December 28, 2009

Merry Christmas?

Every year Christmas time seems to get a little more unreal.
At first I thought it was just that I was getting more cynical with age; but being aware this year, I'm sure it's really getting more bizarre... (and, okay, I'm also more cynical, too). It hit me particularly when my wife and I were in the unusual situation of sitting in a Spanish-language church for a Navidad service. Besides several Spanish versions of popular Christmas hymns, the young music group suddenly put Jingle Bells on the overhead projector, with English words. Somehow, seeing the words 'writ large' as it were, made me very conscious of how crazy they must seem to those in the congregation who understood English. What could they make of 'bells on bob-tails?' In the midst of all the religious hymns in Spanish, what was the relevance of sleigh-bells on horses? Yet there is something quite illustrative about the contradictions.


From that service, I came away hyper-sensitive to all the craziness of this season. As I listened to the old, hackneyed tunes on the radio, the weirdness factor kept growing. Every singer established enough to be called an ‘artist' has to release a Christmas album sooner or later to cement their position in the commercial music scene. So we get all those old, familiar tunes 'covered' by every artist, and each has to add his/her distinctive embellishments, with more or less success-- you are the judge. Once a year, for maybe ten days or so, we get to hear all those old saws, by a platoon of artists, and just as they almost take over our feverish minds, they mercifully disappear for another eleven and a half months.

It's those songs that set the mood for the season, and if anyone stops to ponder them, all kinds of unsettling questions arise to sour that mood. We get so comfortable with the songs that the obvious questions don't occur to us. But if you had to explain the Christmas memes to a complete outsider-- the classic anthropologist from Mars-- you'd start to see what I mean. Like, he/she might well ask 'what does an impossible reindeer with luminescent nose have to do with the birth of the Son of God? Or a zombie snowman? And all those other secular favorites, ranging from rock rhythms to almost anything? Of course, they are all examples of the de-religifying of Christmas, if I may coin a word. Over the decades, the feast has, in the pop media, lost almost all of its original religious significance, and has morphed into a kind of winter saturnalia, a warm, family get-together time that appeals to almost all 'communities' regardless of religious outlook. Even the formulized greeting ‘Merry Christmas’ begs questioning. Why should it be merry... which connotes triviality, at best? (The French ‘Joyeaux Noel’ makes more sense for a Christian).

To the beleaguered Christians, this secularization of Christmas is much lamented. But it may actually be a blessing in disguise. Rather than asking the rhetorical 'Who took Christ out of Christmas?' Christians would do better to ask the question posed by an Internet writer who pondered 'Who put Christ into the Solstice?' Yes, that makes more sense. After all, there is nothing in scripture to indicate when Jesus was born. Nor is there the slightest hint that his believers ought to celebrate his birthday. For those who dare investigate, it seems that Constantine, the Roman emperor credited with making Christianity the official faith of Rome, decided his decision would enjoy much better chances of success if he eased his subjects into the transition from paganism. So, he made Sunday the official day of religious observance, and... he transformed the old feast of the winter solstice-- the day of shortest sunlight and longest darkness. Under Constantine's plan, the 're-birth of the sun' became celebrated as the birth of the Son, and pagan symbols like evergreen trees and yule logs were adopted into the new scheme of things. Eventually, 'Father Christmas' came along in Europe, and morphed into the stereotyped, rotund Santa Claus that infests every shopping mall in America every December. The once hallowed, holy day has become the premier holiday of the modern calendar, accompanied by its commercial companion, 'boxing day.' While the religious aspect is now trivial, the holiday has become so vital to retailers that many could not survive without the buying frenzy of Christmas.

On the flip side, the expectations surrounding Christmas are so onerous that many innocent 'consumers' suffer great stress at this time of year as they try to find the right gifts for people who don't really need more stuff; and as they try to find the money to pay for all the futile presents. I've heard it claimed that the death rate from suicide and other causes peaks over the Christmas/New Year season. What seemed a good idea 17 centuries ago, in a more religious era has turned out quite differently in today's society.

Perhaps the ultimate irony lies in the efforts of some progressive reformers to enforce a non-religious Christmas, one with no hymns, no nativity scene, no mention of Christ, and no church affiliation at all. To bolster their efforts, they've tried to add Hanukah and Kwanza, and heaven knows what, to the 'generic season' while denaturing Christmas into a Santa-Claus fest. Which takes us to the wacky concoction of incongruous themes that have grated on my nerves with increasing urgency over the decades.

As I stated, all these contradictions could have a beneficial outcome if they roused Christians to really think about their faith, and its sources, and to realize that they must stop depending on institutions and start developing a personal understanding of scripture and the gospel. Is this likely to occur? No; more likely, the contradictions will increase. Maybe all mention of Jesus will be removed, and tho the day may still be called Christmas, it will be completely non-religious, maybe even irreligious. No matter; I have long ago stopped taking it seriously.

December 8, 2009

SS Titanic - 1912... 2012

The sinking of the ocean liner The Titanic has become folkloric, and as I've written before, iconic, since it resonates with so many facets of human behavior. It's for that reason that I'm fascinated by the story-- a true story, well documented, and illustrative of human foible. What more could one want of a tale?

Like all events that have morphed into tradition, it's all too easy to miss the penetrating insights it offers as we simply gloss over it as the entertainment it has now become. Bearing that in mind, let's have another, measured look at the story and see if there are angles previously overlooked.

The Titanic represented the height of technological prowess in 1912. It had a double steel hull, it had steam turbines for propulsion, and electric generators for light, and even the latest communication device, called wireless telegraphy. It was outfitted lavishly, with a grand ball-room, dining rooms, and comfortable cabins (for the first and second class passengers, at least). To preside over its maiden voyage, the White Star line chose Captain Edward J. Smith, who was considered an accomplished sea captain. Given the caliber of the celebrity passengers aboard SS Titanic on this inaugural crossing-- men such as JJ Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim-- Smith must have been selected to meet their expectations. Yet the tragic sinking of this ship must be placed directly on the shoulders of this one man.

On the star-lit evening of April 14, 1912, the Titanic was slicing thru the north Atlantic waters at close to full speed. Inside, passengers were enjoying live music in the ball-room, and fine foods served on fine tables by attentive staff. Then, the watchman on duty reported to the bridge-- an iceberg had been spotted a few miles distant. The bridge officers reported the information to the captain, and the speed was reduced slightly, but still maintained at over 20 knots. You don't have to be a physicist to grasp that a large, massive steel vessel, moving at around 25 mph, has a great deal of momentum, and does not easily change direction. If it should strike another massive object at that speed, there will be 'unintended consequences.' When you are driving a vehicle on the highway and it starts to snow, you know you have to slow down to maintain control. But Captain Smith simply carried on as if it was 'clear sailing.'

What was he thinking? It's not obvious. He must have known the dangers of steaming at high speed in the North Atlantic during ice-flow season. He would have had some notion of the dire consequences of a collision. Even if he was utterly confident that the ship was 'unsinkable,' as the designers claimed, he would still have known that hitting a fair-sized hunk of ice would create 'inconvenience' at the least, such as having to proceed at much reduced speed or possibly stopping to wait for assistance. Yet Smith seemed oblivious to the risk, and ignored the warning of his look-out. Crazy behavior in retrospect. Crazy decision even at the time. Why did he do so?

The answer to the big 'why' seems to lie somewhere in the human psyche. Smith exhibited the hubris that the Greeks wrote about, a kind of arrogant contempt for displays that other humans could view as weakness. Was he so enamored of the extravagant claims of the technologists of his day, that he was ready to bet the safety of his ship on it? What was Captain Smith thinking, anyway? It makes no sense.

The whole sorry tale fascinates me because it encapsulates in cameo all the elements that one can apply to our modern age and its challenges. To cite some of the parallels, I offer the following broad strokes for the reader's meditation.

Humanity is sailing thru the cosmic seas of space on the good ship Earth on a starry night. Aboard are a handful of ultra-rich, celebrity passengers, traveling first class, and enjoying nothing but the best. In the ballroom, comfortable, middle-class passengers dance to the music and imbibe fine wines. In the lower decks, there are multitudes of poor passengers, poverty-stricken, who can only dream of having the necessities of life. Our 'watchmen' have been warning us for a long time of dangers looming dead ahead but at an unknown distance. On the bridge of spaceship Earth there is an assortment of crazed, self-seeking, madmen, seemingly bent on destruction. None of the higher-ranking officers wants to slacken the pace of life, or to evaluate the warnings coming from the look-outs. Reckless abandon seems to be the hallmark of the day, as politicians bicker and ignore the crises of climate change, global inequalities, pollution, corruption, drug-weapon-and-human trafficking, and so on. Those few who know about the dangers that lie ahead prefer to keep the masses in blissful ignorance of them; and the latter are quite happy to carry on in their willful lack of awareness. The iceberg was not some sinister, devised calamity; it was simply a normally occurring artifact, existing in accordance with the natural laws. Could an analogous, natural, cosmic event collide with the destiny of Earth in the near future?

You, dear reader, can connect the dots, and notice how the situation of the Titanic in the cold, dark Atlantic Ocean in 1912 reflects the larger reality of planet Earth in (dare I say it?)... 2012.