Tag Archives: Jesus

Elf and the Two Myths of Christmas

There are two myths of Christmas. The first is the narrative of the nativity of Jesus. The second is the narrative of Santa Claus. These two myths sometimes seem to be in conflict. The nativity narrative clearly emphasizes the spiritual aspect of Christmas, light and renewal coming into a world of darkness and old corrupted forms. The Santa Claus narrative seems more aligned with the material world, anticipation of gift receiving, joy, celebration, the family home, etc.

I enjoy watching Christmas movies with my daughter in the run up to December 25th. Any other time of the year they seem very much out of place. But in this window of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas roughly aligned with Advent they feel appropriate. One of the movies we watch is “Elf” starring Will Farrell.

“Elf” is clearly a version of the Santa Claus narrative dealing with a family celebrating Christmas. It does so in a very post modern and materialist way in that it (on the surface) pays lip service to or uses the underlying spirit of Christmas as a means of telling a story. There is the sense that there is something lost (i.e., the spirit of Christmas) that the characters are trying to rediscover. I remember Christmas (particularly Christmas Eve) as a child being extremely exciting, mysterious and joyful. Then as I matured and had a family of my own, Christmas became very stressful and something I wanted to put behind me rather than experience. I lost that childhood spirit of Christmas that I once felt very strongly. I nostalgically longed for that feeling but essentially gave up on trying to recapture it after years of it being stressful.

The movie “Elf” is interesting on multiple levels. It is a comedy and therefore does not take itself seriously even though it ostensibly deals with this serious theme of reconnecting with spirit in a materialist, post modern world. And I get the feeling (although I do not know this for a fact) that the director of the movie Jon Favreau is a cynical Hollywood type who is more interested in making money than addressing spiritual matters. At the same time, this spiritual message makes its appearance in the movie and resonates. It artfully and comedically follows the beats of the Hero’s Journey. The cynical, workaholic father played by James Caan comes to see through the agency of his childlike, 30 something son raised by elves played by Will Ferrell that there is more to life than materialist pursuits. What is interesting to me, is that even in this post modern, cynical age, this spiritual message still bleeds through and is marketable. This is true even when the message is conveyed by (perhaps) cynical actors and creators.

What is also interesting to me is the way in which the movie “Elf” and all the others bring the Santa Claus narrative into synthesis with the Nativity narrative. Jesus came into the world in the form of an innocent baby. His incarnation brought hope and renewal into a dark world of old corrupted forms. In the movies conveying the Santa Claus narrative the main characters have found themselves to be old and corrupted forms of their former, innocent, childlike and believing selves. They find themselves wanting to recapture that believing nature they had when they were children or they find themselves confronted with the opportunity to recapture that believing nature.

It is said that “seeing is believing,” but children can readily believe without seeing. In the modern, material world God is all but invisible to most people. It seems to me that the Christmas message conveyed in these Santa Claus narratives is that of renewal, not to return to a state of childhood, but to recapture that childlike alacrity to believe without requiring material proof. Put another way it is the hope of re-incarnating the innocence of a baby within and renewing our own hearts.

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Projecting a Misanthropic Interpretation onto the Parable of the Good Samaritan

For the most part I enjoy my interactions with the friendly folks I encounter on the Orthosphere blog. With a notable few and hostile exceptions, I find the contributors to be intellectually rigorous and respectful. They hold firm to their traditionalist values in the face of an aggressive politically correct culture and although I do not agree with all of their arguments and their sometimes hostile and shaming treatment of those who question them, I have to respect their fortitude. I have also learned a thing or two from them and changed my position on certain issues as a result of reading their blog.

Recently, I had an exchange with an Orthosphere contributor JMSmith on the subject of the parable of the Good Samaritan. I was reminded of the parable by an exchange in the comment section of a post entitled Against Global Thinking written by JMSmith. Specifically, one comment written by mickvet read:

Our Lord told his followers to love their neighbour, not the people who lived in Hispania or far away Scythia. Wise words-His advice is hard enough to follow, as it is.

To which JMSmith replied:

A man who puts an unnatural construction on the word neighbor is very probably a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

To which I replied:

Luke 10:36

I made this comment because in Luke 10:36, Jesus directly addresses the question, “who is my neighbor?” alleviating the need for the use of an unnatural construction. The passage reads:

[A man] asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him…

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:29-37

From my perspective, the natural language of this passage suggests that a neighbor is one who shows mercy. This neighborly status exists irrespective of the neighbor’s ethnicity or religion as the Samaritans were distinctly not of the same ethnicity of the Jews not did they follow the same religious practice as the Jews and as a result were generally considered to be “dirty dogs” by Jews as JMSmith points out.

Philanthropic versus Misanthropic

JMSmith labels my interpretation of this parable as “philanthropic.” That is, seeking to promote the welfare of others. Whereas he labels his own interpretation as “misantrhopic.” That is, disliking humankind and being anti-social. He claims his interpretation “attend[s] to the actual words of the story” obviously implying that my and the majority of modern Christians’ interpretation does not. This is worth exploring.

The distinction JMSmith seems to be drawing relies heavily on his assertion that the Jew is the protagonist of the parable, whereas the Samaritan is a supporting character. Therefore (JMSmith argues) the moral lesson necessarily must lie with the Jew’s perception of reality and not the Samaritan’s. True, the moral lesson of a story is often depicted through the eyes of the main character (or hero) of a story who grows and transforms as a person through his experience in the story. However, moral lessons can also be depicted through a mentor figure who does not necessarily undergo the same transformation as a hero. For this reason, on it’s face, it seems to me that JMSmith’s assertion that the Jew is the protagonist and therefore the moral lesson of the story must necessarily be found only in his transformation need not necessarily be the case. But as I said it is worthy of exploration.

JMSmith seems to ascribe (or perhaps project) a great deal of mental activity on the part of the Jew, where as the “actual words of the story” provide no description of the Jew’s state of mind. There is no description of the Jew being grateful for the Samaritan’s actions. Nor is there a description of the Jew despising the Samaritan as “a dirty dog”. We can assume that the Jew transformed as a result of the Samaritan’s kind acts (as JMSmith seems to do) but the plain fact is that the “actual words of the story” make no mention of this. In fact, the protagonist Jew does not transform in any way far as we know, if we are to “attend to the actual words of the story.”

As such, it is interesting to me that JMSmith insists that the moral teaching of the parable must be found in the transformation of the Jew when the actual words of the story JMSmith claims to attend to (and by implication claims that I and the majority of modern Christians do not) make no mention of this transformation. This is especially true in light of Jesus’ actual words “Go and do likewise.” Jesus asks the question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?” To which the expert replied, “The one who had mercy on [the Jew].” To which Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.” Is this not the moral lesson of the passage? That is, to go and be like the Samaritan who showed mercy? I think the actual words of the story can only lead to this conclusion.

Jesus’ teachings can be harsh and surprising and do not always accord with our own sense of what is righteous behavior. In another passage Jesus tells us to “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great… Be merciful even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36). This seems to accord better with the philanthropic interpretation rather than JMSmith’s misanthropic interpretation. I agree with JMSmith that we should attend to His actual words as we find them. More to it, we should be careful not to project our own desires and state of mind onto His teachings, just as we should be careful not to project our own desires and state of mind onto our neighbors and humbly accept the teachings they bring to us as we find them.

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The Requirement of Beliefs

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. John 3:36

IMG_0523I always thought the Christian requirement of belief in Jesus in order to achieve eternal life is a bit strange. There is something about it that just does not seem right. People hold beliefs because they have direct experience that forms or affirms a belief or because that belief was culturally taught or imprinted upon them. A belief is simply something that someone holds to be true or false. A belief is not the same as the thing that is believed in. As such why would God or Jesus require a belief in them in order to satisfy them? It seems suspicious to me.

Put another way, truth is truth regardless of what I or anyone else believes. If God exists why would He demand my belief in Him? It is not as if He would cease to exist if everyone stopped believing in Him.

Moreover, requiring belief without providing evidence is unfair and suspect. Why should anyone be held in contempt because they chose not to believe in something for which they felt they had no evidence to support? To do so seems awfully unfair, arbitrary and spiteful. This seems to be the standard that an alcoholic parent might hold their children to. “Believe that I am an honorable person even though my example shows you otherwise and if you do not believe me to be honorable you deserve to be punished,” sayeth the alcoholic parent. I find it hard to believe that a true and loving God could endorse such an interpretation of John 3:36.

If we are to examine the quotation from John 3:36 with specificity, he tells us that “[w]hoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” He then says, “…whoever rejects the Son will not see life…” The word reject seems strong here. A rejection sounds to be more than a question (although some might interpret it that way). So in this sense there may be room for a person who questions their belief to also have eternal life.

This one passage has been interpreted differently by different Bible versions. Almost all versions speak of a person “believing” in the Son of God. One version substitutes “trusting” which essentially means the same thing. The versions differ, however, in their interpretation of “reject.” The terms vary between reject, doesn’t obey, believeth not, refuses to believe, disobeys, and is not subject to. There is a difference in meaning between the words believe and obey. The former is a mental activity. The latter means to act in accordance with or follow the commands. I suppose one could argue that to obey the Son of God requires a belief in Him but again there seems to be room for interpretation.

But we cannot fully escape the problem that the statement seems to require belief (or obedience) without evidence. These acts could be said to describe faith. But it is a faith under the threat of punishment. The way I normally think about faith is that it is a voluntary activity. It is a gesture of trust and not something that can be threatened out of someone. That would be more like an ego act of self-preservation which I suppose is more in line with the “obedience” interpretation.

I imagine this exploration will be uncomfortable for some Christians. John 3:36 clearly requires a person to hold a specific belief in order to obtain eternal life. It is unclear whether the questioning of the belief is grounds for damnation but that does seem to be a very viable interpretation. It would be difficult to force a person who does not hold a belief to simply change their belief. The mechanics of belief do not seem to work this way in real life. I do not think John would make an exception for someone who simply professes to believe something without actually believing it. Although he might make an exception for someone who convinces himself through psychological repression that he believes something he does not.

Finally, I would not be honest if I did not express a certain distrust in the plain meaning of the passage. I question the motive behind it. Why is John so interested that I believe something that he must threaten me with punishment in order to get me to believe? Why does he want me to hold this belief in my mind (the most personal of spaces). Could there be some ulterior motive? I can think of several historical instances where governments have punished belief in order to keep its citizens in line.

I fear I will not come to any satisfying conclusion on the subject. Obviously the plain meaning of John 3:26 seems at odds with what I actually believe. I am not saying that I do not believe in the Son of God. But I am saying that I question the requirement of believing him for the reasons I mentioned earlier. I am no religious or biblical scholar so of course take what I say for what it is worth. I am simply trying to articulate a question that has stuck in my mind for some time.

 

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Shame is Self-Annihilation

Shame is the hatred of the self or at least the belief that the self deserves punishment. Not all shame is bad or inappropriate. In fact, shame can be healthy when one commits a bad act and seeks to atone for that act. In this circumstance shame informs the self that the self has committed a bad act. Shame becomes a problem when it expands beyond this role and dominates a person’s life and infiltrates every moment of existence. When shame expands beyond its useful role it becomes difficult to live a moral life according to Christian morality as defined by Jesus. Specifically, when asked in the Gospel of Matthew which is the greatest commandment Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (MT 22:36-40).

A person I recently interacted with who is a self-avowed white supremacist and Christian whom I believe to be shame driven expressed that because he does not love himself he is not required to love his (presumably non-white) neighbor. I found this to be a clever loop-hole but it ultimately fails for two major reasons.

First, to love God (the first and most important commandment which even my white supremacist acquaintance would acknowledge) he must also love God’s creation which is an extension and reflection of God. God’s creation includes one’s self and his neighbors. Certainly this love is not unconditional. In order to love something whole heartedly (as the greatest commandment requires) the love cannot come from a place of obligation. The heart must have the free will to choose to love or to not love. To love out of obligation is merely going through the motions, is not whole-hearted and lacks real value.

Second, in the absence of self-love, shame will expand beyond its useful role because in this environment shame does not serve to bring the self back from error but rather to annihilate and perpetually punish the self. With this type of shame naturally comes comparison to others, resentment of others and jealousy of others. In this environment it is impossible to love one’s neighbor or one’s self. I believe if one cannot love himself he cannot truly love God. Life becomes joyless and hateful to the self and the others with whom he interacts. Under these circumstances there is no room for the Holy Spirit to enter the heart. This is self-annihilation. According to Saint Paul the fruit of the Holy Spirit are Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control. (Gal 5:22-23). None of these fruits can ripen in an environment of shame and hatred for the self and one’s neighbor.

Before Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the Book of Genesis specifically states “they were both naked … and were not ashamed.” (Gen 2:25). But when they ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they became aware of their nakedness, became ashamed, covered themselves and hid from God. (Gen 3:7-10). It was shame that separated man from God since the very beginning. It is also shame that separates man from himself and his neighbor (extensions of God). This is why shame (the absence of self-love) is ultimately self-annihilating.

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