who doesn’t already support the cause. They serve as public debates wherein the opposition hears no real argument and is given no opportunity to offer a real rebuttal. I know countless Christians, including myself, who are all-ears on this issue, waiting for good reason to overturn what was nearly universal opinion until relatively recently—that homosexuality was a merely a preference. Why? Because we strive to be people marked by love. Jesus was infinitely patient with the social outcasts of His day and we want to be just like Jesus. He also stood for things. Many things. So, we will stand where we need to while still being loving.

Christians are not bigots or homophobes for trying to be faithful to the God of the universe. If you believe that such a god exists, and act in accordance with what you think that god expects, then you are acting consistently as well as intelligently. No, really, if you think a god is “out there” and its opinion is the ultimate one and that there are consequences for siding against that god, anyone expecting you to be hypocritical about that is a fool. Granted, being faithful to God often takes forms that are anything but faithful and indeed bring shame and disgrace to the name of Jesus. But on what planet could you really lump together Billy Graham and the hateful punks of that “church” in Kansas?

That said, the argument against limiting freedom to a group of people because of their sexuality is a solid one, if indeed that sexuality is not a simple preference. If it is a simple preference, like ice cream or shoes, then it does not deserve the impact it’s having. If it does, then NAMBLA actually has a point (God forbid.) But be more proactive in educating people about the issue. Do you have solid scientific evidence that supports your view? Great! Then act consistently within the worldview to which you adhere and present your case on your terms. Holding on to what you know to be solid evidence while expecting others to bend to your emotional whims is not only irrational but ineffective. There are many who will listen, but not to nonsensical ravings. The Christian worldview has quite a history of being compatible with various philosophical systems, scientific theories, and sociological data. What would a truly “humanist” worldview look like if it promoted true tolerance and found solutions for bringing the myriad facets of humanity under one umbrella without the destructive hand-waving anger of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens? Anyone can be angry and exclude others; but true peacemakers appreciate the mess for what it is and work to bring the messy into the fold of the allegedly neat, which is what Jesus did.

In conclusion, each side talks past the other and both are too seldom willing to sit and listen, to actually consider the other viewpoints and maybe give a little ground here and there. Are we so committed to the “grey” areas that the only means of arriving there are “black-and-white” battles? And what if the evidence points the other way, for either side? Will that side be willing to admit a mistake? If you’re reading this and are already convinced that homosexuality is not a preference, that this is a civil rights issue, that Christians not on your side are dead wrong, how willing are you to back down if the evidence points the other way? Are you hanging your hat on evidence or on something else? As a Christian who believes in the authority of the God who somehow inspired the original words of Scripture, I’m willing to let some things go. I’m willing to admit wrong and to let God be God where I cannot be. I’m willing to let two gay guys have a wedding and get tax breaks and visit each other in the hospital. But don’t expect me to simply take your word for things, and I won’t expect you to believe the things I do.

National Day of Prayer & Reason

All Christians are aware of and participate in the National Day of Prayer, right? Not really. For the younger and saucier amongst us, the word “National” does not sit very well. Add to that the identification with certain ministries and ministry leaders and we start reaching for the Pepto.

Before this year I had only a vague idea of what the National Day of Prayer was. In high school some students met once per year for “See You at the Pole,” which signifies a National Day of Prayer for students. In case you are unfamiliar with this event, it plays out like it sounds: students meet around their school’s flagpole every fourth Wednesday in September and pray. I don’t know what they pray for but I’m assuming they pray for pretty epic stuff on a day like that.

Given the titles of these events, complete with patriotic hash-tags like “National” and “Flagpole,” the clear intention for the praying participants is identification with our nation’s religious heritage in a way that supposedly reinforces that identification for those who are unaware or skeptical. I used “religious” on purpose because we are not a “Christian” nation. If we were, then the founder of our religion—Jesus Christ—is glaringly absent from our documents. Furthermore, the pitiful “understood” connection between being a “true Christian” and a Republican renders interdenominational agreement (not to mention evangelism) impossible. Lastly, we take for granted a vague “majority” that occasional polls seem to support, when in reality different samplings could demonstrate the opposite case that the majority are not Christian in any solid sense of the word.

The call for unity amongst the vast, incoherent amalgamation of widely differing viewpoints is respectable, but also naïve. It’s the outside-of-church equivalent to showing up only on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday; it’s nice and we all look like we have it together, but the rest of the time consists of in-fighting and slandering of those to whom we allegedly feel a strong bond. Anyone can force the kids together for just one nice picture at Thanksgiving, but that snapshot fools only those who are unaware of the turmoil. Or who don’t know what siblings are.

Too often we say to one another, “All we can do is pray.” This sounds fishy to me. All we can do? If we are indeed praying to a God who sees, knows, loves, and acts, and if our prayers have some kind of effect on that God, then our first inclination should be to pray. This is akin to someone saying, “All I can do to counter the snake venom in your leg is give you the antidote. But I think first we should put some band-aids on there.” We must take action when we need to; but prayer and action are not mutually exclusive. We can pray and do something. Prayer is indeed a mysterious thing and we do not know how exactly it affects God nor what kind of answer we can expect from prayer. But we do know that we are commanded to love. It’s right there in our Bibles, regardless of translation or version.

Instead of calling attention to ourselves and only reminding the rest of the nonreligious country why we are so annoying and sound so self-righteous, let’s do what Jesus said and not pray in the open for everyone to see (Mt. 6.5–6). Meanwhile—while we are praying—let’s do that other thing Jesus said and love people, hang out with “sinners” (Mk. 2.15–17) and be “a light” (Mt. 5.13–16.) If we work on those things, a National Day of Prayer might actually make some sense outside of our bubbles.

 

The National Day of Reason

The “National Day of Reason” exists for the sole purpose of tweaking the collective noses of those who promote the “National Day of Prayer,” namely Shirley Dobson and her husband’s supporters in the Christian Right. Or so it might seem to some.

But I like to think of it as closing the gap of inclusiveness that the National Day of Prayer obviously sought to bridge, despite its origins in the reflexive religiosity of the 1950’s. Look, I know that American isn’t a Christian nation, but there’s a hell of a lot of them here. Appealing to the spiritual ties that bind help bring everyone together, and that makes good psychological sense as well. But the National Day of Reason picks up where Prayer leaves off, and includes everyone, not just religious Americans, in a day that encourages reflective contemplation about solutions for our country’s woes.

Representative Pete Stark, the only acknowledged atheist (technically a nontheistic Unitarian) in Federal government, issued a proclamation of the National Day of Reason on the floor of Congress. He said:

“…reason must be the guiding principle of our democracy. In a nation of citizens from so many different backgrounds and beliefs, the only way we can solve our problems is through cultivating intelligent, moral, and ethical interactions among all people.”

This is a crucial point. Appealing to reason isn’t necessarily a condemnation of religion or those who have faith in the supernatural. Reason is accessible to all, no matter what their cultural heritage, and no matter what gods they worship. It isn’t the domain or prerogative of any group of people, and I hope that when we come together as a country, we can use it as a common ground to seek and craft real solutions.