Tag: Christ and Pop CUlture

Incarnation and Cultural Engagement

When I wrote last month’s post on “pro-choice” evangelicals, some commenters on Facebook claimed I was arguing that Christians shouldn’t make moral choices but instead adopt an “anything goes” mentality to get along in pluralistic society. I tried to explain in comments and e-mails that I was arguing that we have had a tendency to oversimplify our rhetoric which makes moral positions harder to explain. The problem was not moral choice but how that choice gets characterized by listeners we are trying to influence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the dynamics of moral argument in a complex, diverse, post-modern, post-Christendom culture. It’s been one of the overarching themes of my blogging over the last six months. I’ve written before about the impact of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (which I’m using in my social science of religion class this semester). Hunter, who had written earlier pieces on Culture Wars (1992) now suggests that we evangelicals have been too concerned about leveraging power to create cultural change. In the newer book, he calls for what he labels Faithful Presence.

While discussing the difficulties of cultural engagement with a colleague this week, I was suddenly struck with an image from my childhood: Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. It became a way of explaining the problem with conflict-based cultural engagement that has characterized so much of the Culture War debates.

If you ever saw Disney’s Song of the South (known for introducing “Zippity-Do-Dah” to the American songbook), you know it’s way too close to a minstrel show. The happy slave Uncle Remus tells stories in broken dialect to the owner’s young son. The Tar Baby is characterized in the stories and by Disney animators as an insolent black child. But there is a lesson for us in the story valuable enough to make me repeat part of the tale (I found a version without the dialect). In the story, Brer Fox places a Tar Baby in the road as a way to trick Brer Rabbit. The Rabbit greets the Tar Baby who says nothing (being a bunch of Tar shaped like a person).

Brer_Rabbit_and_the_Tar_BabyBrer Rabbit frowned. This strange creature was not very polite. It was beginning to make him mad. “Ahem!” said Brer Rabbit loudly, wondering if the Tar Baby were deaf. “I said ‘HOW ARE YOU THIS MORNING?” The Tar Baby said nothing. Brer Fox curled up into a ball to hide his laugher. His plan was working perfectly! “Are you deaf or just rude?” demanded Brer Rabbit, losing his temper. “I can’t stand folks that are stuck up! You take off that hat and say ‘Howdy-do’ or I’m going to give you such a lickin’!” The Tar Baby just sat in the middle of the road looking as cute as a button and saying nothing at all. Brer Fox rolled over and over under the bushes, fit to bust because he didn’t dare laugh out loud. “I’ll learn ya!” Brer Rabbit yelled. He took a swing at the cute little Tar Baby and his paw got stuck in the tar. “Lemme go or I’ll hit you again,” shouted Brer Rabbit. The Tar Baby, she said nothing. “Fine! Be that way,” said Brer Rabbit, swinging at the Tar Baby with his free paw. Now both his paws were stuck in the tar, and Brer Fox danced with glee behind the bushes. “I’m gonna kick the stuffin’ out of you,” Brer Rabbit said and pounced on the Tar Baby with both feet. They sank deep into the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit was so furious he head-butted the cute little creature until he was completely covered with tar and unable to move.

Here’s my takeaway about Culture Warriors. The more one punches at the opposition, the more one gets ensnared in the debate. Regardless of what other good is done, including the desire to reach others for Christ, the tar remains. The culture warrior gets stuck in all the mess and seems unable to move in any way at all. And whatever he or she does, the tar remains behind. Just to name one example among many possible, even though Gordon College has attempted to explain the purpose of the Executive Order letter this summer, groups continue to separate from them (this week it was a school district). The tar is stickier than we imagine.

The difficulty, as Hunter tells us, is that power is a fickle weapon. It’s always dependent upon someone else exerting power from another side. Walter Brueggemann reminds us that power within empire always has a strong element of fear of scarcity. The power must be exercised to protect one against loss.

I was reviewing Brueggemann’s argument in class Thursday night. I had a chart on the board illustrating the connection between Empire, Pharaoh, and Pilate (see chapter one of Truth Speaks to Power). The center of my Empire column was Power. Then, using Brueggemann’s analysis, I contrasted that with the Kingdom of God. What Yahweh, Moses, Jesus all share is a different starting point — a negation of power. We explored what would be in the center of that column. Students suggested Love, Grace, Sacrifice.

I told them that my word in the center is Kenosis. It is the emptying act of the Incarnation that establishes all of Kingdom thinking. As the Philippians passages tell us, this is the concept that was in Christ’s mind that is also to be in ours.

KenosisIf we begin mirroring the Incarnation, we don’t strike out at others. We try instead to enter their space and see things from their perspective. By showing sacrificial love from within that authentic place, we have the opportunity to demonstrate Faithful Presence.

I had two friends illustrate exactly this form of incarnational living in the past few days. Both of them happened into it accidentally, but quickly discovered what it means to incarnate another’s place. My colleague Eric told a story of how he had gone running on a warm Michigan day and had tied up his slightly longish (yet fashionable) hair in what he calls a “snork-like” pony-tail. When completing his run, a car of young men come up behind him and gave a catcall (thinking they were dealing with a woman). In that quick moment before the men realized their mistake, Eric knew the evil of sexism. He had occupied that space with others.

My friend Karen was asked to be on a radio program to discuss Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. What she didn’t know was that the show was organized around calling out all whites for the evils of racism (which the host called “White Supremacy”). A white woman from Virginia got to try to identify with structural racism for a couple of hours. Having listened to the interview, I can say she did a great job under the circumstances. She wasn’t defensive and when she couldn’t fully identify with the host or a caller, she said so. She validated their experiences, fears, and concerns while being clear in her own place as a white Christian academic. That she spoke so consistently of the evils of structural racism and why it must be exposed was as incarnational as I think one could be under the circumstances.

On Friday, Alastair Roberts wrote a fabulous piece for Christ and Pop Culture. Titled “Evangelicalism’s Poor Form“, it analyzed some of the cultural challenges of evangelicals in the postmodern age. But it ended in a hopeful place; one that I think aligns well with an Incarnational Faithful Presence within the culture:

 Among this wisdom is the recognition that, treated in the right manner, the external forms of our faith need not distract from our core evangelical commitments but can serve and strengthen them, forming the people of God within them and establishing us in the skills with which we can improvise a Christian culture that is robust and deep. My hope is that, through a recovery of the importance of these formative “externals” of our culture, we will once more be able to cast our core evangelical and Christian convictions in the sharpest of reliefs, living out an evangelicalism in which our evangelical culture neither distracts nor detracts from our evangelical faith.

Christmas by the Numbers


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.