The Magic of Christmas and the Enchanted Mormon Worldview

I appreciate Chris for inviting me here, or doing his reactivation work. I have been a less active member of the bloggernacle for a couple years, after an initially enthusiastic start. I also appreciate the Thoreau reference, now if only I could grow one of those cool chin beards.

Anyway, I thought I’d start off with something light and festive.

I have noticed a direct correlation between the strength of my testimony and how much I feel that nebulous thing called “the Christmas Spirit.” There was a time when I descended quite low into humbugism. I pointed out the pagan origins of December 25, sneered at the commercialism, and smugly embraced a just-another-day attitude. Not coincidentally, this was also a spiritually low point in my life. Having children has played a significant role in returning me to the fold of Christmas. (Brining the tree in the other day was nearly a Pentecostal experience for my kids.) However, the greater factor has been that my testimony of the gospel has waxed in recent years. Nothing adds to the enjoyment of Christmas like, well, actually having faith Christ, and even more, embracing the magical worldview of Mormonism.

Some years ago as a guest blogger at Times and Seasons, Damon Linker argued that Mormonism restores “enchantment” to Christianity. Linker states:

“Mormons believe, for example, that every human being who has ever lived is the literal spirit child of an embodied God who actually resides on a planet in the visible universe — and that after we die we will literally be reunited with Him. If that’s not an enchanted world, I don’t know what is.”

Now to speak of magic and enchantment is not to deny an ultimately naturalistic universe governed by physical laws, but it does posit a universe that, however “natural,” is more radically alive and responsive and intelligent than we currently comprehend. Mormonism places things like angels and golden plates and seer stones smack dab in the middle of modernity. Angels pushed handcarts in the age of the railroad and now warn people of imminent danger in the age of the I-Phone.

So what does this have to do with Christmas? Maybe not much, but once you believe in a universe of angels and gods worlds without end, a universe where animals and trees and the very earth possess some kind of spirit, the image of angels and shepherds and starry nights take on—if the term isn’t paradoxical—a magical reality. Once we accept the angel at Cumorah, there is nothing problematic about angelic beings stepping it up during the Christmas season, declaring glad tidings and whispering promptings of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men, now, in 2009.

In his second post on Mormon enchantment, Linker wonders, given this magical worldview, how we would respond to the challenge “that has always been leveled against biblical religion — namely that it’s just wishful thinking, fairytales, Santa Clause writ large, Disneyland Christianity, etc.”  There may be many and varied responses to this challenge, but among them I hope not to find too much back peddling or touting the rationalistic credentials of Mormonism. Santa Claus and fairytales resonate with people because they point to something true about God and the universe. Disenchantment turns the magical into something called reality. I prefer the approach of the restored gospel, which makes reality magical.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris Henrichsen

    Nice post, Sheldon.

    Of late, I tend to find The Christmas Carol by Dickens to be the thing which most speaks to me at Christmas season.

    I have little use for reindeer, Santa, or Christmas trees. However, I seem to be wanting a pre-20th century Christmas which focused on social gathering. Both the religious turn and the commercial turn do little for me.

    Maybe I am just a bit less than enchanted these days.

    I do think the enchanted aspect of Mormonism is part of the appeal of CS Lewis for Mormons.

  • Kevin Barney

    I enjoyed the post. I’ve always been a huge fan of Christmas, and I think you’ve articulated part of the reason why I love it all so much.

  • brandt

    What a home run for a first post!

    Being semi-newlyweds with no kids yet, Christmas has become either a welcome break from school or an excuse to pander for money from relatives for money. I agree with Chris especially that perhaps we should move back to a dickensonian Christmas which focused more on the experience of the social Christmas rather than the material one.

    Great post Sheldon, thanks for giving me a different perspective on the season.

  • http://www.millennialstar.org Ben Pratt

    Nicely said, Sheldon.

  • Sheldon Lawrence

    Kevin and Ben, thanks for the vote of confidence on my big blogging debut.

    Chris,
    The closest I came to that sort of 19th century Christmas was when Liza and I were living in Russia. It was extremely difficult to get the food together, but we (the group of teachers) managed to put together this big turkey feast in an old Russian school house. After dinner someone sat at the piano and everyone sang carols and danced (even if badly, like me). Good memories. I’m often nostalgic for that sort of thing. Speaking of social gathering, we missed you at the Christmas burrito party this year. The white elephant gifts were as tasteless as ever.

  • Sheldon Lawrence

    Thanks, Brandt. The newly wed era can be an awkward Christmastime, depending on how big into Christmas one’s wife is. We always wondered whether we should even bother getting a tree before we had kids.

    I do think the commercialism can spoil things, particularly in the pressure it puts on the poor. My dad disliked Christmas because of the huge financial burden it caused. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with a wife who dislikes shopping.

  • Mark D.

    Now to speak of magic and enchantment is not to deny an ultimately naturalistic universe governed by physical laws, but it does posit a universe that, however “natural,” is more radically alive and responsive and intelligent than we currently comprehend

    I think the violation of the laws of nature pretty much is the definition of “magic”. Similarly for “enchanted”.

    But it would certainly be really nice to have alternative terms to describe the world view where spiritual things do not involve suspending the (true) laws of nature. Some people get rather uptight about the proposition that such a thing is even possible, but it certainly is a notable position within LDS thought, and occupies an even more notable position in the theology of Thomas Aquinas and his contemporaries.

  • Sheldon Lawrence

    Maybe “mystery” is the better word, in the sense of not fully being able to explain the powers a work, but finding joy in them none the less.

    I know Einstein wasn’t religious, but I like his quote, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

    I still like magic and enchantment because they convey the feeling I’m getting at, even if by definition they negate natural law.

  • Nitsav

    I love this time of year. I only wish Christmas came later in winter, since January-February-March is a long cold slog.

    Nice post Sheldon. Welcome to FPR.

  • anon

    CS Lewis was NOT an “enachanted” Christian. Have you ever read a Grief Observed? He knew reality quite well, and doubted to his very core for a time being.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris Henrichsen

    Anon,

    I actually do not care much about Lewis. I see his fiction as enchanted because it involves talking animals, witches, and closets that are portals to other dimensions. I am not the literature guy here but sounds enchanted to me.

  • Ethan

    I like your thoughts about finding magic in modernity. We Mormons may too often shrug off the idea of the “enchanted” in the modern day with the claim that modern technology can properly take the place of angelic visits and other supernatural phenomena. Why send an angel to declare glad tidings, for instance, when the Saints can just plug into the Christmas devotional broadcast on TV? There may be some truth to that, but it seems like that may easily become a justification for lacking faith in the miraculous. When King Saul lost his testimony, he went to a soothsayer because he’d lost faith in divine manifestations. When our faith is lacking, we may seek secular substitutes and rationalize that all is well. Who knows what wonderful things we could be missing out on!

  • Sheldon Lawrence

    Anon,
    In the sense we are using the word here, Lewis did embrace an enchanted view of Christianity. He was influenced by G.K. Chesterton (see the “Ethics of Fairyland”) and George MacDonald (see “The Princess and the Goblin”) in this regard. In his book on miracles, he basically states that anything is possible in the natural world if God wills it because nature and natures laws are God’s invention. (This is admittedly different from the Mormon position.) Enchantment does not mean rejecting reality or reason or evening being above doubt. I see it as believing in mysterious and divine forces at work behind what we currently perceive and understand. For Lewis, fairy tales and magic best conveyed they feeling, and so as Chris pointed out, it pervades his fiction.

    Ethan,
    I think its the same tendency the the BoM warns about regarding rejecting spiritual gifts and present day revelation (whatever the time period). The tendency of the natural man is to drift into the safety of a kind of cynical empiricism and rationalism–and then, of course, talk solemnly of the horrors of religious history. (BTW, do I know you from BYU-I?)

  • Sheldon Lawrence

    Nitsav, thank you.

  • Ethan

    Sheldon,
    Yes, I should’ve mentioned; I used to be among your troop of writing tutors. That was a great job, by the way. I trust that the Reading Center is doing well. As for us, we’re living in Seattle now, and I’m preparing for law school next year.

  • Sheldon Lawrence

    Ethan, nice of you to come by. You were one of the best! Good luck with law school.

  • Sheldon Lawrence

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