A Christmas Story

Razib at Gene Expression has a great post on Christmas and what it means, if anything:

Ed, Greg & PZ have commented on the strange reaction of the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary toward Richard Dawkins’ enthusiasm for Christmas traditions. So “why would an atheist want to sing Christmas carols?”

The same reason that the study and reading of literature has not been reduced to physics. We humans appreciate great stories, and we can conceive in our mind’s eye ideas which may not be true, but we enjoy the play of those ideas nonetheless. One does not have to be a Greek pagan to appreciate the beauty and power of the Iliad, and in fact for centuries pious Christians have been moved by the poems of Homer without acceding to the reality of its relgious vision. For them Homer was not about the Truth of the gods, but the Truth of human experience. We don’t need to appeal to a classical education though, anyone who reads a piece of moving fiction can be emotionally impacted, without entertaining that the narrative is real in a positivistic sense.

Today many Christians complain about a “War against Christmas,” but they might be surprised to know that until recently the soldiers in that war were avowed Christians! During the 1650s the ascendant Puritans in England waged a war against Christmas because of its associations with “Popery” and paganism. The reasoned argument was that Christmas had no Biblical foundation, that was not grounded in Truth, and that a host of practices were obviously extra-Biblical interpolations from the pagan milieu of their ancestors, residue from the age of darkness before the Savior. Politically, the practice of Christmas traditions was a sign that perhaps one was for the Cavalier cause or a recusant Catholic. In the the name of utilitarian economic efficiency these early fundamentalists also abolished most holidays and religious festivals because they had no Biblical grounding, and so were not rooted in Truth, and were a waste of time and without any utility. In may ways I think these early Protestant fundamentalists had much in common with latter day social engineers, such as the Khmer Rouge, who seemed driven by an unnatural and distorted Benthanmite conception of what drives human nature and what gives joy and fullness to our lives.

I believe in human nature. We are not a blank slate into which one can pour in prior values and assume that our lives will be shaped by these exogenous inputs through a chain of necessary propositions. We enjoy good food, music, the company of family, gossip, socialization and the broader succor of our community. These are not social constructions, they are are the core of our humanity, and any belief system or model of human action which neglects these natural impulses will lead us astray. I am not denying flexibility of the parameters, but that flexibility exhibits constraints and stress when deviated from the central tendency.

The whole post is great and hits on several ideas that have been whirring about in my brain for some time. One idea in particular that jumped out at me was his statement that, “anyone who reads a piece of moving fiction can be emotionally impacted, without entertaining that the narrative is real in a positivistic sense. This cuts to the heart of the Fundamentalist problem with other narratives, not just the Christmas Story.

A lot of Fundies spin themselves into a tizzy over truth claims. The Bible must be literally True with a capitol T for it to have any meaning to them and any contradictions that might suggest that it has only emotional or metaphorical lower case truth must be dismissed, loudly and with conviction. As if doing so was a magical spell to banish doubt in their own minds. This leads directly into the War on Christmas nonsense, where the Fundie definition of Christmas must be the only accepted and practiced ritual, all others must be marginalized if not pounded into oblivion. Mention that their ideas about Christmas were invented by Charles Dickens a mere century and a half ago (and in a novel, no less) and they sputter and start repeating the usual Biblical error messages, like some robot that’s just broken one of Asimov’s laws.

But there’s a broader issue at work here. The Fundamentalist need for the existence of One Universal Truth, of which they are the sole possessors and arbiters is at the heart of why they get pissy about fantasy and science fiction books and films. When you strip away the mysticism and hundreds of years of a-historical obfuscation, the Bible is just a collection of stories. Fundamentalists however view it as an encapsulation of revealed Truth and see other narratives as direct competition to their Revealed Truth Claims. Now, no author* ever claimed that their novels were anything but stories meant to entertain and explore the human condition. But to the Fundamentalist zero sum mindset, there is only Truth and Lies. And if people enjoy fantasy stories that present other truths, well, they might stop believing in Jesus. and they’re right.

How can Jesus compare to Gandalf, Superman or Doctor Who? Jesus, the character**, is just a magic carpenter who can walk on water and provide a good meal, with plenty of fish, bread and wine for everyone. And make zombies. Two powers that are useless and one that’s creepy. Meanwhile, Superman can not only come back form the dead, but fly, shoot heat rays form his eyes and punch through the Earth’s core. Superman will save us, and not in some spiritual, metaphorical sense but he’ll defeat the evil bad guys and always be there as an example of how to take an active role in standing up to evil. Compared to Superman, Jesus is passive aggressive and his story so old and riddled with First Century tropes as to be tedious to modern audiences. But Superman! There’s a modern hero that anyone can get behind ( The similarities between Jesus and Superman have been pointed out before. That Superman follows the same archetypal Savior Story is why I’m using him as an example.)

The secret of Christianity is that it is a narrative driven faith. The Passion, as it is usually told, has a three act structure. And while no one will believe in the literal existence of Superman, his narrative truth undermines the positivistic truth claims about Jesus. By dying at the beginning of Act Three and coming back to life in the coda, Jesus, or rather the authors who created him, are saying to their audience,that the Biblical truth claims you’ve just witnessed survive the end of the narrative. To be a Christian, you have to accept this claim. But if the Passion of Jesus is just one fantasy story among many and not even the most interesting one around, then there’s a problem. People may look elsewhere for their inspirational stories, ones that they don’t believe literally and don’t come laden with two thousand year old prohibitions about pork, shrimp and hating gays. The existence of other narratives makes all truth claims less positivistic. If people start figuring out truth for themselves, then the hierarchy driven faiths that claim to reveal truth to you will have less influence. The end result is not just Christmas becoming a multicultural Winter festival, but that Fundamentalists will loose power to influence politics and social norms that benefit them. The War on Christmas is really a struggle for who gets to control the imagination of the most people. The irony is, Christians started that war two thousand years ago, when they started adapting other people’s stories to meet their own needs. Now that their cultural influence is on the wane and their narratives are being co opted, they’re getting pissy.

* Except L. Ron Hubbard.
** Jesus the historical figure is almost nonexistent and so nothing meaningful can be said about him. This claim can be disputed but until we find some credible historical evidence, his reality is on a sliding scale somewhere between Mickey Mouse and Liam Neeson as Abraham Lincoln.

6 thoughts on “A Christmas Story”

  1. Oh, I agree. Also, season 3 of Doctor Who was all about story telling. Martha telling everyone she met about the Doctor and most episodes involved the concept of meta-narrative, where characters had to determine for themselves the truth vs fiction of the situation.

    It’s all about who controls the narrative of your life; you or someone else.

  2. Fiction is not impossible (and i think you mean writers, JD). I think that the much discussed Religious Impulse is really just our fascination with stories and so long as we have some sort of emotionally satisfying narrative at hand, it serves that impulse.

    Basically, churches are just primitive fan clubs that have gotten out of hand.

  3. ya no wat a supper dupper not up the pooper world it could be just if
    a few bits(not so much people)of evil did not exist. Yup,but dat not a
    dream(jumping around)my dreams when elicit are much more xxx
    rated, thank you science! Hears one fer ya-I don’t discrimonate, I want
    your incurable smile to be my fualt-hows this one?hears one for ya,dis might be a result of them plukin
    with my head but–say this with me!!!!!!3 times fast
    say this–oftensmuchen ok-now use it in a sentance-this
    sentance I am going to the suberu delership and test
    drive a oftensmuchen! then say it in a sentance again me
    and my x was oftensmuchen! FUNNY,YAAHHHH?it’s not a (suberu)
    it a (oftensmuchen)hahahahahah hahahah uncontrolable
    halarity yah yah?yud tink i was sweedish nah-just drivin
    loooony by dis har frikin ringin in me cranium
    dat could drive a guy insainium.
    they’ll never drive me crazy-hahaha-made another funny!

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