October 19, 2017

Please…confront me with the strangeness of Christmas

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, Cuyp

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, Cuyp

The story of Jesus has no bite. A tame “baby Jesus” makes his annual, heart-warming appearance, and leaves us largely un-bothered and un-changed. Yet when I read the two Gospel accounts, I am struck by how strange these narratives are, unsettling and fantastical at every corner.

• W. David O. Taylor

• • •

Thank you, David O. Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, for putting it so bluntly.

In a piece in the Washington Post, Taylor calls the biblical Christmas stories “weird,” “incredible,” “bizarre,” “unsettling,” “fantastical,” “strange,” “disturbingly odd,” “decidedly troubling,” and “terrifying yet life-giving.”

And he criticizes the church and our cultural institutions for taming and sanitizing them.

One would scarcely know how bizarre these narratives are, in fact, by the activities of artists and advertisers, along with plenty of churches, during the Christmas holidays.

Artists will extract portions of the story, tidy them up, set them to pop or hip hop or classical music, then allow radio stations to play it to death. Grocery stores will play it to a second death. Gas stations will complete the cycle by turning the songs into dismissible clichés.

Sermons, for their part, will rehash the stock details of the gospels, with the hope that parishioners will feel the “magic” or “mystery” of Christ’s birth.

Church pageants will trot out the cute kids in bathrobes, a pretty girl will play Mary, while an awkward Joseph remains forgettable, and an angel-child will belt out the good news to shepherd boys dragging their broom-sticks, eyes wandering over to the cookie table, even as the violins reach their sentimental climax.

iPhones will record the whole business for posterity, so that parishioners will remember how cute and sweet the drama was, even if the actual birth narratives are decidedly troubling and incredible.

I find myself in the same position as he reports: “Year after year, then, I find myself desperate for the church to confront me with that strangeness.”

If the story were truly told, in all its bizarre glory, Taylor says, we might see that, in the coming of Jesus, God is offering us hope instead of good cheer, joy that accounts for suffering rather than mere happiness, and the kind of love “that bears all things, including death and the loss of privileges, so that the faithful might become agents of the kind of shalom that Jesus exhibits…”

He imagines how this might be so, suggesting that we might encourage artists to present us with images, literature, dramatic pieces, and music that show the true human pain revealed in the Christmas narratives: things like the agony of infertility, poverty and peasant life in the Middle East, shame, doubt and social stigma, injustice, political intrigue and persecution, human fascination with astrology and “foreign” beliefs, and the anguished questions of parents who lose innocent children to cruelty and violence.

What if churches, he asks, focused on characters like Simeon and Anna and presented the long-suffering and patience of the elderly whose hopes have been deferred for years?

What if worship leaders gave space in services for people to share their experiences of pain and doubt, travail and suffering?

What if artists were commissioned to create pieces that evoke the terrifying sight of angelic visitations instead of the prettified “Precious Moments” angels that “touch” us so gently?

David O. Taylor asks:

Might such artworks provide us the capacity to live more faithfully in the actual conditions and contexts of our lives? Might they enable the birth narratives of Christ to become fresh again with insight and sharp with tension, for the sake of a new kind of “Christmas in America”?

And might such a Christmas contribute to the healing of our broken world, a world marked by infertility, divorce, doubt, shame, violence, abandonment and strange dreams?

Last Sunday I preached in my home church using the ancient carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” I noted how we so often sell short the song’s repeated refrain: “O tidings of comfort and joy.” It usually evokes in me warm images and feelings of Victorian seasonal festivity, good cheer and contentment.

However, the true “tidings” that proclaim “comfort and joy” are the tidings of the gospel, the good news that — as the carol says — frees us all from Satan’s pow’r and creates a new world where God makes things right in Christ. These are the tidings of Mary’s Magnificat: casting down the powers that rule over and enslave us and raising the dead to life.

By domesticating the “tidings of comfort and joy” that this season proclaims, we rob ourselves — and our world — of what we need most.

David O. Taylor is absolutely right. The biblical birth narratives are weird and incredible. We can (and must) stop sanitizing them.

Comments

  1. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    Yeah. Despite all my higher-minded arguments this may be the underlying reason for my preference for High / Liturgical church – they create a back-stop, at least to some degree, against the Disneyland edition of religion. They prevent the pastor from running whilly-nilly down some flight of adorable fancy.

    >Church pageants will trot out the cute kids in bathrobes, a pretty girl will play Mary

    I wonder more and more if those who have never experienced Church, or even just life, as a childless adult can ever understand how incredibly tiresome this season is; why many people look forward mostly to its being over.

    > What if artists were commissioned to create pieces that evoke the
    > terrifying sight of angelic visitations

    Do we need to commission artists? History has provided us with a great amount of art just like this. We keep it in museums or the back storage locker. Lets just bring out what we have.

    • I do appreciate the liturgical backstop that protects me from this:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1A6dtCNcsXU

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        Ugh.

        There is a distillery in the next neighborhood over that has a burlesque night. And I have no objection to that; someday I’ll probably be there, I here it is entertaining. But…. ugh.

        • Yeah. The comments below this video are also quite Ugh; reactionary religious protectionism at its worst and most vitriolic.

          But if I decide to opt for burlesque, or something sexier, please give me the real thing, some real pagan erotica, not the tepid come-on and tease of Christian purity culture wrapping itself in the garb of Las Vegas.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Maybe some Worship Leader(TM) watched the ending sequence of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life one time too many?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Is this on YouTube under a hashtag of “Weirdest Church Services”?

        If not, it should be.

        Though the all-time WEIRDEST megachurch service video was making the rounds a few years ago. Imagine if you will:
        1) Stage set with giant pieces from Milton Bradley’s “Game of Life”.
        2) Mime doing mimey things in the background.
        3) Strawberry Shortcake doing a tap dance in the background.
        4) And front-and-center some “Worship Leader” in a red lobster fursuit, “singing” the early Beatles song “Come Together” in the style of that William Shatner cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”:
        “HE SAY! ONE! AND ONE! AND ONE! MAKE THREE!
        HOLD YOU! IN HIS ARMS! AND YOU CAN FEEL! HIS DISEASE!
        COME TOGETHER! RIGHT NOW! OVER ME!”
        5) And the number ends with a giant fishhook dropping in from above, hooking Lobster Boy, and hauling him up out of sight.

        This was confirmed to be from a legitimate church service at some mega.

    • Btw: How much are you willing to pay to ransom that art from the museums, where it is currently held captive to the super-inflationary world of the rare art market? Don’t you know that it belongs in museums and other such controlled environments, where it can be preserved for….posterity? That, or in the private holdings of some rich collector?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        I am fine with a reproduction. There is no magick in being ‘original’. And no doubt history has accumulated for us a large collection of perfectly suitable art about which nobody cares.

  2. But the domesticated story has become part of the strangeness of the story. We don’t live in a world where we get to control the way the story is mediated and expressed, where we get to present it the way we think is true and faithful. Like Mary and Joseph, the announcement and story come to us in a world mostly outside our control, where things get changed and distorted in the retelling, where memory idealizes and softens the rudeness and strangeness of the narrative. This softening and idealizing makes the story find itself again and again in a world alien to its truth, just as the world it first came to was alien to its truth. The artists, fine and commercial, the story retellers, will continue to operate outside our theological influence, as the rest of world always has. This was so even at the apogee of Christian social and religious hegemony in European Christendom, though we like to think differently.

  3. He… suggest(s) that we might encourage artists to present us with images, literature, dramatic pieces, and music that show the true human pain revealed in the Christmas narratives: things like the agony of infertility, poverty and peasant life in the Middle East, shame, doubt and social stigma, injustice, political intrigue and persecution, human fascination with astrology and “foreign” beliefs, and the anguished questions of parents who lose innocent children to cruelty and violence.

    The Christmas he wants is a Christmas of good news to the poor, and the poor in spirit. The christmas holiday celebrated in America is a holiday for the rich, and must maintain the appearance, however illusory, of happiness and good cheer. Until we recognize the poverty of our riches, we will always prefer the American christmas over the traditional Christmas, perhaps with some loudly clamored for nods to Christ being the “reason for the season”.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > and must maintain the appearance, however illusory, of happiness and good cheer

      Not to be too contrary, but I find abundant happiness and good cheer. Only most of it is disconnected from The Church. On the whole I am hopeful. The cliche American Norman-Rockwell Christmas *IS* dying a death of a thousand demographic cuts. Perhaps my error is my dream of a Church positioned somewhere other than standing on the rear platform of the caboose gazing longingly at what is behind; dear Church, come meet the people of the 21st century, *listen*, and learn how to speak with them, they are in need of you.

  4. I agree with most of this, but the point can be made without criticizing Christmas pageants. I don’t have children and wasn’t all that interested in my church’s Christmas pageant held during services, but it is a way of getting very young children involved– for them it probably does have some meaning. And it’s fine that the parents get to see their children being adorable in public. This is all good, I think.

    But yes, adults should also delve much more deeply into the stories.

    • Yes. I don’t think it’s a complete question of either/or.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      I agree, at least in principle. But I have never once seen it done well. I’ve been a Sunday school teacher and organized youth ministry… And I’ve never once seen it done well. Maybe it can be done well; but I’m skeptical. And relative to its low merit, I feel it is entirely fair to ask “why?”. Parents have ample opportunity to see adorable things, does the church need to be in on that game? If the parents have nowhere else to go for such things — that is a problem of the parent’s lifestyle choices, NOT a problem for the church.

      I know I am on the radical end of the spectrum here – but how the church deals with children and youth is almost entirely counter productive and misguided IMNSHO. Mostly it just doubles down on the Popular and Pretty, and all other children and youth please stand quietly in the background.

      How do you do Adorable without telling someone, however politely, “you are not”? Children are not clueless.

      • Some of this may fall into the category of Jesus rebuking his disciples for not allowing the little children to “bother” Jesus. Probably does for me. The older I get, the less interested I am in the adorable pageant or any other such children’s program (except for when my grandchildren are involved, of course!). But I find I must be careful to recognize that childhood, imagination, silliness, and parental joy at seeing their children on display are essential parts of our humanity, not just our cultural kitsch. And if it’s “not done well,” it probably just adds to the charm.

        The author of the article is more than correct however in stressing how overdone this is.

        • “But I find I must be careful to recognize that childhood, imagination, silliness, and parental joy at seeing their children on display are essential parts of our humanity, not just our cultural kitsch. And if it’s “not done well,” it probably just adds to the charm.”

          I absolutely agree, Chaplain Mike. Silliness and kitsch are fun, and fun is a necessary part of our humanity, particularly in the northern hemisphere in winter.

          No one is forced to go to these children’s pageants, but why begrudge those who do enjoy them? Are “weird,” “incredible,” “bizarre,” “unsettling,” “fantastical,” “strange,” “disturbingly odd,” “decidedly troubling,” and “terrifying yet life-giving” the only adjectives we are permitted as Christians at the Nativity? Or maybe these are more appealing to writers and clerics (not you, CM!) who are bored with the same-old same-old stuff and feel they need to ‘intellect it up?”

  5. The preacher in Robert’s video says, “I’m not condemning anyone.” Yeah, you are. Your whole spiel is one of guilt and fear and condemnation and low level religiosity. I have to listen to this crap every Christmas. It gets tiresome, it gets tedious, especially when Christmas is already done and over and it keeps going. Give me a break.Yes, it is obvious that Jesus could not have done what he did without getting born. Neither could I or anyone else. It’s a common experience. That particular one was well noted as special and unique, and I agree that it was the most important birth ever. Now that we have that settled, can I please get on with my task of loving God and neighbor? It’s difficult enough without being harangued constantly to remember my ABC’s like a field sobriety test.

    A quick search comes up with this: “The earliest celebration of Christmas in the western Roman Empire has been dated to December 25, 336 A.D., although celebrations of the Christ child most certainly took place before then.” I’m sure there are quibbles, but I’ll take that as valid information. What I am finding more and more these days is that pushing thru the pressure of the liturgical calendar and it’s requirements, one comes to a high and exalted figure standing at the core of our ancient Christian religious tradition. His name is Constantine.

    Christmas is over for another year, thank God. Can we move on, please? Help me, Jesus!

    • Although the date of Christ’s birth is not given to us in Scripture, there is documented evidence that December 25 was already of some significance to Christians prior to A.D. 354. One example can be found in the writings of Hyppolytus of Rome, who explains in his Commentary on the book of Daniel (c. A.D. 204) that the Lord’s birth was believed to have occurred on that day:

      For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.

      • My quote allows for yours, but my concern is not over the particular day celebrated but when the actual official hoopla began. Your quote is interesting in that on two of the three dates given, it also gives the day, which can help pin down the year. As it is, it’s a bit fuzzy depending on just what is actually meant by “his forty-second year” and “the thirty-third year” but still interesting. There’s a lot more consensus on the year of Jesus’ death than of his birth. I would like to know how the desert fathers and mothers did Christmas.

    • Christmas is most assuredly not over. Christmas lasts until Epiphany. something about 12 days as I recall.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      …a high and exalted figure standing at the core of our ancient Christian religious tradition. His name is Constantine.

      Every time in the past when I’ve heard some church tradition traced back to Constantine, it’s always been a windup to Catholic-bashing, Landmark Baptist/Seventh Day Adventist style.

  6. Yes! Why don’t we scratch our heads and wonder at the mystery…Was there really a time when angels appeared to men? And do they today?

  7. Part of the sanitizing of course is to read the two accounts as a metanarrative rather than to see them as they are – two strikingly different accounts that contradict each other in most of the details of the story. This can be “disturbingly odd” and “decidedly troubling” to those with fundamentalist tendencies but the fact that the early church in putting the scriptures together seems to have made absolutely no attempt whatsoever to reconcile these accounts can perhaps provide us with a clue as to how to read scripture fruitfully.

    • Great point.

    • Clay Crouch says:

      Our priest this past Sunday took a thirty minutes (way long for Episcopalians) comparing the two birth accounts. He also said the we have St. Francis of Assisi to thank for the mash up creche scenes; something to do with including/appealing to both the poor and the rich.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      the fact that the early church in putting the scriptures together seems to have made absolutely no attempt whatsoever to reconcile these accounts

      Unlike, say, John Nelson Darby.
      And that Dake guy who took it ever further.
      Now THEY reconciled every discrepancy, from Poem Truth into Math Truth.
      And look at their fruits.

  8. I have no problem with sanitized children’s Bible stories and wish all kids could get them without programming as part of their education. And yes, kids mostly do learn better by seeing and doing than by reading. If we are going for realism in the spirit of today’s post, let’s start with the scandal of a man likely in his 70’s with grown sons and hooked up with a pregnant fourteen year old girl. To get the impact, maybe you remember pictures of Anna Nicole Smith cuddling with her 90 year old billionaire husband. Add to that a picture of the remains of a Christian family after soldiers of the Islamic State are thru with them. Let’s make it three with a picture of a Syrian family with small children, cold, hungry, terrified, and fleeing for their lives with no idea whether they will make it.

    No, I’m sorry. Much as I like to be aware of so called reality, I much prefer my own Christmas decoration on my mantle. It’s a little cardboard box like animal crackers used to come in and it’s filled with candy. They passed them out at church. On the front and back are what’s called manger scenes played by smiling cartoon kids who look like South Park children without the hard bitten cynicism. Three kings, fuzzy sheep, camel and all. I much prefer that to a picture of babies worked over with a machete in front of their parents, thank you. Does anyone want to trade my hard candies for a traveler’s bottlette of rum? The box doesn’t come with it.