I love the Christmas season. I’ve said as much in previous holiday seasons in this webspace. The music, the traditions, lights, trees, gifts, food, football, family.
The theology of the season, though, leaves much to be desired. Particularly when it comes to the music.
I have no intention of buzzkilling the holiday, and it won’t necessarily keep me from singing a carol–unlike much of what is passed off as ‘worship music’ in American and Western Evangelical churches, which is, both musically and rationally, execrable–but there is this line in Hark! The Herald Angels Sing that demonstrates a considerable measure of religious confusion. Yes, for the record, I am saying that the Wesley boys and Whitefield produced things that are, shall we say, slightly less than inspired.
…Peace on Earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…
I’m left to wonder what it is about the birth of Jesus that is in any way related to the reconciliation of God and man. The birth wasn’t the Christ-event: there is nothing about Jesus’ birth that factors into our relationship with God, other than the ultimately immaterial fact that he was born. It’s like saying Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time because he was born. It’s the life, death and–most importantly–resurrection that lend grounding for faith in Christ; the basis for Christianity.
I’m not a writer because I was born, I’m a writer because it’s what I’ve done for the majority of my life (and is open to being paid to do it for a change! …see what I did there?) It’s what happens after the birth canal that creates any meaning or import we may or may not have in our lifespans. And, as Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears fans can attest, the mere presence of the other is anything but reason to believe there can be reconciliation between two parties.
So, what gives with the lyrical content of Christmas carols that has little, if any basis in reality?
I suggest there are two things going on here, syncretism and Christendom.
Normally, I am loath to resort to philosophies of domination, but I think there is a case to be made here for the latter. Look at many of the Christmas carols: so many are reflective of the culturally Christian West, and with so little regard for the sacred texts to which said culture owes its existence, that it’s clear the writers are taking significant liberties to match their domination of the continent (and the expansion of that influence throughout the world.) No, I’m not going to turn this into a missive on how Christianity is the source of colonialist injustice and oppression in the world, but what I will grant is that our heritage is one of hubris and not humility. And, when centuries of religious influence seep in, we tend to take things for granted, like the fact that the victorious Christ was never more dominant than when he was utterly vulnerable, that our reconciliation was not guaranteed because Christ was born, but because he died the death undeserved.
Then again, ‘Easter carols’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?
Because of everything that happened afterward, everything about Christ is then fraught with import, whether sacred in and of themselves or not. And everything else needs to be either renovated to fit the mold or destroyed outright. Which is precisely what Christendom did with Saturnalia, and where we get the stories of the patron saints. Academics call this syncretism: the blending of two (or more) cultural or religious foundations into a hybrid. Santeria is syncretic, as are aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hinduist and Buddhist practices are also amalgams of centuries of local folk rituals and religious practices.
In fact, the act of co-opting for different purposes is a form of syncretism. Sound familiar? Make sure you read the full ‘About’ summary. Somehow, “Hark! The herald angels sing! Gutenberg’s new-fangled thing!” doesn’t carry the same weight as the birth of the son of God. Non-Christians (and people like myself) groan over [typically] Evangelical attempts to mimic culture, but as we see here, it’s been going on for centuries. Wesley was Left Behind: The Movie before Left Behind was, um, cool.
Speaking only for myself, I fail to see how such blatant plagiarism doesn’t cheapen the value of the noun to which the thing aped is reassigned. Christians like to sanctify our leisure time by calling it ‘fellowship’. I hate that. Many charismatic Christians will not hug a member of the opposite sex, opting instead for the wretched ‘side-hug’, because a full hug is somehow sexual while a side-hug is an expression of purity. I hate that, too. If we are not inspired to create by the source of our ultimate concern, whither then ultimate concern? for Christ, or for our sense of self-satisfaction? Humility or hubris? Maternity ward or manger? Creche or cross?
Assigning salvific value to an event which has no inherent religious quality to it is, at its essence, a form of idolatry. And we sing about this every year without batting an eye. Some things just can’t be reconciled.
Maybe I won’t be singing this, after all.