Holiday Musings: Embracing the Myth

The fall semester is over and today is probably the first day in the last four months that I have thought critically about anything not explicitly related to teaching or grading. Whenever I return to record my thoughts after such a break, I do so with trepidation, fearing that I will have forgotten how to think on paper.

We’re also a couple days from Christmas, which makes present one of the most important questions nagging me since leaving religion: is some sort of myth-making necessary for human flourishing? I’ve been increasingly critical of what I might call the ‘collateral damage’ of religion, and I would suggest that this collateral damage is fundamentally related to the supernatural referent of a given religious tradition. In many ways, Christmas seems the epitome of this damage, so diluted as to be harmless, yet a constant reminder of the hegemonic power of myth to shape our lives.

Setting this connection aside for a moment, however, there are important—also potentially damaging—problems associated with the explicit disavowal of all myth-making. Deconstruction takes a significant amount of work and naggingly reminds us of the arbitrary construction of our realities. In addition, there is an inverse relationship between one’s willingness to tolerate the problems of narrative and the willingness of others to tolerate your presence. In short, the more critical you are, the less fun you are to be around.

I was reminded of this when my choice to forgo eating animals became a topic of conversation at Thanksgiving. While one relative asked me questions about my justifications with incredulity and I attempted to respond in a way that encouraged reflection without being accusatory—a difficult thing to do when everyone has animal flesh on their plates—everyone else sat in awkward silence, hoping the moment would pass quickly and we could move on to less controversial topics—ones that do not challenge our cultural narratives.

Of course the broader occasion for our gathering, Thanksgiving, is legendary narrative as well. It is a narrative that masks exploitation, racism, and religious oppression with thankfulness, a paradox that only coheres if we don’t acknowledge it explicitly, given that we increasingly recognize racism and exploitation as such rather than as part of the natural/Divine order. So, at least for our family, we increasingly just don’t acknowledge the occasion for our gatherings, much less the ethical tensions within them. We gather together for the holidays because that is what people do.

It is in this paradigm that I appreciate the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two times per year that the greatest number of our family gathers together, where the existence of a myth beyond us, reprehensible though it may be, provides sufficient social obligation to draw us toward each other. And of course when we do gather, we—or at least I—am glad that we have. I think, as I always do, how I should attempt to connect with family more often than the holidays, when there is no artifice to externally justify our gathering. Until then, these shared narratives draw us together.

Within my immediate family, we put up the Christmas tree with goofy ornaments, stockings over the mantle, and even a small manger scene. If these used to refer to some supernatural other, their referents are now localized, reminders of the good feelings associated with gatherings in times past and the possibility of creating more in the future. But maybe it was always this way. We first encounter our myths as reality, divorce ourselves from them, and then return to them as actors in a role that we are now more comfortable playing than refusing to participate.

The hypocrisy and duplicity in our broader narratives is still there to be challenged, insofar as myth-making provides structural shortcuts to critical contextual thinking. The challenge is not for its own sake, but to uncover our acceptance and perpetuation of inequity and oppression. It may be impossible to create narrative without ethical violation. If so, then perhaps we must be satisfied with smaller narratives—Lyotard’s petit récit—whose harm can be limited and benefit maximized. Strange though it may sound, this comforts me.

Happy holidays.


Undisciplined Reflections on Easter

My son informed me in the car the other day that we had better do something for Easter since we didn’t do anything for the last great holiday, St. Patrick’s Day. I asked what it was he was thinking of. He answered that he should get some gifts, or we should go out to dinner, or something to celebrate the holiday. I asked him if he knows what the holiday is about. “It’s about Christ coming back from the dead or something like that.” “Well, you know what most people do to celebrate Easter? They go to church. Do you want to go to church?” I asked, knowing full well what his answer would be. “No.” He has nothing against church other than its boring, just like school, and one should avoid boredom if at all possible.

We did end up “celebrating” Easter by eating lunch with family. I think we were all satisfied that we took advantage of what the holiday had to offer. I’ll admit I’m not comfortable enough with the secularized holiday to put on an Easter egg hunt or anything like that, but a chance to slow down, relax, and reflect is good in and of itself.

But I’m not sure what to do with Easter as a holiday. Christmas makes sense, because if someone is significant, you mark the day of their birth as a day of remembering their significance, and whether or not one is a Christian, whether or not one thinks Jesus was significant, he certainly has been, both in positive and negative ways. And although it may be cliché to say so, Good Friday resonates with me  more than Easter. Some say it is because one should embrace the doubt of the tradition more, experiencing the absence of God. I get it, and I think I’d choose that over the traditional Easter. Because Easter is the time where Christians celebrate the fact that they’ve got it all figured out, that the doubt is gone.

One of the many fundamental paradoxes in Christianity is the historical separation of the life from the death of Jesus. In short, if the whole point was to die for mankind in the first place, why all the ethical teaching, all the emphasis on loving one another? The more pressing issue for the apostles and the early Church was likely, “How could we have been wrong about this whole deal?” Their answer: the death wasn’t an accident. It was on purpose. It makes sense to Christians now, since the world has been rolling along for a few millennia since then, to strike a balance between personal salvation and loving your neighbor, but the earliest Christians were apparently more concerned with Jesus coming back and inaugurating all the great things promised. A few generations of hope deferred, and it is now largely a rhetorical trope. There is no longer any tension, at least on the surface, because living and dying are kept in separate spheres. We live our lives now, try to be good, and know that we’re going to live forever.

It’s an interesting paradox to me. Had not the stories been told about the resurrection, we would not know of Jesus today. He would have been remembered by a few who followed him, and with their deaths would likely have died his memory. It is to such stories, telling of the god-man Jesus, that Christians owe the ability to argue that Jesus was “really” more about ethics, or love, or whatever. Yet with those same stories has also come an institution that, by its own moral standard, has been responsible for good…and terrible tragedy.

So, we have the stories of a venerated individual transmitted to us through a convoluted and questionable medium. Is there something yet that we all, insiders or outsiders, can learn? I think so. But it is not that we will live forever in heaven or hell. This distracts us from our very real, physical deaths. For me, one important lesson from Jesus is how close to death we all are, and how very much it is both in our control, and out of our control at the same time. If we do nothing but be as accommodating to the world as possible, we will yet die, but we may live longer, and we will probably get a modicum of pleasure from our existence. But we all learn very early on that the extent to which we disagree with the world, with culture, with the ways and means of those around us, is the extent to which we live less comfortably. We all know, in small ways, what happens when we try to change the norm. Others don’t like it, and we are often punished in direct or indirect ways. For most of us, in most parts of our lives, it’s not worth the effort. But for some, it is. And the cost is seemingly high, because what happens if you persist, if you make no compromise on what is most important? You succeed…or for most, you die trying. But to those who push that far and that persistently, the end result is the same, because they create and take responsibility for the journey. They refuse to let the world be anything else but what they want it to be. That is a moral of the story of Jesus, and many other models who live on in memory.

But it’s clear that a moral like that is not one that perpetuates a harmonious society. So rather than take the message, we memorialize the individual, and make the message our own, a societal one. A life is complicated, filled with contradiction and controversy, and after death we can clean it up and make it presentable, sustainable. But that misses the whole point, trading uncompromising authenticity for a modicum of happiness. Not all will follow the same path, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.