Friday, December 25, 2009

On Santa Claus and Jesus

I was in the 2nd grade, working on homework at a desk in our den. It must have been close to Christmastime, because my mother was explaining something about Santa Claus to my little sister.
I don't remember my sister's question, but it probably involved the North Pole, elves, reindeer, Rudolph, or (temporal) punishments and rewards for being either naughty or nice. In one blinding moment the Santa Claus/Easter Bunny/Tooth Fairy Axis Of Impossibility revealed itself to me.
There are no elves. Reindeer can't fly. Old fat guys can't get down chimneys. A giant rabbit can't leave us colorful plastic eggs (from Gibson's department store) filled with coins or candy.
Any fairy with a tooth fetish must be very lonely fairy indeed.

I had figured out the conspiracy, and needed some clarification on the finer points so I looked up from my homework and asked "Hey, there can't be a Santa Claus who brings all this stuff. Is it just you and Daddy, or is it somebody else?"

My Mother went through a frantic series of shushing gestures, throat slashings, and brow-furrowings, and then said something like "Of course there's a Santa Claus", followed by a wink-wink nudge-nudge. Once my sister left the room, she explained that Santa Claus was something that parents did to make Christmas more fun for children, along with a follow-up conversation about the need to conceal this from my sisters and brother. I immediately felt like more of an adult since I was in on what was obviously a very adult secret.

I relished the conversations I could have with my parents and other adults about what other kids were getting from Santa Claus. I had access to the people behind the curtain, the ones who made the magic happen.

I had a friend named Glenn Williams who was a year younger than me. (Note to self: write a post about the day Glenn was working at The Rushing Winery and managed to bottle his thumb.) Another friend, Walt Burns, took Glenn aside one day and told him all about Santa Claus. Glenn has told me at least three times about how mad he got at Walt for doing this.

Up until the time Walt spilled the beans, Glenn had a worldview that included a benevolent old guy who paid attention to his behavior and rewarded him with great stuff every December 25th. People were killing each other in Viet Nam but Santa was watching. Elves were making toys for people who were good, even if kids our age were starving in communist China. And Walt Burns had to ruin everything. There was no magic guy in a sleigh, it was just Pat and Guy B. Williams waiting up past their normal bedtime to bring Glenn's toys down from the attic.
Other kids claimed to believe, or pretended to believe, until they were in the 5th or 6th grade. In their families, once you stopped believing, the quality and quantity of gifts from Santa declined. Why rock the boat?

Flash forward about 15 years.

I briefly attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Cemetery Seminary in Fort Worth. The place seemed to operate on two levels. In some classes the professors spoke as if every word in the Bible was inspired by God, and that all of scripture hung together as a unified statement and plan. But a few other professors would sometimes imply that the book was a mishmash. It was filled with time and place-specific rants that had to be twisted and tortured into relevance. A few brave souls, usually at the doctoral level, would introduce Biblical Criticism into the mix.

(Go here for a Dan Dennett video on what happens when seminary students encounter Biblical Criticism for the first time, but find that they've gone too far to change careers. Go here for something I wrote on the subject a while back. If you don't know the competing gospel stories of the resurrection of Jesus, don't bother. You won't get it.)

No professors publicly confessed any doubts about whether the basic story was true. And by true, I mean in the sense that this event happened, not true in the sense that something is a true to life parable or narrative that can teach us something about blah blah blah....

However, I found that if I could get these professors off the clock, and they would sometimes confirm that doubt was a valid response. Some of them would go so far as to give me further reading on the subject.

But by and large, the main response to doubt went something like this: "These stories have given comfort to millions. They are the foundation of our morality, our ethics, and our hope for the future. They are the received wisdom handed down from previous generations. If they weren't true, would God have given them to us? And one last thing.... people will give 10% or more of their income to spread God's Eternal Truth. But can you imagine anyone giving 10% of his money to spread a story that's just a parable? Churches and ministers that waver in their professed beliefs have a hard time paying the light bill."

In other words, once people start thinking of Santa Claus as a metaphor, you can't rely on them to put out milk and cookies in front of the fireplace.

Go back to the Dennett video above. We now have ministers all over the U.S. who no longer truly believe what they're preaching. So why do they continue?

They don't want to be the Walt Burns who tells Glenn Williams what they've learned. They don't want to hurt their colleagues, financially or professionally, who still claim to take it all literally instead of figuratively. In some groups, to go against the story is to go against the entire tribe, and would mean rejecting family, town, denomination, and (ahem) salary. Sometimes it's too late to re-invent yourself as an insurance salesman, retail manager, or freight broker.

Plus, the church still owes $250,000.00 on the new education wing they built 10 years ago.

When I'm feeling particularly dark, I sometimes tell people that I didn't learn the truth about Santa Claus until I spent 6 years training to be an elf.

Could there be anything sadder than a 25-year old who still believed in Santa?

On the other hand, could there be anything sadder than a 50-year old minister who lives on the same planet as theologian/scholars like Marcus Borg and John Spong, but who continues to proclaim the virgin birth, angelic visitations, and the eternal damnation of dead Muslim teenagers?

Let's make some changes, starting with a few obvious propositions. I don't believe in hell. I don't believe that I'll die and get some wings and a harp either. What happens after we die? I don't know. Neither does anyone else. But we can all agree on what happens to a tree when it dies, can't we? Let's start there.

Here's another one. I don't believe that Jesus got his Mama pregnant with himself.

I don't believe that languages were invented when people got uppity and tried to create a tower that would reach the sky and God felt threatened and punished everybody by giving them different languages. You don't believe that either. I promise, you don't. People... Just... Don't... Believe... That...

So if you're a minister who happens to read this rant, you have the blessing and approval of a lot of people to crawl up into your pulpit Sunday and admit what you don't believe certain things anymore. You're probably a good person with some good ideas. Give your folks something new to think about. The Santa Claus guided by Rudolph/Wise Men guided by the star in the east business - those stories don't work any more.

Sunday morning, tell us what you think will make the world better, without resorting to mythology.

I think you'll feel better afterwards. I feel better just writing all of this.

Merry Christmas !


Harper said...

When you find a pastor willing to be honest in front of the people he claims to be called to serve - let me know. Hypocrisy in the church is what drove me away.

Merry Christmas - taking your advice and heading out for the day, without waiting on the others to decide how we should all spend the day together.

Cheap Tricks and Costly Truths said...

A southern baptist by birth I am, daddy's one of the cloth...I was trained to be the pianist for their little church and did it all my life. I was taught that dinosaurs never existed, and I believed my parents because they said the good Lord said it was so. My parents sent me to HBU...Houston Baptist University...thinking that they'd keep me uninfluenced by the world. They were wrong, those same confessions from seminary professors also rang true from the professors teaching Christian Doctrine, Old Testament & the New. But my moment of realization and the the basis of all my beliefs shattered when I visited my first Museum of Natural History, and saw before me...the fossilized bones of a true to life dinosaur. Earth shattering. Then I spent the next 20 years of my life unlearning everything I'd's never too late to reinvent yourself.

As far as pastors telling the truth, well, not likely. There's a new trend, another way to make more money and it's catching on like wildfire. Christians are now finding out that they have not been excused from Jewish Law. That's heard correctly. So, now, in some little baptist'll see a Minorah, or a traditional passover feast at Easter...yes, the mythology lives, has evolved. There are even more rules to follow. More scripture to learn.

I'd finally convinced my daddy that there was no such thing as the rapture...when I asked him one day just to find it in the bible and read it to me. He couldn't. He then went and got his Jim Hagee tapes and watched them for the next few days, came rushing over to my house and said..."Here. Here it is! It's right here in Revelations...Come up hither."

Breaking away from the church has been difficult, but my children and I are weaning ourselves off and finding that we have so much energy to direct elsewhere. It's been especially difficult for my mother, who continues to hold on desperately to her nine year old grand daughter. A tug of war ensues which just isn't right, causing great distress for my daughter.

I know this is a long comment, but I just identified so much with the post and couldn't help myself.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Harper, Cheap Trick....

Glad I could help.

Doc Ellis said...

I love to tell folks that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of a divine oedipus. It's one of my little pleasures.