Monday, December 20, 2010

Ross Douthat's Christmas Worries

Ross Douthat opines for the New York Times that Christmas is especially hard for those "who actually believe in it." There is, he says, a ruinous interplay of materialism and multiculturalism. And then actual Christianity is held hostage, transmuted into a religion of entertainment.

This brief opinion primarily sets up a review of several recent books on American religion: Robert Putnam and David Campbell's American Grace and James Davidson Hunter's To Change the World. I have yet to read these books, but everything I have read about them suggests they should be stocking stuffers for your 'theological prescripts' friends! Get at it!

I'm more interested here, however, in Douthat's opening salvo. I have often wondered whether there is anything to the 'keep Christ in Christmas' crowd and have mused about the 'Christmas is pure materialism' rants of others. Frankly, neither claim moves me very much. My guess is that this is related to the religion of my youth.

Back in the day, the hellfire and brimstone Evangelical Christianity of my parents did little to move me, except to push me to a kind of juvenile depression, but Christmas was a magical time of year. I was a kid, and had a lot of wants, so materialism hit the right note. (A footnote: the incarnation is a materialistic a religious creed. The 'carne' is flesh.) Like all kids, I loved presents and wondered what would be under the tree for me. There was a sense of expectancy and hope.

Image, courtesy Osvaldo Gago
CC Attribution Share-Alike 3.0
via WikiCommons
How authentically Christian this all was--the tree is pagan, the 25th is the day of the birth of the Sun, yawn--didn't matter to me. It matters even less now. What did matter was that the town as a whole seemed to be recognizing something important. My town became Bethlehem. The town joined to sing at the Community Green, and the people actually became choirs of angels. In our family, my depression-era parents, my mother especially though with my dad's consent, overspent on us kids. Something in the air drove them to that. In retrospect, I see in those elements discernible Christian features, and not simply because the Christ child was being celebrated. Christianity suspends the normal and taken for granted and brings in a kind of gracious excess.

The multicultural element in Douthat's plaint also doesn't touch me. These days I'm careful to wish people Happy Holidays, unless I know they are Christian. How does that lessen the meaning of Christmas? It's worth recalling that the Three Wise Men (in some Christmas pageants at Church, I probably played one of them) were among the first multicultural attendees to the Christ child's birth. They weren't invited, either; they were beckoned by the stars. The other day my seven year-old pretty Gentile son was teaching me about the Menorah, how its shamash is used, and the like. He paused in the middle of his substantial discourse to ask, "So what are we going to do, like, to celebrate Kwanzaa?" Surely the Three Wise Men liked that. I know I did.

In sum, here's my Holiday Prescript: Give, receive, love family and friends, call to mind soldiers in distant lands, ask for a thousand Christs to bring peace on earth, eat/overeat, look for the divine in each moment, seek an enemy to forgive--and forgive. Pay your bills in January, and get to the gym, too.

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