Monday, November 9, 2015

Can't See the Forest

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 4 children enter the magical world of Narnia. A wicked witch has cast a spell over the world so that it is always winter but never Christmas. However, the appearance of the children fulfills a prophesy about the end of the witch's reign and the coming of Aslan, the true King of Narnia. As the children flee the witch, they encounter Father Christmas, who gives them gifts. Christmas has come to Narnia at last.

When the book came out, what a lot of Christians objected to wasn't the witch or the magic or the monsters but the appearance of the British version of Santa Claus. They felt that Father Christmas brought into this retelling of the Christ story an element of the modern secularized Christmas. They seem to have forgotten 4 things.

First, this is a children's story. Narnia is populated by a motley crew of creatures from various mythologies. How is Father Christmas any less at home in Narnia than dryads, minotaurs, giants, dwarves, fauns, centaurs and talking animals?

Second, of all of these creatures, only Father Christmas is explicitly part of a Christian tradition. The others are pagan. Why object to him rather than them?

Third, this is an allegory. C.S. Lewis' clever use of the phrase “always winter but never Christmas” plays on the literary archetype of winter as a time of death and contrasts it with a holiday that means jollity to most children and the birth of hope for Christians. The appearance of Father Christmas is an easily understood symbol that the witch's reign is ending and that the Christ figure of Aslan is coming.

Fourth, Father Christmas' presence is not gratuitous but a necessary part of the plot. The gifts that he gives to the children will enable them to fight the witch, call Aslan in time of peril and heal the wounded in the terrible battle to come.

Nevertheless I do understand the uneasiness that some Christians have about the adulteration of Christianity with popular culture icons. Though I grasp the pious motive behind it, I myself am bothered by those little statues of Santa Claus in his modern form, inspired by Coca Cola ads, bowing before the Christ child in the manger. You are putting into one image a figure from history and one from popular lore. I would be less troubled by it if the figure genuflecting were the original St. Nicholas, the 3rd century Bishop of Myra who defended the divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicea (though the anachronism would still bug me.)

So I get the anxiety behind our sermon suggestion question: “Why do we decorate trees if it is not in the Bible?” Possibly this person had an encounter with Christians like those at the school of the son of one of my friends. That person said that he could not celebrate Halloween because it is Satan's birthday. (Not sure where in the Bible he found that information.) There was a resident at one of the nursing homes I worked who would not participate in their Halloween party because of its pagan origins. And I wouldn't either if we were actually praying to or invoking the names of pagan gods, or making a human sacrifice to them, as depicted in the original version of The Wicker Man. But today's celebration of Halloween has even less to do with the religion that spawned it than today's secularized Christmas does with the birth of Jesus.

The problem really goes back to the question of how should Christians relate to culture. Reinhold Niebuhr found 5 different positions on this issue adopted by the church or parts of it at different times in its history. One of these is “Christ vs. Culture,” in which you withdraw from sinful society and its corrupt culture as much as possible. And that might make sense if you were living in a culture that is totally anti-Christian, such as Nazi Germany. The problem is that, outside of a totalitarian regime, by adopting that stance you are severely limiting your impact on the world, for which Christ died and which he commanded us to evangelize. I guess you could act like the Westboro Baptist Church and make your protest of the culture very visible and in-your-face. But if this is meant to be a form of evangelism, it fails miserably. The late Fred Phelps' church is still made up mostly of his family members, although a number of his children have left.

If you are going to obey Christ's command to love your neighbor (who, as Jesus illustrated in the parable of the good Samaritan, could be someone who differs from you theologically) and his command to go out into the world and make disciples for him, you are going to have to engage the culture in which they and/or you live. You could try to do this by fighting every single thing that is questionable in the culture, or you could develop some criteria for prioritizing which things need to be changed and which don't. Christian missionaries have to make such decisions, usually on a case-by-case basis. In general, they have accepted the social structures of the society they entered. They rejected certain practices, like human sacrifice, infanticide and sexual promiscuity. And of course they rejected other gods. I'm not saying the missionaries made the right decisions in every case but they were not random or haphazard about it.

While they deemed certain beliefs and certain stances on major moral issues to be crucial, they often kept practices they saw as morally neutral, such as styles of art, clothing (provided it covered what it needed to), traditional food and technology. The biggest problems came with the cultural remnants of paganism. Last week we spoke of how the functions of the old gods were transferred to the saints. That eventually came back to haunt the church. But what about traditions that are an unconscious part of everyday life? For instance, most of our wedding rituals—the rings, the cake, the veil, etc—have pagan origins. But they are part of practically all Christian weddings.

So did the missionaries make the newly converted Christians give up absolutely everything that had any connection, however old and tenuous, with their pagan past? For the most part, no. And often the missionaries found ways to incorporate old symbols and rituals into the new faith by reinterpreting them and giving them new meanings.

Let's take trees in general. It is true that pagans often worshiped in groves of trees, not only in pre-Christian Europe but also in the land of Canaan, before and even during the time of the Israelites. They made sacrifices to the gods there. The trees, especially oaks, were considered sacred. They were the oldest living things the people knew. They were so high they were thought to bridge heaven and earth. So what were the Christians to do? Cut them all down?

Maybe not all. St. Winfred, an Anglo-Saxon missionary to the Germans, came upon a sacred tree called Thor's Oak. It was an object of veneration for generations. He chopped it down and when Thor did not strike him dead, Winfred got a big response to his call to be baptized. He then took the wood from the oak and built a chapel. Essentially, Winfred dismantled the object of pagan devotion and repurposed it as a place for Christian worship. In doing so, he was following church precedent.

It's pretty much what the church did with December 25th, a pagan holiday for worshiping the sun. It is said that, coming just a few days after the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, the 25th was the first day you could really see that the daylight hours were getting longer and the sun was coming back, so to speak. In the fervent days of the early church, Christians simply opted out of celebrating this day. But by the 3rd century, Christians were a large proportion of the population of the Roman Empire, and they were increasingly joining their non-Christian neighbors in celebrating this major winter holiday. Now the exact date of Jesus' birth was unknown, though many Biblical scholars felt it was probably in the spring. Shrewdly, someone, possibly the Bishop of Rome, started celebrating the Mass of Christ's birth on the same day that the pagans were celebrating the birth of the “Sun of Righteousness.” This forced Christians to choose between attending the event honoring Jesus or the pagan one. Christmas won.

To some Christians, the facts of how the church dealt with these cultural issues in the past is like watching sausage being made: they would rather not know. Once they know about the origin of such things, they feel they must reject them as something whose development was not pure in their eyes. The problem with this approach is threefold.

For one thing, they are unnecessarily refighting old battles. Very conservative Amish, for instance, do not wear buttons. This wardrobe innovation was at one time considered flashy and vain. But buttons aren't a sign of being worldly anymore. They are merely a practical way to keep your clothes on. No one outside the strictest of the Amish thinks buttons are incompatible with being a Christian.

If you have to give a long historical explanation for opposing a practice that is no longer a real moral issue, you are probably wasting your time and would be better off spending your energy on something that is religiously and morally important. And people will sense that and thus your whole effort will be marginalized. Not only that, people will see the faith you think you are defending as being mostly about trivial things and thus not worthy of consideration. They already think that because believers are preoccupied with little things, we have little minds. It is hard to take Christian pronouncements on the evils of our culture seriously when we talk more about store clerks not saying “Merry Christmas” than we do on issues like homelessness, poverty, immigration, hunger, and other things that are directly impacted by Jesus' command to love one another.

The second problem with getting too upset about the forgotten pagan elements of modern things is that they are inescapable. Do you invite people to church on Sunday? The name of that day goes back to Roman times when it literally honored the sun. Monday comes from the moon, also an object of pagan worship, and Saturday comes from the Roman god Saturn. The other days—Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—come from the Norse gods Tyr, Woden, Thor, and Frigga. So unless Christians change the names for the days of the week they are literally using the names of pagan gods every time they make an appointment or use a calendar or compose a flyer publicizing Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday.

And if Christians came up with different names for the days of the week (something Jehovah's Witnesses have debated), how could they make even basic messages clear to non-Christians or for that matter, to Christians who are not hung up on such things? And so we come to the third problem: trying to divorce yourself totally from such parts of the culture renders you unable to communicate with the people in it. Did you know that William Shatner, better known as the original Captain Kirk, starred in the only film ever done in Esperanto? Have you ever seen it? No, because few people speak this totally made-up candidate for a universal language. In fact, English, a real mutt of a language, is closer to becoming the universal language, partly because of its versatility. English, like the early Christian missionaries, is not shy about adopting useful words and concepts from other languages and cultures.

The apostles, by the way, did not quote the Hebrew Old Testament but instead a Greek translation called the Septuagint. Why? Probably because most of their audience, including Jews living outside Judea, did not speak Hebrew but were familiar with the Greek version. Now scholars quibble with the way the Septuagint translates certain Hebrew words (most famously in the verse in Isaiah about a young woman having a child, which Matthew used as a prophesy of Christ's birth) but evidently, the apostles felt it got the essence of what God was saying right. Like Jesus, they knew the difference between what is essential and what is not. They didn't waste time and energy fighting over non-essentials.

So who cares if the druids revered mistletoe for having no root but staying green during the cold of winter? Does the religion of the druids ever cross the minds of those kissing under the mistletoe? If not, there is no idolatry taking place. And if you held that it did real harm to unknowingly use something that was once part of a pagan tradition, that means that you are attributing to it inherently evil powers, which is bad theology and a very unChristian idea. It's rather like the magical thinking of those atheists who object to schools singing Christmas carols or to religious items in public places as if they could automatically override the will of nonbelievers and convert them. If they had that kind of power, our evangelism problems would disappear! I could just hang around the cross outside our church and sign up all the dazed drivers inadvertently made Christian by simply driving by it.

So what are we to make of the Christmas tree? Well, despite what you've heard or read on the internet, it's not pagan. It doesn't go back any farther than the 16th century. Fir trees, both inside the home and out, were decorated with apples, roses, gilded candies and colored paper. The idea came from medieval plays where such a tree, the paradise tree, was used to represent both lost Eden and the promise of a Savior. That's a pretty sophisticated symbol. It recalls the tree that is in the center of the first story of paradise in the Bible and the tree in the garden in the New Jerusalem, that gives healing to all, in the last paradise story. And the turning point in the larger story of how we get from one to the other involves God on another tree.

How did the lighted Christmas tree get to us? One night Martin Luther is supposed to have been struck by the sight of stars shining through the branches of a fir tree. He tried to recreate the effect for his family by putting candles on a small tree brought into the house. Luther the reformer wasn't worshiping nature. He was trying to imitate his heavenly Father's work with his own handiwork, as any child would. There is no heresy or paganism here, simply an appreciation of the beauty God made. The German Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, brought the custom to England and the Pennsylvania Germans brought it to America. If it still bothers you, may I suggest adding a little invention of St. Francis of Assisi: the nativity scene, a living version of which he used to tell the story of Jesus' birth to illiterate peasants.

Remember, the reason for the trees, as well as for the season, is Jesus. It's when we take our focus off of him that we can't see the forest for the trees, and then our real problems begin. 

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