God and sinners reconciled


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.

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4 thoughts on “God and sinners reconciled

  1. Hi Cousin,

    I think it’s more than amusing—perhaps a bit ironic?—that I’m about to take a contrary position to your well-argued blog post. After all, I agree with the overall thesis, which, if I understand you correctly, is that Christmas is historically an outcome of syncretism in early Christianity and that the Event of Christianity is not Jesus’s birth, but Christ’s resurrection. (Nice reference to theologies of domination, btw. Right on.) And of course I share your healthy wariness (dare I say disdain?) for much of contemporary attempts at worship music that is at once theologically consistent and musically interesting.

    However, I think it’s theologically disingenuous to disconnect the miracle of the incarnation with the miracle of reconciliation. Believe me, I do understand that the Christian tradition was not univocal on celebrating Christmas. Christianity’s syncretism doesn’t bother me, mostly because I see all theology as a human attempt to make sense of the Divine, and as such, it is all about assigning meaning to things that might otherwise seem insignificant. Sometimes we come close to getting it right; other times we’re miserably off-base.

    Growing up evangelical, I largely missed the significance of Advent; it has been in adulthood that I have come to appreciate the purpose of the liturgical calendar. It’s not that we’re celebrating Jesus’s birthday (as many cards, posters, and cheesy pop theology books in Family Christian Bookstore might have us believe). We’re celebrating the coming of the long-awaited Messiah—the one who will (future tense) reconcile us to God—the breaking in of the infinite into the finite, the ultimate revelation of God to humanity, the Logos.

    With “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” you do right to point out the commandeering of a previously common (some might say secular, but I don’t find the sacred/secular divide meaningful) melody for theological purposes. Luther was notorious for turning pub songs into hymns (“A Might Fortress,” anyone?). But I think you do a disservice in taking one line out of context. After all, though it is quite common these days to pick among the verses we want to sing (or the ones we understand) and leave out the rest (which hymnal publishers have already done, by and large), sometimes the hymn has a theological trajectory that is harmed in the omission of important parts. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is one of these, IMHO. There was an article in Christianity Today published several years ago about some of the omitted verses of this carol: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/decemberweb-only/150-52.0.html. It also highlights how George Whitfield significantly changed the line from Charles Wesley’s “Glory to the King of Kings” to “Glory to the Newborn King,” which the article argues changes the focus of worship from the more scripturally accurate God to the baby Jesus.

    Verses that are often left out of this carol include several that are petitions:

    “Come, desire of nations, come,
    Fix in us thy humble home;
    Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,
    Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

    Now display thy saving power,
    Ruin’d nature now restore;
    Now in mystic union join
    Thine to ours, and ours to thine.”

    This suggests that the Wesley was not assigning salvific value to Jesus’s birth, but praising God for coming to the world in order to save it, petitioning God to do just that. In thinking through this, Moltmann’s God in Creation and Christology: The Way of Jesus Christ came to mind. Moltmann suggests that you can’t think creation without thinking incarnation and redemption and eschatology, and he argues for a non-traditional view of Jesus as “the messiah on the way” and “the messiah in his becoming”—simultaneously. He asserts that there is a difference between grace and glory, one that traditional doctrinal formulations of the significance of the incarnation overlook. In other words, it’s a failure to distinguish between justification and sanctification—a failure to see creation as an ongoing process ever pointing toward our glorious future, which is not (yet) here.

    I think the issue here is one of temporality, and as such, Advent is exactly the right liturgical move to not only remind the believer that Jesus came to become the Christ, but that we should also hope for—in the sense of confident expectation—for our glory and union with the Divine, and not in some distant, abstract future, but in an immediate sense. In this respect, I like what John Caputo says about Advent: http://homebrewedchristianity.com/?s=aar. It’s about the “to come.”

  2. Hi K,

    Thanks for burning the midnight oil to comment. The crux of your counter is that I’ve taken the carol out of context, which 1) is a great affront to me, because you know how much I value context; and 2) funny, because the carol disregards the context of the source material altogether.

    Let’s take a look at the full context of Hark!:

    Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”

    Joyful, all ye nations rise; Join the triumph of the skies, with the angelic host proclaim: “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

    Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

    As you and I and most Christians are well aware, the fullest account of the birth of Christ is in Luke. The angels do not mention anything other than 1) Messianic language, and 2) good news to all people (upon further review, our distinguished colleagues in Evangelical translation–ESV, in this instance–have butchered the translation to fit a Reformed theological bias here. They are even threatening the inherent message in Luke’s gospel with their decision to write ‘among those with whom he is pleased’ rather than the Greek’s ‘gospel for all people’. Calvinus delenda est. I digress. Actually, there is rich content to be mined there. Perhaps another time.)

    There is no language in the birth narrative concerning mercy or reconciliation–other than the odd insertion of Messianic language, indicative of possible hindsight bias, and yet mentions nothing at all about salvation. In fact, for the purposes of a Jewish Messiah, the concept of saving from sin would not resonate, especially since the Jewish people were looking for a political/military leader. Even Advent–with you in noting the shame of evangelical disregard–misses this exegetical point: the faithful at the time weren’t looking for a savior as much as they were looking for a dominator to dominate the dominant, placing established notions of later Christian soteriology before faithful exposition of the text. Our anticipation for the renewal to come remains part and parcel of the Christ-event, not the birth, but the resurrection.

    It’s pretty clear, even with cursory, 62% awake analysis, that there is a severe dissonance going on in the lyrical gymnastics to make the paean to Gutenberg into a sacred hymn, no different than the insipid ‘worship’ songsters disregarding theological or scriptural integrity to make words and lines match their chord progressions. As such, issues of context are not to be laid at my feet.

  3. Yes, in the Gerdes household Christmas is not a time for sleeping. 8/ The problem with posting in the middle of the night, however, is the diminished capacity for articulateness. Yes, I am accusing you of taking something out of context, but not the line of the verse out of context of the verse, but the verse out of context of the carol, and–perhaps my bigger point–the theology of carols out of context of the Christian tradition.

    I get what you’re trying to say here, that Jesus’s birth did not save us, that the angels did not mention reconciliation. Nor did they sing, for that matter. But they do call Jesus the Savior–the σοτερ–the same Greek word Mary uses in reference to God in the Magnificat. And the angel that speaks to Joseph in Matthew 1 does say that the child Mary will bear will save–σώσει–the people from their sins–ἁμαρτιῶν. (Your point about Calvin and Reformist translations of the text are en pointe, and you should definitely pursue that train of thought in other writings.)

    And you’re right that the Jewish people weren’t looking for a Savior in the theological sense, but one in the political sense. But that’s not what they got, is it? At least not in the way they expected, since I believe Jesus’s life (and death) was really anything but apolitical. “King of the Jews,” indeed.

    Church music (I won’t use the term sacred) has long attempted to express the depths of doctrinal truth and paradox in brief, singable snippets. Your faulting Wesley (and Whitfield) for appropriation and imposition of “later Christian soteriology” over “faithful exposition of the text” reveals your own Protestant bias–soli scriptura. My point is that while you can separate out incarnation from reconciliation as two separate events in a philosophical exercise, they are not unrelated. Not the same, but definitely not unrelated. You may not be a writer because you were born, but you couldn’t have been a writer had you not been born. Yes, church tradition as far back as the patristics have attested to the significance of the incarnation, and have certainly done their work of theology (however poorly, you may think) on the text, but so are you, right? And that’s the way it’s supposed to be, I think.

    We can do our darnedest to put ourselves in the position of the first century Jewish people, but we can never be entirely successful. We come to the text with our biases, and our tradition, and the years of whatever indoctrination we carry with us. Yes, we can be aware of them, and faithfully attempt to understand the Divine through the text in spite of them, but there is no such thing as a “clear” reading of the text.

    I recently had a conversation with two colleagues of mine–one Catholic, one a recovering evangelical–that might shed some light on my larger point. (Or not; we’ll see.) I was asking my Catholic friend why we needed the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, and of course it launched into a conversation about the Church’s sordid history with gender and sexuality and how those relate to an orthodox anthropology. But that wasn’t my point–I knew the Church history about how sex is dirty, and how those base women don’t have the full image of God. But what problem was the doctrine trying to solve? (For the record, there was no answer to that question that satisfied my Protestant mind.)

    So what problem is a doctrine of the Incarnation–which is the liturgical significance that Christmas has come to bear–trying to solve? Well, in vulgar terms, it’s trying to solve the problem of a religious movement’s leader possibly being crazy for calling himself the Son of God. It’s also trying to solve the soteriological problem of *how* an immaterial Spirit-God can provide for our eventual salvation. Did God have to become human in order to accomplish this? If your answer to that question is yes, then you can’t overlook the significance of the incarnation, and the celebration of Christmas–and the theology that the carols bring.

  4. OK, but here’s the thing: I wasn’t writing when I was being born (breach, I might add.) We don’t celebrate Mark Twain’s birthday, and he was a great writer. It’s the content or culmination of life which, to me, demands the Christian’s commitment. I am also not denying the mystery of the incarnation, just that it’s one miracle in a book filled with the miraculous. It’s not insignificant, it’s just not as significant as we make it to be, and the confusion that comes with conflating birth with death (and, in fairness, death with resurrection) is something that has to be acknowledged and, for lack of better term, demythologized.

    I don’t think I ever argued for a clear meaning of the text, either: just a faithful one. The only think that is clear about the text is what isn’t there. This is how we can deduce that the magi had nothing to do with Jesus on the night of his birth. (Spoiler alert!) What also isn’t in the text, as intimated before, is the angels’ proclamation of good news to those who are believers. We may not be able to exactly put ourselves in the position of narrative, but 1) critical realism allows for us to be as faithful as possible; and 2) excessive literary license in interpretation can be clearly read for what it is (the ESV, while readable, makes numerous kinds of Calvinist assumptions in its translation, and it drives me nuts. Makes me wonder why I still prefer it in casual settings.) Claiming sola scriptura isn’t going to stick, the point isn’t biblicism, but in avoiding falsehood in the pursuit of understanding.

    Could it possibly be that the patristics were wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time, and probably wouldn’t be the last.

    Anyway, I’ve salmon smoking and a family to get to an hour from here. I do enjoy the chat, as always, and hope you’ll be able to make it here this spring.

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