Listening for the Past

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 13.]

At one point in the documentary Karl Marx City (streaming on Netflix), the narrator (Matilda Tucker) translates two German words for dealing with memories. The first is Erinnerungskultur, or the “culture of remembrance,” and the second is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “the process of coming to terms with the past.” These are fitting terms for a country that seems to have more than its share of recent past with which to come to terms. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to watch this film so soon after seeing Hitler’s Children (which I wrote about here).

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The Swedish Theory of Love

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 25.]

What would happen if an entire country took independence and individualism to their logical and extreme ends? We don’t have to wonder. We have Sweden. For the last 40+ years, Sweden has been engaged in a social experiment which now has borne its desiccated fruit. The Swedish Theory of Love is the documentary telling that story. (You can find it online here. If you don’t want to subscribe, you can simply share the movie—I shared it to be visible only to me on Facebook—and you can watch it for free.)

It is the story of the inversion of Genesis 2:18: “It is good for a man or a woman to be alone; too much human dependence is evil.” I found myself both repelled and interested, because my default is alone and quiet. And yet the effects of this as a national ideal are clearly destructive: the end of husbands and wives; the end of the home with two parents as the natural location of a child; the beginning of loneliness as the more-than-likely outcome of a life.

This is the end of an “old-fashioned, outdated family structure…that made us deeply dependent on one another.” In order to call this progress, complete independence with complete control and choice must be the goal. But that begs the question: is that a good or worthy goal to be pursued? Does such “progress,” in fact, work against what is hard-wired into the human creature, whether one believes that to be the result of a Creator or the result of evolutionary adaptation? Can natural law be so easily contravened?

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[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 16.]

I’ve never been a huge fan of westerns, although there are some notable exceptions. I probably need to fill out my viewing of classic westerns, including some Clint Eastwood films I keep meaning to get around to. But Godless (on Netflix) is a limited series I wouldn’t mind watching more than once.

There are classic western tropes, like the duel, the gun-slinging sheriff standing up for his town against a gang of bad guys, the (in this case, former) whorehouse, the saloon, cowboys and Indians. But in Godless, they are definitely not ends in themselves, but utilized to push a classic story in new directions. It doesn’t feel like it’s a simple retread, even with all the familiar characters.

Although there are multiple story lines, including how La Belle came to be made up almost entirely of women, the seven episodes of Godless orbit around the relationship between Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) and Frank Griffin (an excellently evil Jeff Daniels). What allows this main lode to be mined successfully is the father-son dynamic, explored between the orphaned Roy and the childless Frank, who says to the young Roy, “You’ve got a family now, son. These are your brothers, and I aim to be your pappy. And a good one, too. I won’t mistreat you. I won’t beat you. And I won’t ever lie to you. Ever. Welcome home, son.” The show plays on this theme by having Roy wear his own dead father’s clothes, as well as become a father figure to Alice Fletcher’s son, Truckee. Episodes 5 and 6 are particularly compelling in this regard.

Godless is not the sort of subversive western that becomes a political statement about the bad old days. It doesn’t play on the stereotypes of the oldest westerns in order to show that the “good guys” were really the “bad guys.” There are indeed cowboys and Indians. There are blacks and whites. There are men and women. But what Godless does so effectively is refrain from demonizing a group of people. There are good guys and bad guys, to be sure, but they are never good or bad simply because they have or claim some identity. They are good or bad because of how they live, how they act, how they treat people or horses.

As far as Lutherans are concerned, this refers to a civil righteousness, not justification before God. But it is a real righteousness and, in Godless, it doesn’t come from class, color, sex, or job. There are good and bad lawmen. There are good and bad women, good and bad men. There are good and bad cowboys and good and bad Indians. They all have different motivations and perspectives, and in this it echoes real life with real people. There are exploitative opportunists (like the journalist, A.T. Grigg). There are oily and smiling mercenaries pretending to be protectors (like Kim Coates’ Ed Logan). There are the women who resent being left alone, and those who simply get on with it.

There is a hardness to the characters that make them seem as if they inhabit a real, difficult world. Godless simply feels like how it must have been.

Obviously, the title implies the religious connection. Frank wears a preacher’s collar (while, in La Belle, Sadie Rose keeps waiting for the new preacher) and is continually quoting the “Good Book.” When someone asks which “good book,” Frank doesn’t answer. But none of his quotes are from the actual Scriptures. It seems that his good book is actually just a collection of his favorite sayings (which probably isn’t too different from how many people treat the Bible anyway).

When one of the Norwegians whom Frank terrorizes says that Frank is not a man of God, Frank responds, “God? What God? Mister, you clearly don’t know where you are. Look around. There ain’t no higher-up around here to watch over you and your young’ns. This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the blade and the rifle. It’s godless country. And the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you’re all gonna live.”

It would be easy to attempt some sort of theodicy, some defense of God, in this case. But when Frank’s holding the pistol, perhaps not so wise. He is, in a very real sense, the “enthusiast” of the show: literally, his god is within him (en-thuo). Theodicies always go wrong in the face of actual circumstances. They might hold up in one case, but not in another. If there is a God, then He’s a God far stranger, far more inexplicable than any god we could construct or imagine.

And while Godless doesn’t dwell on this theme in the dialogue, it is the over-arching narrative: look at what happens out here in this “godless country.” Look at what happens to your Creede in such a place. The preacher shows up only when the people are dead. (Although, this preacher doesn’t quote the Bible any more than Frank Griffin does. He quotes, instead, a medieval Jewish poet!)

But, it turns out, the criticism of religion is precisely the Christian point: “the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you’re all gonna live.” The preacher shows up to preach to the dead and the dying, because that’s the only sort of person there is. And this is what is so foreign to most understandings of God: His death is the only life in the midst of the violence and death of this world. It is not what God does or doesn’t do in a given moment, whether He prevents this or that disease or physical death. It is what God did in the given moment of the crucifixion, the eternal Son dying, rather than simply preserving a dying world.

And now I need to watch it again.

“No, that I do not have strength to believe”

But I think it very difficult to believe in a mild providence who looks down upon our earthly hell and smiles graciously in his beard; when I remember Gethsemane it is hard to believe that.  The rag on the rock, He who calls God His Father, is for me a protest and a contradiction of a nicy nice faith in God the Father.  I read during the war about human beings in Hamburg who, during a bombing, melted down with the asphalt in the streets.  Afterwards you could see a little child’s hand stick up out of the congealed mass.  I wonder if it is not the horror of this sight that makes it impossible for me not to look at the Christ hands in our altar painting.  This is the kind of thing the Good Father in heaven ought to look down on.  Perhaps a bit sorrowful, perhaps lifting His finger like an inept school teacher in the seventh grade: “Now let’s all be nice.”  No, that I do not have the strength to believe.

But what about my absolutism with respect to the right.  Perhaps it is a variant of this bland faith.  You put God a little farther away and change Him into a neuter; in that way you don’t have to reckon with His heart.

Klara Svensson in Holy Masquerade (53-54) [my annual Lenten reading]

A Christian Life?

It’s an intriguing question.  Now that I’m a Christian, what should I do?  Yes, I know I’m forgiven.  Yes!  YES!  I KNOW I’M FORGIVEN!  Now what should I do?

It used to intrigue me a lot more than it does now.

At my university alma mater, the distinction between Law and Gospel was taught nearly this crudely: the Gospel is good, and since the Gospel is the solution to the Law [yes, I recognize the false premise there], the Law must be bad.  This is the sort of polarity that is commonly called (at least among particular Lutherans centered in the lower Midwest) “Gospel reductionism.”  It has all sorts of nice off-shoots, such as using the “Gospel” to determine which parts of the Scriptures we ought to take as “the Word of God.”  Because the Bible is not coterminous with the Word of God, you know?  (Notice, the reverse is certainly true: the Word of God is not coterminous with the Bible, because Jesus.)  The Bible contains the Word of God.  And, of course, hence nearly all of mainline Protestantism.

But now you’ve gotten me off my main point, which is that because Law and Gospel were taught so crudely, I had a hard time thinking about good works at all.  I knew that both Jesus and all the apostolic writings commanded that Christians do certain things.  But I was being taught that the Law not only always accused, but that it only accused.  So these teachers avoided the charge of antinomianism because they still held that the Law had a purpose, but only an accusatory one.

But if the Law has only an accusatory function in the life of the Christian, I was stuck on how to deal with good works as good.  Because if good works are the Law, they must actually be bad.  See?  The old controversies never really go away (see Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration IV:3-5).

There are different ways to approach this problem, both theoretical and practical, but where it actually hits the ground is in preaching.  With the above polarized dichotomy of Law versus Gospel, combined with the exhortations to good works in the Scriptures, Lutheran preachers often ended up with a Law-Gospel-Law sandwich: I know I have to preach Law and Gospel, because that’s the fundamental distinction in the Scriptures, but I also know I have to actually preach this exhortation (especially in Paul’s letters), so I will phrase the Law in terms of the Gospel: you now get to do all these good things that you don’t really want to do.  This is your response to the good news of the Gospel!  Don’t you want to do these good works now?

Still felt like a burden to me; still felt exactly like the Law, but now it gummed you to death instead of tearing your head off with sharp teeth.

The real problem is not that Lutherans had got Law and Gospel wrong (the whole Scriptures is still divided into those two Words), but that we forgot where the Law belongs once you become a Christian.  Insofar as you are a Christian, it no longer has anything to say about your relationship with God (unless Jesus didn’t really do it all); now, it can only and always speak about your relationship with your family, friends, neighbors, communities, co-workers, etc.  If you can only speak in terms of one kind of righteousness (between you and God), then you are either driving people into despair with your constant exhortations to do good works; or you are replacing your neighbor with God, so that you never actually want to help your neighbor in himself, you only want to serve God through your neighbor (which makes your neighbor expendable and interchangeable; as long as you have someone to serve, it doesn’t matter that the person is an actual person with concrete needs).

From this point, my question is this:  Do we really not know what to do?  Is that the problem?  And the solution is to tell more people what they should do more?  I suggest trying that with your children.  All you’ll get is little hypocrites, no matter how nicely you tell them what they now get to do.  Once you’ve reminded them 85 times that it’s not good to break the Fourth Commandment, I think they probably know what they ought to do.  The problem is not that they don’t know what to do, it’s that they, according to themselves, don’t want to do it.  And not only do they not want to do it, they will become defensive and argue to the death why they shouldn’t have to do it.

I overstate the case slightly.  Sometimes children want to do what’s right.  (I had that conversation with my oldest daughter yesterday.)  But in both instances, when they want to do what’s right and when they don’t, they know what the right thing is.  Once you’ve disciplined the Old Adam after you’ve drowned him (or even if you’re trying to discipline an undrowned Adam), children are not ignorant about what is right.  They hear nothing all day long but what they are supposed to do.  Occasionally, the advice conflicts (and leaving aside for the time being those examples of schools and others who explicitly and actively contradict parents), but for the most part, they hear consistent messages: show respect, don’t hit, be nice, don’t take what isn’t yours, work things out.  The solution, as counter-intuitive as it is to our common, sinful logic of the Law, is not to tell them what to do more and more (I should take my own advice).  The solution is confession and absolution, or the two parts of repentance.  The solution is to get them to the Gospel, always.  No, you can’t just tell them “you’re forgiven” when they are caught in a lie; the Gospel without contrition produced by the Word of God only builds self-righteousness and complacency.  Law and Gospel, applied like finely tuned surgical instruments, according to the specific diagnosis.

Which brings me back to the beginning: are Christians really supposed to live lives that look different from an unbeliever’s actions?  We naturally assume so, and I grant that Christians ought to live lives different from the general mass of unbelievers, who naturally do what their flesh demands (Eph. 4:17).  That is, we ought to live lives in Christ that are fundamentally opposed to our lives outside of Christ.  And I grant that in a fundamentally decadent culture, not lying, cheating, and stealing will in themselves be enough to set a Christian apart.  But when we come to the specific actions that Christians are to do, I can’t see that they are any different from how we’d want a virtuous pagan to live (regardless of whether any actually live that way).  In other words, which of the following things require Christ to do externally (ad hominibus)?  Don’t murder?  Don’t steal?  Don’t hold grudges?  Don’t lie?  Bitterness, undue anger, slander, etc.?  Which of these things would, say, virtuous pagan philosophers reject?  None of these are specifically Christian virtues, except perhaps to forgive as Christ has forgiven you.  But at that point we are in a different realm, the single realm where the truly Christian life is played out: the communion of the saints in the holy things.  The only truly and particularly and explicitly Christian actions I can see are: hearing the Word of God, receiving His sacramental gifts, and worshiping Him in return, two of which are completely passive, and the third is simply returning to God the praise for what He has already done.

I’m open to correction on this, but is there any single action that is done by a Christian that we would not want to be done by an unbeliever, because if everyone did such things the world would be a better place?  And which of those things would not be commended by a thoughtful, atheist philosopher?  Don’t the atheists have it correct on this point, when they (unfortunately) whittle the Christian faith down to its moral content?  Isn’t this also part of the cause of the attrition from Christian churches, that people who have been told over and over to live a particular kind of “Christian” life find that they can do it without even being a Christian?

Christianity is not about morality, and anyone who says it is might as well give up the mirage of Christianity altogether, and simply teach how to live a good life (cf. Osteen et al.).  There is not, as far as I can see, any particularly Christian ethics.

What ought Christians do qua Christians?  Hear the Gospel, receive the Sacraments, and live toward your neighbor in the best way you can, according to their needs and your means.  Not complicated to say (though, of course, carrying it out against the desires of your sinful flesh is a completely different animal).  You are pleasing to God in Christ, so do what your neighbor needs.  No calculating, no motive-checking, no hesitation, no measuring of sin as if it were a substance you could separate from your sinful flesh or reduce to a manageable level.  You have good works, your neighbors need them, God commands them.

I suggest that if people are not doing good works toward their neighbors, it’s because they are not receiving the good works of Jesus, the fruit of His cross and resurrection.  In other words, they don’t really believe the Gospel, and that sort of superficial faith (not really faith at all) is what James condemns.  True faith in the Christ who has done everything does indeed produce good fruit, but the branch must be connected to the Vine.

What should you do?  Pretty much what you would have done if you were a virtuous pagan; but now you know that Christ has redeemed your entire life, your “good” works and your bad.  Live your life, for Christ’s sake!

[fire away…!]


The American Timeline: The Book of Judges, pt. 1

I think it was Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (although I seem to have misplaced my copy) who tried to make the point, using the Book of Judges, that the Bible is not a good source for morality.  Which, if you read the Book of Judges, is pretty clear.  In other words, if you think the Bible is only or primarily a book of rules and morality, you will have trouble figuring out how the Book of Judges fits in.  Despite the fact that Dawkins reads the Bible like a seventh-grader who’s had one world religions class, he is right on this point: the Bible is not a book of morality.  There’s all sorts of morality in there, some good and some bad.  There is also the additional point, which Dawkins–typically–fails to consider, that some parts of the Bible are meant to be prescriptive for moral action, while other parts are meant to be descriptive of how human morality, left to itself, always devolves.  Those who think that atheists can act morally are correct, but for the wrong reason; they act morally out of the vestiges of a dying moralism rooted in a Christian past.  We cannot say what would have happened had the West not been rooted in a Christian past (although, perhaps we could consider the Middle East as an opposite case study), but the fact is that a nearly universal Christianity of one sort or another has ruled the West since Constantine.  Whether the political implications of that are good or bad, I think we can definitively say that the moral implications are almost universally good.  Christians have killed and do kill other people, but the New Testament (through which Christians read the Old Testament) is fundamentally against murder, even murder committed in one’s heart.  Christians have committed adultery and still do, but the New Testament is everywhere opposed to it.  Christians have stolen, and still do, but the New Testament says you should give, rather than take.  You get the picture.

But, back to Dawkins: his point is that religion is dangerous.  Why?  Because the Old Testament.  There are ways to read the Old Testament, and Yahweh’s holy wars, in continuity with Jesus (and I read it that way), but the main point for Dawkins is that he assumes Christians (and, I’m guessing, Jews) read everything in every part of Scripture prescriptively, and therefore the Bible is a poor, even evil(!), guide to morality.  One of his major examples, as I noted, is Judges.  There are horrible things in the Book of Judges, but as I read it, people in Judges do horrible things not because they are following the lead of the sadistic god Dawkins sees in the OT, but because they are not.  That is, in fact, the entire point of the Book of Judges.

God tells the people in Deuteronomy 31:

For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant.  And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring).  For I know that they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.  [20-21, ESV]

Joshua says many of the same things in Joshua 23-24.

But all of this is exactly what Israel does when we get to the Book of Judges: “And the people served [Yahweh] all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that [Yahweh] had done for Israel.  And Joshua…died…And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers.  And there arose another generation after them who did not know [Yahweh] or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:7-10, ESV).  Everything that happens from now on is precisely because the people forgot God’s salvation.  Because “not knowing” Yahweh doesn’t mean they don’t know His Name or that they’ve never heard of Him.  No, the people in Judges are all very religious, very pious.  That’s exactly the problem: they are running on the religious fumes of the Instruction (Torah) that Moses and Joshua had handed on to them.  But they all get fat and comfortable in Canaan, and they do not teach their children the Faith of Israel.

David Bazan and the Hidden God

If you’re read this blog before, you might have noticed that I’ve commented on things Bazan before.  (Here and here, and in another place which I’ve made private, because I think I did not represent what I was saying well enough to have people understand.)  I don’t know if I can explain my fascination, but it certainly has something to do with how hard it is to get his songs out of my head.  The combination of serious, even terrifying, lyrics with the upbeat, cheerful melodies makes it dangerous to sing along, because you almost forget what you’re saying.  (Exhibit #1: “Rapture” from Control–which I would love to hear live.)

I had the chance to see Bazan in one of his living room shows this past week, and he was good as usual.  A small show in an apartment is a unique experience, and he essentially had open conversations with the people: “Any questions at this point in the show?”  He is clear that he does not believe in the God he thinks is revealed in the Bible, but nearly all the songs on Curse Your Branches are responses to his upbringing and early work as Pedro the Lion.  Strange Negotiations (which I think is better and more mature, both musically and lyrically) returns to other topics, but underneath runs almost continually the theme of God and those who believe in Him.

But what kind of God is it that Bazan is singing about?  (I have never had this conversation with him–although it would be great over a beer–and I don’t know the specifics of his church growing up, so I am using only the data of his songs.)  What kind of God has he rejected?  It may well be the God of the Bible, along with everything else that Christians believe–although defining “what Christians believe” based on the panoply of American religion is a murky proposition at best.

I think the answer to that question, whether Bazan would agree with this characterization or not, is that he has rejected a God who has not revealed Himself, instead of the God who has.  In other words, Bazan is questioning, doubting, disbelieving God as He is, off in some concealed heaven, and not God as He has revealed Himself.  Lutherans call this “the hidden God” and “the revealed God,” but what the distinction is called is not important.  What is important is that we are bound to reject the hidden God.  The hidden God is the God of Job, to whom Bazan directs the lines in “In Stitches”: “When Job asked You the question/You responded, ‘Who are you/to challenge Your Creator?’/Well, if that one part is true/it makes You sound defensive/like You had not thought it through/enough to have an answer/or You might have bit off more than You could chew.”  I suppose that’s one way to take the book of Job, although it’s rather simplistic and superficial.  Or, could it be that, if that one part is true, that it’s Job who’s bitten off more than he can chew?  That certainly seems to be Job’s take on it in the end.

Talking about God as Creator in Genesis, Bazan also criticizes this hidden God: “When You set the table/when You chose the scale/did You write a riddle/that You knew they would fail?  Did You make them tremble,/so they would tell the tale?/Did You push us when we fell?”  And: “You knew what would happen/and made us just the same/and You, my Lord, can take the blame.”  Notice that the questions are not answered by the text, and God apparently wanted it that way.  But Bazan has hit on the most terrifying thing about God when He comes into contact with humans: His absoluteness.  His uncontrollableness.  The fact that He may have set things up a certain way–and what if we even grant the premise according to Bazan’s reading of Genesis, that He pushed us when we fell?–and that we have absolutely no control over it at all.  As Gerhard Forde put it,

God is absolute, free.  That is the systematic problem.  We cannot get on with such a God, with an absolute who is “absolved” from all charge, free, disengaged, independent, and all such.  An absolute God is the “end” of us.  Such a God leaves us no room, no freedom, destroys us.  We see this particularly, I suppose, when we come up against the concepts of divine, that is, absolute, predestination and election.  If the absolutely free, disengaged, unlimited one predestines and elects, what room, what freedom does that leave us?  As long as we try to tangle with the absolute directly, to wrestle with God in the abstract, or, as Luther put it, try to peer into the things of the deus absconditus [God hidden], it leaves us with absolutely nothing, no freedom, apparently, nowhere to move.  If God is absolute, that is, determined in himself, then we are, it would seem, likewise simply determined.  To the degree that God is free, we are unfree.  So we tell ourselves.  And so we must turn against the absolute God.  We simply cannot take such a God.  We will not take such a God.  … We are bound to say no to the absolute.  We can and will do no other.  That is to say, we are bound to say no to the hidden God, the abstract God, who is, of course, the only God we know apart from Christ. [“Absolution: Systematic Considerations,”Justification Is For Preaching (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 177, 178]

The sort of God preached in many parts of Christianity is exactly this hidden God: God loves you, God accepts you just as you are; God would never want that to happen; He certainly didn’t cause it; God lets us choose for ourselves; we have free will toward God.  Most of that is exactly opposite to the witness of the Scriptures, as the atheists enjoy pointing out.  And that’s the problem Bazan seems to have: his church taught (I am generalizing based on stereotypes) a God that mostly wanted you to believe that the Flood happened, and that Genesis was a true record, and that Adam and Eve were real people.  And those things could be proven with evidence, using the scientific method.  He was taught a God who wanted you to believe that all of that was true, simply because the Bible was God’s Word (if you can’t see it, just believe it).  And, oh yeah, Jesus died for your sins so that you will go to heaven.  But how much of the preaching that Bazan heard, or that we hear, for that matter, was about God, minus Jesus?  And if it’s about Jesus, how much of it is “be like Jesus” or “this is what Jesus wants you to do”?

This hidden God will damn you and kill you.  And there’s nothing you can do about it.  It is an endless cycle that will end either in hypocrisy or, as seems to be in Bazan’s case, unbelief, and along with it, a sense of freedom.  But it is only a sense of freedom.  The unavoidable, the undeniable, the swift, horrible, and uncontrollable fact is that we are not in control, and death proves it.  The only refuge from the dark and hidden terror of the unknown and hidden God, who might do anything to anyone at any time, is the bright and revealed God who chooses sinners for Himself in Jesus.  This Man is the only God we can know; and if we reject Him we are left only with a god of our own making, usually “my self,” and that god is just as demanding and unrelenting as any we meet in the Old Testament.  The god within will drive you to your death as surely as the God without.  Neither will save you; you cannot save yourself.

Because Bazan has rejected Christ (however badly preached) in the Scriptures, he is only left with a lot of ultimately hollow moralizing about how to be “a decent human being.”  Those lyrics only work on people who already know that they ought to be good and nice.  But why should I be nice and decent if I am not held accountable in some way, by something or someone higher than myself?  All we’re left with is, well, because it’s nice to be nice, and everyone knows religious people ought to be nice.  That way is not really any different from most preaching in most churches in America: be good, and here are ten steps or principles to help you do so.  Bazan may not have liked the rules in his church, but he has only replaced those rules with others he thinks are more important.  They’re all rules, and they all make hypocrites or suicides.

God does not want to be known in the way Job or his friends want Him to be known.  He wants to be known only in Jesus, only on the cross, only for you in foolish words and water and bread and wine.  Otherwise, the only thing to do is to say no to God.  As Bazan and others have proven, we simply are not able to have Him stay hidden; the weight of the present Absence is too much for us.


Poor Atheists

It’s hard for me to take this sort of thing [it’s available for free until Dec. 16] seriously. 

But a number of the atheists who have issues with Christmas said their feelings come in part from years of discrimination.

Larsen, a mechanic, said his ex-wife suggested his atheism was a character flaw in court filings during a contentious divorce with the custody of their children in dispute (he lost custody).

Really?  Discrimination?  All the reporter could find is one instance of something that was said “during a contentious divorce,” and suddenly atheists face discrimination at every turn?  Maybe you could sell that to Richard Dawkins, but you’re going to have to give me something more if you want to play the victim. 

Come to think of it, I don’t like it when Christians play the victim, either.  No one is taking Christ out of Christmas–except maybe Christians.  And who cares if they don’t say “Merry Christmas” at Walmart? (Do we really want capitalism equated with Christmas?  Not that I have anything against capitalism.)  If Christians would actually order their lives and thinking around the Church Year (=the life of Christ), it wouldn’t matter at all what the world does.  Perhaps that is precisely the problem: Christians order their lives around what the world does, so if the world doesn’t recognize Christ (and we should expect them to do so?), that constitutes a serious identity crisis. 

Even as they chafe at the omnipresence of Christmas, many of the atheists here are quick to stress their belief in the pagan roots of a yearly celebration near the winter solstice. Before Christianity and other organized religions, many cultures would mark the point where days started getting longer again with a “festival of light” that included parties, gift exchanges, even placing trees in homes. Some of those rituals were religious, but usually in a polytheistic way.

“What we’re celebrating this year is the promise of the sun returning. That’s S-U-N, not S-O-N,” said Bill Weir, a retired marketing executive from Plymouth.

“Then the Christians stole it,” said Marie Alena Castle, Minneapolis, the 82-year-old founder of Atheists for Human Rights and an atheist activist for two decades. It’s a season of celebration for the Jewish faith as well, with Hanukkah.

How many times does this assertion have to be disproven before people stop believing it?  (Of course, it would be useful to the “pagans” if it were true.)

Read this from Gene Edward Veith’s Cranach blog from 2006.  The salient point would be this:

William J. Tighe, a history professor at Muhlenberg College, gives a different account in his article “Calculating Christmas,” published in the December 2003 Touchstone Magazine. He points out that the ancient Roman religions had no winter solstice festival.

True, the Emperor Aurelian, in the five short years of his reign, tried to start one, “The Birth of the Unconquered Sun,” on Dec. 25, 274. This festival, marking the time of year when the length of daylight began to increase, was designed to breathe new life into a declining paganism. But Aurelian’s new festival was instituted after Christians had already been associating that day with the birth of Christ. According to Mr. Tighe, the Birth of the Unconquered Sun “was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians.” Christians were not imitating the pagans. The pagans were imitating the Christians.

But even if we “stole” the pagan festival from them, it would seem that we’ve been pretty successful at keeping it.  It’s like trying to change B.C. and A.D. to CE and BCE.  No matter what the periods are called, they’re still calculated from the ostensible year of Christ’s birth.  The French tried to turn back the clock on the Christian calendar, and they weren’t very succesful.  And even if pagans had some festival of light, it would only show how the prophecies of the Christ infiltrated every country and every religion (just as we see flood stories in every, or nearly every, ancient religion).  

Sorry, pagans.  No matter how much you whine, you can’t have it (back).  Every knee will bow.

And see here about Christmas trees, just for the fun of it.  (All you Christians in the U.S. have the Missouri Synod to thank [or dislike] for Christmas trees in church.)


Mollie Ziegler Hemingway on the Irrationality of “Rationalists”

Anti-religionists such as Mr. Maher bring to mind the assertion of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown character that all atheists, secularists, humanists and rationalists are susceptible to superstition: “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can’t see things as they are.”

Here’s the link to the whole WSJ article.  [Thanks to Scott for the link.]