Saturday, 24 December 2011

War on WHAT?

     There's something beautiful about the traditional Christmas story. In the dark and cold of winter, a pregnant woman and her husband of humble means find themselves  with no place to stay but the stable of a crowded inn. So that is where the baby is born, and despite the modest surroundings and cruel, cold world outside, it is a time of sublime joy and love and warmth and togetherness.
     It's never mattered to me much that the baby was or wasn't of special divine nature; the birth of any baby is miraculous enough to warrant celebration, and for passing shepherds and wise men from afar to arrive bearing gifts seems fitting in any event. The central point of it all, for me, was to share that joy when we need it most, the deepest darkest night of the year, and especially so here in the frigid North.
     So this nonsense about a "war on Christmas" disturbs me. I understand feeling threatened when government-sponsored religious displays are banned, but the war-rhetoric is never constructive. The wars on terror, crime, drugs, poverty, AIDS and anything else you'd care to name are badly misnamed, and the war paradigm leads us to adopt inappropriate and ineffective tactics. How much more so, then, to rush into war-thinking over whether or not we say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"?
     I appreciate how seductively attractive war is. We don't admit it in polite company, but the fact is we like war. General Sherman is said to have remarked at the Battle of Fredericksburg that it's a good thing war is so terrible, else we'd love it too much. There's no doubt lots of people, even pacifists, are fascinated with weapons and warfare, and enjoy playing war games or watching war movies. But besides that attraction, war seems to give us license to ease our moral constraints, and feel righteous about doing so. So much more so when we feel we are the victims, that the other side has started this war against us, as in the War on Terror and, it seems, the War on Christmas.
     But what can possibly be more destructive to the spirit of Christmas than embracing the imagery of war, even in its supposed defense? How is it Christ-like, let alone Christmassy, to reject warm holiday wishes because they don't affirm your particular religious beliefs? 
     There is no orchestrated campaign to eradicate Christmas. There's just a rule being enforced that you can't spend public funds on promoting a particular religion. That shouldn't be a problem for Christmas; if anything, it's more of an opportunity to stay true to its mythic origins, when there was no room at the inn, and the sharing of warmth and joy took place in the humble, makeshift surrounding of a stable. 
     Merry Christmas! 


  1. Hi:

    Nice writing. Interesting perspective.

    Couple thoughts: why would someone who does not believe the Christmas story at all [such as an atheist or Jew] need to observe "Christmassy" sentiments? [And I'm a Roman Catholic.]

    Second, of course: for those who have educated themselves, the "traditional" story likely has many, many errors of fact.

    Firstly, Jesus almost without question was NOT born in the winter. "Shepherds watching their flocks at night" on hillsides implies lambing time, that is to say, Spring.

    Secondly, some exegeticists have determined the "no room at the inn" metaphor may be entirely mythical. There is an alternate translation of the word that some scholars have identified that the word translated "inn" should have been translated "guest room."

    As in, Mary and Joseph went to stay with Joseph's cousins, but there was no room in the "guest room" of the house, and they had to sleep in the middle of the living room floor.

    So, while the sentiments of the traditional story are indeed lovely, the facts may not align at all and some people today are becoming more educated of such backgrounds.

    Even less so should those of faith obligate those of other faiths, or no faith, to observe a "Christmassy" outlook.

    But, all the same, a Merry Christmas to you.

    If you've been around the DMS community for awhile, you would know me as KrystaJo.

    I also have now have a blog on Blogger.

  2. Thank you for your comments. It's good to see you here, and I enjoyed the opportunity to look over your blog this morning. I'll be visiting it again from time to time, I'm sure.

    As for why a non-Christian would need "Christmassy" feelings, well that's a good question to ask the early Church, when they decided to celebrate Jesus' birthday around the winter solstice. Pagans had been celebrating the solstice for some time, and the imagery of birth/rebirth (of the Sun, if not the Son) was already an established theme. Christianity imported some new ideas on top of it, but it's not like the Christmassy feelings I described are uniquely Christian.

    I treat the story as I would fiction; its literal truth doesn't matter to me so much as the understanding I derive from it.

  3. Can't help myself. My local country station just played the Bill Engvold Christmas song.

    One of the things that it regarded as "stupid" is whether a display had "three wise men."

    Again, exegetesis says: there almost without question were not "three" wise men. That is a symbolic number representing the Trinity.

    More likely, if that part of the story is true there would have been something like seventy.

    In those days, travel of three men from the Orient to Bethlehem would have been utter suicide. People traveled in large caravans of trusted associates of fifty or more.

    Thus, the "magi" or "wise men" more likely number in the dozens, and I have seen seventy suggested as the likely number more than once.

    Another issue the song raised is "what time is Midnight Mass?"

    Seems obvious. At Midnight. However, that's not a stupid question at all. Many parishes no longer offer a true Midnight Mass [largely due to people arriving drunk after a Christmas Eve party.]

    They may be at 10:00 p.m. or even 4:00 p.m. -- but use the Midnight Mass liturgy which differs slightly either from the regular Christmas Day service or from the "Mass of Anticipation" at 4:00 [or 7:00] p.m.

    The liturgy to use is at the discretion of the pastorship of the parish.

    One ought be sure when one is calling someone "stupid" as in the Bill Engvold song that those people are more stupid than you.

    I think Engvold is himself pretty stupid not to know the things I've commented on here and hold forth on such matters. And to make others stupid for knowing more than he does.

    Just venting, and showing off study that's proving useless at this point in my life.

  4. Hi, Tom:

    So glad you responded to my post. I think it cross-posted with my other post prompted by a radio broadcast.

    First off, I hope you already realize, but: I am a good person to joust with mentally because I combine faith with scholarship [if self-directed.]

    However, at the same time: as long as I feel your views and perspective are genuine, I will respect that. [Misinterpreted elsewhere, I gather.]

    Thank you for visiting my blog.

    I'm on less sure ground with the issue you raise about the early church and Christmas. BUT, my understanding is that Christmas as a major Church observance didn't begin to occur until the Church had existed for about 500 years.

    You are, however, correct, in pointing out that one of the elements of that was to try to "Christianize" formerly pagan observances. Or, lesser, Judaic Observances. Channukah usually falls fairly close to Christmas.

    The reason there is a disconnect between the likely real birth time of Jesus and the date of observance is twofold or threefold.

    One, it gave a good way to organize the Church calendar to start with an Advent/Christmas observance leading to Lent/Easter and the rest of the year is "ordinary time."

    Two, it gave the Church a chance to "Christianize" various pagan feasts of the darkest of the year such as, but not limited to, Saturnalia.

    BUT . . . my understanding is, the early Church observed none of these things. The early Church was too busy just trying to survive Roman and Jerusalem persecution and establish an agreed-on theology. [The fellows who did the "Left Behind" series did a great job on novels of the "story behind the story" of the Gospels that illustrates this.]

    Subsequently, there were other groups even claiming to be Christian who eschewed celebrating Christmas and some even Easter. Massachusetts, where I live, was founded by Puritans and Pilgrims [different groups but with the same somber views] and in fact celebrating Christmas here was illegal and grounds for capital punishment until those groups lost power.

    Today, there are Fundamentalist groups with the same sort of mindset who do not observe Christmas or Easter though they lay claim to Christianity.

    My faith isn't harmed by knowing the scholarly truth: in fact I've found the story far MORE interesting for what I've learned in that way that the "traditional" version.

    Just a last thought on that: another controversy involves did Mary remain a Virgin or did Jesus have actual brothers and-or sisters

    The most logical explanation I have found [on a tape of a program someone sent me] is: both.

    That program suggested that Joseph was far older than Mary; had already been married once and widowed, had children in that marriage, and those were Jesus' "brothers and sisters."

    It's not unlikely that Joseph became widowed the first time around through a childbirth death. In those days, it was something like one in three childbirths resulting in death for the mother.

    Back then, they didn't make the clear distinction of "step" and "half" siblings we do today.

    Hope I gave you something worthwhile to think on.


  5. Afterthoughts . . .

    I thought I should add . . .

    At least in the Roman Church . . . Christmas is regarded as a "big deal" in the Santa Claus sense for the kiddies [and representing the "gift" of Jesus to the world], but in a spiritual sense it's actually one of the least of the observances of the year today.

    In a spiritual sense . . . Easter and Pentecost, and even the "preparation season" of Advent before Christmas [and many other spiritual feasts] have far more importance on the spiritual level than Christmas.

    Technically, the Christmas season in the Roman church ends with the feast of the Baptism of Jesus, which I think is about a week or two after our secular New Year's [and that feast varies between Epiphany and the Feast of the Holy Family, now that Epiphany is no longer observed directly on January 6th but the closest Sunday.]

    Believe it or not, there are still small groups or sects who regard Christmas as properly falling not today, but on what in our current calendar is January 6th. Often known as "little Christmas." That is when it was before the calendar changed. [Parallels why there is an "April Fools" day. In the old calendar, New Year fell on April 1.]

    I find it really interesting I can have a more adult discussion on all this with you as an atheist than I can with people of my own faith who are, however, unversed in these things.

    I was appalled in a faith sharing group that another member hadn't a clue about "Orthodoxy", which has only tenuous disconnects with the Roman Church.

    But, see, that's the thing . . . there is NOT one Christianity. We are, unfortunately, very divided.

    I think my reading up on things bent is showing.

  6. In fact I was raised Roman Catholic as well. I just sort of gave it up for Lent, which is itself a topic for another post. As well, we sometimes celebrate a family Christmas in January, simply because it's easier for my siblings to make it back to visit then, when the big rush is over. In fact, I think it'll be very close to January 6 that we'll be having our main Christmas family gathering this year.

    I don't have a problem with symbols, and the history of those symbols is always fascinating. But I see them as symbols, not things-in-themselves, and that's kind of the way I approach religion in general. To me, it doesn't matter whether or not Jesus was actually THE Son Of God, or even whether he actually existed. I'm more interested in understanding what deeper truth (if any) this story represents. THere's a nice Zen saying that kind of catches this for me: Words are a finger pointing at the moon; look at the moon, not the finger. The fact that I generally use the word "moon" instead of "lune" or "tsuki" doesn't mean that I think "moon" is a privileged depiction of reality; I just happen to speak English and not French or Japanese as my primary language. In the same way, the fact that I can talk about concepts like "transubstantiation" or "original sin" doesn't mean I think these are privileged or superior descriptions of spiritual/moral reality; it just means that's the vocabulary I was raised with.

  7. Ah, okay.

    Now I get why for an atheist you have more academic understanding.

    Raised Catholic. That makes sense.

    The Church experienced the first major schism in approximately 450 AD. Up until that schism, what is today Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy were one church. In fact, those two have liturgically remained remarkably consistent ever since.

    The Council of Nicea was in 360 something, I think. Those today two separate churches were united at that Council. Somewhere between fifty and a hundred years later, the Roman church added two words to the Nicene Creed, which resulted in the schism [this I have from a friend who was raised Orthodox and now practices Episcopal.]

    This schism also resulted in a loss of the Orthodox regard for the papacy, but it was the two words in the Creed that were the root of the schism.

    As you said, those educated view things such as "three wise men" as symbols. Historical reality would suggest that if there were wise men, they would for safety have traveled in a caravan in far greater numbers.

    I believe it was as late as that that Christmas began as an observance.

  8. Not sure I buy your argument about the three wise men. That is, I certainly agree they'd travel in a group larger that three, but once they reach Bethlehem there's no reason to assume that the whole bunch would descend on the manger en masse. Maybe only three of them chose (or were chosen) to visit. But yes, they're more symbols than literal historical persons.

    And several hundred years after the fact, when it becomes politically expedient to establish a celebration around the time of the winter solstice, it's easy to tailor the imagery to your purpose.

  9. Sensible point that the wise men would have just sent a small delegation.

    Were you aware that one translation for Bethlehem is "House of Bread"?

  10. No, but I might once have known that. I do recall reading that the word translated as "virgin" for Mary could just have meant "young woman", thus not necessarily supporting the doctrine of the virgin birth. It's not implausible that would be added later, though, as several putatively divine figures were mythically born of virgins. Not sure why that should be an important point, actually, but the religiously inclined seem to think it's especially holy somehow.

    I also remember being told that in Aramaic "Jesus walked upon the waters" differs from "Jesus walked by the waters" by just one letter, which at the time struck me as a pretty significant typo, but then when I read the passage it came from, the context seemed clearer that it was actually about walking ON water.

  11. You're right on the translation of "virgin."

    I'm going to go afield, here. There is a passage that says people can ONLY come to Jesus if the Father beckons.

    A huge problem is so many of faith do not understand what they believe.

    I think if it ever comes about for you, it is going to be through these very academic studies . . . you clearly have an interest that exceeds some OF faith.

    It helps nothing for another's conversion for those of Fundamentalist stripe to just assert over and over that one ought 'just to believe' as some posters have commented. What they miss is if God had beckoned in such a way already, then you would have faith already.

    Indeed, some of the greatest exegetical studies have come about through agnostic or atheistic individuals with a strong interest. Just like yourself.

    Who often converted in the end. BUT, they often did their most important work towards understanding before their conversion. Keeps things nice and objective that way.

    The "house of bread" thing [tied to Eucharist] is a rare piece of info. Some years ago, a priest included it in a Christmas sermon in the parish I attended at the time.

    To me, there are multiple dimensions of the Bible. One is spiritual authority, but the other is language including translation. Another is historical context. They interact, for those of faith.

    I once heard it described that the Bible is NOT a book. In the context of the ancient world, it is more like a library. That, among other things, includes that there are different types of writings, to be taken with greater or lesser literalness.

    We believe the Gospels and Acts to be fairly literal. But the Song of Solomon is poetry; and the story of Jonah and the big fish [NOT whale] is probably metaphor.

    Revelation is analogy.

    Met a woman once who couldn't understand why the movie a while back referred to "Jesus the Christ" rather than "Jesus Christ."

    I didn't bother to explain to her [she was a hard-headed so-and-so] that "Christ" was not a surname, but translates probably to either-and-or-both "Messiah" or "Annointed One".

    Just as many today have no realization that "Jesus" was one of the most common names of that era [Max Lucado believes that's precisely why chosen by God], pretty much in popularity the equivalent of today's John.

    OR, that the name "Jesus" actually translates to Joshua, Jeshue, Jeshua, Jesse, and quite likely even Joses.

    That's the link most people miss to parishes that have a "Jesse tree."

    That's where Fundamentalists go wrong.

    I have a ginormous issue with the Fundamentalists, as does my Orthodox/Episcopal friend.

    What neither she nor I can "get" [and she has eight advanced degrees] is how the Fundamentalists can tell the Catholic/Orthodox churches they interpret "wrongly" . . . yet not recognize that for the New Testament . . . Church came first and defined Scripture.

    So, they're relying on a Scripture that would not exist as such had the Orthodox/Catholic Church not so defined it before the schism; yet telling the Church it has no understanding of the very thing the Church instrumented the creation of.

    I've seen tracts quoting non-existant, but supposedly "famous" historians, and with three errors of fact in the first sentence, telling Catholics why they are wrong in this regard.

    That's unfathomable to me.

  12. For fun afterthought . . .

    Define the "Immaculate Conception" doctrine.

    Other than priests/theologians, I know exactly three people who get it right.

    Myself, WriteNowGirl, and oddly, a professor from my undergrad days who parallelled yourself in no faith but lots of interest.

    Everyone else thinks it something other than it is. And are quite entrenched: it's the most difficult misunderstanding to argue people out of there is as to doctrine.

  13. It has to do with the conception of Mary, not of Jesus, because there was some bickering about how a woman born of sin (the very naughty business of sex, that is) could have been pure enough to bear the Messiah. So obviously, for her to be a suitable vessel, she too would have to have been immaculately conceived.

    (I just happened to be reading about that last week, although I'd already known about the doctrine from way back.)

    One of the things I DO still appreciate about Catholic doctrine is the idea that Sola Scriptura is officially recognized as a heresy. With a little reflection, it should be obvious, actually, but the process of interpreting a text is not at all transparent. Believing they avoid the fallibility problem of interpreting the text with their fallible human minds, fundamentalists fail to notice that the choice to interpret something literally rather than figuratively is itself a fallible act of interpretation.

    And this human fallibility is something my religious friends often fail to understand, almost as often as they fail to understand what omnipotence and omniscience really imply. They speak of the need to rest on a solid foundation, to have a basis for KNOWING God or knowing right from wrong or knowing this or that. Well.... unless they believe I would somehow cease to be a fallible human being if I believed in God (in which case they apparently believe that THEY are now infallible, which is about as arrogantly impious a thought as I can imagine), then how do they think a human belief in the Bible is any more solid than a human belief in tennis balls or fairies or the Great Pumpkin? I'm fallible, and that's all there is to it; anything I can believe, I can be mistaken about.

  14. You're correct in that it has to do with Mary's conception, but incorrect on the sex part.

    Mary is by the Catholic Church presumed to have been conceived in the normal way as to sex between her parents [by legend, Anna and Joachim, though there is no historical data to back those names up that I have found out about.]

    The difference is: except Mary, all people since the Fall in Eden are presumed to be born with the stain of "Original Sin" on the soul [inheritance of Adam's sin].

    The Catholic explanation is: Mary was essentially redeemed of this in advance because God knew she would obey God's will in all things and was suited to bear the Messiah.

    The "dirty business" of sex is involved with the Virgin Birth [Jesus]; but not Mary.

    Original sin is different from sex. Actually, within the confines of a sacramental marriage the Church regards sex as honorable and beautiful. [Though not beautiful enough not to bear an exception for the Son of God Incarnate.]

    Yes, the Catholic Church does regard Sola Scriptura as a heresy, I believe [not versed on that.]

    There are places in the Bible when the Bible exhorts to external authorities.

    Shakespeare probably put it best in Hamlet: "God gave us not that god-like capability to fust in us unused."

    Capability for reason, that is, the god-like capacity refers to.

    But . . . you're closer than most just to realize it deals with Mary, not Jesus.

    AND . . . I know a lot of Catholics who believe very strongly, but recognize they can be mistaken about their belief.

  15. AH, right, it was the original sin bit. I knew that once.

    As for the Bible exhorting to external authorities, I actually wrote a paper with a libertarian justification for progressive income tax, and titled it "Rendering Unto Caesar". Kind of a backhanded way of pointing out that the current alignment of the religious right with anti-tax ideology is kind of inconsistent.