Christmas Nostalgia

Different things make people in or from different parts of the world nostalgic, whether at Christmas time or at others. Today my wife was making sarmale (stuffed cabbage) with pickled cabbage leaves. It made her feel Christmasy, but the aroma did not have the same effect on our son.

I also remember a group of German students singing a song one Christmas during my student days. It was to the tune of “Judas Maccabeus” by G. F. Händel. At the end they said they were sure that the English speakers felt strange hearing that melody at Christmas, associating the tune with the hymn “Thine Be The Glory.” “But,” the German students said, “now you know how we feel at Easter.”

Repetition affects memory, and this is one reason why religions have always used annual and other repeated festivals to communicate religious beliefs, practices and values. And it is a reason why you don’t necessarily have to be religious to find yourself getting in the ‘Christmas spirit.’

And so it seems that there may be psychological aspects of holiday celebrations that we can all agree on – even though an awareness of the usefulness of holidays for reinforcing ideologies may make some people or the more eager to fight to have their own message hitched to the reinforcing repetition. But an alternative approach would be to focus on the element of nostalgia and embrace it for its own sake. Instead of debating the historicity of the birth and infancy stories in the Gospels (you can find some of my thoughts on that subject online here and here), why not focus instead on the making of happy memories? Do we really need to debate the rationality of lighting candles, or on the other side of the spectrum whether they are “Biblical,” when we can find the atmosphere they create “magical” without having to believe in magic literally?

As the world becomes a smaller place, we will more and more often find ourselves coming across other traditions and customs which are full of nostalgia for others, but not for us. Sometimes life leads those latecomers to our Christmas experience to become full of nostalgia for us. In other cases not – but we may still be able to appreciate them.

With that in mind, here is a Christmas image that does nothing for me personally nostalgia-wise. But I offer it to my friends down under and in more southern parts of this hemisphere, as a token of goodwill for the holidays.

Religious Discrimination, Science, and Christmas

Jesus Creed has been focusing a lot of attention on matters of religion and science lately. Today there is a post about the accusation of religious discrimination related to the case of Martin Gaskell. One important point that is made is that there are extremes of viewpoint and rhetoric on both sides which contribute to cases like this – opposition to mainstream science in many churches and dismissal of any religious believer as inevitably guilty of stupidity or sloppy thinking in some atheist circles. Both can contribute to individuals in the middle who hold views that – whether right or wrong, whether you find them persuasive or not – are not ludicrous, nevertheless being dismissed or ignored.

That said, given the degree of religious opposition to science, I can scarcely blame anyone involved in the natural sciences for being suspicious of people who use the language of “creation.” And so whatever the details turn out to be in the case of Martin Gaskell, I think it is really the young-earth creationists and other proponents of pseudoscientific nonsense who ought to be sued by him. Through their attempts to forge links between religious faith and opposition to science, they are the root cause of scientists having legitimate concerns and suspicions, which may in some instances result in those who embrace and contribute to mainstream science being passed over for jobs because the terminology they use sounds suspiciously like that of proponents of anti-scientific forms of creationism.

Also related to this topic are two posts about the persecution complex of American Christians as illustrated in the notion of a “war on Christmas.” One comes from Religion Dispatches (and quotes the renowned theologian Kermit the Frog), The other is from the New York Times via Religion Nerd.

Thou Shalt Not Cry, Thou Shalt Not Pout

HT William Black

Christmas: The Christian “War on Solstice”

santa-vs-jesus-detailToday in my Sunday school class I decided to turn our attention to seasonal matters. Soon, the topic of being wished “Happy Holidays” as opposed to “Merry Christmas” came up. And so I took that opportunity to talk about what I consider one of the great Christmas miracles: the fact that long ago Christians managed to “hijack” the already-existing solstice festival, and turn it into a Christian celebration so thoroughly and so effectively that, more than a millennium and a half later, cultural Christians can complain about the “hijacking” or “secularization” of Christmas without any sense of irony.

The New Testament doesn’t provide a date for Jesus’ birth (although some have surmised that, if one takes the reference to shepherds watching their flocks by night as historical, it would probably have been during the lambing season and thus in the Spring). It also says nothing about celebrating it annually, or indeed at all. The celebration of Christmas on December 25th is a result of taking an already-existing festive occasion – the winter solstice – and transforming it into a Christian holiday.

And so I find the complaining of cultural Christians in the United States about their beleaguered or persecuted status at Christmas time not only ironic, but tedious and even offensive. The earliest Christians lived in a world where the issue was not the failure of salespeople to wish them a merry Christmas, but rather their own failure to participate in dominant cultural and religious rituals. The issue for the earliest Christians was not whether one could display a nativity scene on government property, but that every city where Christianity spread featured prominent displays of deities whom the Christians would refuse to worship, sometimes at the cost of their lives. That was persecution, not the fact that someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” – especially when that person would probably not be considered a true Christian anyway by born-again believers.

Since when are committed Christians committed to encouraging those without a deep personal faith to maintain an outward veneer of Christianity and to self-identify as Christians? In fact, born again Christians will happily, on other occasions, explain to those individuals whom they criticize at Christmas for not offering them Christian greetings that they aren’t, from their perspective, actually Christians. But once again the irony of their demanding that such people wish them a “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” seems to go unnoticed.

 

I recently quoted Joseph Hoffmann as saying that “To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a book. And you have to forget the book has a history.” I think one could also say about this time of year “To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a holiday. And you have to forget the holiday has a history.”

So to those who are Christians I recommend ceasing the ridiculous habit of complaining about what others do or do not wish you, and appreciating instead that, for all our multi-cultural context today, Christmas still has Christian associations that will provide you with an opportunity to talk about your faith and what this holiday means to you. Very few people will take offense at you if you wish them a Merry Christmas. And if they do, that is their prerogative, just as it is yours to express your own faith as you see fit.

But the truth is that the Christmas holiday features services that focus on Christian doctrine and stories, but what the holiday means in practice for American Christians is otherwise the same thing it means for everyone else – time off work, time spent with family, and giving of gifts. While many American Christians complain about what the store employees wish them, they are there in the stores alongside everyone else, engaging in a practice that has no real Biblical roots, making purchases in the spirit of our contemporary materialistic age.

If your Christian faith is about what you wish others and what you demand that they wish you, and not also about what you spend and what you spend your money on, then I would suggest that you have only a veneer of Christianity spread over cultural values that are not specifically Christian, and which you share with most other people in your historical and national context.

So to those in the English-speaking world who consider themselves Christians, my recommendation is this: stop complaining about the “de-Christianization” of a holiday that we ourselves stole (sorry, borrowed) from others and successfully hijacked for more than a thousand years. And instead delight in the fact that, even in our changed and changing context,  you can express your Christian faith, and have at least as much of an opportunity to take already-existing holidays and customs and fill them with distinctively Christian values – for yourself and as an opportunity to share your faith with others – as Christians in bygone eras did. If you feel you are not up to that challenge, then perhaps instead of complaining about the greetings of others, you would do well to ask whether you faith lacks the depth, vibrancy and creativity that Christianity has demonstrated at other times in history.

First And Future Christmases Around The Blogosphere

Biblical Archaeology Review has a free book in pdf format entitled The First Christmas, with perspectives from Biblical scholars about subjects such as the star and the birthplace of Jesus.

There are some interesting Christmas perspectives around the blogosphere. Robin Parry recommends taking Christ out of Christmas. Richard Hall offers a defense of materialist Christmas, suggesting that it is the rest of the year that is the problem. Bruce Prescott shared a link to a Street Prophets piece on how to put Christ back into Christmas. Experimental Theology talks about the “real” war on Christmas and whether Santa is real, while Brian LePort is thinking about the real Santa Claus.

And for musical accompaniment, David Ker offers a phonetically similar variation on a Christmas favorite.

A Symphony Of Science Around The Blogosphere

There’s a video featuring “vocals” by Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye that has been referred to on many blogs I read. I only got around to listening to it today, and it is definitely worth sharing. A “Symphony of Science,” some have called it:

Elsewhere in science and religion around the blogosphere:

The BioLogos blog Science and the Sacred shared a science-related worship video (the song is “God of Wonders”).

Ray Comfort’s edited edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species has been criticized for its content and its tampering, but now most recently for plagiarism. Genie Scott of the NCSE has replied to him yet again.

Science and Religion Today shared a number of links, including one to an article from the Huffington Post about faith and doubt.

How To Believe

How to Believe: Teachers and Seekers Show the Way to a Modern, Life-Changing Faith by Jon Spayde (New York: Random House, 2008) is a striking book to read after finishing Gretta Vosper’s With Or Without God, since it reflects an almost opposite perspective, that of someone who is attracted to Christianity, as opposed to someone who is trying to mediate its core to those who are repelled by some of its features. The book is a collection of interviews, and here are a few quotes to give you just a taste:

Richard Rohr: “God refuses to let Himself of Herself be thought. God can only be experienced. You can’t think God, you can only be present to God” (p.5).

Kosuke Koyama: “You know, if you were to go up to Jeremiah and ask him what he thought of monotheism, he’d say ‘What? I’ve never heard that word. But Yahweh commands us to care for the widow and the orphan'” (p.14). He also quotes Max Mueller (p.16) as saying that “he who knows only one religion knows none”.

John Shelby Spong: “The theistic God is either impotent, evil, or He doesn’t exist. If God hasn’t got the power to stop the tsunami, then he’s impotent; if He has it and doesn’t, then He’s malevolent. That kind of God doesn’t live very long in the thoughtful minds of people. A lot of what people call prayers to the theistic God are letters to Santa Claus – dear God, I’ve been a good boy…[M]ost people have so identified God with that sort of image that, when they hear you critique the theistic God, they think you are saying there is no God. But theism is a human definition of the holy, and all human definitions can change” (p.41). I also liked Spong’s self-description on p.42: “I understand why people want to hold on to the old conceptions, because I once held them. They finally got cracked open for me in theological seminary, and I became more or less what I am, which is a sort of mystic wandering in the wilderness, convinced of the reality of God, not convinced of any formula that purports to describe what God is. I am always on a journey into the mystery which is bigger than any of the creeds can possibly contain.”

James W. Jones: “[T]he mind can’t carry the weight of your whole life” (p.85). I like Jones’ description of the Christian contemplative tradition, and his suggestion that there ought to be a Bodhisattva vow for Christians.

Leo Lefebure: “One of the saddest results of the current battles between the partisans of the conservative and liberal religion in America, it seems to me, is the loss of a sense of religion as the exploration of mystery – probing a truth so compelling that it must be explored but so vast that it will never be comprehended” (p.133).

Voyage of the Damned

I finally watched the Doctor Who Christmas special “Voyage of the Damned” last night. It was certainly entertaining, and as tragic as the recent episodes have often tended to be. The “earthologist” (with a fake degree from a degree mill that also did dry cleaning) was particularly funny, with his poorly-informed understanding of human traditions: The people of Earth worship the great God Santa, with his fierce claws, and his wife Mary. Every Christmas they go to war against the people of Turkey and then eat the conquered for Christmas dinner like savages.

Eventually the Doctor objects that this hasn’t got the meaning of Christmas quite right, and when he is asked what Christmas is really about, he says it is a long story – and he should know, because he was there. In fact, he got the last room!

It was also great to have Chuck make a reappearance on TV recently. With more Doctor Who, LOST, sooner or later the end of the writers’ strike, more Chuck, Battlestar Galactica and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles to look forward to, there is only one big question left unanswered…

How will I find the time to watch all the things that are worth watching?

Latest Christmas Blogging

A few more Christmas-related blog entries, following up on my one-stop Christmas blogging link collection. It seemed better to have a follow-up entry than to extend that one indefinitely…

A Novelist On The Nativity

Christmas Wishes from around the Anglican Communion

Christmas in the Trenches by Jim Wallis

Bethlehem vs. Nazareth: The Claim To Fame Smackdown

Oh Blessed Be The Time and Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem by Metacatholic

Food For Thought: The Birth Of Jesus

Why The Need For A Vulnerable God?

Dating Christmas (and a Christmas Sermon on Dates)

More Shots Fired In War On Advent

Merry Christmas (or Chirstmas) from Metacrock. And from C. Orthodoxy. And from Ken Schenck. And Duane Smith

Three Christmas Stories For The Second Half Of Life

Hark The Herald Angels Sing – the full lyrics, with some more about Charles Wesley.

Christmas Presidential Politics

The Wreath Of God

Barna Survey: Americans’ Views On The Virgin Birth

Win The War On Christmas By Losing

Christians Against Christmas

Santa Crucified

Star Of The East

The Nativity Stories compared (HT Find And You Shall Seek)

Theological Epicycles

Evolution and Incarnation

Scrooge In Reverse, An Obama Christmas and Love Made Visible from Pastor Bob Cornwall

Bumpy Ride To Bethlehem, Christmas In The Public Space, Rethinking The Incarnation In Time For Christmas, and The Archbishop and Baby in the Manger at Find And You Shall Seek

Religion Reporters Do Love Their Christmas Legends and A Christmas Legend, Or A License To Lie? deal with media reports about things Rowan Williams supposedly said. See also the Cartoon Blog on this topic.

Jim West on Archaeological Evidence and the Birth of Jesus

Christmas and the First Church Growth Consultant

Give Them What They Really Want (for Christmas)

Scot McKnight has an ongoing series on Christmas Words

Philip Harland has a collection that ranges from extracanonical Gospels to Ella Fitzgerald

Confessions Of A Half-Hearted Christmas Radical

A X-mas Call For Scientists and Christian Leaders to Unite

An Arabic Christmas Carol

A Muslim Recommends Putting “Christ” Back In Christmas

The True Origin of Santa Claus

Happy Yalda (Winter Solstice)

One Stop Christmas Blogging

We’ve all heard of one-stop Christmas shopping, so I thought with the frenetic pace of holiday shopping, finding all the relevant holiday blogging experiences that are available might be a bit much to bear. Hence below are included links to many of the last couple of weeks’ worth of blog entries on Christmas-related topics.

But let me not just offer links but some actual content. I’ve been reading Christian Origins: A People’s History of Christianity, and in it there is a useful collection of Jewish birth stories which probably provided the pattern for those told about Jesus in the New Testament. For instance:

The Greek text of 1 Enoch 106:10-13,18:

Just now a child has been born to Lamech my son
and his form and his image are [not like human beings
and his color is] whiter than snow
and redder than a rose
and the hair of his head is whiter than wool
and his eyes are different – like the rays of the sun!
And he stood up from the midwife’s hands
and opening his mouth he blessed the Lord of the age!
And my son Lamech was alarmed
and he fled to me
and he does not believe that it is his son
but that [it is] from the angels…

Then I [Enoch] answered saying,
“The Lord will renew order on the earth…
And this child that was born will be left to survive
and his three children will be saved when those on earth have died.
And he will wean the earth from the corruption that is in it.
And now say to Lamech,
‘The child is yours rightly and purely.
Call his name Noah
for he will be your survivor on whom you can rest,
[he] and his sons from the earth’s corruption
and all the sinners and all things fulfilled on the earth’.”

Biblical Antiquities (Pseudo-Philo) 9.10

And the spirit of God fell on Miriam at night
And she saw a dream
and she recounted it to her parents that morning saying
“I saw [a dream] this night
and look! a man was standing there in linen clothing.
And he said to me
‘Go and say to your parents
“Look! What is born from you will be thrown out in the water.
In the same way water will be dried up through him.
And I will do signs by him
and I will save my people
and he himself holds leadership always’.”

And when Miriam recounted her dream
her parents did not believe her.

Both of the above quotes from primary sources are reproduced in Antoinette Clark Wire’s chapter “Women’s History From Birth-Prophecy Stories” in Christian Origins edited by Richard A. Horsley (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) pp.74-75.

Now for the links I promised to other Christmas-related posts around the blogosphere:

Peter Kirk has a very recent post entitled Fully human and born of a virgin, to which Doug Chaplin has already responded.

Another astronomer is trying to explain the star of Bethlehem. But once one realizes that the star in Matthew’s story behaves in a way that no star, planet, planetary conjunction, supernova or comet could (by leading the Magi first to Jerusalem, to ensure a slaughter will ensue, and then to a specific house in Bethlehem), the question of whether the story is based on a vague misremembered recollection of an actual astronomical phenomenon, or on nothing but symbolism, becomes impossible to determine and thus moot.

A Christmas-related interview with John Dominic Crossan

Crossan Speaks About Christmas and More

What a family home looked like in Jesus’ time

Michael Halcomb offers several posts on the relationship between Christmas traditions and Scripture, and also asks Why December 25th?

Deane’s blog discusses the incompatibility of the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, a theme I’ve also tackled on this blog.

A call to Boycott Nativity Plays!

Santa Claus and Quantum Mechanics

Christ came as an embryo

Has all the early focus on Christmas totally displaced Advent?

The Mary we never knew (Syrian tradition)

Holy Mothers Of God

Wise Men Denied Security Permits To Visit Baby Jesus

God, vulnerable

Some of Ben Witherington’s Christmas poems

Twelve Days Of Jesus Junk and Twelve Days of X-mas: The Bottom Line

And finally there is a video ofJesus breakdancing on his birthday

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