Friday, November 2, 2012

Stripping Fables from Christ's Nativity

Drives.  Me.  Nuts.

What drives me nuts?  Well, first is the realization that since we've hit November, from now until Christmas Day, we're going to be bombarded with Christmas music practically everywhere we go.

And I use the term "Christmas music" loosely, of course!  Because what really drives me nuts is that so much of the "music" that's become part of our North American Christmas repertoire mythologizes the birth of Christ into some snowy, fuzzy fable.

Christmas Is No Myth

Aren't the facts of Christ's Incarnation far less pretty, cosseted, and downright white - both in terms of culture and snow - than we western Caucasian evangelicals insist on stereotyping them as?

Mary was a pregnant teenager who'd just finished a grueling trek forced upon her and her fiancĂ© - who wasn't the father of her baby - by their imperious government.  They ended up in a stable, with smelly hay, smelly farm animals, smelly excrement from those smelly farm animals, and no obstetrician, neonatal nurse, or midwife in sight.  Their first visitors after Christ's birth were a group of illiterate, smelly shepherds, who couldn't stop rambling on about their frightful vision of angels in the night sky.

In addition, this all took place probably in March or April, not the dead of winter, and the magi were just starting out on their journey after seeing the star in the East.  It would take them a couple of years to make it to the place where the young Christ child was.  And by then, it wouldn't have been a stable.

And guess what - it hardly ever snows in temperate Bethlehem.

If we told the story authentically, wouldn't we see that the reality of Christ's birth was actually more profound than the insipid fantasy into which our culture has polished it?  Our King of Kings came to His Creation in such a lowly manner!  Thankfully, some of our songwriters have gotten it right, and attempted to marvel at what God considered to be His perfect way of introducing Christ to this planet.  But it's hard for merchants to sell Christmas as an arduous, unsanitary, disenfranchised, and bizarre event.  And unfortunately, the evangelical church has been mostly complicit with the Nativity's commercializers in making the Incarnation a sellable product for once-a-year churchgoers.

Instead of a more accurately awestruck accounting of the birth of this world's holy Savior.

Christmas Music Needs Authenticity

Regular readers of my blog essays know that I'm an unabashed advocate for classical hymnody.  I actually believe that what we consider to be traditional corporate worship provides, on the whole, a focus on Christ and God's holiness that comes closer to what our Trinity expects when we gather together to honor Him.  I'm willing to contend that culturally, our genre of classical music has become less a Caucasian, European contrivance as much as it has become a universally-renowned, broadly-appreciated style of stately repertoire uniquely suited to the worship of God, no matter where we're born, or in what society we've been raised.

Yes, that means some expressions of culture are better than others.  It's a politically incorrect thing to say, and, some think, a woefully impertinent thing to believe.  But it's true.  No human culture is perfect, or even ideal.  And many are utterly unBiblical.  Doesn't this mean that, when it comes to how we express our adoration of God to Him, particularly in public, we can't rely on cultural norms to be adequate?  Just because we're under the misapprehension that God values all cultural norms equally?

Don't we need to discriminate between what's good, and what's adequate, or even downright inappropriate?

When it comes to such cultural institutions as Christmas, shouldn't we resist the urge to let culture dictate our worship?  Shouldn't communicating the glory of Christ's birth be done with as much theological and historical integrity as possible?

It Depends On Your Definition of "Midwinter"

Consider, then, one of these seasonal songs driving me nuts.  It's called "In the Bleak Midwinter," and the text is by noted poet Christina Rossetti, who lived from 1830 until 1894.  For the most part, these lyrics withstand basic theological scrutiny fairly well.  Yet Rossetti incorporates snowy winter themes and references the Wise Men in a way that bolsters the fictitious narrative of popular Christmas lore, which does a grave disservice to the historical accuracy of Christ's birth.

1. In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

2. Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

3. Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

4. What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

Thematically, the references to a "bleak midwinter" could be argued as being allegorical to the span of quiet time between the writing of the Old and New Testaments, when it's widely thought that God's presence had been generally withheld from our planet.  Then too, since centuries ago, the Roman Catholic Church had moved the observance of Christmas to coincide with pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice, which symbolizes a time of death between the seasons of decay and renewal, a "bleak midwinter" presents a poetic linkage between mortal sin and salvation.

For the artistic among us, appreciating these delicate abstractions may be a permissible way to forgive the historical inaccuracies that help to mythologize Christmas.  However, their doing so does little to convey the universal application of the Christmas story to cultures where references to snow and its allegorical qualities risks tilting the Incarnation towards a Western - and therefore, foreign - aesthetic.  Granted, the Holy Spirit can overcome any obstacle we Christians can put in the way of Christ's redemptive work, but how loving is it for us to intentionally complicate parts of the Gospel?

Let's Liberate Christmas From Ethnocentrism!

Maybe you don't mind singing songs that are exclusive to your culture and cohort.  And in terms of everyday socialization, doing so isn't wrong, in and of itself.  But when it comes to the Gospel, shouldn't we be seeking to free God's Good News from the shackles of our own cultural bondage?  The message of God becoming incarnate for us is a global message.  And it's not our message - it's God's!

For a full half of our planet, the midwinter is hardly bleak and snowy.  For them, it's like North America's and Europe's summertime!  If we sang Rossetti's song in Australia or Nigeria, we'd have to throw in the caveat, "well, this was written by a European white woman; you'll have to free it from its cultural baggage."

Maybe there are some Nigerian Christmas songs that talk about how hot and dusty it must have been during the winter when Christ was born.  See how awkward that would be for us?

Therefore, shouldn't Christ's Nativity be equally relevant to all of God's Elect, no matter where we live?  Or what our winters look like?

I'm not interested in preserving Western hymnody simply for nostalgia's sake.  I think the bulk of Western hymnody should be applicable to as many cultures as possible, because it has that much theological and artistic integrity.  It may have originated in Western cultures, but just like the message it declares, it can be universal in its applicability.

That's why it drives me nuts when church choirs like the one I'm in have to sing fluff like "In the Bleak Midwinter" during Advent.

How bleak, indeed!
_____

TO HELP WITH HURRICANE SANDY RELIEF EFFORTS:

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