Oklahoma news: A Christmas ‘miracle’ via the local atheists

News stories blending the miraculous with Christmas aren’t difficult to find: families reunited, poor children receiving presents, the homeless fed. A common denominator, though, is usually a denomination, most likely a Christian one. After all, it’s the Christians who connected charity to the whole thing to begin with, right?

Well, things apparently are different in Chickasha, Oklahoma. While I fear to step onto the home turf of Sooner GetReligion duo Bobby and Tamie Ross, tread I must.

The Chickasha Express-News reported a”Christmas miracle” story, but this time, it was area atheists who saved the day, as opposed to reprising what others often view as their “Grinch” role:

CHICKASHA – A group of local atheists saved Christmas for a Chickasha woman after she and her baby were allegedly put through the ringer [sic] at a church’s toy give away.

Tiffany Wait said she, her husband and their 7-month-old baby went to Bible Baptist Church’s Toy Shop Christmas morning to get gifts for their child, but were met with animosity because Wait did not want to give her baby to the volunteers.

“I am poor and would not be able to celebrate Christmas this year without their charity,” she said. “I went last year and it was a life saver. This year however, I was treated shockingly bad.”

Wait said her baby doesn’t like strangers and she’d prefer to be with him. She said the volunteer said it has to be done this way, or the family wouldn’t be able to participate.

“I stood there, fighting back tears and asked, ‘You would turn a baby away on Christmas,’” said Wait.

Two initial questions: (1) Was it a look-alike of some sort (“ringer”) Wait had to somehow be “put through” or was it the metaphorical “wringer” (or clothes press or what the British call a “mangle“) to which the reporter was referring? Also, what’s up with the alleged demand for Wait to “give her baby to the volunteers” at the toy distribution? The church folks could only hand presents directly to the child? Say what?

Anyway, this being the Year of Our Lord 2013, Wait — whose Twitter account describes her as an  Avon representative and one of whose Facebook photos show her with her husband and two children — did what anyone would do, these digital days.

She sought solace online:

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Your GetReligion Christmas news bundle (turn, turn, turn)

As you would expect, your GetReligionistas do our fair share of traveling and celebrating during the Christmas season — which often takes us into wintry territory in which wifi sources are few and far between. How am I going to download the Doctor Who Christmas episode?

Anyway, we will be posting less often than formal during the 12-day Christmas season.

This is our normal pattern over the past decade. We don’t completely close down, but we tend to post once or twice a day instead of our usual three times a day. Please keep sending us interesting religion-beat stories that you see in the mainstream press and we will strive to keep up on what’s happening in our email and at the major newsrooms.

However, we also have a piece of news that we need to announce before it is common social-media knowledge.

In recent years, we have posted a depressing number of black-flag (“Turn, turn, turn”) notes announcing that this or that veteran religion-beat professional has had to leave a job in a major newsroom. However, in this case we need to note that a veteran journalist has LANDED a rare opening on the religion (or in this case faith-related) beat.

This time around, the problem for your GetReligionistas is that the journalist in question is our own Mark Kellner, who only arrive a few weeks ago (or months, maybe).

From his Facebook page:

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NYTs on atheists at holidays: Fox Butterfield, is that you?

There is such a thing as “low-hanging fruit” in life, and, it turns out, even in journalism. I am, therefore, a tad grateful to The New York Times for this easy-to-pick story about atheists who happen to organize gatherings close to the 25th of December, but don’t dare call them “holiday parties.”

One bit of explanation: James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal‘s online opinion section, specifically his daily “Best of the Web Today” feature, coined the phrase, “Fox Butterfield, is that you?” to describe writing that’s obvious-yet-oblivious. Butterfield was the Times‘ crime reporter who incredulously once noted, “Despite drop in crime, an increase in inmates.”

The latest Butterfield Award goes to the Times for noting  ”During Religious Season, Nonbelievers Assert Right to Celebrate.” You can almost see the #firstworldproblems hashtag adjacent to the headline. Let’s begin:

In the darkness of an Upper West Side concert hall last weekend, 150 audience members holding twinkling plastic candles sang and swayed to celebrate reason and the season. Snow fell with abandon outside.

“We are not alone,” a humanist rock band crooned in a call and response.

“I wanted a holiday that made us feel connected, and feel connected to the world,” Raymond Arnold, the M.C., said at the start of the show he created, “Brighter Than Today: A Secular Solstice.”

Mr. Arnold, 27, a self-described “agnostic-atheist-humanist” who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., told sardonic sermon-like stories to explain scientific developments since Stonehenge.

Then he invited the audience to sing a Christmas carol. “Some of you might be like, ‘I came to a secular solstice, what up?’ ” Mr. Arnold said, drawing laughs. He explained that “Do You Hear What I Hear?” did not mention Jesus Christ and could refer instead to the birth of an idea. He was going for “a sense of transcendence,” he said. It felt a little like church.

Apart from the fact that Arnold is just plain wrong about the carol making no reference to Jesus (the reference might not be explicit — “The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night/He will bring us goodness and light” — but it surely is understood by most Western hearers), an immediate question is, “Is this really news?” If, as might be imagined, there have been atheists, agnostics and “freethinkers” for centuries, is it not also reasonable to assume that some of the folks might gather together for solace against a world laden with Christmas imagery?

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NYTimes: ‘On Religion’ columnist commits … journalism!

Yes, that headline is written with tongue somewhat in cheek: The New York Times‘ “On Religion” column, authored in alternate weeks by Samuel G. Freedman and Mark Oppenheimer, both academics, is at turns fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating when it finds, as will be discussed here, good, solid faith-based stories. Frustrating — to this more traditional believer, at least — when the column appears to delight (in column fashion) at those sticking a finger (or a fist) in the eye of, well, traditional believers.

Just when I’m about to lament this or that fawning column about someone rather far removed from the religious mainstream — let alone evangelicalism — “On Religion” comes along and reminds me that they can get this right. In fact, there are columns that are more news-focused than some New York Times news stories that approach religious matters.

Witness Freedman’s Nov. 29 spiritual profile of the late Oscar Hijuelos (shown here in a 1993 photo) the famed Cuban-American novelist who died in October at age 62 following a sudden collapse on a tennis court:

Nearly 20 years ago, when he was three books into an acclaimed literary career, Oscar Hijuelos delivered the manuscript of his new novel to his editor. It was a Christmas tale filled with the joy Mr. Hijuelos had always taken in with the trappings of yuletide, from manger scenes to oratorios to evergreens strung with lights.

From a lesser writer, perhaps, the new novel would have been perfectly fine. From one who had already won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” who had received fellowships and honorary doctorates and a dinner invitation to the White House, it felt lacking.

At least it did to Mr. Hijuelos’s editor at HarperCollins, Robert S. Jones. He rejected the book, telling its author something cryptically critical along the lines of, “This is not what I had in mind for you to write.”

The evening after receiving the verdict, Mr. Hijuelos and his girlfriend at the time, Lori Carlson, sat together in their living room in Upper Manhattan, depression suffusing the air. Finally, Mr. Hijuelos told Ms. Carlson, “O.K., I’m really going to the heart of Christmas then.”

That exploration, Freedman noted, wasn’t a walk in the park, yielding the now-classic “Mr. Ives’ Christmas”:

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For BBC, Doctor Who faith is real, but never really Christmas

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“Go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine”

– The Doctor

The folks who created “Doctor Who” were well aware that, by creating a show centering on a noble alien who has limited control over time and space, they were sailing into an ocean of religious questions. Have I missed something or has the Doctor specifically avoiding using the Tardis to pay a visit to biblical times? A chat with the Buddha? A conversation with Muhammad about faith, warfare and governance?

Frankly, I have been wondering if anyone was going to use the 50th anniversary of the series as a chance to produce a news feature about its religious content. News? Not yet.

So far, the BBC — naturally enough — is the only organization to come close, with an essay by a Dr. Andrew Crome, a historian who lectures on modern Christianity at the University of Manchester. The top of this non-news piece takes us straight into the heart of the nerd beast:

A near immortal crossing space and time, followers split over interpretation, characters in strange hats … Perhaps it is no surprise Doctor Who is sometimes described as a form of surrogate religion. However, behind this light-hearted comparison lies a grain of truth, as Doctor Who has continually engaged with important religious themes across its 50-year run.

At times religion has been addressed directly. For example, 1970s producer Barry Letts, a practicing Buddhist, worked ideas from his faith into the show’s narrative: witness Jon Pertwee sharing a version of the Mumonkan’s sixth Zen Koan with companion Jo Grant in the 1972 episode The Time Monster. When Jon Pertwee regenerated into Tom Baker, elements of the episode were set in a Buddhist meditation centre, with a fellow Time Lord clandestinely living as a Buddhist monk in close attendance.

However, as you would expect, the show’s relationship to Anglican Christianity has been complex or downright muddled.

Semi-Anglicans have shown up as military monks in several episodes and if a character shows up in a collar the odds are very high that the resulting plot twist will be quite nasty. It’s clear that the current executive producer and lead writer, Steven Moffat, is having fun running through his catalogue of comments he wants to make about the future of the church and his views — as an atheist — of its evolution toward chaos or irrelevance.

… Moffat has … re-imagined a 51st Century Anglican Church as a morally ambiguous paramilitary organisation, complete with ranks made up of bishops, vergers and soldiers with special holy names. While the Church can ally with the Doctor, as in the 2010 episodes of The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone; in the 2011 episode A Good Man Goes to War they fight against him, working in tandem with an order of headless monks and a mysterious religious sect known as The Silence.

These varied portrayals should remind us that Doctor Who has no default position on religion, whether positive or negative, and a writer’s idea can be adapted by actors, directors and producers to take on themes which might be contrary to their original intention. …

This essay does a fine job of listing a view of the specific episodes of Doctor Who 2.0 that veer into religious territory, including one show that — amazingly enough — was nominated for the Evangelical Christian Epiphany Prize, given for offering a positive depiction of belief.

However, trends can be noticed. Eastern religion is treated with more respect than Western forms, and churches provide wonderful hooks for satire. And when in doubt, the Doctor helps liberate people from their false gods (who usually turn out to be nasty aliens). The default is a liberal post-Christian Universalism.

However, I thought it was interesting that the essay does not refer to a very important word in Doctor Who — Christmas.

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Everything you know about Christmas is wrong

George just posted about an old story being rehashed for Christmas, which reminded me that the regular attempts to debunk Christianity around its holy days has become my favorite tradition. What would Christmas and Easter be like without a semi-blasphemous newsweekly magazine cover questioning some central tenet of the religion?

All that to say that the Washington Post‘s piece the “The Evolution of Holiday Celebrations” is a decent entry into the genre.

It’s in the Style section, so all expectations are lowered, of course. It says stuff like this:

Early Christians did not celebrate the Nativity. Christianity had been around for more than 350 years before the church fathers in Rome decided to add that event to the Christian calendar. They did so in part because many Christians were arguing that Jesus had not been an actual human being but rather a divine spirit — a belief the church fathers considered heretical. What better way to convince Christians that Jesus was human than to commemorate his physical birth? The problem was that there was no evidence of when Jesus’s birth took place. (Neither Luke nor Matthew, the two gospel writers who included stories of Jesus’s Nativity in their narratives, had indicated the date, or even the season, of the event.)

Is it most accurate to say “many Christians” argued that Jesus wasn’t human? Is that really the central aspect of how the date for Christmas was chosen? That is a heresy that has been taught and continues to be taught but I’m not sure this is phrased the best way. As for the rest, it’s true that the Nativity was not celebrated by early-early Christians, but we also know that it was celebrated in a variety of locations well before the date was fixed. By 200 A.D., for instance, Clement of Alexandria is reporting that Egyptians have marked the date and the year of Christ’s birth. The thing was that different people were celebrating the birth on different dates. Why did it get pinned to Dec. 25? Was this a top-down effort to defeat gnosticism? Was the day something Christian laypeople noted that some church leaders tried to stop? Was it much more complex than a brief article in the Style section could broach?

The church fathers decided to place the new holiday in late December, virtually guaranteeing that it would be widely adopted because this was already a season of mid-winter revels, a holdover from pagan times. For the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the holiday was called Saturnalia. This festival, which concluded on Dec. 23, was partly a holiday of lights that celebrated the winter solstice. But Saturn was the god of agricultural abundance, so his festival also marked the bounty of the completed harvest. Finally, the Saturnalia was a time of role reversals and seasonal license. Everyone took time off from ordinary labor. Slaves were granted temporary freedom and were treated by their masters to lavish banquets. The holiday was observed with feasting, drinking, gambling and sexual abandon.

Yeah, well, it’s certainly true that when the calendar was standardized, there was a push for Dec. 25 as the date to mark Jesus’ birth. But was this because it was a co-opting of Saturnalia? It’s certainly a theory. But Dec. 25 was one of the many dates being used by Christians to mark Christ’s birth and maybe not for the reasons you hear.

As I wrote six years ago (!) here at GetReligion:

Associated Press reporter Richard Ostling wrote about it a few years ago, first describing the theory that says Christians stole a pagan festival for Christmas. Then he cited other research, including Hippolytus of Rome’s Chronicle, written three decades before Aurelian launched Saturnalia, that says Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25. He speaks with William Tighe, a church historian at Muehlenberg College:

Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar — long before Christmas also became a festival.

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, Tighe said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

It doesn’t matter. Almost everyone believes something else.

The story also tackles Hannukah:

In recent times, Hanukkah, too, has largely become a child’s holiday. Many Jewish parents give their children seasonal presents as abundant — and expensive — as those received by their Christian neighbors.

And with Hanukkah as with Christmas, a vestige remains of older mid-winter festivals. This is the dreidel, a four-sided top that resembles the familiar six-sided dice and is used in similar fashion to determine how much money (or Hanukkah “gelt”) the player receives — or owes. Thus Hanukkah, originating as the celebration of a military victory, now incorporates a host of other rituals: the commemoration of a divine miracle, a seasonal celebration of light and harvest, a focus on children and even a hint of mid-winter revelry.

Over the centuries, through all those historical accidents, Hanukkah and Christmas have come to look a lot like each other.

They don’t really look much like each other, obviously, but is the dreidel just a game? It’s origin isn’t exactly known but when I was in Israel, I was told that it hearkens back to a game developed by Jews to hide the fact they were studying the Torah. During one period of their history, the penalty for teaching the Torah was death. Jews would gather in caves to study and were pretending they were gambling if spotted by soldiers.

But more than anything, it’s not what is in the article that is so bothersome but what’s left out. Or how what’s in the article is treated so flippantly. Did Christianity just happen onto the idea of Jesus being the Christ? Isn’t the Nativity story a central element of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew? Even the Winter Solstice is treated as something of an historical accident. Was Hanukkah really just a holiday that morphed into something about light?

I wonder if part of the problem is that the author of the piece typically writes very accessible history books and that this breezy style works well when you have the time to flesh out more details but when you’re given just a few hundred words in the printed page, it comes off too glib, glossing over serious religious and cultural battles. That might be a function of editing as much as anything.

Hanukkah image via Shutterstock.

A boring, non-sacramental Christmas in Syria

I hope all of our readers who celebrate Christmas are having a blessed one. As I prepared for my church’s Lessons and Carols service on Christmas Eve (where the youngest Hemingway made her choir debut), my thoughts turned to Christians elsewhere in the world where Christmas is not just a time to celebrate God made flesh but also a time to fear bombings or violence. This Reuters piece headlined “Christmas brings fear of church bombs in Nigeria” begins:

Kneeling over a dusty grave on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital, 16-year old Hope Ehiawaguan says a prayer, lays down flowers and tearfully tells her brother she loves him.

He was one of 44 killed on Christmas Day last year when a member of Islamist sect Boko Haram rammed a car packed with explosives into the gates of St Theresa’s Church in Madalla, a satellite town 25 miles from the center of Abuja.

Boko Haram has killed hundreds in its campaign to impose sharia law in northern Nigeria and is the biggest threat to stability in Africa’s top oil exporter.

Two other churches were bombed that day and on Christmas Eve 2010 over 40 people were killed in similar attacks.

But such is the commitment to religion in a country with Africa’s largest Christian population that millions of people will pack out thousands of churches in the coming days. It is impossible to protect everyone, security experts say.

“I feel safe,” Ehiawaguan says with uncertainty, when asked if she will come to church on December 25 this year.

“Not because of security here … because we have a greater security in heaven,” she says, wiping away her tears.

I say it all the time, but Reuters is a valuable source for religion news outside of the United States and Europe. The quotes the reporter got are theological even as the story itself blends politics and other aspects of culture. That story is much more substantive than this 24-second bit on the Pope decrying violence in Syria that was on CBS.

Sadly, terrorists did manage to kill 12 Christians, according to this CNS report:

Gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to an evangelical church in the northern state of Yobe, police said. Wire reports said the pastor was among the dead in the midnight attack.

Separately, a Baptist church in neighboring Borno state was attacked. Nigeria’s The Nation said six church members were killed.

But it was this BBC story that left me less than impressed with its headline and lede. The headline:

Syria crisis: Low-key Christmas for Christians

The lede:

During the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that the bread and wine he shares with them represents his body and his blood.

“This is my body, which is given for you,” he says. “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In Syria, the real blood of civilians was mixed with real bread in Halfiya, the day before Christmas Eve, according to opposition activists. They say the civilians were bombed by a government warplane as they were queuing at a bakery, killing some 90 of them.

OK. So the entire story is sad, with people refusing to speak with reporters or give their name for fear of being targeted. We learn that minority areas, including those dominated by Christians are being targeted by the government. The already-small population of Christians is fleeing the country. Is describing this simply as a “low-key Christmas” appropriate? What a boring headline for the reality of what Christians in Syria are dealing with this Christmas.

In any case, I don’t know where the Beeb reporter got her info, but Christians in Syria do not believe that Jesus told his disciples that “the bread and wine he shares with them represents his body and his blood.” Traditional Christian belief is that in the Eucharist we receive the actual body and blood of Christ.

The teaching that communion only represents Christ’s body and blood is certainly present among some Christians, but not among Orthodox Christians.

To further compound the error by saying “the real blood of civilians was mixed with real bread in Halfiya” is just insulting to those sacramental Christians who believe we partake in the real body and blood of Christ.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t be surprised. But how would a reporter not know this? I’d more expect a reporter to mock traditional Christians for this belief than be ignorant of it.

Xmas quiet in Jerusalem? Check the Julian calendar

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Along with millions of other Americans, I am on the road this fine Christmas Day. Thus, when checking into a typical American hotel, I was immediately presented with the Holiday edition of USA Today.

Turn the front page and, lo and behold, there is this rather bizarre variation on a very, very familiar story about Christmas.

The basic thrust of the story? Hey, did you know that Christmas is different in the Holy Land itself, as opposed to normal life for Christian human beings on Planet Earth (which seems to have a lot to do with the calendars used in shopping malls)? The lede focuses on the point of view of one David Parsons, formerly of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Long ago, he moved to Jerusalem and, dang it, this American Christian is still struggling to get his holiday vibe going.

In the Holy Land, there are no Christmas tree sellers on the side of the road, no Jingle Bells played on the radio, no Black Friday department store sales. And that’s not a bad thing, he says.

“Here there aren’t those constant ads on the television or sales, sales, sales. Being free of that allows you to concentrate on the real meaning of Christmas,” says Parsons, who left North Carolina long ago.

Christians make up less than 2% of the populations of both Israel and the West Bank territory, and though here is where Jesus was born, lived and died, there are few outward signs of the celebration of his birth in much of the region.

In Jerusalem there are almost no Christmas decorations except for the Old City’s Christian Quarter. Dec. 25 is just Tuesday, a working day for Jews and Muslims.

As it turns out, there are some quite religious Christmas celebrations in logical places such as, well, Bethlehem and Nazareth. Some of those have been known to show up on global television networks.

The big problem with this story, however, is that the people who produced it seem to know nothing about the history of Christian liturgical calendars in this part of the world.

You see, there is a very good reason that Dec. 25th is simply another day for many — in some places most — of the Christians in the Middle East.

Why is that? Well, that’s because the ancient Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is following the ancient Julian calendar and, thus, Christmas falls on Jan. 7, so the celebrations tend to kick into gear on Jan. 6.

This is one of the most commonly known facts about Eastern Orthodoxy, leading to a wave of photo opportunities on Jan. 7 that often show up in American newspapers — reminding news consumers that there is, for many Orthodox believers, an “Orthodox Christmas” for the same reason as there is an “Orthodox Easter.”

Click here for a quick explanation of this situation. It’s a rather basic fact to know about Christianity in the Middle East.

Read the whole story. Maybe there was supposed to be a reference to the ancient date for Christmas in there somewhere and it got edited out. Instead, the story ends like this:

As they do every year, at sunset on Christmas Eve, Parsons, his wife and their 13-year-old son will go to Mar Elias, a beautiful old stone monastery that affords a commanding view of Bethlehem and Shepherd’s Field.

Last week Parsons’ employer, the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, hosted a homey Christmas party for staffers and volunteers, who hail from across the globe. The pro-Israel organization also threw a kosher-catered Christmas-Hanukkah party attended by Israeli officials.

At home in his Jerusalem apartment, Parsons does his best to keep alive the Outer Banks traditions of his child hood by the sea.

“I have my own little oyster roast, but it’s with the seafood I can find here.” The only problem, Parsons said, is that “it’s hard to invite my Israeli friends over for Christmas because it’s definitely not kosher. That’s life in the Holy Land.”

Totally bizarre. It’s like the story is totally focused on the American way of doing Christmas, or something, even though the story is set in Jerusalem. Most strange.


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