Religion Today

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Who was against Christmas?

Picture the following scenario. Crowds of Americans rioting in the streets. Two opposing groups shout loudly, vying to have their messages heard and heeded. The groups meet. Confrontation ensues. Fistfights break out. Church windows are smashed. What are these rioters fighting about? Christmas. One group favors celebrating Christmas, the other opposes all Christmas observances. This isn't an imaginary event, it is history. It happened in Boston on Christmas day in 1706.
In America's increasing love-affair with Christmas (both the Christian and commercial versions), we have forgotten that there was a time when much of European and American Christianity thought that Christmas should not be celebrated. In the riot described previously, the anti-Christmas group consisted largely of Congregationalists (Puritan descendants), Baptists, and Presbyterians, while the pro-Christmas group comprised mostly Anglicans (Episcopalians). The notion that Christians of any stripe should not want to celebrate Christmas is so foreign to our present concept of the holiday, that we need to review some history to understand it.
Prior to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, Roman Catholicism celebrated the "Christ Mass." It was one of many special masses and feasts of the Catholic Church celebrating key events in Jesus' life or the birthdays of saints. The three main Protestant movements that ultimately came to America had three different reactions to this situation.
First, although the Anglican Church developed a Protestant theology, it kept much of Catholic liturgy, including festivals celebrating aspects of Christ's life and the feast days of many saints. It gave special emphasis to the celebration of Christmas.
Second, after Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, special liturgical observances began to be frowned upon. The Lutherans thought that the celebrations of saints' days were too much and so cancelled them. But they still emphasized observing events in Jesus' life, and so continued with joyous Christmas festivities.
Third, the Calvinists in Switzerland banned all Christian holy days not mentioned in Scripture. That approach meant that the Sabbath was acceptable, but nothing else. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other celebrations were to be treated as normal days with nothing special about them.
The Calvinist position came to be quite influential in Great Britain, even though it never altered the position of the Anglican Church. John Knox brought Calvinism to Scotland as Presbyterianism where Christmas was banned in 1583, while the Puritans brought Calvinism into England, where it became influential in circles both within and outside of the Anglican Church. During the Civil War in 1647, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers outlawed Christmas observance. It was brought back in 1660 at the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II.
From England, both sides brought their Christmas beliefs to America. The Puritans (later becoming the Congregationalists) were joined by Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists (despite their founders' pro-Christmas predilections), and Baptists on the anti-Christmas side, while the Anglicans dominated the pro-Christmas side, and were later joined by the Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed.
In Boston, the Puritans outlawed Christmas in 1659. Although the ban was lifted in 1681 when the British government took control of the colony, an armed guard had to protect the governor on his way to church on Christmas of 1686. When the colony reverted to local control in 1689, Christmas again fell out of favor.
The objection to Christmas by Americans was two-fold. First, for Calvinist theology, it reflected the pagan character of Catholic worship. Christmas was not a biblical holiday and had not even become a Christian festival before the late 300s; it was a creation of the church, not of Christ. Second, the holiday was accompanied by extensive reveling. Celebrations were not primarily worshipful, but involved feasting, game playing, heavy drinking, shooting, and gambling. For the over-indulgers, it brought out the worst of their excesses. Since the holiday celebrated the Savior's birth, such immoral behavior was seen as sacrilegious.
During the 18th century, Christmas observance began to be more accepted. Church-goers turned their attention to purifying the holiday of its excesses, rather than rejecting it altogether. By the 1750s, even New England hymn books contained Christmas carols. By the early 1800s, Christmas was observed with an emphasis on family and children.
In 1836, Alabama became the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday. Other states followed suit; even Massachusetts legalized Christmas in 1856, almost 200 years after its ban. But the last state, Oklahoma, did not join in until 1907. So next Christmas, 2007, will be the centenary of Christmas being the first religious holiday whose celebration across the United States is sanctioned by law.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Nativity Story: First Impressions

It has been over five decades since a major-release film was made about the Christian story of Christmas, that is, about the birth of Jesus. This is not surprising, given the difficulty of the subject matter. Any film about Jesus’ birth faces the problem that the story is so well known it contains little suspense. Christians know by heart what will happen. Given this difficulty, it is surprising that the new film, The Nativity Story, actually provides a fresh portrayal of this old story, even telling a tale that takes on new dimensions as it unfolds.

Since the nativity’s events and their outcome are known, the film creates narrative tension by emphasizing the contingency of Mary and her pregnancy. The Nativity Story consistently raises challenges to Mary’s well being in general and to a successful pregnancy in particular. This is done not by focusing on how Scripture tells the story, but on what it leaves out; the film places the gospels’ nativity story into the historical context of grinding poverty, oppression of the Jews by Herod and the Romans, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and the difficult journey of a pregnant woman. At each stage, the film makes clear the dangers facing Mary, her family, and the fellow villagers. When a fellow villager cannot pay his taxes, his daughter is dragged away. Once the audience discovers Mary’s father cannot pay all his taxes, they realize she stands in similar danger. Shortly thereafter Mary’s father agrees to marry her to Joseph, without consulting Mary first, in order to ease the household’s food needs.

Furthermore, Mary’s pregnancy makes her liable to stoning, but Joseph decides not to accuse her. After the angel visits him, he actively protects her. The villagers shun Mary as her pregnancy begins to show, and shun him once his support of her becomes clear. Finally, when Mary decides to travel with Joseph to Bethlehem, the journey is clearly difficult. At different times, she is in risk of starving and in danger of falling down steep hills. At one point she is swept away by the Jordan River’s swift current. In the film, her birth pains start just before they arrive in Bethlehem. Joseph struggles to control his panic as he searches for shelter, and then, when they are directed to a stable (the film does not even bother with “no room at the inn”), he must be her midwife. So although the story’s end is known, the difficulties facing its successful completion stand out at each turn.

Just as the difficulties facing Mary and Joseph stem from their surroundings, so those surroundings are made as realistic as possible. The village of Nazareth is presented as authentically as possible. A trained eye recognizes much about the houses’ construction that has been discovered by archaeologists. The grape-pressing scene takes place in vat carved into the bedrock, just like a vat actually excavated in a recent archaeological dig.

The clothing, too, is authentic to the period. The colors are primarily tans and browns, in keeping with the natural colors of wool. Missing is the color symbolism of clothing, largely developed in medieval and renaissance paintings and used in earlier Jesus films.

Despite these attempts to be more authentic to the historical past, the film draws extensively from previous Jesus films. Like The Last Temptation of Christ, The Nativity Story uses a raptor to indicate the presence of the supernatural: in this case, a hawk symbolizes the angel’s flight. There are also several crowd scenes reminiscent of Last Temptation, which emphasize too many things and people moving excitedly in too small a space. Like The Passion of the Christ, the film uses spoken Hebrew and Aramaic without subtitles in particular scenes. Indeed, the sentences in these languages were developed in consultation with William Fulco, who was responsible for the Aramaic and Latin in The Passion. The brutality of the soldiers and the interaction between Herod the Great and his son Antipas are borrowed from earlier films such as King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. The latter film also contributes the type character of the old man who has been waiting for a messiah. In Greatest Story, this was a blind man who followed Jesus to Jerusalem, while in Nativity Story, it is an old shepherd who shares his fire with Mary.

The film itself is quite understated. Apart from various messianic prophecies about the child, there is no explicit religious message. There is little Christian or Christmas imagery in the staging, dialogue, or other aspects of the film. The only obvious nod in the direction of Christian symbolism appears in the way the light of the star shines through the stable roof. Indeed, the film is rather subtly and tastefully executed.

In closing, let me make a few casual observations. First, Morocco is not Palestine/Israel. As dry as Palestine is, Morocco, where the film was made, is even worse. The land seems to be all stones and little seems to grow, while the rivers are bigger and swifter than the Jordan. Second, there are few smiles in the film. Indeed, most smiles appear on the faces of the two pregnant women, Mary and her older cousin Elizabeth. Third, the three wise men are integrated into the story as a sub-plot. Although most of it is completely imaginary, the film humorously manages to breath some life and personality into their characters. Fourth, although several reviewers have made a big deal about the Christmas carols in the film, there are only four total. These are well-situated in the film and do not make a big splash. They are understated in keeping with the rest of the film. Finally, Herod’s tax burden receives historical backing when a scene shows Herod inspecting the building of his palace at Masada. When he tells the builders to add gold tiling to a new pool, he dismisses concerns about the cost. After all, that is what subjects are for.

These are just initial observations and comments, made on opening day. In-depth analysis will have to wait for further thought and viewing. Luckily, I think this film will repay re-viewing.

The Limits of Relgious Freedom, or, Don't Pray, It's Too Scary

Americans are rightly proud of our nation's freedom of religion. Religious believers and practitioners have been coming to America to escape persecution since before the United States was formed. This freedom has provided this country with both a wide variety of the world's religions and with large populations of particular religions.
Since World War II, for example, more Jews have lived in the United States than in any other nation, including Israel. Indeed, they have been the country's second largest religion. Recently that position is challenged by another religion, Islam, which is growing at a pace that will soon overtake Judaism as the nation's second-largest religion. Islam in America is growing because of our country's freedom of religion.
In this light, the Thanksgiving-week incident of six Imams, Muslim religious prayer leaders, being hauled off a U.S. Airways flight by police is distressing, to say the least. After five hours of questioning, police determined they were innocent of any wrongdoing. Despite this, U.S. Airways refused to allow them on a flight and so they had to buy last-minute tickets (i.e., high-priced) on another airline to get home. Their suspicious activity? Praying in public.
Although the facts of the incident are unclear (even the airline gave out incorrect information), it seems that three Imams prayed in the gate area prior to boarding the plane. They did this quietly, in a corner, in an attempt to be unobtrusive. This alarmed at least one of the passengers who later passed a note to a stewardess claiming that the men had used the word "Allah" several times. Eventually, the airline asked the police to remove the men.
The praying Imams were following the basic guidelines of their religion. All Muslims are enjoined to pray five times a day, during specific time periods. This is not free-form communication with the divine, but a ritual prayer, with fixed wording in praise of Allah, and is accompanied by prostrations to the divine. Thus prayer involves not only intentionally directing one's heart toward God, but also sound and physical movements. That the Imams said the name "Allah" several times is not surprising. This was probably during the prayer, a prayer to Allah, after all!
The passengers' reaction to the prayers provides an extreme example of how Americans generally apply "freedom of religion" in public situations. On the one hand, it is OK to identify with one's religion by clothing, jewelry, or casual sign (e.g., crossing oneself), and to talk about one's religion, preferably in calm tones, respectful of one's listeners. The more strident and loud this speech becomes, especially if it is proselytizing, the less such speech is appreciated by listeners, although it is tolerated as freedom of speech.
On the other hand, religious freedom is seen as the right to worship as one would like, but in private, not in public. When private worship or prayer takes place in a public space, those not participating tend to disapprove. This is especially the case when the worshippers belong to a religion not shared by the observers; they become uncomfortable. In this case, since the practitioners were Muslims in a post-9/11 world, it made some fellow travelers fearful. Indeed, fear was the main feature of op-ed essays discussing the incident (mostly right-wing); they claimed that public Muslim prayer scared Americans and hence the Imams caused the treatment they received.
While the reaction to this incident is extreme, it is clear that Americans generally do not like prayer and worship in public in general. If instead of Imams, it had been observant Jews davening or Buddhist monks meditating, passengers would still have been uncomfortable, although probably not fearful. Americans believe religious worship should be private. One commentator, a Christian, observed that even though he regularly carries his Bible with him while traveling, when he prays he prays silently. In other words, he is proud to bear a symbol of his beliefs, but he worships in a hidden manner.
One explanation for this uncomfortableness with public worship is that it emphasizes the difference between practitioners and observers. The observers recognize the practitioners as a group that excludes them. There is a social boundary between them, one that emphasizes their incompatibility at a religious or even a spiritual level. The worry is that this incompatibility translates into disrespect at best, and may suggest nefarious intentions at worst. This of course reveals more about the observers' attitudes and reaction than about the practitioners' activities.
Two changes can help prevent such reactions in the future. First, worshippers should find ways to worship in private. In this case, perhaps the airport chapel might have been used. Second, Americans in general should learn about the religions practiced in their country. In this way, they will become more comfortable with their fellow citizens and better understand worship around them, even if they do not approve.