Tag Archives: Holidays

You’ve seen one holiday, you’ve seen them all. Not so much.

3 Jan

I took a bit of vacation this week, and so this week’s column updated and adapted material from one published on Dec. 20, 2003.

If an alien dropped in on us right now, he (she? it?) would find us sorting through the remnants of holidays stacked up for more than a month: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, the winter solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s. (We’re not quite finished yet. The Christian feast of Epiphany is Jan. 6.)

Our other-worldly visitor might think all these festivities shared a common origin, that they were only variations on the theme of brightening dark and cold nights, of finding comfort in the winter chill as we wait for spring’s eventual return.

But he (she? it?) would be wrong. Similarities and even shared traditions don’t mean these holidays are the same. (A movie star and I share a birthday and we both eat cake, but that doesn’t make us brother and sister.)

For instance: Christmas – the Christian celebration, not the social and economic spectacle – marks the birth of Jesus Christ in a Palestinian village around the year 4 B.C.

Hanukkah, the Jewish “festival of lights,” observes the rededication of the Jerusalem temple after it was recovered from Greek occupiers in 165 B.C. The feast lasts eight nights because the story says that after the victory, a small vial of oil miraculously provided light for that length of time.

The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, marks the northern hemisphere’s turn toward spring as days start to lengthen again. The anticipation of warmer weather was reason enough to celebrate in ancient societies, and among pagans these seasonal changes took on religious significance.

Not surprisingly, with the rise of the Christian church in Europe, seasonal rites as such were abandoned or reinterpreted with Christian teachings. But in our more diverse time, solstice is making a comeback.

Then there’s Kwanzaa, a modern American invention, created during the 1960s as a week-long celebration of African culture and heritage.

You get the idea: similar timing, similar observances (gifts and candles galore), but vastly different meanings.

These various holidays don’t only mark different events. As a local theologian points out, they also reflect different ways of thinking about the world and how it works. The contrasts are especially noticeable when we compare holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, which claim unique historical events as their basis, with the solstice, which marks a recurring natural cycle.

“I think you can argue that those who celebrate solstice understand time to be cyclical,” according to Philip Kenneson, professor of theology and philosophy at Milligan College. That is, a pagan view sees time like a wheel, constantly revolving alongside the cycles of nature.

It’s an idea about the world shared by ancient pagan societies and many Eastern religions. In this view, “any particular moment in time is not any more important than another,” Kenneson said. “There’s no sense of movement to history.”

By contrast, Judaism and Christianity – the religions most influential in Western cultures – typically view history as an unfolding “story” made up of unique events. In this view, said Kenneson, time takes on a different kind of significance.

“History as we understand it in the West is rooted in a more linear view of time,” he said. “Specific events have meaning. They contribute to or thwart a certain movement in history.”

While he won’t go so far as to call this a biblical view of time, he does say “a lot of this is assumed in Jewish and Christian understanding.”

There is overlap, of course. Christians and Jews observe natural cycles – look at the church calendar or the Jewish feasts – and those who observe the solstice don’t deny that new events occur.

Even so, Kenneson thinks a fundamental difference exists between those who find meaning mainly in the recurring cycles of nature and those who find it in a developing story.

 “Those cycles by themselves don’t tell the whole story. They are real, but they don’t shape our whole lives,” Kenneson said. “(In the linear view) there’s something above and beyond that. The direction of history has been forever altered.”

Maybe that’s why we wish each other a happy new year. We not only anticipate the year to be different. We expect it to be literally meaningful – to truly mean something.

 First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 2 Jan 2010.

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George and Martha and Adam and Eve … and other problems with a patriotic Bible

4 Jul

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Thanks to a marketing video that compares George and Martha Washington to Adam and Eve, I’m trying not to think about the nation’s first First Lady walking around a garden without her petticoats.

But what really sets my teeth on edge is how the advertisement equates Jesus and his disciples with the Continental Congress as “founding fathers,” with its closing line: “Sometimes history does repeat itself.”

The ad is for the American Patriot’s Bible, released last month by Thomas Nelson, with Atlanta megachurch pastor Richard G. Lee serving as general editor. Nelson won’t disclose sales figures, but it is already preparing for a second printing of the hefty, colorful book.

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“You will find a great volume of both information and inspiration revealing the ‘strong cord’ of the Bible’s influence that runs through the colorful fabric of our nation’s past and present,” Lee wrote in the introduction. “Joining with the sacred text are stories of American heroes, quotations from many of America’s greatest thinkers, and beautiful illustrations that present the rich heritage and tremendous future of our nation. If you love America and the Scriptures, you will treasure this Bible.”

Maybe so, but I mostly just felt annoyed. It’s not the emphasis on the role of religion in the American story, particularly a certain strain of Christianity. That’s old news.

It’s true, after all, that the majority of revolutionary leaders were Christians of some kind and many were motivated by their religious convictions, often arguing from the Bible against tyranny. There’s no question that the nation’s founders, not to mention later leaders, were shaped by their beliefs, which of course influenced their ideas and actions.

Even unorthodox deists like John Adams, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson (who literally cut the miracles out of his Bible) used religious rhetoric and biblical imagery.

But then there’s the matter of what is often called civil religion, a kind of ecumenical devotion to the ideal of the United States. The nation itself becomes the object of veneration and Uncle Sam is dressed in priestly garments.

It’s a common impulse. People throughout history have considered their kingdoms on earth to be special outposts of heaven: Italy, Poland, Spain, England, France, Japan – the list goes on.

Many Americans can keep their belief in their country distinct from their religious faith. We can love the U.S., they say, and we can love God and remember the two are different.

But others forget the distinction, entwining American ideals so tightly with a Christian identity that they become confused, usually with bad results. That is the trap where the American Patriot’s Bible falls.

John Quincy Adams thought Christmas and American Independence were "indissolubly linked."

John Quincy Adams thought Christmas and American Independence were "indissolubly linked."

A full-page sidebar uses a story from Abraham’s life to illustrate … the right to bear arms? That seems like a stretch. John Quincy Adams is quoted saying that “in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior” – and that notion isn’t challenged?

Then there’s the irritating historical revisionism that comes from leaving out uncomfortable details. Adams, Jefferson and Paine are all favorably quoted, for instance, but the details of their beliefs – or lack of beliefs – are glossed over. It would be easy to make the mistake of thinking they were Christians.

Likewise, the book frequently presents wartime sacrifice as supreme examples of Christlikeness, but ignores the significant tradition of Christian pacifism.

Then there is the two-page essay that rightly discusses how Christians led in the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, but does not explain how other Christians opposed those rights, quoting Scripture to justify sexism, segregation and slavery.

"Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1817

"Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1817

Such myopia isn’t only annoying. It’s unnecessary. Honest historians know that biblical ideas (along with Greek philosophy, rationalism and other worldviews circulating in the 18th century) helped the founders craft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s no secret that men and women of faith are among this nation’s chief architects.

We can admire leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln without confusing them with Adam, Moses or Jesus (much less imagining Martha Washington as a new Eve). I can believe the U.S. fills a distinct role in the world without casting it as God’s singular chosen nation.

And today I can certainly celebrate what the nation’s founders did without believing their sacrifices repeated the history of Christ’s sacrifice. Believing that wouldn’t make me a patriot. It might only make me a heretic.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 4 July 2009.

Easter: It isn’t kids’ stuff

11 Apr

ea-00004-ceaster-girl-in-rabbit-suit-with-eggs-postersEaster is for grown-ups.

That’s not to say Christmas is just for kids, but we can tell that story to children, start to finish. Babies are cute. Farm animals are usually cute. Angels singing in the sky are cool. (There’s the terrible interlude when King Herod orders the massacre of Bethlehem’s little boys, but that episode is easily avoided.) Christmas is mostly G-rated.

But the only way to talk about Jesus’ resurrection is to deal with a gruesome, unjust death. Easter is rated R – literally, if you recall Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ five years ago.

So for the sake of the kids, we bring on the bunnies. The children wave palm branches one week and the next hunt for eggs and wear new outfits. But in between there’s not much for them. The story is too brutal, and it’s too close for comfort.

Read or listen to the story of Jesus’ arrest, trials and execution in one sitting, focusing on what people around Jesus are doing, and you might notice how familiar it sounds. Change the names and a few details, and we could be hearing about some guy getting railroaded by the old-boy network in some mid-major city.

The disciples get confused and then angry and then scared. They want to do the right thing, but they can’t pull themselves together. Peter, the so-called rock, crumbles when confronted by the first-century equivalent of a teenage waitress.

The establishment leaders perform the familiar dance of self-preservation, huddling to engineer an exit for this popular and powerful outsider who threatens their tidy universe.

Perhaps they acted with intentional evil, but maybe they just fell into that long parade of people who convince themselves they are doing the right thing for the public. To those who are charged with maintaining order, any whiff of chaos smells like dung. Security and stability, they say, sometimes require distasteful methods, even if they contradict the values they claim to protect.

So the Jerusalem leaders, intelligent men, decided that Jesus simply had to go, even if he made some sense and raised the dead. (How paranoid and myopic they grew, plotting to murder not just Jesus but Lazarus, the man he raised, because he was a walking demonstration of Jesus’ abilities.)

They talked their way past “Thou shalt not kill” and a dozen more of their holy commandments, in the same way other intelligent people have talked their way into murder, torture, genocide and countless other horrors, all in the name of the people.

We’d recognize the Roman governor too. Pilate, the caretaker of troublesome fringe province, was intrigued by this mostly silent peasant standing before him. But as a minion of the Roman Empire, he discarded his humanity long enough to serve political practicality.

How ordinary and recognizable all this is. And yet, like it or not, this story emerged as one of the great hinges of history. Even our dating system says so.

Momentous events should happen in Rome or its latter-day equivalents – Beijing, Paris, London, New York, Washington – involving people with big offices, big bank accounts or big election returns.

But no. This story could be transplanted anywhere. It’s like the history of the world pivoted around the case of an itinerant preacher in, say, Knoxville.

That’s part of the story’s power: it’s not only for there and then, but also for here and now.

According to New Testament scholars Craig A. Evans and N.T. Wright, “The Gospels never say anything like, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death’ (not that many first-century Jews doubted that there was); or, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die’ (most people believed something like that anyway); or better, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall be raised at the last.'”

Writing in Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, they point out that the gospels interpret Jesus’ resurrection as a “this-worldly” event that established Jesus as the Messiah, “the true Lord of the whole world.”

“The line of thought within the Gospels,” they observe, “is, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore God’s new world has begun, and therefore we, you, and everybody else are invited to be not only beneficiaries of that new world but participants in making it happen.'”

A story that immediate, that familiar, that deadly serious – even grown-ups struggle with it.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 April 2009.

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