I think I was a few months away from turning eight when I was faced with what seemed like an overwhelming ethical dilemma for a kid my age. It was sometime around Christmas, and I was playing with the neighborhood group of friends. I believe I was one of the youngest in the group, and I remember always trying to keep up. At one point in our rough and tumble “boy play,” the subject of Santa Claus came up. Of course we all let it be known at the ripe old age of somewhere between eight and ten, that we of course did not believe in Santa Claus. “Only babies believe in Santa Claus,” we chanted like little warriors getting ready for battle. And, we certainly were not babies.
The problem was my sister. She is only fifteen months younger than me and I have always been a bit protective of her. I knew and they knew that Sally still believed in the real, physical Santa Claus that came down chimneys and left presents under the tree. It bothered me that my sometimes unkind little friends were making fun of her behind her back. But she was almost seven years old and in the first grade, and probably the only kid in her class holding on to her belief in the living Santa. At times the teasing drifted over to me. One day, after a couple of shoving matches with one of the more aggressive ten year olds, I decided I needed to fix the problem. Admittedly, I was not looking forward to it and wondered if I was doing the right thing.
The next day while we were playing on the backyard swings, I said something like, “Hey, Sally, I think I should tell you the truth about Santa Claus.” But I never got a chance to say anything more. She looked at me with horror and anger in her eyes and ran off with her hands over her ears. In tears now, she turned and yelled back at me, “You are just trying to ruin Christmas for me!”
Trust me…her concern had little to do with presents. In those postwar days, our Santa Claus had a very limited budget. Most of our gifts were utilitarian…maybe a new sweater, pants, or shoes. All three kids in my family got one Christmas gift in those years, and we never felt cheated or deprived. It was not the presents she was concerned about. It was the fear of losing the “magic” of Christmas, the essence of the holiday that we all loved.
Christmas was a special time for our entire, extended family. It was always a joyous celebration for us every year. It meant playing wild games with cousins; getting hugs from favorite aunts and uncles; putting on plays, and singing songs for the twenty to thirty some adults after dinner. It was the sensations of abundance with more food than we ever saw at one time appearing on the table, and for me watching the preparation was even more magical. It meant the whole family singing Christmas carols in three part harmony for hours around the two ping-pong sized tables after our feast. It meant a whole lot of affirmation and love, especially for the kids.
No, it was that celebrative spirit that my little sister really loved about Christmas. She discovered that the following Christmas when she caved into the peer pressure of her schoolmates, and she let Santa Claus become a symbol of love and sharing and a powerful myth. And, she had a wonderful Christmas as always.
For some reason I have been thinking a lot about that incident lately. I suppose I think about it every time Christmas rolls around each time. It probably also has something to do with email I often receive or comments I hear by those who would suggest that I, as the president of a progressive Christian organization, am trying to “ruin Christianity.” Some writers are downright nasty. Others seem curious, at least in the beginning.
And, when I am asked to defend myself, I find myself sometimes in the same kind of fix I found myself in, over sixty years ago. I wonder; “How much do I say? How much do they really want to hear?” Often, when I do think someone is really interested, I suggest some excellent reading material. Frequently the response is like the one I received a few days ago, “Well you are not a real Christian so why should I listen to you?”
The problem is, like the rowdy friends of my youth, there are a lot of different kinds of people, including some excellent scholars today, who are telling us that there really is no Santa Claus in Christianity. That is, there was no supernatural, magical Jesus, who was born without need of a human father, who was able to bring people back to life after they had died, who could create sight in people who had been physically blind. There was no Jesus who believed that he was God and had to be a divine sacrifice for the sins of the world. There was no Jesus who was buried in a tomb, and in three days he came back to life, and ascended into heaven. There are more and more of those rowdy friends out there who have been doing excellent research, writing and speaking about these things for decades, and they are not going to go away. Rowdies have a way of sticking around.
Who would have believed a decade ago that three of the top non-fiction best sellers in the last few years were written by authors who openly declared themselves as a proud atheist? Who would have believed that the recent death of one of those bright authors, Christopher Hitchens, would be regarded as a great loss by scholars and commentators of many disciplines, including well known theologians? Authors, like Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, and Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, joined Hitchens on a direct frontal attack on the curious beliefs of traditional and conservative Christians. Unfortunately, they seldom made that distinction.
But, let’s be honest. Highly qualified Christian theologians and biblical scholars have argued for decades that we have not had it right for the last eighteen hundred years. More recently Marcus Borg, a wonderful scholar and faith-filled man, suggests that the historical Jesus was a Jewish mystic, healer, wisdom teacher, and prophet. Bishop John Shelby Spong describes the miracles of Jesus as mythic stories meant to demonstrate the messianic role that his early followers believed that Jesus had fulfilled. Robert Price, a superb New Testament scholar posits in his book, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, that there is little, if any, historicity in the Gospels, and even the name Jesus may very well have been ‘“retrojected’ into the past history of the [a] character”…after his death.
The challenge today is that these rowdies are now featured in the newsstands, on the front pages of major periodicals, in our libraries, can be found teaching classes in our universities and colleges, and their books are selling all over the world. Ironically, it seems the only place they seem to be absent is in our churches. There has been a lot of hand wringing in our old-line churches these days and a strong counter by the traditional and conservative Christians. There is a lot of crying out in some congregations about people like me ruining the Christian faith. But, I cannot help but wonder if this crying out is not similar to the cries of my little sister, as she ran off covering her ears because she was afraid that I was going to “ruin” her Christmas when I told her something she had probably already figured out? How many people in our churches are holding their hands over their ears because they are afraid if they really listened, it would ruin their Christianity? Frankly, I see all of all this turmoil as an opportunity to re-conceptualize and invigorate the Christian tradition. But I am a rowdy after all.
You see for me the magic of Christianity is not in the miracles, or in the beliefs, or in the written word. It is not even so much in having the correct information about the historical Jesus. The magic of Christianity is in the living and being. It is more about praxis than it is about belief. It is more about trust than it is about blind faith. The transformative “magic” can only be discovered in the doing, by opening, not closing, by letting go, and not by clinging. It is not about trying to decide what is divine and what is not. It is about discovering the divine in all things. Or as Lloyd Geering suggests, only when the sacred and the secular are made one, will the Kingdom of God have come.
We can find the “magic” of Christianity by taking Jesus’ teachings seriously and by “living” the compassionate path toward self discovery. That is the way we uncover the essence of the Christianity. That has always been the way we can discover who Jesus really was and in the process discover who and what we are. Now that seems to me to be a real magical Christmas present and no “rowdies” are ever going to take that away from us.