Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hark! The heretical angels sing (Part 2)

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

So, are you mentally humming the tune to "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear?" I’m sure you all know it, regardless of your religious persuasion. It’s one the Top 20 Absolutely Unavoidable Christmas Carols. I played it at a violin recital last Saturday. I suspect theological issues were not on Harry Connick, Jr.’s mind when he said he sometimes finds Christmas music “nauseating” (see Margaret’s comment at Part 1 of this series), but phrases like “Heaven’s all-gracious King” certainly leave me feeling a little queasy. They always have, even when I was a little girl, hamming it up in the Church of the Nazarene Christmas pageant. I just never liked the references to God-as-royalty that pop up in the Judeo-Christian tradition. My anti-authoritarian tendencies are bred in the bone.

Still, even though I find the celebratory lyrics a little repulsive, I was happy to take part in the recital, which not only included religious music, but was actually held in a chapel--albeit a hippy-dippy, ecumenical one. My teacher had been a little tentative about asking me to participate. She knows I am a Wiccan, and someone else with Pagan/New Age sympathies had refused the invitation to play, on the grounds that to do so would violate her beliefs.

I couldn’t help smiling when I heard that. Everyone is free to follow the dictates of conscience, of course, but shying away from Christmas carols because they don’t express your theology just seems silly. If you feel duty-bound to drop-kick “Silent Night,” what’s next? No listening to Bach? Or reading Hopkins? You pretty much have to say buh-bye to most of Western culture if you’re really going to avoid sullying yourself with Jesus cooties.

This fear of religious contamination afflicts all sides in the culture wars. Plenty of conservative Christians wouldn’t dream of participating in even the tamest Wiccan rituals, such as making corn dollies at harvest time. What’s interesting to me is that we tend to see the Christ lover’s response as superstitious and primitive, the product of a medieval mentality inclined to see the devil in a handful of straw. On the other hand, the unbeliever's avoidance of Christian ritual is seen as an act of principle, a way of taking a stand for the embattled non-Christian minority.

The distinction is pure bias, if you ask me. If Christianity is truly just a myth to you, what harm can come from enjoying its little pantomimes? If you don’t worship the god of Abraham, if Jesus is not your savior, exactly what is the difference between “Away in a Manger” and “Here Comes Santa Claus?”

I’ll go a step further and say that I think banishing Christian imagery from public spaces is asinine. When I was a child, there was an elaborate crèche put up in a Nashville city park every Christmas. It was quite an attraction. My family used to drive from our little town, nearly 75 miles away, just to see it. It fell into disrepair and was sold off to a mall somewhere in the 70s, when people began to get so dogmatic about church-state separation. If a similar display went up in Nashville tomorrow, the huge Christian majority in town would be thrilled, but all the other fanatics would have a major snit. I’m sure the controversy would mirror the ones in Illinois and Washington this year.

And yet, the county courthouse in Nashville has a Christmas tree out front that rivals Rockefeller Center’s, and nobody bats an eye about it. I guess the Freedom From Religion contingent hasn’t heard that there are scads of dancing, chanting, Goddess-invoking Pagans who think trees are (shh!) sacred. The antitheists might also want to go poke around the park where the nativity scene used to be, where they will find a giant idol of a Greek goddess drawing a steady stream of admirers.

Curious, isn’t it—that Christian kitsch inspires so much resentment, and everybody else’s kitsch doesn’t? I know you’re thinking Well, that’s because the Christians are trying to take over the government and run our lives like the fucking Taliban—and I’d agree, up to a point. I actually do support, passionately, the idea of secular government, and the separation of church and state. I don’t want to see the Ten Commandments displayed in courthouses, and I don’t want the Catholic Church deciding what my reproductive rights are going to be. The state should never, ever barge into our lives carrying a cross—or an athame, for that matter.

But there’s a world of difference between Christian theocratic ambitions, which are fundamentally repressive and intolerant, and cultural expressions of Christianity, which are unquestionably part of our collective mythos, shared by Westerners of every faith or no faith—and that brings me back to the issue of fear. I think the reason some of us non-Christians feel so threatened by the Jesus fetish is that we can’t quite throw off the supernatural power of the myth. It’s been my observation that people who are firmly grounded in other religions, or who have been godless from childhood, are not the ones freaking out about the Virgin and Child in the public square. It’s people like me, who have fled the embrace of the Lord, who don’t want to be reminded that lots of folks prefer to remain cuddled up with Him. There’s a tiny fear that if we changed our minds once, we might do it again.

There’s an interesting quote from a Southern Baptist in that article I linked to above:

“If, as the English proverb says, familiarity breeds contempt, it is logical that Christmas symbols floating in the marketplace unattached to their religious meaning will themselves become meaningless. Can it be that when Christians advocate for symbols of faith in public venues that we contribute to the emasculation of their meaning?”

I think he’s got something there, except that I think it’s not a question of “emasculation” of meaning, but of expanded meaning. Christians are free go on regarding the Holy Family as just that, but there’s no reason that non-Christians can’t claim Jesus, Mary and Joseph for their own cultural purposes, including ones that no church would approve. Christmas is for everybody. God is optional.

Angels' Mass, Albrecht Dürer, c.1500


Mary said...

bobble-bobble-bobble: (that's me, nodding) :)

It's always interesting to me how such diverse social, cultural and religious customs and dogma come crashing together at this time of year, become all mushed and blended, and somehow in the mind of each individual, translate out into firmly held, intractable beliefs. I mean, what exactly is a decorated evergreen tree doing inside of a Christian church? Why do many Wiccans and Pagans continue to enjoy carols and creches and herald angels? And why do we point our fingers at the other group and scoff, or worse, fear? It's all pretty crazy isn't it?

Julie H. Rose said...

You've got a great point with this: ". . .who have been godless from childhood, are not the ones freaking out. . ."

I adore religious choral music and my life would be paler without it. I enjoy everything "Christmas"! It's just pure fun for me.

I grew up in a heavily Jewish community, but there was a town creche (and a menorah). We sang Christmas carols at public school. These days, those things have been sanitized of any vestige of religiosity or done away with. What's the holiday without Handel's Messiah? I don't believe in the Messiah, but I sure believe in the beauty of this music. And yes, I am an atheist and so were my parents.

I wish people would save all the fuss for important issues, like having judges like Scalia on the supreme court. . .

Bozo said...

I agree that familiarity with Christian thought is essential to understanding Western culture. And I am reminded of Diderot, an avowed non-believer, who would go faithfully to Notre Dame because, he said, "I may not believe in God, but I do believe in Bach."

jmcleod76 said...

Many good thoughts in this post. Thanks!

I used to be a diehard evangelical, and I took a lot of theology classes in college. Now I'm a Buddhist (and an atheist, in the same sense you describe here). Before I found a path of my own, I was very angry with Christianity (yeah, I was angry with an entire religion). Now that I feel rooted in Buddhism - which teaches that the Dharma is everywhere, not just in the teachings of the Buddha - I'm rekindling my affection for many aspects of Christianity that I used to appreciate.

I'm constantly telling people that they should really read the Bible if they want to understand anything at all about Western culture. I may personally find much of that book repugnant, but it informs so much of how our society has developed. My partner is an English teacher, and we have an ongoing argument about this ... I think she's missing so much of the richness in the literature she teaches by not being intimately familiar with the Bible. Allusions to it are everywhere. They enrich our cultural expression.

Margaret said...

When I was in college, a philosophy professor who meant the world to me-- primarily by opening up the actual world of ideas to me for the first time in my fresh-from-Catholic-school life-- once told me the story of his "conversion" to agnosticism. He was an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ, married and the father of small children, and one Christmas he had a vision: The choir was singing "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful," and as he stood on the altar, wearing his ministerial robes, in his mind arose the image of a vast, trudging line of people of all races and all ages, and they were heading toward a stable in the far, far distance. And he realized, as he watched them walk past, that he was not in the line himself, that he was not himself walking among the faithful toward the newborn king. And that was that for him. It was the kind of thing William James describes in "The Varieties of Religious Experience."

I don't know the details of how he got from that revelation to the chairmanship of the philosophy department at Auburn, where I met him decades later, but he did, and by the time I got there he was known to be the sort of challenging, probing, demanding professor who refuses to tiptoe around student sensibilities--thank God for tenure, or he would've been gone long before I got there-- and invariably manages to strip the confused of their faith within days of the start of term.

So I was startled to find him sitting in the pew in front of me at a local church that December, where the choir was singing Christmas carols. I can't remember how he put it exactly, but his explanation was very similar to your point here. Something about culture and beauty and tradition and pleasure. In essence, they were his songs, too, and part of his own story and truth, even if he no longer believed in them as expressions of any sort of larger truth.

BitterGrace said...

What, isn't anybody going to tell me I'm going to Hell?

Seriously, I really appreciate all the comments. Mary's "crashing" image is right on target. I think crashing can be instructive, which I guess is why I think it's fine to go wandering into other people's rituals. It's okay by me if they wander into mine.

Julie, you are so right about Scalia--although I suspect he'd still be a menace without the Catholicism. I think you may have given me some material f my next post.

Bozo, I love that quote, but I was kinda hoping you would give me a little push back here ;-)

jmcleod76, it's nice to see you here! We have something in common--I was raised a fundamentalist, and had my own angry years. I feel very fortunate now, though, to have clocked all that time in church and Bible study. I still keep a Bible by my desk for reference.

Margaret, the start of that story sounded so much like a Flannery O'Connor tale, I was kinda disappointed by the civilized ending. I wonder if any college professors can get away with challenging students that way now.