Rewriting Christmas

I’ve often said that I loathe Christmas, but that’s not exactly true. I adore the religious holiday of Christmas. Some of my fondest memories in my spiritual life involve staying up most of the night of Christmas Eve into Christmas morning, contemplating the Incarnation. Unfortunately the secular celebration that uses the same name is my least favorite time of year. While I find the “war on Christmas” crowd to be ridiculous, I do feel that Christ has been divorced from his own mass, even in most purported religious celebrations.

In my own family “the meaning of Christmas” was giving to others in love. While a beautiful sentiment, it’s so far removed from my most profound experiences of Christmas that I can’t even see how it applies. Giving to others in love is a foundation of Christianity, but the way it is practiced at Christmas feels, to me, to be counter to a feast celebrating the incarnation of the Divine in the person of Jesus.

Perhaps that’s because Advent has been overshadowed by the Christmas season. There is no room for waiting, for contemplation, for quiet anticipation. There is only “30 shopping days left until Christmas.” Our system of maintaining the wealth of the ruling class is, in many ways, dependent upon the consumer glut of the Christmas shopping season. The first day of the season is “Black Friday,” a day when retail establishments profits move upward. Yet, Mary’s song of praise in anticipation of the birth of Jesus celebrates a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53) Is this God honored by making the rich richer in the mad dash to get the best deals, even if the drive behind it is to give to loved ones?

In this state, even the symbols with which we surround ourselves lose their meaning. Christmas lights, on a house or a tree, have such potential to be a reminder of what is coming. The small, dim lights in the darkness can keep us focused on the hope of greater light coming. The evergreens can speak of life continuing despite the cold and darkness. But they don’t. We’re too frenzied to notice. The songs of secular Christmas don’t speak to my life, my culture or my place. This is southern Louisiana. We don’t have white Christmases, sleigh bells ringing nor winter wonderlands. No one I know has ever seen a partridge in a pear tree. And even if some deck their halls with holly, do they do so with an awareness of holly’s symbolism? The trappings of Christmas are so divorced from the cultures in which they arose that they lack meaning.

But I’m trying this year to find Christmas celebrations that nourish me. Part of that is in response to my loves, both of whom have many good associations with Christmas. So instead of simply decrying all that is wrong with Christmas, I am trying to imagine a Christmas celebration that speaks to me, feeds me and reflects my experience of the divine incarnation. Here are some scattered ideas.

I think the first part of that is reclaiming Advent. I’ve not done this well this year, but I am trying. Prayer, contemplation, quiet. These things can help me prepare for what is to come.

Music like “O Come O Come Emmanuel” or Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat” is wonderful.

Imagining the topsy turvy world to which the coming incarnation speaks is a wonderful use of time. If we know that God is coming in the form of a child born to poor parents in an occupied country, then where in our own worlds can we anticipate God?

Creating! If gifts are to be given in the coming feast, time spent crafting them is a wonderful way to participate in God’s creation. If we are made in the image of God, and the first image of God our scriptures bring us is that of Creator, then by creating we realize a part of our own divine natures.

If Advent is to be reclaimed, then Christmas is to actually start on Christmas. The Christmas season doesn’t start on the day after Thanksgiving. It starts on December 25, and continues through January 6 (or perhaps, from sunset Christmas eve though sunset January 6). Christmas day is but the start, and those 12 days are the time to begin celebrating the entrance of the divine into the world in the flesh of Jesus. So then what would work for me? Filling those days with meals with loved ones. Drinking and dancing, sharing. From Christmas until 12th night we revel in the beauty and truth that the greatest has become the least and the entire world has been changed.

And of course from 12th night until Ash Wednesday, the celebration continues as Carnival, in which the turning upside down of the world is focused on more and more.

And shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but in this configuration I can even see myself wanting to give gifts (in the form of small, hand-made tokens), whereas as I’ve seen it as a stress filled obligation before now.

It’s not much, and it’s all going to be hard to practice in the face of a consumerist, culturally irrelevant secular Christmas onslaught, but it’s a start. Maybe by writing this out and by rewriting the holiday itself I’m one step closer to finding a Christmas I love instead of being saddled with one I loathe.

Walter Bruggeman on poets

It is not clear that life can be construed beyond the Empire… But the poets… have to try. Because they are poets. Because they are poets they never arrive, for poetry would then be a program, and they’re not doing programs. That does not render the poetry as failure or irrelevance.

Poem – “In Sound and Breath”

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In Sound and Breath

In sound and breath are we made.
In words and wind are we formed.
In language before language are we conceived and created,
and in every utterance since we pay tribute to that,
that primordial sound.

Inert we lie until moved by breath.
Life we become when moved by wind.
Spirit set to motion, and we gasp,
Ruach!
Inhale,
exhale,
and wail!

In sound and breath.
In words and wind.
We move and blow and speak and scream.
What our mouths say, our hands form, our spirits give life.
Ruach!

And we blow, and blow, and blow, and blow
and sing!
A love supreme
A love supreme
A love supreme
A love supreme

And Trane breathes,
and blows notes into prayers.
The reverent resonance from the reeds to the bellows of the bell,
boisterous as any bible.
Language before language,
Coltrane blows,
Ruach!

The first act was action:
to breathe,
to utter,
to create.

In the image of what is before space and time were,
I inhale,
exhale,
and wail!

Download the mp3 here

So Anne Rice isn’t a Christian anymore?

I admit I’ve never been a fan of Anne Rice. I enjoyed Belinda but every other of book of hers I’ve tried to read hasn’t done anything for me. When I’d heard that she had embraced Christianity and was going to write novels about Jesus, I cringed. At least it’s not Stephenie Meyer, right? (At least not yet.)

But I just read on Huffington Post that Anne Rice has “quit being a Christian.”

What she actually said was this:

Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

And then

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

So Anne has just defined Christian as quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-Democrat, anti-secular humanism, anti-science and anti-life.

Ignoring two-thousand years of often contentious and contradictory struggle with understanding and experiencing the divine in the context of a particular Palestinian Jew’s life and teachings, she’s decided that Christianity is the domain of the loudest, most bigoted, least Christlike group of people using the name. In her view Metropolitan Community Churches, Sojourners, Jesus Radicals, Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, Jay Bakker, Phyllis Tickle, and likely St. Francis himself aren’t Christian. That’d be a pretty big surprise to some of those people.

Anne says elsewhere on her Facebook page, “My faith in Christ is central to my life… Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

And that’s great, Anne. Valuing Christ over any particular cultural expression of valuing Christ is a long running part of following Christ. But that puts you right at the center, at the very core of Christianity. That makes you like countless other devotees of Christ. That puts you in the company of George Fox and Martin Luther. It makes you a compatriot of house churches across the world and a cohort of the Emerging Church conversation. These things don’t make you not a Christian. They make you a quintessential Christian.

“I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.”

“I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.”

The phrase sends me into a very unchristian fit of rage, and it takes all I can muster to refrain from responding to it like this.

There is a widely held, but false, dichotomy between spirituality and religion which attempts to define spirituality as individual and unique against the monolithic, imposed system(s) of religion. My assertion is that the two cannot be divorced and, far from being opposed to one another, each is an inextractable element of the other.

At its base, my assertion is that experience of the sacred is the core of spirituality, while the understanding and expression of that experience, either personally or culturally, is the core of religion. Thus unless one’s experience of the sacred is somehow completely removed from one’s intellectual, emotional or social life, then they are participating in religion.

Quite opposed to my understanding, popular culture often defines spirituality against religion. In that view religion is that which restricts, that which is imposed from outside the individual. It is a system of rules and regulations. It seeks to mediate between the individual and the sacred. It seeks to regulate the individual experience of the sacred and send it through approved channels. In contrast to that, spirituality is defined as the anarchic, direct, unmediated experience and expression of the sacred. It exists outside of larger structures and retains more purity when not filtered through them. Spirituality in this view is highly individualized and personal. It does not rely on religious systems for its understanding or interpretation.

I can see these definitions’ usefulness, but I find them to be far too limited. This understanding of religion depends on an enforced rigidity and relies on a structure of control that simply does not exist in many religious systems. It refuses to take into account the way that religious systems grow out of their communities’ collective experiences of the sacred. Likewise this understanding of spirituality assumes that people experiencing the sacred are doing so outside the bounds of culture and philosophy. It is blind to the way that its assumed non-religious spirituality is shaped by the same forces that gave rise to religious systems.

Coming from a background in the academic study of religion, I’m the first to admit that defining “religion” is a tricky business. There are countless definitions, all with varying strengths and weaknesses. The best way to get an idea of what is studies in a religious studies program is to read a lot of them. ReligiousTolerance.org has quite a few. For the purposes of this writing, however, I’ll work from a limited number of definitions.

In their Religion, An Introduction T. William Hall, Richard B. Pilgrim, and Ronald R. Cavanagh define religion as “the human attempt to represent, signify, or give meaningful expression to what is perceived to be of the greatest conceivable value for humankind and the world” and as “the varied, symbolic expression of, and appropriate response to that which people deliberately affirm as being of unrestricted value for them.” source

Let me put this idea into my own words. There are things that we value, individually and culturally. These often include community, morality and ethics, wonder, meaning, self, stories, mystery, awe and what I can only think to describe as the divine. We experience those things and their value both in an individual way and as part of a larger culture. Given the ineffable nature of many of them, they become expressed in symbol, in metaphor and in art as ways of communicating the original experiences. That expression of these experiences is religion.

In this understanding of religion it is the experience itself which constitutes spirituality. Religion, rather than being an attempt to control spirituality, is rather its expression. These expressions can be organized in a way that is highly structured or they can be anarchic. Most often it’s some combination of the two. Meditation, prayer, awareness of divine presence, retelling of stories, all of these are religious actions whether they take place in a formalized religious system or not. Spirituality and religion, far from being opposed to one another, are inseparable parts of a whole.

The idea that spirituality can be divorced from religion requires a belief that people exist outside of culture. Any understanding of spirituality is formed by language, by a culture’s existing notions of the spiritual, by understandings of art, by systems of spiritual practice. Unless one is completely unaware of one’s spirituality, then along with it comes religion. To tell a friend of a spiritual experience is just as religious as participation in a tridentine mass.

We live in a culture that does not have one dominant religious system. Our world is characterized by plurality. The constant contact with multiple cultures has demonstrated to most of us through our whole lives that meaning is not absolute. Modernist Enlightenment era reason has fed on itself resulting in first existentialism, and then the postmodern understanding of the nature of meaning itself. And with this cultural awareness of plurality of constructions of meaning we inform our own religious impulse. We are less likely to identify fully with one religious system, pulling rather from many or from personal experience. We incorrectly claim then that we are nonreligious because we are outside of formalized religious structures. We also project backward into history and assume that there was ever a culture and religion that was built on uniformity and control, and use that projection to define religion.

Your spirituality is your own, just as it is for every person. What you do with it is your religion.

I am spiritual. I am religious.