There are a variety of variations on the story. A character or group of characters are fixated on the material aspects of Christmas – what they will get as gifts etc. And then a crisis happens and these characters discover the “true meaning” of Christmas. In Christian stories, this usually involves hearing the story of Christ’s birth, and pagan renditions tell us that the true meaning of Christmas is love. Both versions can be done successfully; Charlie Brown Christmas brilliantly avoids schmaltz through the ever depressed title character, Veggie Tales’ Toy That Saved Christmas brilliantly captures the near demonic frenzy that occurs around Christmas over absurd toys that have no reason to be popular, and Dr. Seuss’s Grinch is a well told rendition of the pagan version.
However, for Christian hipster types, the “true meaning of Christmas” thing is kind of overdone. And the new popular thing is to turn to Advent. Please don’t misunderstand me. I love Advent. It is one of the most precious things things God has discovered to me in my journey from low to high church. And it is precisely because I love both Advent and Christmas that I need to call out a hipster-type Christianity that appropriates Advent via a postmodern tradition lite as an “alt, indie” way of celebrating the season.
I was particularly struck by this as I read Peter Leithart’s reflection on N. T. Wright, Advent, and Christmas. Once upon a time, the narrative goes, there was a Bible that had some pretty powerful political things to say. It stirred people up for a while, but then somewhere along the line someone lost the story and started thinking about sin and heaven and victory over Satan at Christmas instead. And so we were left with only a partial understanding of Christmas – until one day a man named N. T. Wright was born to us and told us the true meaning of Christmas, that it was about politics and this-worldly stuff. And also that there should be no jollity; that we must be rid of any of those joyful festive parodies (such as Twelfth Night, Christmas miracle stories etc.) that serve as foils for the real heavenly miracle and joy of Christmas; these are replaced by the earnest and dour voices of a certain kind of Protestant doing what he does best – protesting and politicking in a very grave religious way without the least crack of a smile.
The prior paragraph is a bit tongue in cheek, but it does in fact summarize some of the main problems I have with this article. First, the article is exaggerated. As if compensating for all those years of not having celebrated Advent, Leithart aggressively attacks certain aspects of Christmas tradition. Now, I wouldn’t mind this so much if he simply critiqued Christmas commercialism, but he critiques things like joy, heaven, salvation from sin, Christ as the new Adam, and conquering the devil. And the problem I have with this is, though limiting the season to these qualities is somewhat narrow, sidelining their association with the birth of Christ cuts against nearly all Christian tradition that I know of.
Leithart (and presumably Wright) here speak as if these things were mere inventions of modernity. They are not, and so when Leithart sidelines them, he goes against much of the tradition of the Christian Church. Of course, perhaps Leithart thinks that the Church went fairly wrong fairly early. But he, and those agreeing with him, should be aware that in accepting his argument they are accepting an ecclesiology that sees the Church going wrong very soon after the time of Christ and being finally redeemed when N. T. Wright recently rediscovered it. For though medieval and early modern Christians did use the language of politics in their interpretation of the Bible – Israel etc. – the more important thing this language was always understood to signify was a spiritual reality – yes, joy, heaven, salvation from sin, and beating the devil.
Leithart seems to accuse these traditions of being gnostic – paying too little attention to the earthly reality – but the curious reality is that a good portion of those who originally condemned gnosticism in its initial heretical form would in fact disagree with Wright’s and Leithart’s emphasis; though worldly particulars are important as a vehicle, the more important things are the spiritual things gestured toward – and this is not gnosticism, but what Christians, Protestant and Catholic, have believed for a good long time. I understand why theologians like Leithart and Wright feel the need to speak as they do in a culture that has lost the ability to imagine a spiritual realm higher than yet not in competition with an earthly materiality (as in Dante’s Paradiso). The problem is that Leithart and Wright accept modernity’s either/or thinking, and choose earth over heaven, rather than trying to keep both. There are four senses of Scripture, and here Leithart finds them in competition rather than in divine coordination, as they are.
The second issue is that I’m not exactly certain what Leithart means by a turn back to a political read on the Christmas story – to me, it frankly sounds joyless and wearying. I look at post upon post of hackneyed and simplistic political fluff on Facebook, and find fifty different ways to change the world, convenient automations that save us from the business of actually caring, which in fact involves listening, researching, and bothering with something more than cheap and clever punch lines. Of the making of many politics there is no end…
In fact, one might argue that it is precisely in such a politics-weary context that Christ came. And what made him different than the other messiahs was the fact that his kingdom was not of this world. Of course this makes people mad in the political realm (and it would seem in the theological realm, too), and it makes people like Caesar mad enough to kill. But saying that Caesar must kill Christ and His church for not being the world does not seem to be what Leithart’s article gestures toward, but rather a version of Advent that is the new Christian hipster form of political activism – an activism that seems to think it is up to us and our efforts to save Christianity and God’s world, and that places a huge burden on the theologian who must heft the burden of a completely revisionist theology while avoiding the traps of modernity-driven Evangelicalism as well as the “errors” of traditionalism.
Of course, God is perfectly capable of saving his Church without the shouting of someone like Leithart. As my friend Chinglican noted on Facebook, the programme that Leithart advocates as such a radical and innovative project at the end of his reflection is hundreds of years old in liturgical traditions, and probably even practiced by people you know, too humble to shout about it in the obnoxious Advent-will-change-the-world tone of Leithart. Of course, God will change the world and so will liturgy without regard for what people like Leithart do or do not say. But if they want to be part of this in a way other than that of the prophets Jonah or Balaam, it might help them to stop protesting so much about Advent as the new secret weapon for an alternative and forward thinking church, and instead start grinding down their individualism on a liturgy that teaches them that they are dust destined for glory in Christ who gifts them in His Church with a holy anonymity that makes them ever more themselves.