A picture without its central image

Typically we discuss how the mainstream media handles religious news. Occasionally we look at treatment of religion outside of news pages. A former GetReligion contributor alerted us to the New York Times house editorial for Christmas Day. It’s short, but here’s the first paragraph:

What are your Christmases made of? A tree full of ornaments as old as you are? A customary feast, if not of roast beast? Perhaps they’re composed of wassail and yule, nog and Noel, Scrooge, “Scrooged,” Pickwick and Charlie Brown. Or Handel and Berlioz, Garland, Cole, Crosby and Clooney, the Rockettes and the dance of a Sugar Plum Fairy, even Bedford Falls and “The Bishop’s Wife.” To Christians everywhere, Christmas comprises, above all, a decree from Caesar Augustus and in the same country shepherds abiding.

Quite lyrical prose, eh? But did you notice anything missing?

It really is impressive to write a Christmas editorial that steadfastly refuses to mention either the name of Jesus or the fact of his birth. And yet the remaining paragraphs — all beautifully written as well — fail to mention these things. Now, maybe the New York Times editorial page members know so few Christians that they actually believe that Christmas is — above all — mostly about a decree from Caesar Augustus and shepherds abiding. I don’t know. I’m on record pooh-poohing the Christmas wars, but have things really gotten to the point where you can’t mention Jesus’ birth in a Christmas editorial?

Over at Commonweal, longtime religion writer Peter Steinfels comes to the paper’s defense. He says that each department at the Times has its own culture, that it does many things that are egregious, but that it does many awesome things “entailing rare skills, unusual dedication, exhausting work, sacrifice of corporate profits, not infrequently even risk of life.” He mentions the horrific “Vows” column in a recent Sunday Style Section:

But the Christmas editorial discussed below is something else. It is not the editorial I might have written had I ever been invited (or accepted) to join the editorial page. There are many Christmas editorials, including some redolent with explicit celebration of Christ’s birth, that I might not have written. But they don’t stir my ire or sense of victimization either. Here we have four paragraphs of admirable, if somewhat bland, Christmas-related sentiments. It could have been written, for all I know, by an editor who was at Midnight Mass. But he or she consciously wrote it from a religiously neutral standpoint, except perhaps for the final endorsement of “prayer.” And it was written for a readership about whose religious convictions no assumptions could or would be made. This is, it seems to me, not the only possible but nonetheless a very plausible and respectful reflection of our contemporary pluralism. There really are many people who are not out to get us but who sincerely and thoughtfully don’t believe in Christ or Christianity. Are we shocked, shocked, by that? I think we should get used to it.

So what do you think? Is it really offensive to say that to Christians, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus? How is that not “religiously neutral” since it’s just a statement of fact? A brief editorial doesn’t need a dissertation on the birth of Christ, of course. But how about a brief mention?

And isn’t the biggest problem with the editorial the confusion about what — “above all” — Christmas is about for Christians? A decree and shepherds? Is it ignorant, silly or religiously neutral? One commenter wrote:

This is not a question of being “religiously neutral,” but of political correctness carried to absurdity. Do you really think any religious or secular sensibilities would have been offended had the center of the Nativity triptych been mentioned? The image that comes to mind is of a painting with a Roman Emperor on the right and shepherds on the left — and a huge empty spot in the middle of the canvas.

Steinfels says that he thinks that, if anything, the editorial writer assumed too much religious literacy. The editorialist later references the “liturgical calendar” which supports Steinfels’ view.

So what do you think? Was the piece just purposely “oblique and breezy,” overly pluralistic or just fine?

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  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    If you’ll forgive the expression . . .

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeff,

    Actually, I read somewhere that Nina Totenberg said she was actually making fun of the way that Christmas parties are called “holiday” parties.

  • michael

    I love Steinfels’ comment because it inadverently shows why ‘religious neutrality’ is never netural and why liberal pluralism is never really plural.

    Unless by ‘neutrality’ you mean the enforced invisibility of all distinct or unapproved traditions, truth claims (and actual history) in favor of a bland public sentimentality and by ‘pluralism’ you mean a monolithic public religiosity devoid of any discomfiting claims that might upset liberal order. In which case there is a sense in which Christmas may indeed coming to mean, above all, a decree from Caesar, delivered courtesy of the imperial ‘we’ of the New York Times.

    Look, it is surely not difficult to acknowledge respectfully that “there really are many people who are not out to get us but who sincerely and thoughtfully don’t believe in Christ or Christianity” and to acknowledge at the same time that our culture has Christmas in the first place, and that Christmas has a distinct (and serious) content, because there are other people who do.

  • Julia

    To Christians everywhere, Christmas comprises, above all, a decree from Caesar Augustus and in the same country shepherds abiding.

    Maybe the writer is thinking of Linus reciting Luke in Charlie Brown Christmas, but he truncated Linus’ reading.

    Linus came out and actually mentioned things like “Savior” and “Lord” on commercial television.

    The other day, I heard an old interview with the Jewish producer of the Charlie Brown Christmas program. He said it was Charles Schultz who insisted on having the reading of Luke or why do the show. Schultz said if we don’t do it, who will? The network didn’t like it, but he pushed for it and the show became an unexpected classic.

  • Dan

    I am no fan of the NYT but I would argue for charity here. The editorial seems to evidence some awareness of the special nature of Christmas, however dim that awareness may be. When Christmas attracts the non-believer that is a good thing that is to be encouraged.

  • michael

    Dan,

    Good point. I actually take the degradation of Christmas and its capacity to move people to occasional church attendance as a sign of the profound effect that Christianity has had on our culture and as a sign of grace. It remains helpful, I think, to imagine what it would be like to live in a land where it was “always winter and never Christmas.” The fact that Christmas gives itself over to be so thorughly degraded is an indication of how deeply its gift has penetrated our history.

    I suppose the Times piece should be taken in this regard; certainly it is not incapable of serving as an unwitting vehicle of grace. So I take your remark as a salutary corrective. At the same time, the Times and other media are guardians of secular order that consistently edit away any challenges to the presuppositions of that order and serve to insure that religion is relegated to a private, affective sphere. This is a matter of the basic logic of journalism and not necessarily an indication of ill-will among journalists. So while I concur with your counsel to extend charity, it may nevertheless be illuminating at the same time to view pieces like this in the light of the social function of American journalism. I think it is possible to do both at once.

    In any event, my comment had less to do with the Times editorial itself than with Steinfels’ weak defense of it, which seems like an invitation not to think.

  • Dan Crawford

    Wasn’t Steinfels once the religion reporter for the Times?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Steinfels is a longtime religion writer — and was at the Times for a while. I should have made that clear in the post.

  • Hector

    I didn’t read the editorial, obviously, but I’m not sure that I agree that the editorial (at least if the paragraph quoted is typical) ignores Christ. The decree from Caesar Augustus and the shepherds are important precisely because they bookend the story of Christ’s birth: referring to them can be a way of talking about the birth of Christ periphrastically, and by implication.

    Periphrastic phrasing can sometimes (particularly in non-Western cultures) be a way of honouring the unnamed subject, by implying that the name itself is too special to be casually used.

  • Jerry

    I was surprised when I read the editorial to find

    yearlong liturgical calendar,…Perhaps for you the real Christmas comes on the eve before it, candle in hand…

    …All the good stories about Christmas — from Matthew and Luke

    So I think you protest a bit too much. Yes, the explicit reference to Jesus’ birth is not there, but, as Hector said, it’s very much there albeit with periphrastic phrasing. So I think your protest comes from the syllogism: The Times is secular. The Times did not explicitly mention Jesus’ birth. The Times blew it again.

  • Hector

    For example, a lot of us prefer not to refer to the Virgin Mary as ‘Mary’, as if she was some girl we knew in high school, but prefer saying things like Mother of God, Daughter of Anna, Queen of Heaven, the All Holy One, the Ever Virgin, and the like. I’ve heard it said that traditionally the name of Jesus was also used much less commonly than we do today, and they referred to Him more commonly by titles.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jerry,

    I actually thought the editorial was pretty well written. It’s just that the one synechdoche (the “above all” one) failed. I am willing to give the editorial writer the benefit of the doubt, though. I don’t think he was going out of his way to ignore the birth of Christ — I think he was just too oblique in that one case. Otherwise, nicely written prose, as i said.

  • Jeffrey

    One of the things I admire about Steinfels is his ability to see the grays and not view everything as black and white. In addition, he’s willing to give the Times credit and the benefit of doubt, something its legion distractors seem unable to do. Maybe it’s because he’s worked there and know the people behind the work.

    I have to say that the comment “maybe the New York Times editorial page members know so few Christians” also raises a faint whiff of anti-Semitism. On an editorial page headed by someone named Rosenthal, cocktail party snarks like this have an ugly side whether intended or not.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeffrey,

    I hadn’t thought of that — I was more making a joke about how secular many newsrooms are.

  • michael

    Hector,

    This is the path that Steinfels takes in a follow-up comment, though in doing so, he risks contradicting himself. He treats the reference as an example of synecdoche in which the part stands for the whole. This is a triple whammy that permits him not only to absolve the Times of editing Christ out of Christmas, but to suggest that the editorial is a sophisticated piece with layers of meaning that caters by a kind of code both to enlightened, high-brow Christians and to secular holiday revelers who don’t possess the Gospel’s secret decoder ring. Plus it allows him to insinuate, to a chorus of approval from Commonweal commentors of course, that Christian critics of the editorial are illiterate rubes. And Merry Christmas to you too, Peter.

    Of course there is a certain sense in this defense. After all, readers who know the Gospel narratives (or Merry Christmas Charlie Brown!) will fill in the blanks just like I did. But the device is inartfully employed and rendered trite by the rest of the the editorial, which is a sentimental mish-mash of publicly approved platitudes from American civil religion, the object of which is American Liberalism itself.

    There is one other angle of this that ought to be addressed. Steinfels suggests that critics of the piece suffer from an over-wrought sense of victimization, accompanied, of course, by an over-developed suspicion of conspiracies. Hence his dismissal of the notion that the Times is ‘out to get us’.

    Please. Surely it is possible to criticize the public function of American journalism vis a vis religion without running afoul of this strawman. I, for one, have repeatedly insisted that the point at issue isn’t a matter of the subjective ‘motives’ of journalists or even the political stances of news organs such as the Times, though there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some religion reporters harbor ill-will toward their subject and that the Times stands diametrically opposed to Christianity on some fundamental questions. Journalism arrogates to itself a kind of guardianship of public discourse, and it exercises this guardianship over religion (and does its greatest damage) by rendering it banal, albeit frequently with the help of religious people themselves. Ill-will isn’t necessary for this (and good will may not be enough to prevent it); the suffocating limitations of the journalistic method will do.

  • Ryan

    I am fine with an editorial exploring how Christmas is celebrated by those who are not Christians, I even find it interesting and needed. But to not mention the incarnation of Jesus Christ as central to the meaning of Christmas for Christians is either ignorance, or just plain deceptive.

    I am not saying the writer had an obligation to give a theological treaty on the meaning of Christmas for Christians, but since he waded into the waters and missed the mark so badly, he therefore should be criticized. I honestly can’t imagine a Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or any other Holy day being mentioned and the writer for a major paper being unable to get right what the day is about.

    Bottom line is we can do better.

  • Dave Crutchfield

    I just ask for an even playing field. Please don’t be repelled and rancorous about private nativity scenes, public expression of, “Merry Christmas”, and assume Christianity, Jesus, and God are fearful politically-incorrect relics that label one as primative and witless (and this is coming from an agnostic). Some people have done quite well clinging to their guns and religion, thank you. If somebody wants to express their alternative beliefs, short of blowing people up- Hey, this is the season. Me- I’m buying and supportive of merchants and information purveyors who aren’t afraid to take a historical/cultural/ethnic stand versus “The Holiday Season….” hooey.

  • Bill

    Let’s see… to Christians everywhere, Christmas comprises, above all else, an executive order, an unfunded government mandate.

  • Mark

    Folks, an editorial about Christmas that doesn’t or can’t (?) mention the birth of Christ is simply ludicrous. It’s like discussing WWII without mentioning Roosevelt or Churchill, writing about DNA and ignoring Watson and Crick, or explaining the theory of relativity while dismissing Einstein. There’s no credible justification for writing editorial comments about Christmas and ignoring the birth of Christ. It’s an affront to common sense, editorial objectivity, and Christians.

  • tim johnson

    Interesting comments.
    Yes, it’s remarkable that such a piece could go on about Christmas and never mention Jesus.
    Not sure why, exactly. Lots of Christians go through the season and never mention Jesus, too, no?
    Here’s a link to another piece in the Times about how beleagured Christians are in Iraq right now.
    Pretty good reporting.
    I suppose, if God really did come down to dwell among us, this is what would happen.
    It’s not pretty.
    I read that somewhere.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/25/world/middleeast/25iraq.html?scp=9&sq=jesus&st=cse


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