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Nashville Scene Christmas?

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  What is Christmas? Is it malls? Is it a religious event? Or is it both? If it is both, is that all right? Is it possible that the religious can happily co-exist with the commercial?

Amidst the annual onslaught of the holidays, the Nashville Scene last week convened a panel of local clergy and asked them to discuss the religious and cultural underpinnings of Christmas. Joseph C. Hough Jr., dean of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, served as moderator and asked the panel members to consider a string of questions: "How do you interpret the significance of Christmas? Do you see it as a 'Christian event'? Or do you attribute to Christmas a wider significance for all people? How reliable are the stories surrounding the Christmas event? How do you interpret such things as the visit of the wise men? The singing of the angels with the shepherds? The birth in the stable? What meaning do these stories carry for people today?"

In addition to Hough, the panel members were Randall Falk, rabbi emeritus, The Jewish Temple; Mark Fuller, senior priest, St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, Lebanon, Tenn.; Forrest Harris, pastor, Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church, and director, Kelly Miller Smith Institute at Vanderbilt Divinity School; Judy Hoffman, associate pastor, West End United Methodist Church; K.C. Ptomey, senior pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church; and Rubel Shelly, minister, Woodmont Hills Church of Christ.

Editor's Note: This transcript of the panel's conversation has been edited, due to space limitations.

Joseph Hough: There's a fairly wide consensus among religious leadership that Christmas has become a big selling season and retailers depend on that, and now start advertising on Halloween for Christmas shopping. There are actually some stores that advertise year-round for Christmas shopping.

When this panel talks about Christmas, I would think we don't really want to deal with that phenomenon. Everybody sort of knows that everyone feels that way about the Christmas holiday.

I thought what might be interesting to talk about is whether Christmas has become a cultural holiday rather than simply a Christian religious one. Is it the case that, apart from the commercialization of Christmas, there's broad celebration of the season that's not just commercial? Do you think that's the case, and if so, do you think that's a good thing or not?

Randall Falk: Of course, having Christmas as a legal holiday poses the whole question of separation between church and state. Is it a religious holiday, or is it a legal government holiday?

Hough: That's the kind of thing I think we ought to talk about, and then, if it's become a cultural holiday, I'd like for us to talk about how we perceive its non-commercial meaning. Is Christmas now simply a cultural holiday more than it is a religious holiday for the culture at large?

Forrest Harris: To begin, we have to attend to the fact that Christmas has cultural significance to people other than religious people, that it tends to inspire people toward values that help them appreciate things around family, around community, around social histories that overlap into religious meaning. Those things have more cultural meaning than religious meaning.

Hough: You know, almost everybody has a Christmas tree, that is, almost everybody in my neighborhood does, and that Christmas tree has very little to do with the stories that those of you who are Christian ministers will be recounting in your pulpits. What does it mean that the Christmas tree has become a kind of a symbol?

Mark Fuller: I think you have to be blind, deaf--and whatever--not to recognize the cultural thing Christmas has become. We've surrounded many of our Christmas celebrations with all these things that don't have a clear, direct connection to the original story. But, too, we have to acknowledge the fact that a significant portion of our society operates around the holiday of Christmas. It's to the point where, even in our local churches, we have to organize things not based on the idea of what happens on Dec. 25, but in terms of what happens from three days before Christmas until three days after New Year's, because that's when all the kids are on vacation, that's when everyone's out of town.

One of the challenges that we face as Christians attempting to talk about something that is supposed to have some religious significance to us is, how do we find that significance in the midst of all these other things?

Hough: That's not always easy, is it?

Fuller: No, it's not. But one of the reasons it's difficult for us is that we do try to ignore those cultural things--we try to pretend those things aren't there. We try to get back to the kernel without going through the shell. As a child in elementary school living in Phoenix, Ariz., I remember we had a yule log. That was in the '60s, which meant we had a fake yule log sitting next to the aluminum Christmas tree.

Rubel Shelly: Go back and look where Christmas started. As best I can tell, Christmas wasn't celebrated back in the years [A.D.] 10, 15, and 20. Apparently, there were some festivals and feasts, perhaps to the sun, going on; so the earliest Christians, as best I can read it, took a cultural event already in place and baptized it with Christian meaning. We're almost asking the wrong question to say, "Did something that began as purely spiritual and religious become cultural?" It was a cultural event, sanctified by the Christians for a particular use. I think that's where we are today. I certainly wouldn't want to deny the culture. Christmas for a lot of folks is just a good time, a chance to blow off steam, get drunk, and sell some stuff.

Falk: The same thing happened in Jewish tradition. We brought in Hanukkah to combat the pagan week with their equinox festival and the bacchanalian feasts with it. And we gave it a Jewish significance. One of our problems is that too many people today call Hanukkah "the Jewish Christmas."

K.C. Ptomey: That's what I always thought.

Falk: It's a long way from the truth.

Harris: You get the same thing now with Kwanzaa. People try to call Kwanzaa the "Black Christmas." It's a cultural celebration of heritage and valuable principles that are important to African-American existence. It has nothing to do with Christmas.

Judy Hoffman: When the Christ event occurs, it stands over and against the culture. In response to that, we have to commercialize it to some degree--and sentimentalize it, which I think is even worse than commercializing it. We soften some of the edges, so that our Christmas cards aren't the ones that have a stinky, smelly stable on the front with a child wrapped in rags with an unwed mother born into poverty. It takes off the edge and glitters it up a bit and makes it bearable for the culture.

Shelly: Two or three years ago, I read an article to that effect in a church bulletin that got back a scathing letter of rebuke: "How dare you say that the birth of Jesus was anything other than this glorious, regal, beautiful event?"

Hoffman: Majesty in a manger.

Fuller: I think that we are sensual beings, and because of that we need things that allow us to use our senses. Humanity has always, and will always, ritualize the things it holds valuable. The issue is, what do we do about that?

Rubel's right. Until the last part of the fourth century, in Egypt, it was the Epiphany that was important. It wasn't until the last part of the fourth century that they started to talk about Christmas. And the reason why is because they said, "Look, what these people are doing is good. They're celebrating. They're celebrating life. It's just that they're celebrating life in a misdirected way. So let's give them new direction." We need to do the same thing, regardless of where the Christmas tree, or the angel you stick on top of it--regardless of where any of that stuff came from. It has some value because our parents did it. Rather than try to get people not to do those things--which is to go against human nature--we need to do what the church did, at its wisest points in history. It added the meaning that it wanted to convey.

Shelly: I don't even do the railing against the commercialization of Christmas. I don't think the baby Jesus would mind opening up a present on any morning. [With] the generosity that people show at this time of year, most people realize there's a great deal done that should be continued through the year for the poor, for the homeless, for the hungry. I agree that our role is not to rail against the misappropriation of it, but to sound a good message, so that we affirm the part of it that truly is countercultural and remains so. We sort of prick people to remember that it really was a ragged story historically, and a terrible series of events acting out--children dying, and people fleeing in fright. And that's still in the world, and that is to be addressed at this season too.

Ptomey: Maybe I'm just too cynical, but it seems to me there's so much about the way this culture celebrates Christmas that's so un-Christian. I mean, it's so unloving. I certainly don't think railing against Christmas is an appropriate posture, but I'm a little nervous about just trying to get on the train and help direct where the train is going. My feeling is that this train is on a track that I've got no control over.

I think about Santa Claus. If there is a symbol that is counter-Christian, it's Santa Claus. This is conditional love that Santa Claus supplies--"You better watch out, you better not cry, I'm telling you why." You've got to do something, you've got to be a good little girl. That is conditional love.

Hoffman: But we can take something like Santa Claus, and take it back to St. Nicholas and the spirit of giving in anonymity, which is where that came from, and we begin to help our children understand that, instead of making Christmas lists of the gifts they want to receive, they begin making lists of gifts they want to give. I guess we're all trying to say very carefully that we don't give it all up. We don't throw out the baby with the bath water.

Ptomey: So to speak.

Falk: I think you're really concerned about--and so am I, whether it's Christmas or Hanukkah--the excesses, the material excesses, the expensive gift-giving that people are in debt for for the rest of the year. The over-elaborate parties that are called Christmas parties have nothing to do with Christmas. Probably our responsibility is to bring Christmas or Hanukkah back to what it originally started out as--a family holiday, with the emphasis on family, and the emphasis on some of the basic values--the whole concept of Christmas as the holiday celebrating peace on earth, good will to all men. Those are the important things we need to emphasize--and try, in the pulpit and in every other way, to downplay some of the material excesses and some of the bacchanalian-feast concepts that we inherited.

Shelly: I'm not anti-Santa or anti-Frosty, but I don't want my kids, and now my grandkids, thinking Christmas is about Santa, Frosty, and Rudolph, any more than I want them thinking that Easter is about rabbits that lay foil-wrapped chocolate eggs. I want them to see this as fantasy. I want them to know that Jesus is real, and the event is real. And that's reality, and this is fantasy--and not vice versa.

Hoffman: But the culture is desperately hunting for meaning in the midst of all this. And if the church and synagogue do not help people find it, they're going to find their own. And so again we come back to ourselves asking, "What have we done?" Have we excessively decorated the sanctuaries or the temples? Have we overdone our music program in the month of December? There is excess around the month of December that we don't have all during the course of the year. I think it comes right back to us again as the leaders of the faith community.

Harris: I can't see this story being told without its political and revolutionary overtones. How can you start talking about giving and receiving all the cultural warmth of this holiday and not have some integrity about this story's original context, in terms of political revolution--the rage of a king who was power-hungry and drunk, children suffering as a result of that king not being able to identify the one who was prophesied to be born king of the Jews. If all that suffering and all that rage and the image of Rachel weeping for her children do not help us connect culturally and politically to the suffering, globally and in our own communities, around this holiday, then when do we emphasize it? We get it all smoothed out, with the kind of paternalized giving to the homeless or charitableness to the less fortunate.

Shelly: But it can also open an awareness of need and the spirit of generosity.

Harris: But it stays right there; it doesn't move much. Each year we come back around to this same place, and it has not moved toward some kind of alternative consciousness about who we are in the midst of cultural diversity and the meaning of this event in the midst of our culture. It doesn't happen that way. Seemingly, it gets deeper into the excesses. It gets deeper into a kind of peace on earth that's American patriotism.

Shelly: [The Church of Christ] tradition does not routinely and generally celebrate Christmas with the abandon that I do. As an adult, I have come to an appreciation of Christmas [that has] enhanced what was already in place about some of these very issues--social consciousness and an identification with Emmanuel and "God With Us" in the Christmas story. I'm a latecomer to this. Within my tradition, I don't have all the church history of it. It's new in some of our churches, to be honest.

Hough: I'm not a latecomer to this. My first vision of God, the one that I grasped, was Santa Claus. At some point I got disillusioned because I saw my dad putting my bicycle together one night, when Santa Claus was supposed to bring it the next morning. When he tried to convince me that Santa Claus brought it, I thought, "Now, why would Santa Claus bring it in a box, not put together? He's got all these elves up there working on this stuff. He should have put it together before he brought it." But before I was able to think through the meaning of Christmas, I had perceived Santa Claus as someone who gives to other people, spends his entire year making gifts for little children.

Ptomey: When I was about 10 years old, there was a kid who lived four doors down from our house. His father lost his job mid-November, and he didn't wake up to anything on Christmas morning. I remember thinking, there's something wrong here. The universe is tilted here. If Santa Claus is so good and gracious, and brings toys to all the little boys and girls, then what happened to Raymond down the street? What kind of Santa Claus is that?

Falk: I have to tell you that, as a Jew, I've always been thankful that we didn't have to deal with Santa Claus, primarily because the day has to come when you tell the child there really isn't a Santa Claus that we've built up as this benevolent giver. And then the child, I think, begins to wonder, "Well, if there isn't any Santa Claus, maybe there isn't a God." This whole business of rectifying the mythology that we've created can be a very hard problem.

Fuller: Even in the seminary, I remember people trying to argue, "How do you teach people Christ is real, if you also want to teach them about Santa Claus, from their earliest memories?"

Shelly: Kids don't mind fantasy. It's we adults who get hung up by it.

Fuller: But I think that the parents who have been successful in helping with the transition have been those who have not focused on the lie and fantasy of Santa Claus, but who have used that as a point of departure to teach the truth of Christ. That Santa Claus is loving--he is kind. The parents who have been successful have been the ones who have used it not as a change of planes but as a point of departure.

A man loses his job in the middle of November, and because of that his children don't get a visit from Santa Claus. There's something grossly wrong about that, because there's an injustice in the world, and the world is not a place of justice, but it can be. Whether it will be is something we are obligated to work for because Christ is a bringer of justice.

Falk: Let me bring you Christians back to Jesus as what he's referred to often in the Gospel--as a rabbi, as a Jewish teacher, but more importantly, I think, in the tradition of the prophets. It seems to me that one of the ways Jesus became such an important figure in his lifetime was his ministry to the poor and his concern for the poor, the widowed, the sick. And in this kind of a ministry he was following in the tradition of the prophets, of an Amos, for example, who decried the mistreatment of the poor by the wealthy.

I think this is something that is important to emphasize in the Christmas season--Jesus' concern for the poor, his desire to bring them into the mainstream of life, and to give them the opportunities that were theirs in the promised land. I think that this is important for [Jews] as well as for Christians, to see the Christmas holiday as a celebration of the birth of a man who stood for compassion and concern for the poor and the needy. In many ways we do adopt that as part of the Christmas scene, and I think it's important that we connect it with the life of the man whose birth is celebrated.

Shelly: It's difficult for me to make a great deal of sense out of the symbolism if we divorce it from historicity. I give the documents a credibility, and I give the events a historicity that some of the more liberal Christian traditions don't. I really do believe that this was a real person in real humanity. I really do believe that he was the fulfillment of the promise of God. It's the historicity that gives rise to the symbolism, which then has the meaning. I have a real problem finding meaning based on symbolism apart from historicity.

Ptomey: I don't argue with the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. I even believe, as you do, that he was Emmanuel. But I think it's a serious failure in the Christian church for us not to nurture our young in understanding that all that stuff that grew up around that is mythology. That's all mythology--angels, wise men, shepherds, and all that stuff--that's not historical.

Shelly See, I accept that as historical, and that's part of the beauty of the story. I believe he really was virgin-born. I believe in the miraculous tradition from the days of Moses and the prophets. I really do believe those shepherds were surprised on a hillside, and angels said, "Hey, the moment has come, the bell has struck, and the fulfillment has arrived."

Harris: But those stories have what we would call mythic power to transport meaning...

Shelly: But even more meaning if in fact they are true. God really did those things.

Ptomey: I don't nececessarily go there.

Harris: But the other side of that is the [Christmas] narratives, the documents. Mark was the first out of the cocoon, so to speak, in terms of the Christian church's narrative, and Mark says nothing [about the Nativity], no hint. Those issues are not central to his whole understanding of the truth that [Jesus] brought about God. So you've got to argue, or at least think reflectively about, the centrality of Emmanuel with us. Without the birth, without the angels, without all the rest.

Hoffman: There's a tendency for us to feel that, if we can explain what happened, we can explain why it happened. I think we agree that something happened, but what is God's purpose in that, and how do we share it with our culture and with our people?

Ptomey: Just picking up on what Randy said, I think that part of the power of the mythology that grew up around the birth event is that it's all rooted in the Hebrew scriptures. There's nothing original in any of that mythology.

Hough: It's also in Greek culture. If you recall, Hercules was the child of a sexual union between Zeus and a woman. He was killed but apparently rose, went up on top of a mountain, and ascended out of sight.

Now, when I say something is a myth, that doesn't mean it isn't true. A myth is the way of conveying truth with the cultural tools that people have to convey that truth. This is an attempt by the Gospel writers who included these stories--on the one hand you have the Eastern story, which is the wise men, and you have the shepherd's thing, which is not in the wise-men tradition--into a signal that this was a dramatic thing breaking into history, something that heretofore had not appeared. I see these stories as confessions of faith--that here is the one who has come to make known what Jesus made known. You have to realize that all of this was written down after the Crucifixion. It was a post-Resurrection thing, and you had a group of people who had experienced something deeply moving, and they were transformed.

They were confronted with telling the story, creating a narrative. And I think they did what all deeply religious people do. They utilized the cultural vehicles available to them, and they put them together in such a way as to tell the truth, as they saw it. So I don't think there's a great war, between the literalists and those who don't take it literally, about what is being conveyed here. The war is between those who take what is conveyed here and distort it in such a way that it becomes somehow negative and exclusivistic. The deep concern is to understand what the meaning of the story is.

Shelly: That's a concern all of us have.

Hough: I think the story of angels singing conveys something. I think the story of wise men coming seeking The One conveys something. But it conveys far more than a narrative.

Ptomey: There's something I can't figure. Every Christmas we pack [the church] where I serve, three times on Christmas Eve, to the walls. And I look at those people--and some of those people, literally, we see them once or twice a year. I look at those people and think something brings them here. All the junk we say about the culture and all of that, but, by God, they want to be there. I think it's the business of being hungry. I think it's the business of being unfulfilled by all the glut of the culture.

Hoffman: Just maybe, on this night, there will be a word from God for me.

Ptomey: It's just amazing to me, Christmas after Christmas.

Fuller: The question is not so much, why do we get a great attendance on Christmas and Easter? But why do we get a lesser attendance on the other Sundays? I think it's because, on those other Sundays, there's not enough honesty about what we're feeling. At Christmas we come knowing that on this day we're going to celebrate the birth of a child, and, whether it has anything to do with angels and shepherds or anything else, I don't care, because I know that today a baby's being born. And I know what it's like to have a baby born.

Or at Easter, someone has died. And I know people who have died, and I know what it's like to want to hold onto a faith that even those who have died haven't died. So at Christmas and Easter there's a clarity that's often not there in the rest of our life. We're going to spend the next four weeks getting ready for Christmas in church. I know most of the people there are getting ready for a party, and I know that in the past I've failed in trying to figure out some way to communicate to them that there's something different. But I do think they're there because they know.

Hough: I think that's true in a lot of cases. I think in other cases people are there for a variety of reasons, just like they are anywhere for a variety of reasons. In my own family, there are some who show up for the reasons you're talking about. There are others who show up because they think this is a good time for the family to be together. And I don't gainsay any of those reasons. But I do believe that Christmas has become so enmeshed in so many other trains of thought, that I'd be awfully surprised if the overwhelming majority of people who go to these services go there simply because they think something really has happened. Am I too cynical about that?

Hoffman: It is OK, Joe--it's more than OK. It's necessary. We don't need to fret about cleaning it up and presenting one true picture. We need to allow and make room for the ambiguity that allows for the mystery, that includes the foggy candlelight and the smells and the ribbons and the bells and all of the other pieces that come with it, that catches people up in that spirit--something beyond, something that transcends our knowing.

Hough: Let me push this in another direction. We have connected Christmas with Easter, and that's not accidental. The centrality of those two events has been interpreted historically in such a way as to be exclusivistic, and to deny the validity of other religious traditions. Is there a way in which Christians can understand Christmas that does not require it to be the one and only narrative that speaks about God's presence in the world, or are we just stuck with a narrative that can't be interpreted any other way?

Ptomey: For me, what it means is that God is behaving here as God has always behaved. That's the reason for all the allusions to the stories. The whole flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is just a redoing of the Joseph story, in my opinion. And it seems to me that it's a way of saying that the Christ event, the birth of this person, cannot be understood apart from the way in which God has been behaving with God's people all along, from the get-go. The Jews, just like the Christians, have had a problem making that exclusivistic, and losing sight of the fact that we are elected to be the servants of the world, not to be the elite of the world. Personally, I think it's one story.

Falk: Pope Pius XII, a number of years ago, made a very interesting statement when he said, had there been no Hanukkah, there could be no Christmas. Of course, what he meant was that, at the time of the story of the Maccabees in 165 B.C.E., if the Jews hadn't successfully defended their right to worship the one God according to the dictates of conscience, there would have been no God for the Christians also to affirm almost 200 years later.

I think this kind of recognition of a continuity of the right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience--whatever your identification religiously is--is the important thing. And I think it has a great deal to say to the world today. If there had been no Hanukkah, there could have been no Christmas. If there had not been the preservation of the belief in one God to carry on into Christianity, into Islam, the world would have been poorer, there would not have been the basis for a diverse appreciation of the same God.

Hough: My only thought was that, in its cultural trappings, Christianity becomes highly focused, and I think exclusivistic. Our celebrations do become that.

Shelly: You're talking about conservatives like me, and even the ones to the right of me--the fundamentalists, who have taken the Christmas event as part of a larger justification for a view of God, as revealed in Christ, that is anything but the God that is revealed in Christ. It's hard for me to be anti-Semitic when Jesus is Jewish, born into a Jewish culture, to see the way he treats anyone from the leper, to the grieving widow burying her only son, to a woman who others were about to stone, and to use that as justification for going out to stone somebody, or to inflict judgment and harshness into someone else's life.

Hough: My only point is that Christians often have interpreted this event as a single, one-time, once-and-for-all revelatory event that supersedes everything else.

Harris: The truth in the religion of Christianity is the truth to be found in other religions, but to celebrate and honor that truth in the midst of diversity and pluralism is the genius of any religion. When you have an exclusive religion that cannot be celebrated in a pluralistic culture, it's probably because someone has misinterpreted the genius of that religion. I think Christmas is a religious holiday, but the genius of it could be celebrated in the midst of other religious experiences, without compromising the universality of the truths that emerge. But cultural-specific religions don't want that. We just can't have it. We just don't know how to let it be.

Fuller: Yet I believe there's some uniqueness to the Incarnation; there's some uniqueness to Christ and Christ's faith. There's something unique about the event of Christmas, whenever it happened, whether it happened in March or whatever time of year. Part of the uniqueness, in my mind, is the clarity with which the continuity of God's presence was expressed. Sometimes we say things like, "Christ came into the world for me. The Christ event was about me and my salvation, and therefore I have the answer, and if you want the answer then come with me." That misses the point because the Christ event, in my mind at least, is connected to the continuity of God's presence, as Randy mentioned. It has no meaning apart from the prophets. None.

Hoffman: And it has no meaning apart from Moses or Abraham. It is a God who is repeating God's self, over and over again into humanity, to be heard over and again and over and again. So I do think there's a threat if we particularize our own revelation as if it were the revelation, as opposed to understanding that God's intent is to be revealed, however that may be.

Hough: It has become a really, really tough problem in our culture as we become more pluralistic. It's going to get tougher when you get out of this Western tradition, and you start asking yourself, "What's the status of the revelation of God in other contexts that were not even conceived of by the biblical writers and, up until recently, were not even looked at seriously by most Christian theologians, liberal or otherwise?" As late as the early 20th century, most of the people who were writing about other religions were seeing them as inferior manifestations of our own. That, to me, is going to become increasingly a problem. And that brings us back to where we started. I think that the status of Christmas as a legal holiday and a school holiday is a residue of a time when everyone agreed that America was Christian America. I think that idea is outdated, and I wonder if it can really survive.

Ptomey: Well, I think it will survive because of the merchants and because of the consumerism of the culture, but not because of the religious connection.

Hoffman: I got an e-mail this week that said [Nashville Gas Co.'s] Christmas parade has been moved back another hour, and West End Avenue will be closed at 11:30 on Sunday, Dec. 7. When we wonder about whether the culture is encroaching on us or we're encroaching on the culture, I realized we're in the position to have to make a decision about worship on Sunday morning with closed access to the churches' parking [lots], from downtown to the park.

Harris: That says it all. Church is going to be closed for the Christmas parade.

Editor's note: As of press time, West End United Methodist had no plans to cancel its services for Sunday, Dec. 7.


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