A Mid-Century Modern Christmas
On December 9, 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on CBS for the first time. I was two at the time and probably didn’t catch the first airing but it became for me, and many in my generation a part of my Christmas tradition.
The climax of the program, shown this year in my children’s public high school Christmas band concert, was Linus’ retelling of Luke’s birth narrative complete with shepherds watching their flocks by night. In the telling of this story Linus explains to Charlie Brown the true meaning of Christmas, rescuing him from his angst of increasing American consumerism surrounding the holiday.
George Marsden and the Twilight of the American Enlightenment
This year George Marsden, a preeminent historian of American evangelical history published a book covering the progression from mainline Protestant Christianity in the mid 20th century to the rise of the religious right setting the state for our current culture wars.
His assertion is that what dominates this history is a struggle to come to grips with religious pluralism. In the 1950s through the 1970s American was wrestling with Protestant, Catholic, Jew but the value system rested upon religious and philosophical assumptions it had inherited back to the period of its founding fathers. As long as competing cultural groups could agree upon “the good” institutions and practices wouldn’t suffer too much dislocation. As that consensus broke down institutions and assumed practices began to break down leading to the kinds of conflicts we have today over what is “the good”.
The Peanuts vs. South Park and The Simpsons
When I watch a Charlie Brown Christmas today I hear the older voice of the Protestant mainline still coming through. If you want to feel the difference compare the Peanuts to The Simpsons or South Park and you can see the deeply the conversation has changed. It isn’t simply our tolerance for the crass, but how many competing voices are in play and how deep the divisions between views of “the good” or moral practices.
The fight between mainline and evangelical churches was all about historical assertions and the Bible, but what they had in common was the liturgical use of the Bible. The mainline rejected a naive view of the Bible and history but mainline and evangelical could, with Linus, recite Luke’s story to discover “the true meaning of Christmas”.
The Holiday Season
While I don’t want to invoke the “Christmas vs. Holiday” culture war meme it does epitomize what has happened in the culture. A “holiday” is of course a “holy day” which in some senses is as strong as “Christmas” but for us “holy” has become a generic word that like “sacred” can be employed by various religious traditions. “Christ” is Christian in a way that “sacred” is not. In this way we try to express an approval of religious pluralism and naturally many see it as an assertion over and against specific sectarian claims, usually Christian claims.
Placement of nativity scenes in public spaces are now problematic and are shared by the demand of plural expressions. If you’re going to do Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the manger you’d better make space for the Hanukkah menorah, Kinara candles and the now obligatory atheist billboard. Some will see this as inclusivist progress, others see it as emblematic of the loss of Christian culture.
How the Religious Right Tried to Replay the Mainline Strategy
One of the more interesting points Marsden made in his book was that in the 1980s when the Religious Right came to power, in their attempt to “take back” American they essentially replayed the strategies of the mainline churches of the 50s and 60s against the mainline’s cultural heirs.
In the 80s the Religious right bolstered by the newly found alliance with the Roman Catholic church discovered how convenient it was to employ the term “Judeo-Christian” in trying to reassert the old values consensus that had been shaken by the identity rights movements beginning with the African American civil rights movement. Linus’ recitation was no longer a safe liturgical move that gave a broad swath of America a feel good moment but rather sectarian claim of the priority of the Christian story.
How it would be received in the culture, however, has changed dramatically. Increasingly specifically Christian assertions are met with not only skepticism about their historical foundations but also cultural offense that they support old immoral narratives that the new morality stands against: racism, sexism, bigotry, exclusivism, homophobia. Many Americans in hearing any specific Christian assertion will say “been there, done that, I’m not going back there again. Those were the dark ages.”
Brandon Ambrosino, who writes for Vox media in a way embodies the no-man’s land of the culture war. He attended Liberty University, Jerry Falwell’s institution and the epicenter of the 1980s Religious Right. He came out as gay and wrote about it in a major piece in the Atlantic. Because he’s never quite assumed the gay party line some on the left have seen him as a traitor for the cause and have protested his hiring at mainstream publications like the Atlantic or Vox Media.
In a video segment he does for Vox he visits a display of various manger scenes from various cultures and explains over and over again how “we can’t really know what actually happened that night”. Right there is initiates the mainline, fundamentalist wars and how the Bible should be regarded. How do we hold what we “know” through historical tools vs. the witness of the Bible? How do the old assertions line up with the new ones?
Peter Enns pokes at the same issues when he engages the new Exodus movie in this rather satirical piece.
Where we land are multiple Linus readings of Luke
- Linus recites the authorized, literal, historical account of Jesus’ birth (old Fundamentalist)
- Linus recites the liturgical meaning of Christmas (mainline)
- Linus reasserts the cultural priority of the Christian message in society (culture war)
Luke’s Culture War
Part of our contemporary chronological snobbery is that we imagine self-conscious pluralism is a new thing. We imagine that everyone in the world before the Internet was invented lived in naive bubbles of religious and cultural isolation never appreciating the competition between rival religious, cultural and moral claims.
Good Jewish Parents
Luke’s birth narrative of Jesus recited by Linus is followed by another story of the purification rites for Mary and the offering for the first born. Joseph and Mary are portrayed as faithful, observant first century Jews who, despite the stress of the journey to Bethlehem, the birth, and their modest means go to the temple in obedience to the law.
Scholars have also noted that there are some interesting elements of this story that also throw a glance back to the stories of Samuel’s birth and his dedication at the temple. Soon the new family will be joined by Simeon and Anna and the Old Testament richness will pile on higher and higher. Luke packs so many Old Testament quotes and allusions into this passage he’s kept scholars busy for years. Luke plays with the themes of the prophet Isaiah. Throughout this story Luke is clearly setting Jesus’ story within the long conversation of God’s people, recipients of promise yet in exile awaiting their deliverance and prophesied exaltation.
Particular or Universal?
But what to do with Israelite particularism? The language of the scene is dripping with the language of Hebrew particularism, a small victimized nation in the midst of empires that use her for their own ends. Israel, in her authorized story had their brief time in the sun under David and Solomon but for the most part were perpetually divided and under threat by more powerful neighbors. If they were the people of Yhwh, and he truly was the supreme God over all the earth why were they always being abused by their neighbors. When were the glorious prophesies of Isaiah and others to be realized? When would the Messiah come rescue Israel from imperial tyranny and exalt her as the embassy of the creator God’s reign over the entire world?
If you read the words of Simeon and Anna you can hear the tension. “The consolation of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem”. “Light to the nations” can be easily understood within a particularist agenda. Israel knows the one God, the true God, it has the law, the one way to please and satisfy God.
Anna and Simeon are Israel’s truest believers, those who have dedicated their lives to Israel’s particularist cause. Simeon and Anna have bet their lives on it and now, in Jesus, they see the fulfillment of all of their hopes.
This is where the story starts, but don’t forget that the book we call “Luke” is only the first volume, the second being “Acts”. That book will begin with the particularist question on the lips of the disciples after the resurrection “Now will you restore the kingdom to Israel?” Within this question is the recognition that Jesus failed to fulfill the particularist vision that all in the temple in that moment could embrace. This Jesus would be killed, as later would Stephen, for NOT towing the particularist line that held the temple and the law as sacred in the ways that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law demanded.
Myth of Progress
In seeing how Jesus begins withing the observant, particularist community it is easy to case Jesus within our imagined myth of progress. Jesus, like all provincials starts as a particularist but in time through exposure to other cultures gains enlightenment, therefore outgrowing his particularism and fully develop a more universalistic, inclusive message.
We do see, however, that this broader message is there right from the start. “Good news for all peoples” the angels sing and Linus reiterates.
Universalisms, however, usually fail to fulfill because there is little universalistic about human life. We are all born within a particular story, we all have parents located in history. There is no such thing as a generic person. All universalistic themes are themselves particular and will inevitably find conflict with others no matter how universalistic they imagine themselves to be. Jesus, like all of us, wasn’t born everywhere nor nowhere he was born someplace to parents of a culture, of a religion, in a time replete with the residue if millions of decisions, choices and actions in the long line before him. He was born a boy, not a girl, a Jew, not a Gentile, of Mary, not Salome, in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, of a certain height, a certain weight, eating certain food, making friends with a group of people, learning from certain books, and on and on.
He would grow to chose 12 out of many to follow him. He made enemies powerful enough that they plotted and accomplished his death. You cannot be an everyman unless you are also a particular man. You can’t have any religion unless you have a religion.
Jesus and the Holy Spirit Keep Changing the Assumptions
Joseph, Mary, Simeon and Anna all meet Jesus in the temple laden with the only stories they could have had. They can only see Jesus through the eyes that their context and their choices offer to them. We should not be so condescending as to imagine they were blind to the other choices available to them all. Simeon and Anna in particular were outliars and over-acheivers. Their commitment to their particulars was so devoted and rigorous that even amid their own particular groups they were exceptional. They saw in Jesus the fulfillment of their individual and group stories. Here in this newborn a new story was beginning that would change all other stories.
What makes people people, however, is that they choose, and act, and change the world. Jesus would take the story that they imagined and reshape it in ways that no one could understand.
- Jesus would confuse and confound Mary to the point that she questioned his mental health
- Jesus would confuse and frustrate John the Baptist to the point that he would question the truth of Jesus’ Messiahship
- Jesus would confuse and frustrate his hand picked disciples to the point that one would betray him and the others would nearly abandon him at his arrest and execution
- Jesus would confuse his followers so much that even at the end of his ministry they were still caught by the old vision of Israel national particularism.
It would be the Holy Spirit that would continue to shake them up again and again. The church itself would be divided how many different ways over circumcision, meat sacrificed to idols, sexual ethics, family relations, communal practices, theology and eschatology.
The kinds of questions raised by Peter Enns or Brandon Ambrosino are nothing new to the church.
All of this change, however, always only makes sense within the long line of particularisms. Jesus doesn’t become a Greek god, he’s still rooted in the story of Israel. The Holy Spirit doesn’t turn Gentiles into Jews, but grafts new branches onto the old root system.
Persons and Religious Pluralism
Our narrative of religious pluralism usually goes something like this. We are the consumer, liberated from story particularism, informed by the needs and desires that religious vendors compete to fulfill. Choice frees us from legacy constraints and we opt for a unique spiritual and religious blend that suits our tastes, needs and desires.
As we watch how others are filling their plates at the religious buffet we certainly don’t judge them for putting different things on their plates, we just feel blessed to have so much to choose from.
We can of course see in that little story all the assumptions and assertions of who we are and where we stand. The story itself becomes our particular religious narrative. It, like any set of particulars affords and limits. We have our own brand of naiveté.
While Joseph, Mary, Simeon, Anna and the John the Baptist all come to Jesus with their own particulars, they will eventually place their hopes not so much in the narratives but in the person. They must follow that Lamb wherever he goes. He is a particular person who acts in a universal stage.
Being committed to a person is different from being committed to a narrative. Narratives are rigid unless we alter them, but then we are the masters of that narrative. What is particularly difficult and frustrating about other people is that they are always breaking or challenging the narratives we create or commit to.
Jesus will come through the narrative of Israel deeply informed by the narrative of Isaiah and when he is met as an infant in the temple he is seen in that light. As a man he will continue to reshape it in his teaching, his death, resurrection and ascension. The Holy Spirit will similarly continue to reshape it through the church.
Jesus comes to the buffet and declares himself to be the meal because he as ascended Lord reigns from the throne in heaven at the controls of human history. He creates the story and governs the path to the future.
The profession of Joseph, Mary, Simeon and Anna contribute to the story, but their narrative will always bow to Jesus’ and in the end if they are committed to Jesus the stories they create will bow to the story Jesus is Lord of.
Does this Eliminate Conflict?
The homogenization of religious claims will never eliminate conflict because conflict is connected with history and our choices.
Simeon notes that Jesus will not eliminate conflict. The prince of peace will cause the rising and falling of many. Neither does it eliminate conflicts between Jesus and Mary, or Jesus and me. Any real Jesus, a real person who makes consequential choices that impinge on the narratives I prefer will say yes and no to me, or sometimes won’t ask. This is what a relationship is.
Why Be In Relationship?
To imagine you can’t be or won’t be is to imagine the buffet again. We are not gods who decide what will or won’t touch us or our preferred vision of a future. That is a fantasy.
What this does afford, however, is hope comfort and joy.
Simeon and Anna saw hope, comfort and joy in the child. It was of course attached to what their narrative attached to him, but it was more dependent upon what they believed he would do, how he would lead, and what he would re-create.
When Linus announces the story he is implicitly inviting us into the story. When Joseph and Mary fulfill the demands of the old covenant they are affirming their place in the story. When Simeon and Anna step up to announce what they believe and have given their lives to, they too participate in the story.
A food item on a buffet isn’t an person. It may (by virtue of the calories, fat, etc.) impact your story but food doesn’t create a story or govern the future like a person.
A Christian finally commits themselves to a person and they acknowledge that they are not fully in control of their story. They also profess that someone else is and that this person is good. They profess that they know this person, maybe not much more than how Simeon and Anna knew that tiny baby that they met in the temple, but they placed their imagined future narrative in the care of that infant who in that moment couldn’t make any decision at all.
This is what we do together in church. This is what the Christian church throughout history has professed and desired to do. To find ourselves not picking our gods or assembling our lifestyle, but coming to who we profess to be the master of all stories and asking to be useful to his story making of the whole world.
Telling Stories with Linus
So we stand with Linus and rehearse the story to Charlie Brown. That is the meaning of Christmas, but it is only a tiny start to the story, and we come into the story at our own time.
Yes, there are many stories. Yes there are many competing stories just like there are many competing story makers.
The Christian story says that there is one final story teller who will make sense and glory of humanity’s story. Christians find their hope, their comfort and their joy not simply in the version of the story that found us, but moreso in the story maker, though we see only a small glimpse of him, though our grasp on him is small. His grasp on us is what finally matters.