Benedict XVI, Charles Taylor, Christmas, culture wars, ecumenism, First Things, Hannukah, IHOP, Jewish-Christan relations, Jon Stewart, Maccabees, N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, Reform impulse, secular, secularization, Stephen Colbert, War on Christmas
I’ve heard an awful lot this Advent season and Christmas octave about keeping “Christ” in “Christmas.” Blame it on me, maybe, for being a religious studies guy hanging around evangelical circles, but I swear, it’s more than the local churches with the signboards (or in the suburb where I live, the IHoP) displaying a sign with said call to conserve Christ in Christmas. Everybody seems to be talking about it: local pastors decrying the decay of secularism, worship leaders sermonizing before they lead their worship set, whispers among the laity about how terrible public schools are for disemboweling the season of any meaty references to the Incarnation.
Sure, keeping Christ in Christmas has been a staple of the “war on Christmas” that Fox News alleges to have been happening in a secular(izing) West. I say “alleged” because Jon Stewart has a fairly convincing refutation of the notion.
But apart from pulpit thundering in evangelical churches and pundits on Fox News, the battening down of the hatches for the Christ child seems to have been an in-house affair.
This year, though, it seems like even that house is falling apart, for not only is there a secular war on Christmas, but a theological one.
First Things first. As Churl noted (and I commented recently), Peter Leithart thinks that we should not only keep the Christ in Christmas, but the canticles there too, songs like the Benedictus Deus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis that he thinks no Christian knows. One wonders, of course, how the Divine Office app keeps on getting voted About.com Readers’ Choice Awards’s “Best Catholic Website, Podcast, and Mobile App” yearly if that really is the case. No matter, though, for Jeffrey Barbeau has written a rejoinder to Leithart, attempting to put the supposedly denuded Christmas hymns in the violent context of the English Reformation and Civil War.
For both Leithart and Barbeau, the Grinch who stole Christmas is none other than biblical theologian N.T. Wright, who seems to have been right about everything ever since his NT tomes hit seminary bookstores in the early 1990s. For Leithart, it’s Wright’s historical scholarship that has thankfully stolen Christmas away from the allegedly inane, apolitical songs we sing about the Christ child, no crying he makes. For Barbeau, Wright is a bit more of a bogeyman in Leithart’s hands, forgetting the political violence of early modern England because he doesn’t tune into BBC’s The Tudors. Move aside, John Piper: the Reformation has a new anti-Wright defender.
Either way you look at it, the central theological problem here is Wright on history: what happens to theology when you put the messiness and violence of historical reconstruction back into the picture?
And that brings us to the Holy Father. With the release of the third installment of Jesus of Nazareth on the infancy narratives, Pope Benedict XVI has been met with wild protest about how he, like Wright, has stolen Christmas. Secular protest about his historiographical method aside (courtesy of The Guardian), Vox Nova has a very interesting post on Benedict’s view of history that makes him sound eerily similar to Wright. The Bishop of Rome may affirm the historicity of the infancy narratives, but like Wright, it would seem, the affirmation of history in and of itself has played into a theological war over how political Christmas should be. Add to all of this L’Osservatore Romano‘s statement on how same-sex couples live in an “alternate reality,” and we find the pontiff in the real Grinch-y pickle of fighting the secular powers that be with the weapons of Christmas.
Wright, Leithart, Barbeau, the pope, his detractors, and First Things may all be stuff sophisticated Christians like these days. I mean, we must be smarter than the masses of co-opted American Tea Party fundamentalist-evangelicals clamoring for Christ in public Christmas pace Bill O’Reilly. But really, if this is what I’m reading this year in First Things, I don’t see much here that’s different from Fox News’s War on Christmas.
After all, Charles Taylor would call all of these skirmishes over the Christ in Christmas–be it his existence, his presence, or his nature–an “impulse to Reform” a “rage for order.” The idea, as Taylor outlines it, was that in late medieval Christendom, there were a series of “reforms” where spiritual “elites” attempted to purify the practices of the masses and bring them to a higher form of spiritual intensity. These reforms, as Taylor shows, looked like things as diverse as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the Protestant Reformation(s), and the formation of Calvinist city-states in early modern Europe.
What’s hilarious in Taylor’s account is that it’s precisely this impulse that led to the secularization process in the first place. As Taylor reads it, this “rage for order” coincided with the development of “civility” in early modern Europe where states tried to discipline would-be citizens to be able to directly participate in the workings of a civil society. This created a sphere of action where some practices could be thought of as merely “natural” without any “supernatural” engagement, and in time, the conditions of belief changed such that there wasn’t much of a need to consider spirituality seriously in the public sphere, although private fascination with individual spiritualities where you’re on this quest to find personal fulfillment would always “cross-pressure” this emphasis on the immanent. Give these cross-pressures enough time, Taylor hints, and these new religious subjectivities will begin to contest the very meanings of secularity.
And this brings us back to the plethora of theological views on the War on Christmas. What’s fascinating about all of them is that they are all strangely modern and can even wear the odd secular costume. Give Wright, the Holy Father, and Fox a little read, for example, and what you might find is that at stake is a fairly modern understanding of history, be it Wright’s critical realism, Benedict’s historical criticism, or O’Reilly’s rights of the religious majority. I mean, it’s perfectly OK if Wright wants the prodigal son of history to come home to the older brother of theology. But can we “sophisticated” modern historian-theologians all please remember that maybe we shouldn’t be behaving like secular academics and pundits at Christmas?
So in the spirit of Leithart, maybe I can suggest something both radical and old-fashioned at the end here, courtesy also of N.T. Wright. Anyone who has managed to actually read The New Testament and the People of God will be struck by how prominent a role the Maccabees play in Wright’s narrative. Moreover, anyone who has been following the daily mass readings leading up to Advent will have gotten an earful from the Maccabees in the first readings.
But what Wright notes about the Maccabees in relation to Jesus’ theology of the Kingdom of God was that Jesus upended the Maccabbean ideal of a messianic warrior with a “double revolution,” confronting the will to power in both Jew and Gentile, enacting a kingdom founded on a different ontology altogether. (OK, sorry, I stole “double revolution” from tome #2: Jesus and the Victory of God.)
And that brings us back to Jon Stewart. In 2008, Stewart asked Stephen Colbert if he could interest him in the Maccabbean celebration, Hannukah. In light of Wright’s analysis, there is a bit of irony here. Christmas, the coming of Christ with his proclamation of a new kingdom of God, once upended Hannukah’s ideals. But if Christmas is now a site of modern religious contestation, perhaps it’s also time to start thinking about who the collateral damage of such a war might be. Jon Stewart has already said his piece. Maybe it’s time for more of us to start singing this song.