Tag: A Christmas Story

Ralphie is a Millennial Evangelical: Reflections on A CHRISTMAS STORY

Sometimes I let this blog get too ponderous, theoretical, and otherwise academic. I’m trying to enjoy my Christmas break but it takes awhile to break out of normal school rhythms. Last December, I wrote on some well known Christmas classics (Charlie Brown Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street) and tried to mine them for some new insights about sociology, evangelicals, and popular culture.

I’ve been thinking all year that there was probably something to be learned from A Christmas Story (1983) — Jean Shepherd’s reflections on growing up in Hammond, Indiana in the 1940s told in his book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. I decided to re-watch our copy before TNT started their 24 hour marathon showing tomorrow. I noticed that it really hasn’t aged well. Too many of the vignettes are loosely connected and didn’t manage to convey the humor and pathos I remembered watching it with our kids every year. But it still tells a story that may help us understand the changes going on in the current “millennials and church” conversations.

If somehow you’ve missed the story up to now, it’s all about Ralphie. As he and his family are approaching Christmas, the primary thing on Raphie’s mind is “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle”. It has a compass in the stock and everything. It’s the kind of gift kids dream of. But absolutely everything and everyone stands in his way, constantly telling him “you’ll shoot your eye out”. He has good friends, lives in fear of neighborhood bully Scut Farkas, has a father who swears and wins Major Awards, and a mother who is doing all she can to keep the family happy.

There’s a lot more. If you’re interested, it will be on TNT 12 times between 8:00 Christmas Eve and 8:00 Christmas night. Maybe you can catch it then.

Even though the story was written in the 1960s about events in the 1940s, it struck me that Ralphie as we’ve known him is a millennial. He shows up in the early 1980s and his story is full of millennial angst. Since it’s been on cable television every year since 1988, an entire generation has grown up with Ralphie and his quest for the Red Ryder.

RalphieConsider Ralphie. He grows up in this family that thinks it’s cute for him to wear his bunny pajamas he got for Christmas. What he wants is to be the sharpshooter who saves the world from evil. He lives in fear and awe of his father, who can’t see how his frequent profanity has influenced his son to become quiet fluent in cuss words (including THAT one). His father wins A Major Award (the infamous leg lamp) that he places in the front window for all to see. He’s proud of his achievement but is the only one who doesn’t know that the lamp is an embarrassment (which is why the wife “accidentally” breaks it).

Ralphie wants one thing. The one thing that would make him cool and accepted in his own terms. But every authority figure he meets seems bent on crushing his dreams. He tells Santa that what he really wanted was a football until he gets his courage up to tell what he really wants (and then Santa tells him he’ll shoot his eye out).

The neighborhood bully represents the fear of evil. A running bit throughout the movie has Ralphie and friends running from Scut Farkas to avoid the inevitable fight. One of the friends inevitably gets cornered until he cries “Uncle” and the others watch from a distance. Until the day when Ralphie can’t take it anymore. Suddenly he attacks Scut, swearing a blue streak while landing punch after punch.

In short, Ralphie feels trapped by his neighborhood, by his family, by the gap between his expectations and dreams and the conventional expectations. He has dreams but feels like they may never come to pass without something shifting. If they all understood what he’d do to protect the family against Black Bart, they’d all be forever in his debt.

Of course, at the end of the story (spoilers ahead for the two of you who don’t know how it ends) he gets the BB gun. He takes it outside to try it out and manages to have a BB ricochet and nearly hit him in the eye. It was just as they’d all said. Except that his mother keeps his secret and cleans him up. He pursued his dream and it almost went wrong, and yet he found his own way forward. In that moment, he finds his independent voice that isn’t defined by his family, neighborhood, and social structure.

This is where today’s millennial evangelicals find themselves. They’ve gone out into the backyard to try out some approaches that the authorities said were too risky. But they’re doing so with courage and abandon. Sometimes they get it wrong, but they are willing to stretch beyond past limits. Just like Ralphie, they love their family (even when they embarrass them). But they have a commitment to Christian faith to live out and simply pray that their families and churches make room for them.

Christmas by the Numbers

34th

In my last post I explored the confusions we have about Christmas, Santa Claus, and Jesus, suggesting that we’re really dealing with issues of civil religion rather than deeply held rational argument. It’s why an isolated teacher at some school or a municipality’s decision about the public square generates intense feelings of persecution and an idea that the whole thing is slipping away.

Last night we watched Miracle on 34th Street with one of my graduates and her husband. Miracle is in second place of my favorite Christmas movies, behind It’s A Wonderful Life and in front of A Christmas Story. I really like the movie a lot. It’s engaging, with stories of victimization and power, and John Payne (Kris Kringle) and Natalie Wood (Suzie) are delightful to watch.

But watching the movie after thinking about the celebrations of civil religion made me see it differently. (If somehow you’ve not see it, there are spoilers in this paragraph!) I was aware of the times that Kris is told that “we believe in what you stand for, kindness, joy, etc.” It was striking how much capitalism plays center stage, with stores embracing customer service because it could bring more profit. (Helper Alfred says, “of all the isms in the world, one of the worst is commercialism.”) It was great to see the Republican district attorney stipulate his admiration for government agencies (they had to ruin the remake because the post office was no longer part of the government). I also noticed that whenever Santa told a child that he would get his request, he told the parent where to buy it. No elves making toys — just parents running out after work to purchase the desired item. Even at the closing scene, where Suzy finds her house, Fred and Doris discuss the need to buy the house that Santa “provided”.

I’m sure I could deconstruct all of our favorite Christmas movies and make myself less popular that the judge at Kris Kringle’s sanity hearing (I already played around with A Charlie Brown Christmas.) Alan Noble of Christ and Pop Culture wrote this interesting piece on Wonderful Life. I’ll probably get around to A Christmas Story before next week and find other hidden meaning (besides the centrality of a particular gun to the plot).

I’m still trying to make sense of what people are really celebrating when they watch these movies. Yes, there are Christmas Carols played (in 34th Street, Good King Wenceslas is playing at the old folks home Christmas party and Hark the Herald Angels closes both Wonderful Life and Charlie Brown). But the content (except for the Linus speech) doesn’t quite line up.

In the midst of my pondering today,  two  reports of Christmas surveys came across my twitter feed. Pew’s Religion and Public Life Project did a poll on how people celebrate Christmas, how they think of the holiday, and a bunch of other stuff. Then the Public Religion Research Institute released their data on similar questions.

christmas2013-5The Pew Survey asked respondents if Christmas was Religious or Cultural. As the table shows, slightly over half see it in religious terms with about a third seeing it as a cultural celebration. Notice that the under 30 crowd reflects the same general trends away from religion I’ve explored numerous times before. But it’s fair to summarize the data as saying that a plurality see Christmas as religious with a sizable minority seeing it as only cultural.

Maybe this diversity is why the PRRI folks found that nearly half of their respondents favored having shopkeepers saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. It’s just not worth upsetting the non-religious folks. (Evangelicals differed greatly from the general pattern with 80% favoring “Merry Christmas”.)

The Pew survey also found out that just over half of their respondents said they would attend church services. Curiously, this is true regardless of their beliefs about the nature of the holiday. Sure, nearly 3/4 of those who see Christmas as religious plan to attend this year, but so do 30% of the cultural Christmas group and a quarter of those who say they don’t celebrate Christmas! Now, as a good sociologist who teaches research methods I need to point out the possibility of social desirability — answering questions as you think you’re supposed to answer. Call me scrooge, but I don’t think one out of every two adults will be in church services next week (even if you count children’s pageants).

Here’s another interesting tidbit that shows up in both surveys: People like Linus’s explanation of “what Christmas is all about”. The Pew survey asked if people believed in the virgin birth and found just under 3/4 agreeing, including over half of those who think Christmas is just a cultural tradition!

Similarly, the PRRI survey asked if people believed the “historical story” of the birth of Jesus (virgin birth, angels, shepherds, wise men). Nearly half of Americans report that they believe the story while 40% say it’s only a theological story. The PRRI reports a pretty significant shift away from the historical account over the last decade (down 18% since 2004).

All this data brings me back to issues of holidays of civil religion. I think it’s likely that the traditional Christmas story has become one of the strands of the civil celebration of Christmas. We dress up and go to the Christmas Eve service. We recite the story (or listen to Linus do it). But it all gets mashed up with Santa and presents and candy and trees. It becomes part of the general celebration.

But as I wrote last time, it may lack depth. This is why other surveys by these groups show a surprising lack on knowledge about the scriptures, theology, and the Good News. If we were really celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday, maybe it would be more of a season of reflection. Maybe we’d say less about greetings people use and say more about the mystery of Incarnation.

In fact, if Jesus can give up Divine Majesty to become a human baby (Phil 2), maybe I can give up being offended if people say Happy Holidays. Paradoxically, it I modeled the emptying (known as Kenosis) that is the heart of the Christmas Story, maybe I’d be a better Witness to the Gospel.