I didn’t choose that title for another of my articles in the Christmas issue of New York Moves magazine, but that’s what they named it. Several editorial changes were made, to which I objected noisily, but I included the piece in unmutated form here:
Both the faithful and the cynical complain a lot around the holidays. The faithful, that commercialism has debased the original spiritual purpose of Christmas, and the cynical, that we continue to pay lip service to this debased spiritual purpose. I for one have grown bored with both sides as hopelessly unfamiliar with human nature, objecting as though it’s news that we gravitate toward the material rather than the spiritual, and then try to make ourselves feel less crass by attaching a lot of Hallmark platitudes to our materialism. Of course we do.
My complaint is more specific, involving the reason I believe the spiritual aspects of Christmas, or, really, the trappings of any religion, are ignored so easily in the first place. From a literary point of view the stories of the world’s religions are some of the most astonishing ever imagined: in them are heroes and antagonists, obstacles, magic (for that’s really what a “miracle” is, isn’t it?), and distinctive moral themes from which one may learn how to live. To take Christianity in particular, in addition to the blockbuster spectacles of the Old Testament, the New Testament features the peculiar story of a tri-partite god who arranges for his son/self to take human form through virgin birth, and preach to those who’d listen a new and, at the time, completely innovative ideology. He foresees (and if one takes the “Judas Texts” into account, hand-picks and instructs his traitor), and sets into motion his own gory death whereby, through some mystical magic, the sins of mankind are purged. In this moment of his assuming the world’s evils, the earth darkens as god, the father, cannot look on such impurity, and in his dying moments god, the son, cries out at his abandonment. He then rises from the tomb and, before ascending to heaven, promises to return “in the blink of an eye.” Thus is man saved from his mortality.
This story shouldn’t leave me cold.
The problem for me is that this story has been told to me in so many dumbed-down forms over the years, starting the first day of kindergarten at a ghetto Baptist school in San Francisco, it has become part of the mere noise of my past, like the Sesame Street theme song or the emergency siren test that blasted through the city every Tuesday at noon. Every Monday and Wednesday morning at my elementary school, we convened in the chapel to listen to a sermon given not by an ordained minister, but by one of our teachers or the school’s pious headmaster. These often involved badly-painted placards illustrating some de-sexed episode from the Old Testament, or a bloodless version of the story of Golgotha. These were followed by their imploring us to “accept Jesus into our hearts” so that we may receive “salvation.” Imagine what this could mean to a seven year old. I actually envisioned a tiny Jesus, complete with curly hair, beard, white robes, and melancholy face, grasping onto nearby arteries while curled into one of the cramped chambers of my heart, blood sloshing about his sandals, his head bumping against the wall as it pumped. I worried he’d stumble out when I played on the swings. “Accept Jesus into your heart” was such a regular theme that I really can’t remember any of the other specifics of this brainwashing, but I do remember shyly asking my parents before they put me to bed one night if they would “accept Jesus into their hearts” so that they could go to heaven, and then, perceiving a lack of seriousness in their response, worrying all night over the fate of their souls in the afterlife. Which of course made me think on the possibility of their deaths. Which made me even more miserable.
For what was all this propaganda? How could they fail to see that an unripe mind cannot but reduce this majestic doctrine to absurdity?
More importantly, how could they fail to see that the doctrine would not only be lost on us at that age, but that our over-exposure to it would numb us against any power it might have had once we were mentally and spiritually ready for it later?
In A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit argues against the trend to teach sex-ed at a younger and younger age (which is purportedly done in an effort to beat the long arm of the sex-focused media to the punch), claiming that to introduce the details of the subject to a mind before the interest in it has arisen naturally has a warping, rather than educative, effect. Having learned the specifics myself long before I stopped believing in “coodies,” I’m inclined to agree with Shalit. I’d argue the same principle applies to religion.
At my school, as at any parochial school which includes religious inculcation as part of its agenda, we were fed some very grand and complex ideas, but before we had reached an age, or a state of mind-readiness, when it would have been possible for us to perceive the grandeur or even to perceive the complexity of those ideas (hence my imagined travel-sized Jesus). These ideas became “old hat” long before it ever occurred to us to ask what it really means that god died on a cross, or that this is in fact a supernaturally outrageous and heavy concept that should baffle, terrify, shock, and excite us. By exposing and over-exposing us to concepts unsuited in every way to our lack of maturity, they robbed us of the opportunity to be baffled, terrified, shocked, or excited by them then or later. The insult to injury is that their one concession to our unreadiness was in the anemic, baby-talk dilutions of these concepts they fed us. Not the Confessions of St. Augustine, but the Jesus is my Homie rap, undid me as a believer.
I’ll never forgive my elementary school for having wasted hours of my life filling my head with meaningless platitudes when I never did get a good grasp on long division. Or for the nights I spent crying into my pillow, envisioning my heathen parents unsaved and in flames. I am tired of the faithful and the cynical, and all their whining about the desecration of Christmas. These complainers seem to think that the thing that has been desecrated is the holiday itself, and our cheerful desecration of it, a symptom of some cultural disease which only surfaces, herpes-like, once a year. The truth is, few of us could ever even dream of appreciating the sacredness of the ritual or the mystery of Christ’s story at all. It is our own minds that have been desecrated, befouled from infancy with the stale rhetoric of people more interested in turning us into congregation drones than in helping us cultivate what innate religiosity–indeed—true spirituality, we may possess. I suspect the natural spirituality of a human being is a delicate and ephemeral thing, easily killed by over-feeding or careless handling. My own was beaten numb; actually, it was bored to death. It is no surprise to me that at Christmastime we shop and eat and drink ourselves senseless, when for so many of us, the story of Christ occupies the same mental space as the tooth fairy, and the word of god is a bubble-gum jingle.
Hmmm- not sure I agree re early exposure IF it is a tradition with a sophisticated and well- tested means of transmission.I was educated in a small private Catholic school by nuns of a French teaching order, well before Vatican II. We were exposed to the majesties and beauty of the old Catholic rituals, everything from Gregorian chant to Latin (and re my love for formidable women, an equestrian statue of Jeanne d’Arc in every room!) But we also had a formidable education by any standards, and a ridiculous one by today’s standards. By the time I was in eighth grade I had eight years of French, two of Latin, high school biology (WITH evolution– special course because of my interests), singing, reading music ( long forgotten ) and art and art history, plus a pretty sophisticated religious education designed not to disallow doubt but to argue reasonably against it. (Also Latin masses and benediction, at school).I rebelled eventually, well after this school, and struggle today with what exactly I believe. But in so far as I am grounded in this culture , I owe it to my first eight years of education– religious education– all before 1963. It is the quality I think.