The Santa Problem

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Santa and Jesus: the solstice season’s chicken-and-egg.

A pastor friend of mine recently shared his thoughts on the so-called “Santa Problem” with his congregation. Some of the faithful, he noted, had expressed some concern about the inclusion of Santa Claus in their Christian Christmas celebration, and wanted to know his opinion of the matter. Many Christians, he said, see the problem as having either one of two possible solutions: either embracing the Santa story completely and encouraging their children to believe in his existence, or completely shutting their family away from the Claus myth cycle and focusing only on the Nativity. Ultimately, he noted that his family uses a compromise position between the two, where their children are taught about Santa Claus as a fictional character, to be categorized along with Cinderella.

He was amused when I told him that a similar question was rampant within the atheist community, but for a much different reason. Where Christians were concerned with Santa overshadowing or even replacing the importance of Jesus’ birth during the Christmas season, many atheists tended to view the Santa myth as being harmful given its supernatural qualities, as well as problematic from the fact of telling a false story to children. However, other atheists like Dale McGowan see the Santa story as an excellent opportunity to teach children about skepticism and critical thinking. “Do you think it’s possible to visit every house in the world in one night?” they ask their kids. “How is it possible for a reindeer to fly?”

I agree with both my pastor friend, as well as Dale. Santa Claus as we know him today is both a fictional literary creation, as well as an object lesson in the value of critical thinking. And yet even as an atheist, I feel that Jesus and the Nativity story should be included in my family’s celebration of the holiday for the very same reason. For both Jesus and Santa have much in common, and have followed similar paths throughout history.

Obscure Historical Origins

Both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ have appellations in modern culture that are far removed from any kind of historical reality. “Santa Claus” as many people know, is an Anglicized version of the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” which itself is derived from “Saint Nicholas.” Likewise, “Jesus Christ” comes to us as name “Yeshua,” filtered through Greek, Latin, and English, combined with the Anglicized version of the Greek title “Christos” meaning “annointed.” The reliable historical information that we have for both come only through devotional sources, with little more than a name and a spatio-temporal location to anchor them in history. For St. Nicholas, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that he lived in the Fourth Century in Myra (modern-day Turkey), where he was a bishop in the early Catholic Church. Any more beyond that (including his presence at the Council of Nicea) is pseudo-historical speculation or pure legend. Similarly, the minimal historical certainty with regard to Jesus places him in Palestine in the First Century (although that could even be disputed).

Miracle Claims

The legendarium associated with St. Nicholas is wide, and several tales vie with Jesus’ miracles in terms of quality and quantity. In one such story, the city of Myra was in the midst of a terrible famine, during which a ship entered port with great quantities of grain, bound for the Roman Emperor in Constantinople. Nicholas is said to have asked the ship’s captain to donate a portion of his cargo to the city in its hour of need, but the captain did not want to risk the wrath of Constantine. When Nicholas promised him that he would not suffer adverse consequences as a result of their aid, the captain relented. Miraculously, when the ship made its final delivery in the capital, the missing weight had been restored, and the donated grain was sufficient to last the citizens of Myra for two years. In another such story, Nicholas happened upon a village suffering economic hardship and famine; the local butcher had enticed three boys into his shop, where he killed them and chopped them into pieces to sell as animal meat. Though the butcher tried to hide his misdeed from the Saint, Nicholas saw through to the truth, and resurrected the boys out of the barrels in which their bodies had been stored. Of course, the modern Santa myths imbue him with all sorts of magical powers that one might also find associated with Jesus, such as the ability to pass unhindered into closed rooms, the ability to transcend physical restrictions on travel, and the ability to discern a person’s internal thoughts.

Moral Authority

“You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry,” goes the song. And indeed, the value of Santa Claus as a moral authority seems to have given him significant influence over the centuries. After all, any parent knows that the power to give a gift is reflected in the power to withhold it as well, and parents from medieval to modern times have threatened their children with Santa’s poor graces in response to poor behavior. In the Germanic countries, the moral component of Santa Claus is made explicit, as the figure is divided in two, one benevolent and the other malevolent. The traditional “Bad Santas” take many forms, from the human Belsnickel to the demonic Krampus. Each version reinforces the importance of good and moral behavior. In Protestant Germany, the overlap between Santa and Jesus was so clear (and anti-Catholic sentiment was so high) that the Christ-child himself (in German, kristkindle) stepped in to take over duties for the papish figure of St. Nicholas. In America, both Jesus and Santa are combined as one, as our version of the Santa myth gives him the birth name of “Kris Kringle” (derived from kristkindle).

Pagan Parallels

The pagan influence on the stories told about Jesus are under robust debate among theologians and historians, although it cannot be disputed that there are parallel figures in the preceding pagan culture (Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysus), as well as among contemporary tales (Apollonius of Tyana, Honi the Circle-Drawer, Pythagoras). Likewise, although it may not be clear precisely how one influeced the other, there is a clear pagan parallel for Santa Claus in the midwinter visitation of Odin, one of the chief gods of the Norse myth cycle. Though prominent largely due to his role as a warrior, hunter, and master of wisdom, Odin was also said to wander among the mortals in the guise of an old man with a long white beard, cloak, and an eight-footed steed (cross-reference the “eight tiny reindeer” of the modern version of the Santa myth). Odin was said to visit and bring gifts during the midwinter festival of Yule, which even now is made equivalent to our modern Christmas season, and from which we derive the Yule log, feasting and merriment, and remembrance of deceased family members.

Modern Commercialism

Both Jesus and Santa have been affected by the influences of the modern commercial culture. Indeed, as American society grew increasingly secular throughout the 20th century, Christian products and services expanded into a new niche market which has only become more pronounced. Christian bookstores, coffee shops, and clothiers are but a sampling of the ways in which Jesus is both salesman and product. Likewise, the warm embrace of Christmas as a holiday centered on gift-giving personified by the ultimate gift-giver has given us a Santa Claus who now is the star of his own films, television programs, books, and video games, but whose image is put into service to market these and all other products to consumers during the lead-up to the Christmas season. Whereas in his past incarnations, Santa reflected a desire of parents to reward their children for good behavior, he now bestows manufactured goodness on the naughty and nice with equal fervor; to do otherwise would be bad for business.

In the end, of course, Jesus is Jesus and Santa is Santa. But I think that the lessons we learn as we critically examine one can be used to help us better understand the other. And so in my house, at least, both figures are welcome; Christmas is a holiday big enough for all.

The Missing Reason

The other day I ran across a guest-posted article by Linda Kardamis over at Bill Blankshaen’s “Faith Walkers” blog: “Why Do Kids From Good Families Walk Away From The Faith?

In her article, Linda bemoans the steady exodus of Christian teens from the American Church, especially those whose spiritual fortunes seemed so promising, given their privilege of having “good” families and churches to raise them properly and support their spiritual development with Biblical teachings.

As an explanation for this failure, Linda suggests the following reasons:

1. The faith they see isn’t real.

2. They don’t develop their own relationship with God.

3. They get a distorted view of Christianity.

4. They aren’t properly discipled.

5. They fall into the trap of the slow fade.

But as someone who was a Christian teen in a “good family,” I can say that the problem was none of the above. Although there were (and continue to be) many examples of Christian hypocrisy, I saw none in my family, my pastors, or in anyone influential in my faith community. I had what I thought was a great relationship with God, a personal investment in my own faith, and an intellectual grasp of the scriptures. My upbringing was conservative, but not restrictive or fundamentalist in a way that felt constraining or limiting of one aspect of the Gospel. I surrounded myself with strong Christian leaders and willingly took on discipleship, far more than I could see my peers doing. And yet I walked away.

Why? It’s because the missing reason above, the missing #6, is that for many Christian teens, “They learn that Christianity isn’t necessarily the best answer.” I studied the scriptures regularly, and I began to notice the inconsistencies, the verses that aren’t taught from the pulpit and certainly not in Sunday School. I began comparing the Christian scriptures with other sacred texts, and the inescapable conclusion for me (as well as dozens of my peers) is that it is at best a human work, fallible and flawed, containing great goodness and great evil, both wisdom and banality. As long as Christians aren’t willing to admit that one of the reasons that the youth are abandoning the faith is that the faith isn’t good enough, they will never fully understand the phenomenon of apostasy.

After the Advent

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“So come down from your mountain and stand where we’ve been

You know our breath is weak and our body thin.”

–Mumford and Sons, “Babel”

The Advent

Even if not embraced as historical event—the abdication of the ultimate power; the willing subjection of the self to conquer evil in a way that creates love—the Advent provides a sublime picture of the response to what ails us.

I’m stopped at a Buc-ee’s near Austin on my way to an early Christmas celebration with family in San Antonio. My wife is inside grabbing consumable essentials. I’m on my phone checking the Facebook news feed for social consumables. My chest tightens and my brain begins the long division that deciphers unimaginable atrocities through my wavering theological filter when I read that a town I had never heard of has experienced a pain I hope to always avoid. I latch onto the idea that children have been gunned down. My toddler is asleep in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the horror glowing from my screen. When I hear about things like this, my reaction is, Really, God? Selfishly, I don’t immediately pray for survivors, for friends, for neighbors, for those who have suffered inexplicable loss. I immediately pray for what I feel I’m losing in those times—my faith. And then it starts. I check the back seat again. My boy is safe. I had better park closer to the building. Probably need to face the storefront. I need to go to the bathroom so I’ll pull right up to the door, then when my wife gets in I’ll lock her and my son inside the car and set the alarm. I wish the key fob had some kind of alert on it. I’ll have my phone and she’ll have hers. God, please don’t let anything happen to them while I’m in the Buc-ee’s bathroom. It hits me: in order to pray, I need to trust the God I don’t trust right now. This terrible tension robs me of joy and of hope. God, please protect my family. Did those families pray the same thing that morning? Why did you not protect them? Are you able? Are you indifferent? How can I trust that this prayer will reach attentive ears? That it will reach willing ears? That my prayer makes any kind of difference to the God that watched this from afar? 

He came down from his mountain and stood where we’ve been. He embodied youthful innocence cut down by insanity. His family and friends shook and sat devastated at the news. His story was not over. And neither is the story of Newtown. Nor the story of our broken world, replete with Newtownian physics. Our answer to the tragedy is love. It provides no “answer”—no satisfying logical conclusion, no scientific demonstration, no psychological evaluation, no retribution. It provides the direction, the power to move forward, the plan for continuing to create our world anew. Love moves into the destructive present and quells its acidic drip into weakened hearts. It promises to carry on and stand as the balm for roughened skins. Love moves into the disorder. Love takes steps, makes progress, comforts, and provides. It goes. It runs. The significance of the advent does not stand or fall with its historicity. I am not promoting demythologization here; if historically true, the advent is even grander than its ethical fodder. But the story of Christ’s coming into the world climaxes at the resurrection—the defeat of death, the ensuing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the reinstatement of God’s people to reflect his loving image into the rest of the world. Precisely because people are infused with this love, and are commanded to love others, this message is historical here and now. It is the fact of loving people working together, creating, moving, going. The mobilization of an abdicating, sacrificing love cannot solve the logical problem of evil. It is not a “because” to any “why?” We may never receive or concoct a “because;” but we can always choose to respond in love—the perfect counter to any evil set on utter destruction.

The terrible event in Newtown has brought destruction; in its aftermath love can slow the spread and encourage us to build again.

Revisiting the Problem of Evil…Again

The problem of evil constantly occupies my thoughts. So much of theological reflection takes place within the emotional effects of reality; its practical import never escapes me and I fail to understand how so many Christians draw such a sharp distinction between theology and practice. These thoughts about evil have a direct impact on how we see things, how we treat people, how we handle the troubling things that happen to us and the rest of the world. Theological appropriation for the religious person is paramount.

While vacuuming my house today, I dwelled on the thought that if evil is the strongest argument against God’s existence, then God’s existence must be the strongest argument against the problem of evil. Maybe. If this life is not the whole story, if justice comes, if somehow all of the suffering proves to have been worth it, then that means evil does not ultimately prevail. Believe me: I tend to side with Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov and say that I would give that ticket back—the kind of suffering humanity has experienced can’t possibly be worth any compensation, can it? I suppose on certain levels the idea seems reasonable enough. Nasal congestion, pets dying, minor surgeries, bumps and bruises, even death at the end of a long life. But we all can think of myriad events and situations that offer an insurmountable case against any metaphysical compensation.

Christians speak of a hope that we can scarcely imagine: living on the new earth that God will create, in His presence, without evil or trial. We will have the “benefit” of having endured all the suffering, which indeed shapes us, yet living freely without fear or anxiety. Therein lies the appeal of universal salvation, at least for me. I have already done away with any notion that infants, the mentally handicapped, or any other person incapable of “making a decision for Christ” will undergo any kind of judgment. If God is all-loving and all-just then what possible reason would we have to think He could find an infant deserving of the same condemnation as Hitler? I’m familiar with the possible answers and, frankly, they all suck. They don’t actually answer the question. If you find yourself in a hospital with a mother who has just lost her child, you’re a monster if you give her anything less than hope that her baby is snuggled up with Jesus and waiting for her mommy to join her “soon and very soon.”

I followed Jesus for years before I became aware of the problem of evil. My most basic response then, as it is now, was “But that’s not the whole story.” The last twelve years have realized a persistent revisitation of the problem. Because of my insistence that theology directly impacts my life and ought to do the same for any Christian, I don’t find theological answers to this problem proving themselves utterly useless; indeed, the hope that my beautiful baby boy is loved by the God who created him supports my own weak love. When daddy fails him, when it seems like daddy doesn’t love him, he is loved on the deepest level with the unfailing love of the God who lovingly knit him for His own glory. Imperfections and all, babies belong to the Lord and I believe He is faithful to restore them.

I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know if every parent is reunited. I don’t know how the future will make up for the past and for now. Many days I don’t care how or why and I don’t believe anything can be compensated for. But I won’t hang up my hat. The irony presented by the problem of evil lies in the fact that it asks me to sacrifice what I now know for what is not a reality for me. When we shake our fists at the sky over what happens to others, we don’t abandon our families over it. Other evil is not my evil to endure in the same way, (and I think both sides of this debate do an awful disservice to those who have and are suffering by making them object lessons.) I don’t live less thankfully for my own child when someone is devastated by the tragic loss of theirs. Please understand, I’m weeping as I write this because I’ve seen what it looks like for a family to lose their child. I hate it with every fiber of my being. It utterly baffles me why God would allow such a thing in silence (which is perhaps a lesson to us theologians and to the apologists who venture “the answer” when even God won’t reach down in the darkest times and offer a whisper for a crushed family.) But whether religious or not, the response of every witness who has their own child is to squeeze that child even tighter and sigh grateful sighs that they still have their child. I just can’t hug my boy and not be grateful.

The suffering of others has set up camp in the center of my mind. I beg for an answer. I pray angrily sometimes and ask, “What are you doing?!” I’ve nearly abandoned my faith because of it on several occasions. But intellectual honesty and integrity don’t allow me to abandon the reality of the fact that I have been spared, and that the hope I have was given to me as a gift that I did not originally want, and that it circulates throughout my being with the same blood and along the same pathways as the hope I have for others. I don’t abandon that hope for others because as badly as I want their suffering to end, I want to give them hope. I want to comfort the dying child in his hospital bed. Russell may not have been able to believe in God after seeing that child, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to punt when that child asks me if she is going to heaven.

Billboarding Faith

Zach posted an intriguing blog about billboarding the other day. While growing up, he did not feel the need nor cultural pressure to advertise his faith through bless-ed threads. Only now, as an atheist, is he making use of ideological branding to share his views.

I share the younger years indifference to outward marketing of my “faith.” To be fair, I did not take my faith very seriously so any displays of religious affection would never have even crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I started following Jesus at age 17 that I felt emboldened to make sure everyone knew I was a Christian. T-shirts (including the “Lord’s Gym” shirt Zach mentioned,) bracelets, necklaces, wallets, patches, car emblems, car stickers, guitar case stickers, hats, sweatshirts, and the ultimate self-branding: tattoos. Thankfully, I was smart enough to get good-looking tattoos independent of hyper-evangelical memes.

The situation changed as I became more aware of how such in-your-face “witnessing” came across to others—even other Christians. I admire people who are bold and open about their faith. But I admire those who are free to share because it is a part of who they are and they use genuine interactions and situations to show what their faith means and provide solid commentary when appropriate. The Gospel does need to be told; but so often it’s told very poorly because of awful theology or communication. Billboarding and branding usually exhibit both.

I don’t wear Christian shirts anymore (except one from my seminary, DTS, which says “Hallelujah” in Hebrew—I mean, come on, that’s cool.) I don’t wear bracelets period. I took the Jesus fish emblem off of my guitar pick guard. Why? Because I don’t want to be lumped together with every other person who has those things. Let’s be honest: a lot of people have fishes on their car who are awful drivers and show no respect for anyone else on the road. History is replete with examples of people who call themselves Christians yet act like monsters. I don’t want such an easy association to be made with me (I’ll screw up my witness to others by myself, thank-you-very-much.)

On the other side of the discussion, just because someone wears the WWJD bracelet doesn’t mean they are so easily categorized, either. The trouble with branding is that it conveys things beyond one’s control. Even in close, lengthy, detailed conversation people can get the wrong impression. Billboarding just makes it that much more difficult to be clear.

Zach mentioned his son’s bib with “Damn Atheist” embroidered on it. Like Zach, I get the joke and in private it’s relatively harmless. But Christians aren’t the only ones who have public image obstacles; atheists come in all shapes and sizes and colors and don’t always agree on everything. To brand oneself is one thing. To brand someone who can neither live up to nor fail to live up to the branding is another. We want our kids to think for themselves! However right we think we are, we don’t do any service to our kids by stunting their intellectual growth. Not only that, we set ourselves up for parental anguish if we over-anxiously set an intellectual course from which they could later diverge.

And lastly, evangelicalism and company have done a terrible job with branding anyway. As a fan of good comedy, sharp design, and well-thought expression, I think Christian shirts and stickers suck (www.randomshirts.com being a notable exception to the rule.)

Billboarding

So, I have a lot of “atheist” T-shirts. My wife calls them “billboards.” In a way, I suppose they are. But I didn’t grow up wearing religion on my (literal) sleeves; as a young Christian kid, I don’t think I can recall even a single shirt or hat or jacket patch that in any way proclaimed my religious identity. Part of that may have been the tight-lipped and conservative Germanic culture of my hometown, Cincinnati, or it may have been my family’s rather conservative theology. We were a Matthew 6:6 family, without a doubt.

When I got to high school, I saw a different perspective. Further out from the urban center (such as it was), the culture was still overwhelmingly Christian, but it was also much more public about its religiosity. Several of my classmates had “Lord’s Gym” shirts in regular rotation, and there were annual shirts promoting a local Christian youth theater group that were quite popular. Though I was a willing and, at times, enthusiastic participant in this culture, I never adopted the uniform. My clothes were, almost uniformly, branding-free.

That changed in college. As most students do in that context, I sought to explore my own individuality. I became heavily interested in designing my own T-shirt logos, and with the advent of inkjet printing, I was able to control all aspects of production as well. Soon, nearly every shirt I owned was branded in some way, whether a quote from a favorite movie (most likely Army of Darkness), a purloined image (for a while, a photo of the founder of a local mattress factory), or a novel design (a stylized gas gauge). But none of these were religious in nature, oddly enough.

Once I became involved in the freethought community, things changed a bit. I suppose I resisted for a while, but once I became personally involved with local organizations, I began to feel pride at being associated with the branding, whether it was amateurish or professional-grade. It really began to represent a significant and cherished part of my life, and suddenly I didn’t mind being a billboard anymore. Now I’m in a somewhat similar situation as I was in college – nearly every T-shirt now has some kind of freethought or atheist logo or message.

There’s still an unknown for me, however. How appropriate is billboarding for the next generation? By which I mean, it’s all well and good for me to parade around with my infidelity on my sleeve, but what about for my kid? Soon after he was born, we received a gift from some atheist friends near Tulsa, who sent (among other things) a bib emblazoned with their atheist group’s logo, and the slogan, “Damn Atheist!” The joke’s cute and all, and the bib is actually quite well-made (we use it all the time), but it sure drove my still-Christian mother up the wall when she saw it for the first time. I’m thinking that we’ll probably keep the baby billboarding to a minimum until he’s old enough to choose his own clothes for himself. Then he’ll take the same interesting journey as his father.