Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas in a Time of Culture War

It is that time of year again: Christmastime. To paraphrase Dickens (though not from A Christmas Carol), it is the best of times, and also the worst of times. The time when holidays are exhausting, the people you spend it with tiring, and the inevitable return to work depressing. Just like every other time of year, in fact, only more so.

It is also the time of year when a small but vocal sub-section of the population lament the fact that no one seems to remember 'the reason for the season.'

You may know of whom I refer to: the cultural warriors.

They are the one's who want to put Christ back into Christmas, to rescue it from rampant consumerism. Or they want to take Christ out of Christmas because it has become much too commercialized.

The semantic argument neatly parallels the cultural criticism. If Christ is in Christmas, that is because the word itself contains a historical trace of things that once were, namely, the celebration of Christ's mass--or Crīstesmæsse in ye Olde English  And if Christ has been lost to the celebration of Christmas, that is because people now find themselves animated by baser motivations, like the desire for new toys, new clothes, and, with a little less frequency, books. New game consoles, electronic devices, or perhaps just straight-up cash, to be spent however the recipient so desires, are also possibilities.

The rest of the population--tucked comfortably in their secular beds in the feigned hope that a rotund gentleman in a red suit, the memory of Eastern Orthodox saint, which was revived by a major soft drink producer in the first half of the 20th century, will shimmy down the chimney--wonder what all the huff and puff is about. Live and let live, they say. It's is all just stories, anyway. What really matter is that you enjoy the time you have, and with family, if you have them.

Welcome to Christmas in a time of culture war. The culture warriors wag their collective finger at the rest of the population, who happily mold the holiday to their secular ends. They pit the virtues of faith against the indifference of reason; the will to believe against the tepid bath that is common sense. The battle is fought almost exclusively, and certainly ineffectually, from one side, to the great annoyance of the other.

Christmas in a time of culture war is more accurately described as Christmas in a time of material plenty. The capitalist organization of the economy is real miracle here. (No really, it is.) The competitive organization of the marketplace has freed persons to improve their material lot through their own creative industry. This translates, in turn, to an increase in financial resources, which can be invested back into one's own business, or can be used to purchase things things like food, clothing, shelter, or, in line with our theme, Christmas presents.

Consumption, even conspicuous consumption during the holiday season (when, we are reminded, business either makes or breaks its yearly budget), is the engine driving the entire operation. Consumption drives a cycle of economic expansion, which rains blessing on the masses. But, if the culture warriors are to be believed, the cycle is one with vicious moral and spiritual consequences. Market economics and capitalist finance has endowed its beneficiaries with more personal freedoms than has hitherto been known anywhere on earth. We no longer have to wait on others to give us gifts, which we don't deserve anyway. Now, like the proverbial self-made man who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, we can buy gifts for ourselves--the sort that we really do deserve.

The consequence of material plenty is the schizophrenia of culture war.

Think it over for a moment. The old Christmas stories are typically set in economically trying times. This is as true in the Gospel narratives as it is in Dicken's A Christmas Carol. The stories are about the needy and vulnerable, just trying to eek out an existence on the edge of civilized life. Or think of the Christmas Truce on Christmas Eve in 1914, when 100,000 British and German soldiers decided singing Christmas carols and playing football (i.e. soccer) with the enemy was better than depriving him or breathe and life. The context makes the act of giving especially poignant.

At Christmas in a time of material plenty calls to serve God instead of Mammon amount to the pot calling the kettle black. There are poor people surrounding us on all sides. But they are not the one's vocalizing their displeasure with consumerism. The ones who feels the pin-prick of conscience are the one who raises their voice.

But the Christmas story is more 'secular' and so more materialistic than the cultural warriors allow. The accounts of Jesus' birth Matthew 2 and Luke 2 contain no message condemning material goods nor calls to stand apart from the rest of consumerist culture. Quite the opposite. In Matthew 2, The Magi bring expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the boy-child in Bethlehem. In Luke 2, this parents dutifully go to Bethlehem to register in the Roman census, but, as the story goes, find no room in the local inn, and are forced to settle for a manger in a stable. The image painted is rustic, not ascetic. It is not a matter of denying oneself the goods one can afford, but in being grateful for the gifts that one cannot.

And finally, there is the general question of what the Christmas story is supposed to amount to. The Gospel of John does not have an explicit account of the the birth of Jesus. But its prologue (John 1) does retell the creation narrative in Genesis 1 in the light of Jesus' coming. It describes how 'the Word became flesh' and 'made his dwelling with us.' The latter phrase could also be rendered as 'tabernacling' or 'tenting' with us. There is no escaping that the meaning of the phrase is thoroughly materialistic. God 'tents it' with humanity precisely by taking on humanity's ruder, material nature. In other words, God is the quintessential consumer who likes stuff just for the sake of liking stuff--the stuff we are made of, the stuff we have, and so on.

The lesson in all of this, I suppose, is that if the cultural warrior finds their material needs more than satisfied this Christmas, they should donate something to charity and/or shut up. Bemoaning the fact that other people either have forgotten about or don't know the 'reason for the season' is only to put one's own self-righteousness on display. And no one wants that.  It is Christmastime, after all.

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