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Archive for the ‘The Christian Year’ Category

In my last post I took exception to Miroslav Volf’s unsupported accusation that Wheaton College’s action in placing Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave was “not about theology and orthodoxy,” but “enmity toward Muslims.”

Comes now Mr. Brian McLaren, who takes that accusation and gives it another run through the spin cycle:

The hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates – much of it spewed out to impress the “Evangelical base” of the Republican Party – seems to have swayed college administrators from their professed theology, which at Christmas should remind us all that God is in solidarity with all humanity, all creation …

Dr. Volf had set forth — with no evidence — an alleged motive for Wheaton’s action: enmity toward Muslims. Now Mr. McLaren sets forth the source of that enmity: the college administrators were “swayed . . . from their professed theology” by “the hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates.” I’m not holding my breath to see Mr. McLaren present actual evidence for that claim.

Is it so impossible to suppose that the Wheaton College administrators placed Dr. Hawkins on leave for saying “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” not because they were “swayed from . . . their professed theology,” but because — I dunno — they believed it? 

If Wheaton affirms the Incarnation — a mystery that Muslims flatly deny, and Christians adore — and then also affirms that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” Wheaton is equivocating about whether it believes in God’s supreme act of “solidarity with all humanity, all creation.”

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If you’ve clicked over here from the Rabbit Room, where my essay Lent Against a Million Faustian Bargains appeared today, welcome. This piece is a companion piece to that one, so having seen that one first, you’re ready to read this one.

If you haven’t yet read that essay, and have some interest in the subject of “Lenten politics” — what the political philosophy of Jesus Christ might look like, so far as we can trace it from His teaching and action in the canonical Gospels [1] — then I suggest you go read that first, and then come back here [2].

Okay, done? Very good. On to the miscellanies:

1. Jesus of Nazareth was not exactly a “political philosopher” — he was foremost a man of action — but his actions in the world proceeded from a deep and peculiar political philosophy. That political philosophy was unique, and remains so even to this day. It was and is so unique that His disciples often have failed to grasp it, erring either on the side of non-engagement with the political world, or engaging it by means Jesus forbade: coercion by threats or force, building political coalitions by lies and stirring up fear, etc.;

2. The political philosophy of Jesus, like all other political philosophies, has to do with glory. The modus operandi of the politicians of the world is to seek glory for themselves — to burnish “legacies,” to vindicate themselves and their political parties, etc. Jesus refused to seek glory for Himself, or to trade illegitimate worship for political glory when the Devil offered him “the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” We should not look at Jesus’s refusal as apolitical, but as a personal challenge to every man, woman and child, and a challenge to every political system corporately;

3. The platitudes and falsehoods characteristic of contemporary political discourse are symptoms of wanton glory-lust. They are designed not to frame real debates constructively, but to motivate the members of particular voting blocs to get the polls — either by bribes, or by fear, or by anger;

4. If that weren’t bad enough, contemporary political talking points have the disastrous side-effect of alienating real neighbors, friends, and family members. And, while there are undoubtedly real and important arguments afoot, they do not justify sacrificing real relationships. We know the people; most national-level political arguments concern matters that are beyond the actual capacity of any human being to understand. I may know my neighbor. I do not know — no human really can know — whether a law binding upon three hundred and fifty million people will help their collective fortunes;

5. Finally, the Rabbit Room essay is not about keeping aloof from politics. It is meant, rather, as encouragement to regard political arguments and talking-points with healthy skepticism, our own arguments with modesty. Privilege the things you know, and the people you know and love, over those things you do not and could not know. In the words of one of His disciples, Jesus of Nazareth “went about doing good” — personally doing good by deeds tailored to uphold the real dignity and heal the peculiar brokenness of particular people, on a scale that local communities could see and understand. He commissioned His disciples to go and do likewise. If you cannot see that that has political implications enough, you cannot see.

[1] Only the canonical Gospels imply any kind of political philosophy. The non-canonical Gnostic gospels, in addition to being written much later and having far less historical value than the canonical ones, firmly divide the world of spirit from the material world in such a way that real-world political engagement becomes nonsensical.

[2] If you’re unfamiliar with the Rabbit Room, then you should make yourself familiar with it — particularly if you’re a fan of good music, good literature, and good art.

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The night almost had me:
Sleep with no dream, no rest;
Dark without Abram’s stars;
Lead silence that freezes
Flesh, blood, bone and marrow.

I had no breath to plead —
No word, no cry;
Only a groan to ask
Deliverance.

And I heard in my breast
A woman bearing God
Groaning in labor pain,
Then a baby wailing,
Then two sighs, and soft breath
In the rhythm of sleep,
And rest.

That day Mother and Child
Spoke my language, uttered
A plea I understood.

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Schemes we have sought,
Schemes we have invented:
The skeleton, the smoking gun,
The “fair cop” and the well-timed flop;
Our defense when accused
Is accusation.

We sons of hell,
Satans of our father
The Snake, fill our mouth with our tail
And narrow the circle of hell
With every swallow.
Lord, have mercy.

Teach us, Wisdom,
Faithful Son of Faith begotten,
To set our jaws, to shut our mouths,
To glory in our “shames”
As you before.

Hell had “the goods”
On you from conception.
“Bastard son of fornication!”
Your Mother treasured these things in her heart.
Then Joseph said: “The Son of Heaven
Is no bastard on Earth,”
Setting Hell’s teeth
On edge.

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Were you there when He crawled atop skull hill,10-good-thief-2
Driven by Roman soldiers like a lamb,
Condemned and cursed by sons of Abraham
Who by perjury procured a true bill?

Were you there when His hands and feet were nailed
Down, His body lifted up, on a tree —
A spectacle for all the world to see
Where Israel’s sight and Rome’s Blind Justice failed?

Were you there when one man hanged by His side, 
One terrorist at death’s door, entered life,
And laid his “just cause” down, and ceased his strife,
And on the tree his King and God espied?

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The world is sick from a million Faustian bargains — and the revolutions that arise to overthrow them are but a different set of Faustian bargains. Except one: the one Christ inaugurated by his fasting and temptation in the wilderness, commonly known as Lent.

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Today is the eve of Christmastide.  And yet, despite the fact that the twelve-day Feast hasn’t begun, there is no shortage of Christmas fatigue in the air.  I can think of at least two sources of the fatigue.  The first is that celebrating and having a good time are hard work — good work, but work not easy to keep up over the long haul.  The second is the encroachment of the commercial racket.  After all, we’ve been bombarded with various and sundry Christmas messages since November 1.  How much longer can we even think about it?

The last half century has not produced many effective fortifications against Christmas fatigue.  But it has produced one highly improbable one: A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Upon one viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas it is evident that this is a different Christmas special. In modern American Christmas entertainment, it has no parallel. In contrast to most of the slick, well-polished Christmas specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas has a rough, unfinished feel to it.  The characters are voiced by actual children, in most cases children with no previous voice-over experience. In many places, the show plays more like a series of loosely connected comic strips than a well-integrated story (not surprising, given that the three-frame comic strip was writer Charles Schulz’s regular medium). Far from being limitations, though, those qualities actually make the special earthier and more like real life. There is no glitz, no jingly-jangly bells, little adornment, much melancholy.  The one theme that holds the show together is the extended jeremiad about the commercialization of Christmas.

Charlie Brown’s struggle against the commercialization of Christmas in the show paralleled Charles Schulz’s struggle against the CBS executives.  Schulz had to fight on a few fronts to keep the show as he’d conceived it.  First, in keeping with convention for kids’ shows, the CBS execs had wanted to add a laugh track – a suggestion Schulz firmly rejected. Second, the execs didn’t like Vince Guaraldi’s brilliantly understated jazz score; this, after all, was a children’s Christmas special, and why would anybody even think about setting it to jazz? Again, Schulz held the line. Finally, the CBS execs were appalled at Linus’s reading St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus – better to stick with a vague, lowest-common-denominator Christmas message to avoid offending anyone. This was Schulz’s Alamo: No gospel of Luke, no show.

Schulz’s battles are a fitting backdrop, then, to the show itself.  A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with Charlie Brown announcing the problem that will dominate the story:

There must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel . . . I like getting presents, and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.

Things get worse when Charlie Brown learns that both his dog and his little sister have “gone commercial,” and when Lucy tells him that “we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” And Charlie Brown’s “rock bottom” is the ridicule he receives for picking a small wooden tree (significantly, the only wooden tree on the lot) over a flashy aluminum one for the Christmas play.

It is at that point, when the salesmen in the temple of Christmas seemingly have their feet most firmly planted on Charlie Brown’s neck, that in exasperation he asks the momentous question: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about!?” Then Linus steps into the spotlight, and with his trusty blanket and a simple recitation of the Christmas story as recorded by St. Luke, drives the salesmen out of the temple, with their shameless sales pitches and bloated pageantry. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Smiling, Charlie Brown picks up his fragile little tree and walks happily out of the theater into the crisp, starry December night.

His joy, though, is short-lived. The first blow it suffers is seeing that Snoopy won first prize in the commercial lights and display contest. When the “big eastern syndicate” running Christmas gets its tentacles into your beagle’s doghouse, it’s easy to take your eye off the babe in the manger and the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem.

Charlie Brown shrugs that off, though, and proceeds to put one of the bulbs from Snoopy’s doghouse on his little tree. Disaster – the tree collapses from the weight. Crushed, Charlie Brown walks off, lamenting, “everything I touch gets ruined.” This is a thornier problem than commercialization, because it isn’t inflicted from without, but from within. And it has a sting of truth in it common to all. Like Charlie Brown, we are a people of clumsy and unclean hands, and our deeds, projects, and relationships all bear our smudgy fingerprints.

Thankfully, Charlie Brown has a good friend wImageho comes along, sees the wreck he’d left in his path, and, with a little love and his trusty blanket, heals it. That friend is of course Linus. In the theater Linus had taken on the mantle of a prophet, confronting big evils with plain truth; in this scene, he becomes a priest, intervening for and lifting up the broken and downtrodden.

It isn’t a complicated story, and, as I mentioned before, the component pieces don’t hang together neatly. But I’ve been watching it since I was eight, when I did not even know that the weird text Linus read in that animated auditorium was from the Bible. For years, I could not understand the quality that kept dragging me back to watch it, year after year, or why Linus’s reading had so deeply seared my young pagan mind.

But now I get it. A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the few pieces of holy Christmas entertainment produced in the twentieth century. Fittingly for a Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas does not animate distant, untouchable holiness, but holiness come near and reaching out, stirring our imaginations, fortifying us against the cultural acids that wear us down, leaving us a little different than before. The show isn’t bombastically holy, but — perhaps as real holiness always is — it’s gentle and unemphatic. Far from being ponderous, it wears its gravitas lightly. In a world overcrowded with entertainment profane, banal, or even just vaguely wholesome or fuzzy-warm, A Charlie Brown Christmas stands out as a testament that real, gritty, in-the-medium and on-the-ground holiness never goes out of style. Which is, after all, what Christmas is all about.

(Originally published December 31, 2011 at While We’re Paused, the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.)

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