By a weird quirk of timing and the way the Presbyterian Church works, I landed in the Courier Mail’s ‘religious round-up’ Christmas story yesterday. I was asked to provide around 300 words reflecting on the significance of Christmas. Here’s the story as it ran.
Here’s what I said in my 300ish words (I’m pretty happy with the edit).
Holidays. We Aussies can’t get enough of them. While more of us than ever before are letting go of religion, especially the institutional variety, we cling to these days of celebration and rest. There’s nothing we love more than to eat, drink, and be merry with our family and friends; so we will still raise a glass to the birth of the Christ once a year to keep this holiday in our shared calendar.
The western calendar — and thus, our public holidays — once marked the passing of a year through a series of ‘holy days,’ now our retailers mark the calendar for us according to a new “religion”; the belief that consumer choice is ‘Christ’ (which means king), and that the key to joy, and to salvation from the mundane, is “more good things. Christians have often been accused of stealing pagan ‘holy days’, but now our ‘holy days’ have been co-opted by this religion. Shopping centres are the temples for this religion, and you can be sure their halls will be decked with Halloween merchandise each October, then Christmas paraphernalia, and as surely as the sun will rise on Boxing Day, we’ll find Hot Cross Buns in the bakeries.
This raises the question: does this religious vision satisfy? Does it do a better job than what it replaces? Does it bring salvation or joy? Can we escape the irony of the carols that blare through our shopping centres at Christmas time? Carols like ‘Joy to the World’ that proclaim the subversive message of Christmas: that Jesus alone is king and saviour? That he alone brings real joy. That the things we turn to on our ‘holy days’ won’t deliver the goods? The rest we enjoy on our holidays is short lived if we have to keep working to buy our salvation and joy. Fight Club had it right; the things we own end up owning us. This new religion of consumerism is not freedom, but exactly the sort of joyless drudgery and captivity to the mundane that Jesus came to save us from. Why not ponder what makes your holiday ‘holy’ this year? Merry Christmas.
Which is all to say I’m now ‘on the record’ about the crass materialism of the ‘secular Christmas’… and yet, I’m a big fan of Christmas being ‘material’ and gifts being generous and even impractical (ie things a person doesn’t ‘need’ but things that are fun, delicious, or beautiful). I think the commercial takeover of Christmas is pretty terrible — but this isn’t because Christmas isn’t about material things; it absolutely is. That’s the whole point. Creator in creation. Materially.
The problem with the modern disenchanted, secular, Christmas is not that people are materially generous, but that we have flattened the paradox of Christmas. Christmas isn’t just material, or just spiritual. The magic of Christmas is the fusing of material and spiritual — the Christmas story is the story of the divine, the transcendent, the infinite, or the Spiritual — the ‘other’ — entering the realm of finite, fleshy, earthy, material, existence. It is an awful, gnostic, mistake to push back against the hyper-physicality of the consumerist Christmas by totally hyper-spiritualising our response, by de-crying material generosity and gift-giving, or looking for less material alternatives because we ‘have stuff already’ (and I loved how Megan Powell Du Toit and Michael Jensen discussed this in episode seven of their podcast). Christmas is about abundance and sacrifice, it is about riches and poverty, the spiritual and the material… it is about a generous physical gift from God — from Jesus himself — who gives up an eternity of ‘spiritual’ existence to become fully divine and fully human, for the rest of eternity.
Nobody grappled with paradox in the Christian faith better than G.K Chesterton who called Christians to remain ‘orthodox’ on issues of extremes by holding both extremes and holding them furiously… he wrote lots on the paradox of the incarnation, and especially of Christmas. And it’s worth sitting with these words while navigating an antidote to consumerism that isn’t an over-correction that wipes out the material generosity of God to us in Jesus — such that our Christmas gifts to one another are tangible, tactile, celebrations of the God who in Jesus became tangible and tactile, a taste that God does not loathe the material but creates, sustains, enjoys and renews it.
“The idea of embodying goodwill—that is, of putting it into a body—is the huge and primal idea of the Incarnation. A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the epigram of the creed. Christ Himself was a Christmas present. The note of material Christmas is struck even before He is born in the first movements of the sages and the star. The Three Kings came to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. If they had only brought Truth and Purity and Love there would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilization.”
But it’s not just luxury and riches, either. This generosity can’t just be for the ‘haves’, but our generosity to one another should push out to hospitality and generosity to the ‘have nots’… Here’s more Chesterton exploring more of the paradox of God’s entering the story as a king born in a stable, turned aside and rejected by all.
“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
So, I hope you got some wonderful presents that point you to God’s wonderful present to you, that teach you the joy of giving wonderful presents to others, to point them to God’s wonderful present (you get the picture — our gift giving and our gifts have a purpose beyond themselves). Merry Christmas.
I went to the shops again this Christmas. If there is a war on Christmas, I reckon we Christians should sign up. And it there’s not. We should start one.
Like millions of other Aussies I found myself in the ‘temple’ of Westfield to participate in the pilgrimage of ‘annual Christmas shopping’ and the liturgies of handing over my plastic membership card and saying ‘paywave please’… to then be handed my relics and with a prayer-like wish or blessing, urged to have a ‘happy Christmas’… Walking through Westfield is character building; if nothing else.
My local Westfield, ‘Garden City,’ was awash with Christmas cheer. Not just holiday season cheer, but good old ‘Christmas’ — I even heard Chris Tomlin’s new pepped up version of Joy To The World while I was browsing the bookshop.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her king
Let every heart prepare Him room
The windows of the shops; and the ‘halls’ were well and truly ‘decked’ out for Christmas; Christmas wreaths marked with stars hung overhead, lit up to guide shoppers to whatever Christmas treasures or baubles they hoped would help them celebrate a merry and meaningful Christmas.
Many of the windows carried overt references to Christmas — not ‘X-mas’ and there were only a few ‘season’s greetings’ or ‘happy holidays’ to be found. There was the title of Jesus; the king; the Christ; in gilded letters or lights. Glittering. On display. Celebrated; or at least patronising our celebrations of a holiday festival that still bears his name in our calendars. It seemed to me that the war on Christmas in Australia was won, before it was even started, even if Scott Morrison got a little bit fired up at the Greens for their provocative banner this week.
But as I walked through the halls, and the shops, of Garden City — passing statues and images of happiness and a more ideal version of me; pictures and banners in windows, salespeople explaining how their items would meet my desires, or satisfy my loved ones — I saw a city that is very religious. It’s just a different type of religion — and it became clearer than ever that Christmas, as practiced in Australia, is a particularly religious holiday; but one that has been (as so many religious holidays before) annexed from an older religion and appropriated for the new. I saw the title ‘Christ’ displayed prominently, but no sign that his story was at all connected to the comings and goings of these modern worshippers. Before James K.A Smith described a trip to the “mall” as a modern temple structured ‘religiously’ and filled with modern visions of the good life and liturgical practices (which I wrote about last Christmas), the Apostle Paul walked the streets of Athens, a particularly religious city; and noticed the overt displays of religiosity — the ritual habits and practices of the people of Athens and where they looked for the fulfilment of their desires — in short, what they loved or worshipped, and he said:
“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” — Acts 17:23
I saw plenty of inscriptions honouring the Christ; but no sense that people were particularly cognisant of the very thing they claim to be worshipping — and just how inconsistent the modern Aussie practice of Christmas is with the first one; and not just with the first one, but with the back story of the arrival of this Christ; the king.
Paul was reasonably gentle with the Athenians as he introduced this ‘unknown God’ to them; if they’d been Israelites — people familiar with God’s story, having inherited the legacy of his nation-building redemptive acts in history — he probably wouldn’t have been quite so patient. He said:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” — Acts 17:24-25
These are some incredible claims about the bigness of God; that he is so utterly transcendent that our human-made temples can’t contain him; nor anything in the universe. God is the giver. It’s worth noticing that — he gives us life, breath, and everything else. Christmas is, if nothing else, meant to remind us of this fundamental truth about God’s nature… In a few verse Paul says that we actually live, breathe, and have our being in him. Paul starts by painting the picture of God as infinite and worthy of worship, but also as generous.
If Christmas is about an act of God; it is this God, the God revealed in Christ, who it reflects. The God who though he is infinite, Paul says created us and designed the world so that humanity “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” God is not just infinite and generous but wants to be found by us. Which ultimately leads him to draw near to us.
Our temples; our Westfields; our attempts tosatisfy the sort of inbuilt longing that Paul suggests might actually come from God, our attempts will fail. In approaching the ‘Unknown God’ this way, Paul seems to suggest it’s this inbuilt ‘seeking’ that leads us to build altars to ‘unknown Gods,’ to temple-building, or to religious festivals — our attempts to satiate this inbuilt craving will fail if we turn to created things to satisfy it. It’s this inbuilt seeking that has us battling traffic, struggling to find a parking spot, then wading through crowds while listening to bad music every year hoping that this one will be the Christmas that lives up to the hype. Spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need, that will ultimately neither last nor satisfy.
And we fall for it. Every year.
Think of the stuff you’ve picked up for Christmas into your temple forays this year — or from the ‘virtual temple’ of online shopping — how much of your Christmas shopping could be described in the terms Paul uses to describe how we fill this existential hole… “We should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.” (Acts 19:29). Pandora charms anybody?
What Paul is talking about as he speaks to the Athenians is idolatry. He sees us as worshippers; that our hearts are inevitably drawn towards something or some thing, if not first drawn to the God who created us (and these things). He sees the answer to idolatry coming in that first Christmas… but it comes with a warning that we should be paying heed to each time we see the declaration that Jesus is the king — the Christ — in a shop window while we’re pursuing these baubles; these trinkets; these idols.
“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. ” — Acts 19:30-31
The story of Christmas is the story of God’s judging king coming into the world; not just a story about giving and generosity but about a particular gift from God. Jesus.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her king
This song has been around so long that these have become such cliched ideas, but these words should be a little ominous. This king has come to bring peace, and joy, and as a sign of God’s life-giving nature; he has come to make God known and answer this longing of our hearts. Yes. But also to judge.
These are ominous words about the omnipotent and omnipresent God making himself known, in human flesh, bridging the gap to us — ominous because they are not without cost; because this leaves us ‘without excuse’… We can’t plaster the name of Jesus around our shopping-temples and pretend not to have heard God’s story of sending a king into the world; a king who would make him known as ‘Immanuel’ or ‘God With Us’… And they should give us followers of the king a bit of pause when it comes to how we celebrate Christmas, but also, perhaps particularly, when it comes to picking a side in the war on Christmas. We Christians are a bit like Israel — we know God’s story of salvation and redemption, first for Israel and then for us in Christ. If Paul was going to speak to us Christians about the way we approach Christmas and Westfield, what would he say? Idolatry is one thing for people for whom God is unknown, it’s a totally different kettle of fish for those who are the people of the king. Idolatry is the subject of the first three of the ten commandments for God’s people in the Old Testament. The first two are obvious — they’re about worship (not putting other things, or gods, in God’s place), and not making created things into representations of God to worship those instead of God… but the third one isn’t just about saying ‘Jesus’ when you hit your thumb with your hammer or ‘Oh My God’ when you’re on reality TV (or Gogglebox)…
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” — Exodus 20:7
What could possibly be a greater misuse of the name of Jesus than to attach it to an idolatrous festival of greed, consumption and indulgence?
What could be more offensive to the nature of God’s generous saving act than to use it to boost the bottom line of big corporations at the expense of the minority world whose shoulders we trample down on? What could be a greater misuse of the name of Jesus than to use it to sell soaps and housing wares? The same Jesus who was born in squalor and shame in a stinking animal feed trough rejected by his father’s own home town who couldn’t even make a guest room available for his pregnant mother? Perhaps only politicising the name of Jesus to support worldly ‘empire building’ rather than owning the full implications of Jesus being Lord and king. You don’t have to look far abroad (cough Trump cough) to see political leaders politicising the name of Jesus to their own worldly ends… our most pernicious modern idols are that deadly cohort of sex, greed, and power… and the ‘war on Christmas’ inevitably involves people grasping for two of these three…
There’s an ‘unknown God’ element for many of the Aussies wishing one another a merry Christmas today; and an opportunity for us to say ‘hey, this holy-day we’re celebrating and that name you’re saying, let me proclaim what that’s all about to you’ — and we can do that gently and in a way that answers the deep longings of our hearts that we reach for in all sorts of rituals and cliches each Christmas. There’s a very fine line between cliche and comforting, habit forming, ritual or liturgy. A cliche was a printing tool used to quickly replicate common words or phrases in the printhouse so that characters could be stamped onto paper quickly — ritual or habit is what stamps a certain sort of character onto us. The word character actually comes from the Greek word for stamp… for cliche even. It doesn’t take much to give proper character forming meaning to the rituals we Aussies repeat each Christmas — the acts of generosity and hospitality — of gift giving; but disconnected from the original story they quickly become deforming rather than transforming — it takes connecting these rituals to the little baby in a manger (who’d grow to be a man on a cross) who the Bible says is the exact stamp/character of God’s nature — that’s the Greek behind Hebrews 1’s claim that in Jesus, at Christmas, God bridges the gap from infinite to finite to make himself known:
“in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” — Hebrews 1:2-3
This is the Jesus of Christmas. The Christ. It’s one thing to use the opportunities afforded by idol worship to make Jesus, the Christ, known to people in a way that answers what they crave; that connect them to the infinite, life-giving God — the source of our existence and being… it’s another thing entirely for Christians to try to fight a war on Christmas to keep the name of Jesus attached to an idolatrous festival that, without Jesus, is utterly deforming people; taking them from being people made in God’s image and re-shaping them through rituals of greed and consumption to represent utterly different God’s. Using the name of Jesus to pursue ‘gold’ or ‘silver’ or ‘stone’ or things made by human hands in temples to the modern day gods of greed and self-fulfilment is an abominable misunderstanding of the original Christmas — the incarnation — the drawing near in vulnerable human flesh — of the the one who made the universe.
It is reprehensible for Christians to fight for ‘Christmas’ to be put on the lips of more Australians this year without the character of Jesus answering their desires and reworking their hearts. If there’s a war on Christmas, then I’m siding with the Greens and drawing a line through the word Christ.
I don’t want the name of Jesus attached to silver baubles and golden trinkets to pay the temple taxes and make the rich richer. Just after Paul visits Athens he heads to Ephesus where the proclamation of Jesus as he really is upends the economy — it starts to cost the silversmiths who mould idol statues — characters even — and they revolt. That’d be embracing the true meaning of Christmas — upending the status quo, trotting in to your local Westfield with wheelbarrows full of cow manure, and inviting our equivalent of poor shepherds — our society’s nomadic outcasts — to Christmas lunch.
But in the meantime… Merry Christmas. In all its fullness. I hope you have a great day celebrating life, gift-giving, and sharing time, in the flesh, with those you love. There is nothing more Christmassy than this… I hope, even, that you found some delightful expressions of creativity and beauty to give and receive as gifts.
What’s fascinating about Joy To The World is that it sees these created things — nature — combining with the heavens to celebrate the birth of Jesus; these created things are meant to point us to Jesus, and the father who sent him into the world, not away from them. Their song is a song of joy; and they repeat it as our song bounces around, echoing through our lives and shaping our loves.
And Heaven and nature sing
And Heaven, and Heaven and nature sing
Joy to the world, the Saviour reigns
That all their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy
There’s so much about goodness and creativity and generosity and love and the spirit of this new (appropriated) secular festival we can and should affirm; the virtues at the heart of an Aussie Christmas are still things that repeat the sounding joy of that first Christmas even if only as an echo… just let these be a cliche in the right way…
Today is my birthday; yes I share a birthday with Jesus and no, that doesn’t make me the messiah; I’m just a very naughty boy.
You may have wondered what it is like being a Christmas baby; you may not have. If you haven’t, then you’re part of the problem. If you have, then here’s some insight, totally from my own experience…
1. The more you know about the history of Christmas the more you might want to point out that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born on Christmas Day but you really were.
2. Everyone remembers your birthday… except maybe on the day.
3. You’ll get ‘combined’ presents sometimes; sometimes worth 150% of the value of a birthday or Christmas present… but if you organise it ahead of time you can put the purchasing power to good use. Just don’t get a tent when you’re 12ish and never use it.
4. You wonder whether it might be nice to have a whole day devoted to your birthday on the actual day.
5. When you have kids and one is born on the 22nd of December you’ll be thankful for small mercies.
6. People will often make jokes about you sharing a birthday with Jesus; suggesting you must be just like him, there’s a payoff if you get a job telling people how great Jesus is.
7. As a kid you’ll think it sucks that you don’t get school birthday parties and everyone is on holidays for your actual birthday. The 25th of November is a reasonable idea.
8. You’ll believe the ideal birthday is somewhere around June-July, and after your eldest, that’s when you’ll aim to have your kids. You’ll notice that your siblings are born between May and August.
9. You’ll think it’s an advantage that when someone says happy birthday to you, you have the ready made reply ‘merry Christmas’.
10. You’ll appreciate that every Christmas after your birth you can claim to be ‘the best Christmas present’ your parents ever received; and you’ll know it’s true; even if your dad gets a great gadget (or Sonos speaker).
11. You’ll realise there’s some mileage to be had in everyone feeling sorry for you.
12. When you meet another Christmas baby you’ll bond instantly. You’ll also be thankful you’re not born on February 29.
13. Whenever you give your date of birth anywhere public, a penny will drop about 3 seconds later, and you’ll have to have ‘that’ conversation. It’s worth making bingo cards.
14. You will, at some point, realise that pity parties are no fun and Christmas is less self-interested (and less given to disappointment and anti-climax) than a birthday, with a much more powerful story, and so, of much more value to the people in your life. Birthdays eventually become a scary reminder that you’re getting closer to death; Christmas is a reminder you no longer need to fear death.
15. It is kinda fun that everyone gets presents on your birthday, but that your haul is twice as big. So long as you forget that everyone gets a birthday; but only you have to wait exactly 12 months for one installment of presents (other December babies get it just as bad… aim for July).
16. You’ll always have Boxing Day the day after your birthday; and it is the best day of the year.
17. Everyone will ask you what it is like to have your birthday on Christmas Day; that question will puzzle you because you have not experienced the alternative and you can’t really tell how much your unique birthday has made you the person you are.
18. You’ll wonder of getting a job that makes Christmas one of the more important dates on the calendar was a great idea; but then you’ll remember point 14.
I went to temple today. A modern, secular, temple where I was surrounded by hindus, and sikhs, and buddhists, and muslims, and atheists… A temple that today was extra glittery, and sparkly, filled with magic, and crowded; oh so crowded. It was packed with worshippers.
Image: A snapshot from my trip to the temple today where I scored a park in front of this sign…
Temples don’t have to be obviously religious, or even obviously connected to a god. Temples are places where we practice our worship together. They are places where our gods; and the image of our gods, is revealed; when we know where to look. They’re places we go for stories about what the good human life looks like. And Christmas is a time for worship. In his famous This Is Water speech, David Foster Wallace said:
“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
In a passage in his novel Infinite Jest, Wallace writes a dialogue between two characters, Steeply and Marathe, about temples and worship and a third person’s ‘worship’ (Tine)… it builds on his fundamental insight about the way us humans work… we’re worshippers. Fanatics. Looking to give our love to something that we hope will love us back.
“Marathe had settled back on his bottom in the chair. ‘Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple.” ’
‘Oh Jesus now here we go again,’ Steeply said.
‘As, if you will give the permission, does this love you speak of, M. Tine’s grand love. It means only the attachment. Tine is attached, fanatically. Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.”
Steeply made motions of weary familiarity. ‘Herrrrrre we go.’
Marathe ignored this. ‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’
‘How are your wife and kids doing, up there, by the way?
You U.S.A’s do not seem to believe that you may choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.’
Steeply laid a hand between his misdirected breasts: ‘Ohh… Canada….’
Marathe leaned again forward on his stumps. ‘Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.’
So I went to the temple. The temple to probably the most popular god in Australia; the one that promises and promotes a vision of the good life that I even find myself subscribing to; a picture of humanity that teaches: I consume, therefore I am, or perhaps I am therefore I consume. My local Westfield shopping centre. As I walked through throngs of smiling happy people, ate food from the far flung reaches of the planet alongside families who may have come together from even further afield, as the artificial light bounced off tinsel and sequins and Christmas stars and bathed my fellow humans in its soft glow, as carols pumped through the sound system following us on our pilgrimage, and as I spent my dollars on trinkets and baubles designed to express my love for my family this Christmas season, I did feel like I was having something like a religious experience. There is something beautiful about the way the shopping centre can bring people from all walks of life together in a levelish playing field (I mean, I avoided Myer and the expensive looking jewellers today so it’s not totally level, but you don’t know unless you stare at the collection of shopping bags in someone’s trolley or pay close attention to the quality of their shoes and handbag if someone is your equal or not). The shopping centre aisles feel like an equaliser until you really pay attention; digging beneath the hypnosis the centre foists on you as you walk through the doors. But I wasn’t paying attention to this stuff. I was hypnotised. I was bought in; a sucker for the sales pitch put before me by the centre’s preachers. I spent more; gave more of myself; than I’d planned. I’m not sure if I was manipulated because I certainly feel like I did this willingly as an act of greater love for my family. I did, for a moment, wonder how much my experience echoes the experience of people who might wander into church with us tomorrow for Christmas; perhaps ticking off something else on the Christmas checklist.
James K.A Smith, working with the same fundamental picture of the human being as David Foster Wallace, that we’re, fundamentally, worshippers, talks about the shopping centre (or mall, because he’s American) as a modern temple. He describes how the mall-as-temple shapes us and orients us to see the world, and ourselves, in this particular way; as consumers.
This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life… The symbols and colors and images associated with their religious life are readily recognized the world over. The wide circulation of these icons through various mediums even outside the sanctuary invites us to make the pilgrimage in the first place. This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us.
This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life. (Yet one should note that it has its own modes of exclusivity too; because of its overwhelming success in converting the nations, it is increasingly difficult to be an infidel.) And it is a mode of evangelism buoyed by a transnational network of evangelists and outreach, all speaking a kind of unified message that puts other, fractured religions to shame. If unity is a testimony to a religion’s truth and power, it will be hard to find a more powerful religion than this catholic faith. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season.
This isn’t just a metaphor for Wallace or Smith; they’re actually convinced that participating in life as worshippers shapes us, and what and where we choose to worship has the potential to be very good, or very bad, for us in terms of how we understand ourselves and the world around us. In Smith’s treatment of the ‘mall’ he points out that our experience as shoppers are liturgical; shopping centres work to form our habits in particular ways, forming us as we take part in their vision of the good life, as we participate in the story the marketers are telling us, and so have the rhythms of our lives slightly altered. He points out the shopping centre shapes us so that we think of ourselves as consumers and of consumption as the path to joy, or this good life. Only life as a consumer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It leads us to consume others; it only works if we’re able to be hypnotised to the point that we think the success of our relationships; our families; depends on buying them the right thing, or if we’re able to get past the fact that all the presents we buy at Christmas ultimately don’t deliver the lasting satisfaction we hope for; so we go back day after day, week after week, Christmas after Christmas, looking to scratch this itch. Smith talks about our vain attempts to buy redemption at the shopping centre; to consume our way to happiness; he says it should be evident (because we keep going back) that this is a path that doesn’t satisfy, that never actually delivers a good life and this sort of worship transforms us in harmful ways, but also has us pin our hopes on things we end up sending to landfill:
By our immersion in this liturgy of consumption, we are being trained to both overvalue and undervalue things: we’re being trained to invest them with a meaning and significance as objects of love and desire in which we place disproportionate hopes (Augustine would say we are hoping to enjoy them when we should only be using them) while at the same time treating them (as well as the labor and raw materials that go into them) as easily discarded.— James K.A Smith, Desiring The Kingdom
I know the truth of the ‘landfill’ thing too well, because today as I did my ‘Christmas shopping’ — as I participated in worship Westfield style — I was buying exactly the same present I bought Robyn a few years ago, from the same place, because our kids had destroyed the last one. This stuff is finite; and profoundly geared not to permanently satisfy. How anti-Christmas…
The problem with picking things we’re going to bin as the things we attach ourselves to, and seeing the place we buy them from as our ‘temple’ (whether we know it or not), and participating in Christmas shopping as the ultimate form of modern, consumerist worship, and ourselves as consumers whose happiness depends on our consumption, is that we end up being consumed.
Wallace was aware of the danger of worshipping something like this; things that make us consumers not givers in our sacrifice. In This Is Water he says:
“And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
And then he turns to his own little excursion to the shops, to challenge us to break the way they deform us into selfish people who consume rather than truly love others… he invites us to head into the shopping centre eyes wide open. Into the checkout line where our consumer frustration kicks into gear because in consumer world our fellow shoppers are people in our way, or in competition with us for resources… when you view life as a consumer you tend to view other people a little negatively or judgmentally, and so Wallace invites us to see people differently by paying a different sort of attention; by becoming a different sort of worshipper (this is a passage directly before the bit I quoted above).
“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.
But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…”
The goal of this sort of worship; and seeing; for Wallace, wasn’t better consuming but a totally different sort of us; it’s about overturning our tendency to see ourselves as consumers, it’s an invitation to think differently about ourselves, the world, others, and perhaps most importantly what the ‘good life’ looks like as we live in the world with others. Wallace wanted his listeners to free themselves from destructive defaults that come from wrong worship, malforming temples, and harmful attachments. He saw the sort of worship cultivated by temples with an agenda to make us see ourselves as consumers as dangerous, and suggested we had to pay attention in order to escape and to relate to others as givers not consumers. That was his vision of the ‘good life,’ at least as he invited others to see it.
“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.
This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”
Seeing the good life; freedom; this way will transform the way you participate in life at your local Westfield; it’s enough to challenge you to think about what you’re doing and to break the hypnosis of the light, and architecture, and sensual bombardment you face when you walk through the doors. But I’m not sure it’s enough to really deliver an answer to that ‘gnawing sense’; that haunting feeling of there being something more out there than Westfield and its retailers can provide for you. The problem with Westfield-as-temple is that what worship there delivers for you are just trinkets and baubles; they’re finite, fleeting, breaking, and boring.
The answer to this problem is in a new sort of worship that changes our sense of who we humans were made to be, how we ideally relate to others, and what a good life really looks like. The answer to this problem is actually to rediscover Christmas not as a consuming holiday, but a giving holy day. When the Apostle Paul wrote about us being worshipping creatures he had a particular picture of the good human life in mind. He had a particular sense of what Christmas is all about in mind too.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2.
Consumption is a ‘pattern of this world’ and Paul’s answer to this pattern is to change the script; to not be consumers with our bodies, but givers, to be those who ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice’… It’s the Christmas story, and a new sense of what a ‘temple’ looks like, that allow us to truly love others, to in Wallace’s words ‘sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways’; to be ‘free’… We need a new temple, new attachments, a new story with a new vision of the good life, in order to become givers at Christmas, rather than destructive consumers. All this, for Paul, is caught up in what Christmas is actually about. It’s amazing how much it’s the anti-thesis of the Westfield ‘gospel’; or Westfield’s implicit and explicit account of what the good life is about; and what Christmas is about. Real worship; worship that doesn’t destroy us; is caught up in worshipping the giver of life. Real worship is caught up with recognising that Christmas is about the word that gave life and light to the world becoming flesh; becoming our temple. The temple isn’t just where we worship; it’s where we meet and see God and the image of the flourishing life; at Westfield that’s the mannequins and the posters and the glitz and glamour, at Christmas it’s the babe born in a stinking stable as a human who’d eventually be nailed to a cross. The Christmas story couldn’t be further from the tinsel and plastic prettiness of the modern Christmas shopping experience. The sacrifice Jesus makes begins in him taking on human form amongst dirty farm animals, first visited by stinking shepherds; it’s a form he still has now, a sacrifice he still makes, on behalf of the dirty and downtrodden who turn to him for hope.
The lie underneath Westfield’s ‘worship’ agenda is that finite things can satisfy the hunger for the infinite that only Christmas can. That Westfield so overtly harnesses and bastardises Christmas for its ends is truly shocking. If worship is, as Wallace puts it, trying to answer that gnawing sense of losing the infinite, Christmas is about us finding what was lost; or rather, it’s about the infinite making himself finite and knowable.
I walked through Westfield and felt empty and hopeless, hopefully people coming to church tomorrow to hear about God with us; who’ll be urged towards this new sort of worship; will walk in and out feeling filled with hope and pushed to love others because our gnawing sense of having lost touch with the infinite is answered when we look to the face of the baby in a manger; the infinite becoming finite as an act of sacrifice for us.
The Christmas story points us to true worship, and true worship is exemplified by those shepherds and later the wise guys from the East who recognised that Jesus really is ‘God With Us’… the real Christmas story stands in stark contrast Westfield’s Christmas; it overthrows Westfield-as-temple, and it points us to a sort of worship-driven ‘good life’ found in following the Christmas king. It makes us givers, not consumers; and involves God giving us life, rather than our false gods consuming us. This is perhaps one of the earliest Christmas Carols (after Mary’s at the birth of Jesus), from Paul in Philippians 2.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2.
“People need to realise it doesn’t matter what living meat skeleton you’re born into; it’s what you feel that defines you.” — Victor (in the video below)
This is Victor. Victor identifies as non-binary, and this BBC video features Victor explaining a little bit of life from a non-binary perspective. It did the rounds on social media recently. It’s an interesting and increasingly common account for what it means to be human. Victor’s account of what it means to be human is this: you are a feeling mind with a meat skeleton; but the real you is the ‘feeling mind’ part — your consciousness — and your body might get in the way. If that happens then feelings (your choice) trump meat (an unchosen thing you’re born with).
It’s true that we are both mind and body, maybe even ‘soul’ and body… and our accounts of what it mean to be human need to reconcile these two realities in a way that helps us make sense of our experience of the world, and in a way that helps us figure out what to do when our bodies and minds seem to be in conflict.
One of the things I’ve spent this year reading about, thinking about, and writing about is how Christians can respond with love and understanding to the growing conversation about gender identity and gender fluidity. A paper our Gospel In Society Today committee (a thing I’m on for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland) has put together on this issue will be released soonish, but this video was one of the stranger and more worrying parts of what is a complicated issue where one’s gender identity is not necessarily as simple as a binary view of either physical sex and gender makes out. Being human is not quite as simple as Victor suggests. Extrapolating an understanding of humanity and what a flourishing human life looks like — what shape our identity takes — from the experience and feelings of particular individuals (or any individuals) is not a great way to do anything (this is also true from the direction of ‘cis-gendered’ people backwards too, where ‘cis’ is a pre-fix for those whose physical sex and gender identities line up). We often have a tendency when dealing with the complexity of human existence to assume our experience is both normal and should be ‘the norm’ and that’s dangerous.
The view of what it means to be human that Victor in this video puts forward is an unfortunate extrapolation from the real felt experience of the few to the many. Your body isn’t just a ‘meat skeleton’ with the real you somehow immaterially enshrined in this skeleton; you are your body. There’s something a bit appealing to this idea, not just as it applies to the gender conversation but because our bodies are limiting when it comes to what we imagine flourishing to look like. I want to be healthy and fit; but my body lets me down in that I get sick and injured. I want to be able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, but my body can only occupy one place at any given moment, and my moments are limited. I want to be immortal, but my body is on the timeline to decay. I do want to be able to escape the constraints of my body; humans yearn for that; particularly we want to escape from the bits of our bodies that are broken and dying. It’s nice to believe that our minds are somehow the real us; that the real us doesn’t decay, disappoint, or die; it’d be nice if our bodies were just meat skeletons that we could augment or change based simply on how we feel without that impacting ‘the real us’ (except as we bring them in line with the real us).
But this idea that we’re just our ‘feelings’… that our bodies don’t really matter… This is the gnostic heresy of the secular age. And it’s not necessarily a great ‘secular’ solution to issues like gender dysphoria or gender identity either (though solutions that don’t deal with us as ’embodied beings,’ the idea that our bodies are able to be ‘unbroken’ via our minds, or that someone can simply ‘think themselves’ into a solution aren’t very useful either, but that’s a rabbit hole for another time). Victor also assumes a radical disconnection between our bodily experience and our minds that doesn’t seem to stack up with modern neuroscience (which suggests what we do with our bodies impacts our minds) either, but again, that’s another rabbit hole.
The secular age is a label philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe our current western world’s grand organising narrative; its ‘myths’; its account for what human life is; and thus what a flourishing life looks like. The secular age involves the death of the soul as a concept, because it involves switching a view of the world where both the spiritual (or transcendent) and material (or immanent) are real and important for a world where only the material matters. This leaves us with an interesting account of our human experience and what it means to be really human. Our new post-soul way of understanding the world from this immanent viewpoint replaces the ‘soul’ with the mind. We now see ourselves as immanent creatures and any gap, or conflict, between mind and matter in our experience will be left for us to figure out as we come up with a story that explains how to be human. In this video with Victor it seems this movement involves creating a new duality between mind and matter — or your feelings and your body (how you feel things apart from your senses and the chemical make-up of your brain (and how that might be influenced by the activities of your body) is something not totally fleshed out in Victor’s anthropology). Victor’s story is a story like this; in Victor’s account human history has been oppressive because we’ve understood physical sex (matter) and gender (mind) as being things that are best held together; or understood as being a single thing when real enlightenment allows us to see them as they truly are — different — so that true freedom is somehow found in transcending our ‘matter’ so that our sense of ourselves is found in our mind. Only, because the transcendent no longer exists as a spiritual account of reality that overlapped the material so that both were true and held in tension; this transcendence comes from making one part of us less meaningful as we make the other bit more meaningful. Victor sees the material and the mind being, at times, in competition, and as a result says “you are defined by what you feel.”
Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy built from Plato’s understanding of reality. Plato taught there is a ‘spiritual’ world of ‘ideals’ and a ‘material’ world of ‘forms’ and the truest reality is the spiritual one, and the physical stuff is broken, and non-ideal, and to be transcended. Gnostics applied this to Christianity and came up with the belief that our bodies are utterly broken and sinful and awful and dirty and to be transcended. It taught that you were a soul; and that you were lumped with a body. The soul trumped the body. The body was a meat skeleton to be escaped from.
It’s the same story Victor is telling; this idea that you’re much more than a meat skeleton, if you’re even a meat skeleton at all. This ‘meat skeleton’ phrase reminds me of a couple of passages from three of my favourite ‘secular’ stories by three secular age writers; William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer which explores what might happen if we rely on technology to replace the transcendent. In Neuromancer you can get a chip implanted in your head that allows you to jack-in to cyberspace so that your body exists in the physical world (meatspace) while your mind is in cyberspace. Prostitutes in this world can hire out their bodies while their minds are occupied in the cyber world; so they’re called ‘meat puppets’… which isn’t so different from Victor’s ‘meat-skeleton’ only in Victor’s account your mind is the puppeteer, in control of your meat, not someone else. Case, the protaganist, was a cyber-cowboy (a hacker) who lost his ability to be part of cyber-space but is given it back in order to complete a big hack; he’s torn between two worlds; two realities; the transcendent reality of cyber-space and the physicality of meat-space; without spoiling things too much this para is from near the end of the book:
“No,’ he said, and then it no longer mattered, what he knew, tasting the salt of her mouth where tears had dried. There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered – as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong and blind way, could ever read.” — Neuromancer
Somehow Gibson is convinced that the body matters. Kurt Vonnegut explores the idea that we’re both ‘meat’ and ‘soul’, and that the key to happiness (and to seeing others properly) is about understanding each, then aligning them, in his novel Bluebeard. The main character, artist Rabo Karabekian, moves from this almost gnostic belief that they’re separate and irreconcilable; but that the soul is the true self to something that sees them as working together. So there’s this dialogue, where :
“I can’t help it,” I said. “My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.”
“Your what and your what?” he said.
“My soul and my meat,” I said.
“They’re separate?” he said.
“I sure hope they are,” I said. I laughed. “I would hate to be responsible for what my meat does.”
I told him, only half joking, about how I imagined the soul of each person, myself included, as being a sort of flexible neon tube inside. All the tube could do was receive news about what was happening with the meat, over which it had no control.
‘”So when people I like do something terrible,” I said, “I just flense them and forgive them.”
“Flense?” he said. “What’s flense?”
“It’s what whalers used to do to whale carcasses when they got them on board,” I said. “They would strip off their skin and blubber and meat right down to the skeleton. I do that in my head to people—get rid of all the meat so I can see nothing but their souls. Then I forgive them.”
At this point Rabo is operating with the belief that the soul is the ‘true’ self and the meat gets in the way… but he’s brought back to reality (or to real reality) in the closing words of the book; when he’s forced to see that when he makes art it’s actually his soul and meat working together (in a passage where the critique of trying to hold body and soul apart is a bit similar to some stuff Irenaeus wrote against the Gnostics in the second century). His art studio is a potato barn.
”Your meat made the picture in the potato barn,” she said.
“Sounds right, “ I said. “My soul didn’t know what kind of picture to paint, but my meat sure did.”
“Well then,” she said, “isn’t it time for your soul, which has been ashamed of your meat for so long, to thank your meat for finally doing something wonderful?”
I thought that over. “That sounds right too,” I said.
“You have to actually do it,” she said.
“How?” I said.
“Hold your hand in front of your eye,” she said, “ and look at those strange and clever animals with love and gratitude, and tell them out loud: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”
So I did.
I held my hands in front of my eyes, and I said out loud and with all my heart: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”
David Foster Wallace explores the relationship between the body and something more than the body at the heart of our humanity through the lens of learning to play tennis in both his celebrated essay on Roger Federer published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times (but as the title essay Both Flesh and Not in that collection of his articles and essays), and in his novel Infinite Jest which features a tennis playing prodigy as one of the protaganists. Wallace was, himself, a competitive junior tennis player so you sense that some of his insights into what it means to be meat are autobiographical; what’s a bit different is that Wallace seems to assume that you are first your physical body; that meat matters, and even that anything more that is out there is fed and cultivated by what we do with our ‘meat’… what we give ourselves to. With tennis as a bit of a metaphor for the life well lived, he explores the idea that transcendence is found by pushing our well-trained muscle-memoried bodies to new heights via the imagination; our bodies somehow show our minds what is possible because they act as some sort of sub-conscious us.
“Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place.” — Infinite Jest
Then when Hal, the tennis prodigy, is being coached. His coach says the key to a sort of ‘flourishing humanity’ starts with our ‘meat’; that we’re meat first:
“‘Boys, what it is is I’ll tell you it’s repetition. First last always. It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut. It’s making the same pivots and lunges and strokes over and over and over again, at you boys’s age it’s reps for their own sake, putting results on the back burner, why they never give anybody the boot for insufficient progress under fourteen, it’s repetitive movements and motions for their own sake, over and over until the accretive weight of the reps sinks the movements themselves down under your like consciousness into the more nether regions, through repetition they sink and soak into the hardware, the C.P.S. The machine-language. The autonomical part that makes you breathe and sweat. It’s no accident they say you Eat, Sleep, Breathe tennis here. These are autonomical. Accretive means accumulating, through sheer mindless repeated motions. The machine-language of the muscles. Until you can do it without thinking about it, play… The point of repetition is there is no point. Wait until it soaks into the hardware and then see the way this frees up your head. A whole shitload of head-space you don’t need for the mechanics anymore, after they’ve sunk in. Now the mechanics are wired in. Hardwired in. This frees the head in the remarkablest ways. Just wait. You start thinking a whole different way now, playing. The court might as well be inside you. The ball stops being a ball. The ball starts being something that you just know ought to be in the air, spinning. This is when they start getting on you about concentration. Right now of course you have to concentrate, there’s no choice, it’s not wired down into the language yet, you have to think about it every time you do it. But wait till fourteen or fifteen. Then they see you as being at one of the like crucial plateaus. Fifteen, tops. Then the concentration and character shit starts. Then they really come after you. This is the crucial plateau where character starts to matter. Focus, self-consciousness, the chattering head, the cackling voices, the choking-issue, fear versus whatever isn’t fear, self-image, doubts, reluctances, little tight-lipped cold-footed men inside your mind, cackling about fear and doubt, chinks in the mental armor. Now these start to matter. Thirteen at the earliest. Staff looks at a range of thirteen to fifteen. Also the age of manhood-rituals in various cultures. Think about it. Until then, repetition. Until then you might as well be machines, here, is their view. You’re just going through the motions. Think about the phrase: Going Through The Motions. Wiring them into the motherboard. You guys don’t know how good you’ve got it right now.” — Infinite Jest
One of the more powerful things about Infinite Jest is that it explores how the addictions that shape our bodies ultimately shape our humanity; and this sort of tennis training is a sort of ‘rightly directed’ addiction (or is it); it seems better than being addicted to drugs or entertainment… two of the other pictures of meat-shaping (or miss-shaping) habits in the novel.
Somehow, for Wallace, we are inextricably embodied; our meat matters because it shapes everything else about who we are and how we flourish; and when we’re ultimately flourishing it’s because our meat and our minds are meeting; intuitively. When everything comes together in this tennis-as-a-metaphor-for-life thing we no longer notice the ‘dual’ reality.
You’re barely aware you’re doing it. Your body’s doing it for you and the court and Game’s doing it for your body. You’re barely involved. It’s magic, boy. — Infinite Jest
And in a moment on the court where things go wrong; when one’s body betrays you and you slip and fall… that’s when we know that our meat matters; that it’s not something to be left behind when we achieve these magical, transcendent, moments, but part of those moments.
It was a religious moment. I learned what it means to be a body, Jim, just meat wrapped in a sort of flimsy nylon stocking, son, as I fell kneeling and slid toward the stretched net, myself seen by me, frame by frame, torn open. — Infinite Jest
For Wallace our bodies, our ‘meat skeletons’, are actually the key to transcendence; not in departure from them but in that they are the key to truly understanding ourselves. He returns to tennis as a lens for that in his Federer essay, where he explores the idea that watching a tennis player who has achieved the sort of bodily self-mastery described in the novel is actually a religious experience as much as the one that he describes in the injury-inducing slip above, but in the opposite direction. We touch something radically true about ourselves when our bodies are vehicles for something more than just ‘the physical’; when our bodies and souls are in sync.
“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” — Both Flesh and Not
In the footnotes he gives us this exploration of this embodied understanding of our humanity.
There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.
There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!,” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot. — Both Flesh and Not
This sort of ‘reconciliation’ he’s talking about is the realisation that we’re not simply minds who have meat attached; but rather that our bodies are inevitably part of our humanity (and part of the limits of our humanity in this secular age), and the best vision of human flourishing he can arrive at from that point is not that real flourishing is about detachment from the body, but rather the body and soul working together to make beautiful tennis. Even if those moments are only fleeting and finite.
Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled. — Both Flesh and Not
For Wallace, watching peak-Federer was a vision of the best that could be achieved in our material world; and hinted at something more. Wallace, more than any other secular age writer, was haunted by ‘the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as he put it in This Is Water). Somehow, in Federer and his embodiment (and go read the essay) he finds some sort of solace when it comes to questions of bodily malfunctions, like those we’re confronted with in a broken world filled with broken bodies, like the kid with cancer who tossed the coin in the match he’s writing about, somehow this glimpse of transcendence through the bodyworking in sync with the ‘soul’ andflourishing, somehow that helps Wallace understand what being human; body, mind, and soul, looks like. And it doesn’t come from transcending your ‘meat’ but achieving some sort of transcendence ‘as meat’…
“[Federer] looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.” — Both Flesh and Not
These writers offer a nice ‘secular’ critique of Victor’s belief that we’re minds who need to transcend our meat skeletons. But the Christmas story is an even better critique; and one that affirms the good and true things Gibson, Vonnegut and Wallace are grasping for as they affirm the importance of our ‘meatiness’.
Christmas (and Irenaeus) as the answer to this modern ‘gnostic’ dilemma
The Christmas story is fundamentally the story of God meeting us in our meatiness… in meatspace… to provide this sort of ‘reconciliation’ between body and soul, and between the transcendent and immanent; this isn’t just ‘reconciliation’ in the David Foster Wallace sense of those fleeting moments in this world where things feel right; but a permanent fix that means that feeling isn’t just fleeting. It’s the sort of change that brings the transcendent, supernatural, ‘soul’ reality and the immanent natural material world of our bodies back into harmony in a way that deals with both our impending meaty death, and the ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost the infinite.
The Christmas story was the answer to old fashioned gnosticism; and is the answer to the fears of the secular age and its searching for a way to make sense of our ‘meat’ and our feelings in some sort of ‘reconciled’ order.
The Christmas story, what Christians call ‘the incarnation’ — where the divine ‘word of God’, Jesus, a person of the Trinity, permanently takes on human flesh — has always been the answer to gnostic tendencies; to our desire to find some key to escape the limits of our dying bodies.
The Christmas story — the story at the heart of Christianity; and indeed the heart of what Christians believe it means to be human and to flourish is a radical critique of both gnosticism and this new ‘mind over matter’ vision of the human body as a ‘meat skeleton’ to transcend.
The Christmas story teaches us that to be truly human is to have a body, and a soul. In the Christmas story we meet the truest human. You’re not just a soul with a body either; despite that apocryphal quote reputedly from C.S Lewis. You’re both. Paradoxically. Always.
The Easter story promises us that one day all our Christmases will come at once and our bodies will be made new, reconciled, and paired perfectly, with our souls. We’ll be flesh and light. And we get a taste of that now as we live out, and live in, the story of Jesus. This is the promise of the Christian story, one Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15.
“The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven.As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” — 1 Corinthians 15:46-49
This isn’t to disparage our human bodies and the reality of life where our souls and bodies feel conflicted; but to point us to where real reconciliation is found; it’s in the death of death and in our bodies and souls being joined in an imperishable and harmonious way that lines up with the ‘heavenly man’; the one born as a meaty human at Christmas, and raised as a meaty human at Easter.
Gnosticism is actually pretty terrible news for us as humans; it leads to all sorts of awful self-hatred because being ‘meat’ is actually fundamental to our experience of the world and our ability to know things. It’s soul crushing even in its attempt to free us to simply ‘be a soul’… it isn’t a particularly helpful or possible vision of human flourishing whether it’s being pushed by Plato, or the gnostics of the early church (who denied the incarnation because their vision of God wouldn’t be caught dead in a dirty human body), or a modern day ‘non-binary’ philosopher like Victor. We can’t simply escape our bodies or pretend we are something other than our flesh, because we are actually ‘both flesh and not’…
There are very good reasons that gnosticism was viewed as a heresy; it’s actually the same reason that for many years the pre-secular age western world has seen our physical reality and a more transcendent reality both being parts of being truly human. It’s a very good reason it hasn’t been understood as being ‘oppressive’ to link our physical sex with our gender (even if our physical sex is sometimes non-binary, and some individuals do experience gender as less binary than we might). To be human was to be both body and soul; not just a soul with a body. The answer to the experience of individuals with non-binary sex or gender is not to ‘reconcile’ this divide by simply dismissing our bodies as meat to be transcended (or ignored); but rather to hope for soul and body to be brought back together; for those Federer-like moments to be permanent. This was the hope Irenaeus, a guy who wrote Against Heresies as the most substantive critique of gnosticism relied on in countering the belief that the human task was for the soul to leave the dirty body behind.
Irenaeus understood the present human condition as being one where our souls and bodies are ‘separate’ and where our impending death (and constant decay) are part of what creates this divide. His hope was for ‘recapitulation’ or a ‘re-creation’ — an intervention by God to address this divide so that our souls eventually find their right home in a re-created immortal body (Against Heresies Book 2 Chapter 34). We don’t reconcile this separation by denying the reality of body, or soul (or feelings), but by hoping for this re-aligning of the two where the alignment has been affected in our broken world, and the key to this reconciliation is not our own self-mastery of our bodies ala Wallace’s Federer, but the master of body and soul, the maker of our bodies and souls, meeting us in meat space and providing a path to reconciliation with the divine life. That’s the Gospel story; the Christmas story; the story that speaks into what it means to be truly human (even if this all sounds like some weird wizardry or hocus-pocus in our secular age). This was a story the western world took very seriously in understanding what it means to be human for a very long time.
For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons? — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 3 Chapter 19
Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God—all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 1
Irenaeus fairly boldly declared that the Gospel story properly understood was enough to ‘ruin’ the gnostic account of humanity; and I think the Christmas story, the story of God-becoming-meat, is enough to answer Victors idea that our meat skeletons are unimportant when it comes to who we really are. You are a body. You are a soul. That these two parts of you aren’t always working in harmony doesn’t mean you need to escape your meat; it might mean that your meat and your soul need some work to reconcile them in a way that allows you to ‘flourish’…
We all feel bereft and have that ‘gnawing sense’ that these dead bodies aren’t delivering for us whether we experience that in the form of our gender not lining up with our sex, or the myriad other things that make our bodies feel like less-than-home; but for Irenaeus the answer to the gnostic desire to escape our meat was the picture of God becoming meat to meet us in our humanity and chart a way forward to our ‘meat’ being redeemed and made immortal; his hope is for the time promised by that first Christmas, when our bodies and our souls would be brought in harmony by the one who made both. Our problem is that the human default after our rejection of God’s design for us is this dying brokenness, where our souls and our matter don’t line up. Christmas, the incarnation, is the first step towards the death of death and the reconciling of our bodies and souls… it’s not tennis that gets us there; though tennis might point us there and be a taste of what’s to come.
Hope for humanity, in Irenaeus response to ancient gnosticism, in the Gospel story, and in a response to Victor’s modern attempt to free us to be truly human by separating ‘meat’ and feelings, isn’t found in departing from our meatiness, but in both being ‘reconciled’ and made new without the presence of death, decay, and disappointment. Without the sense of us not being at home in our broken and dying bodies. That’s the hope of Christmas, where the God who made us takes the first step towards having a human body broken and dying for us…
Here’s a bit more Irenaeus to plough through…
“But if the Lord became incarnate for any other order of things, and took flesh of any other substance, He has not then summed up human nature in His own person, nor in that case can He be termed flesh. For flesh has been truly made [to consist in] a transmission of that thing moulded originally from the dust. But if it had been necessary for Him to draw the material [of His body] from another substance, the Father would at the beginning have moulded the material [of flesh] from a different substance [than from what He actually did]. But now the case stands thus, that the Word has saved that which really was [created, viz.,] humanity which had perished, effecting by means of Himself that communion which should be held with it, and seeking out its salvation. But the thing which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, moulded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished. And for this cause the apostle, in the Epistle to the Colossians, says, “And though ye were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight.” He says, “Ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh,” because the righteous flesh has reconciled that flesh which was being kept under bondage in sin, and brought it into friendship with God.” — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 14
BY Nathan Campbell Read time: Estimated reading time: 0 minutes Less than a minute
I know Christmas is over in our corner of the world. But spread the Christmas cheer just that little bit longer and watch this.
And by “Christmas cheer,” I really mean remind people that Christmas is about a pretty amazing event. God stepping out of infinity and into our finite world as a man. Making himself known to finite beings, and being an infinitely pure sacrifice made in our place through a particularly unimpressive death.
The “keep Christ in Christmas” debate kind of irks me too. It smacks of the sort of culture of nominalism that leads to all sorts of political stupidity – where we assume that calling Christmas “Christmas” is a measure of following the Lord Jesus, and that somehow we’re a Christian nation because we head along to church annually to pay our dues.
Image: This was one of the tackiest of these I could find…
But I do think that we do our kids an educational disservice if we sanitise Christmas for the sake of any political agenda.
I’m not suggesting that Christianity should be taught in the class room outside of opt-in Religious Education/Instruction. I’d hate my kids minds to be warped by some weird theology, and I’d much rather they be taught just the facts, or better – taught how to separate fact from fiction, with a good appreciation of how culture has developed to the point we’re at now.
But the fact is that our society, modern Australia, has been incredibly influenced by Christians, and by historical events that have shaped us and our values. Including the life and teaching of Jesus, and the growth and expansion of the church.
Even if you don’t believe that Jesus represented something incredible. The incarnation. God made flesh. He, and his, have modelled a life lived in sacrifice for others, seeing others as more important than themselves.
It seems a shame to whitewash that out of the system for the sake of demonstrating that we’re above culture wars, and for the sake of feeding and perpetuating a system that is hell bent on economic growth at all costs – including through rampant individualism that is based almost entirely on the question of what one consumes or purchases (or doesn’t consume, or purchase).
It’s terrible that the wonder of the incarnation is dismissed as:
“…imposed by religious instruction volunteers who lurk around primary schools in the lead-up to Christmas in the hope of relating their version of the miraculous birth to impressionablechildren.”
Way to make volunteering sound like something sinister. That really boosted the tone of this piece.
Here are some of the sadder quotes.
“The grade five pupil in question reported that all her classmates participated in Christmas activities with enthusiasm: “We love making Christmas cards for each other, and we especially love decorating the classroom Christmas tree.”
That’s nice. I guess. Making cards for each other – cards that come at no cost. That’s what Christmas is about.
What kind of decoration did you and your classmates make? “Well, we made pencil cases, hand-sewn purses, cardboard-cut outs of our favourite pop stars, favourite song lyrics … one boy even dressed up the angel at the top of the tree in the colours of his footy team.”
Yes. We need to celebrate the things we love – our heroes. Our idols. The things that make us feel good. That’s what Christmas is about. Those are good Australian values.
“It occurred to me this is Christmas for her and many kids of her generation. This is how Christmas was celebrated at her kindergarten, her primary school, in the broader community and, more or less, at home.”
“Most parents I spoke to seem to be fairly relaxed with the idea of their children participating in school-based Christmas activities, particularly when end-of-year primary school festivities have been stripped of scripture and overt religious symbolism.
According to my neighbour, a primary school teacher, “we seek to involve all the kids by making no reference to God, the miraculous birth, heaven, or anything that’s sacred”.”
You can’t unhave your cake, and not eat it too. You can’t really have a secular celebration, in an educational institution, and not talk about where the celebration originated.
That’s not education. You can’t ignore the fact that both parts of the name, even if you sanitise the events “Christ” and “Mass” are inherently religious in nature.
Even if you dismiss the claims inherent in the name “Christ” – surely you can objectively discuss that what the authors of the historical documents that we call “Gospels” (pieces of biographical royal propaganda that are amazing insights into first century culture of huge educational value) were claiming.
They’re claiming that Jesus is the fulfilment of a pretty amazing string of expectations kept alive through a Jewish people who had been oppressed, displaced, returned, and oppressed by the regional superpowers.
You could discuss the impact that these claims have had on history – how they changed the direction of the Roman empire, and potentially brought it to its political knees, because they valued sacrifice, service, and love for others. And that would be of more educational benefit than a Christmas circus featuring “a clown, juggler, acrobat or magician.”
What beneficial stuff does a kid learn from those roles that they won’t get from elsewhere in the curriculum? I’m not against kids having fun, developing social skills, and learning some self-esteem while they’re at school – but surely they can develop mad juggling skillz at home, and not on the tax payer’s dollar… Or, at a pinch, the P.E curriculum could expand to include a little clowning maybe in cahoots with the drama department… Interdisciplinary skills are good to. What I am sure of is that they have nothing to do with Christmas – secular or sacred.
The comments on posts like this are often more informative than the post itself. So we get gems like this…
Now, it’s a time to rest, reflect, spend time with family & friends, stop working, go to the beach, eat a lot, give presents, share a meal, celebrate family, friends and life. Importantly, it’s an opportunity to do that at the same time everyone else is doing it, because despite Thatcher’s dire predictions there is still a thing called society.
But what sort of society does this celebration produce? When we’re all being selfish at the same time. I’ve never heard so many adult tantrums, or arguments, in the local shopping centre as I have in the last few days.
Why not get rid of the inane secular celebrations and do what schools are meant to do – educate? Why not spend some time looking at the history of Christmas, from the manger, to the pagan festivals that Christianity took over as it expanded? To the rise, and fall, and rise of celebrations of the Christ Mass – including puritanical attempts to ban Christmas? Why not look at what “the Christmas spirit” has been historically, not so much about satisfying our desires, but things that embody the guy whose birthday it is?
I’d love kids to learn about the true wonder of Christmas. But school’s not the place for that. Not in our time, or country, and certainly not in a public system. I’m fine with the secular cause – provided it continues to allow some space for parents to elect for their children to receive education about religions from people who practice them.
I’m confident that the Christmas story – of God made flesh, coming to his own world to sacrificially swap his place for ours, and bring us peace with the Father – is the best and most appealing story – more appealing than seeing the angel on top of the tree dressed in the maroon and white of my beloved Sea Eagles. So my motives aren’t completely pure – I do think that people thinking about Christmas, and what it’s about, will possibly lead to them meeting the Jesus who was born, for real, in history. Who grew up, died, and was raised. Who claimed to be the promised king of the Old Testament, who would mend our broken world – through sacrifice.
But these motives aside, what we’ve got now, if the Crikey piece is accurate, is a poor imitation, of little to no educational value. Surely our country would be a better place if our kids took a little bit of time to get informed about what Christmas is, and why it has endured. If it was less about us, and more about others.
This can happen without threatening the provision of a robust, secular, education to every child. Suggesting that a secular education requires no mention or treatment of the sacred leaves a pretty gaping cultural/sociological hole to be filled when it comes to why the world is the way it is.
But wait. You say. John’s gospel doesn’t have a nativity scene.
Indeed. But Revelation does.
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.”
This ain’t no stable story.
I’ve preached on it before – but my last talk wasn’t great. So I’m gutting it. And rewriting it. It’s difficult to turn this pretty weird passage into something evangelistic. But I like the coolness of it, and the timing – given that the Hobbit is coming out on Boxing Day and it is pretty dragony.
I’m going to lean heavily on this bit, and just fly over the weird stuff with a short, sharp, explanation of why Revelation tells the Christian story in a symbolic way.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down. 11 They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Sound enthralling? Come along.
Meet this guy… and the baby who smashes him.
One of the things I’m finding tough is how to articulate that as Christians we do believe in something bigger than ourselves, something supernatural, other than the intangible God and his tangible son, Jesus. That we believe Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection had some meaning beyond what it achieves for us as individuals, and for humans with the arrival of the crucified king of the world… that there was, and is, an entity who didn’t want this to happen. The dragon. Satan.
I find it pretty easy to talk about Jesus. Because he was a man, in history, who is historically plausible. But Satan? And Satan presented as a dragon? I’d rather deal with that in brush strokes and get back to safe and rational ground as quickly as possible.
I can’t figure out why.
We’re pretty good at buying in to struggles between good and evil in just about every story we consume – the Hobbit is an example – so I can’t figure out why I baulk at presenting the “evil” entity, not just the evil that dwells in each sinful person, when it comes to telling people the gospel.
BY Nathan Campbell Read time: Estimated reading time: 0 minutes Less than a minute
That heading sounds like the punch line to some sort of joke. But this story is true, though not really in the spirit of Christmas. Some Orthodox and Armenian priests were cleaning the Temple of the Nativity in Bethlehem. One thing led to another. And they started hitting each other with broomsticks.
Higher quality video footage would lend itself to a Star Wars remix – the guys are already in robes.
What does Christmas have in common with a seven-headed dragon?
Ever wondered why the birth of baby Jesus so long ago is still a big deal? Here’s a nativity scene that doesn’t get preached on all that much in Christmas services, from Revelation chapter 12. It’s what’s going down in a figurative sense in the person of Jesus.
1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
7 Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
11 They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”
Jesus wins. Why this passage isn’t at the top of the Christmas pile is beyond me. I reckon a Christmas lights diorama of this passage installed at your church would win all sorts of prizes.
BY Nathan Campbell Read time: Estimated reading time: 0 minutes Less than a minute
Some very talented friends of mine are working through the gospel stories. In sand. I posted the Easter one last Easter. This Christmas one is equally sensational – and a really accessible and engaging presentation of the good news of Christmas.
We used it at our Carols night at Scots on Sunday and it worked. Get the full versions for a small price (it takes days of work to put these together) from sandbible.com.