Thursday, December 23, 2004

Yule blog

Doug Wood pointed out an op-ed column to me earlier today from Kathleen Parker, which can be found here. Having read it, I feel rather torn by it. On the one hand, I am not particularly excited about much that passes as politically correct (although some of it is quite good and the "anti-pc" backlash generally horrifies me), and I tend to support efforts to bring out specifics of people and their cultures, rather than bland homogenizations. On the other hand, Parker writes:

Let's just say the "Merry Christmas" backlash has officially begun. After years of politically correct "Happy Holidays," and the annual assault on all things Christian in the public square, many Americans are declining to turn the other cheek.

The MC backlash isn't only for, by or about Christians. It is a quintessentially American revolt against absurdity, the inevitable result of narcissistic, nihilist ninnies pushing too far....

[she goes on to say...]

"Merry Christmas" means different things to different people, obviously. To devout Christians, the greeting conveys a profound spiritual connection to the seminal event in Western civilization. To non-Christians, the words at worst evoke a season of music, decorations, shopping and gift giving; at best, they bespeak a vacation day.

Absent religious content, Merry Christmas otherwise is a universal expression of our best stuff: charity, forgiveness, generosity and hope. What's to complain about?

Well, what I might complain about as a Christian is that she, by making "Merry Christmas" into a pious nationalistic shibboleth, "absent religious content", is that she has repaid the favor of bland homogenization by evacuating Christmas of its ostensible content. That is to say, if by "Merry Christmas" she only intends "a universal expression of charity, forgiveness, generosity and hope", then why not simply say "Season's greetings" or "Happy holidays" or some other heartfelt expression of good cheer?

(This is the same sort of problematic move that some folks made when the presence of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was called into question this year. The reference to God was referred to as a cultural artifact, not a religious affirmation, and that people were free to fill in that word with whatever content they wished, or no content.)

Eric Zorn, writing in today's Chicago Tribune, sees something more sinister afoot in this resurgence in seasonal specificity. He writes:
More than ever this season I'm hearing "Merry Christmas"--used defiantly, pointedly--as an in-your-face sack dance of a greeting meant to underscore Christian dominance in American society.

Now I have not seen this, although I live in a rather culturally sheltered area, and, frankly, I don't get out much. So this might be true, I don't know. If it is, I must say that this is deeply, deeply unfortunate, as this practice (and Parker's suggestion) seems to co-opt the gospel (in this case, Christ's birth) into purely nationalistic and ideological terms, which would be idolatry.

For my money, I dislike expressions such as "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings" because they are so generic. They are a way of navigating in the world without getting to know another person in their specificity. Nobody celebrates "Holiday" or "Season" (and not many celebrate "Festivus", yet).

Moreover, by publicly resorting to only these banalities and banishing any specifiable religious content to the private realm (whether that is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or more cultural celebrations such as Kwanzaa), it would seem then that the only thing that we (publicly) have in common is spending and consumption and that is, frankly, pathetic. I do try to say Merry Christmas to friends who are Christian or are otherwise celebrating Christmas in one way or another. I gladly say Happy Hannukah or similar greetings to Jewish or other friends as appropriate (although hopefully, with my Jewish friends, I will keep in mind that holidays such as Rosh Hoshanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach are more important holidays to them than Hannukah). If I have a friend that I am unsure about, I will ask him or her "do you celebrate Christmas?" as an opportunity to get to know them better and offer them appropriate warm wishes for the end of the year, which to me seems vastly preferable to either the bland pablum of "Happy Holidays", or using Christmas as a cultural bludgeon.

Here's another Christmas-season writing that might interest Gower Street readers:

Why is Christmas so often reduced to "X-mas"? Is it some vast, ominous conspiracy by (fill-in-the-blank) to remove Christ? Not at all! Check out Ralph the Sacred River's helpful post on this issue.

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Blogger Caleb said...

Very well put. Thanks!

Thursday, December 23, 2004 11:45:00 PM  
Blogger Doug Wood said...

There is no question that actually caring enough to know people and adjusting our response to them accordingly is the best for not only our own personal heart, but also our nation's heart. That would certainly be one way to show our love for them; to paraphrase from your sermon on Christmas Eve, by putting their needs (to have their faith (and self) acknowledged) above our own needs (to profess our own faith).

But what to do when one truly doesn't know and finding out would be awkward -- a store clerk to a customer for example or me on a crowded street to the person I just inadvertently knocked over. I hope if someone Jewish wished me a Happy Hanukah (which sadly in our sheltered community has never happened) I would simply accept it as the best wishes of the season of the giver's faith tradition. But can I expect that in reverse? That is very hard for me to answer. As a person of privilege in all areas I can think of (race, gender, social status, religion, age) I have never known being in the minority. I think it may be far easier to turn the other cheek when you know doing so will most likely leave you looking at someone else across the room who looks or believes just like you.

As members of the majority, Christians in this case, but any majority member (whites, men, heterosexuals, those under 65ish), I believe we have a greater (not sole) responsibility to build and maintain the inclusive society the US proclaims to be. Knowing people is the key. But short of that, we should just simply try not to offend -- and the reciprocal, try not to be offended by peoples best efforts not to offend.

PS - Writing this has left me ruminating on your Christmas Eve sermon. What do you suppose comes first, knowing or loving. My heart says loving, but my head says that minimizes the meaning of love, but maybe in a broader scope it really enhances it. I suppose I should go back and reread the sermon, the answer is probably in there!

Sunday, December 26, 2004 2:43:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Thanks for some nice ruminations, especially on the issue of minority/majority relations, never a simple or easy area.
As for loving or knowing, I think where my mind is at now is this: that to separate the two is a mistake, that knowing begets loving and loving begets knowing. This is not to say "when you get to truly know someone you naturally love them" nor "if you love someone you exhaustively know them." It is more an Augustinian sense that as we grow in (true) love we also grow in (true) knowledge and v-v. Of course, what constitutes true love or knowledge might be open to question, might not be everyday "common sense" concepts". But I think they go hand in hand. There is more to say about this, but perhaps another time.
One way to think about it that might be helpful is to revert to the ancient topography of the human person. You mentioned your mind saying one thing and you heart saying another. As I understand it, in Classical culture, they talked about the mind, the heart, and the guts. The mind was the location of thought, the guts the location of emotions and drives, and the heart was where the two meant.
Something in your post about our responsibilities as Americans is raising questions for me, too, but I need some more time to think about it, tease it out, and come up with something worth saying.
Thanks again for the reference to the Parker column and your thoughtful interactions!

Sunday, December 26, 2004 3:58:00 PM  

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