Bags of Bran

“I Don’t See What You See”
December 24, 2014, 1:32 pm
Filed under: Biography, Destined to get me in trouble

Today, with a brutally curtailed schedule staring me down for the remainder of the week, I was taking a brief vacation on Feedly, that wonderful blog aggregator that aggregates my blogs. You know, so I don’t actually have to read them. But while I was exploring around, I unearthed an article that objects to the theology of Christmas carols.

Sorry, Silent Night, but nothing was calm about the night Jesus was born. The town had swelled to capacity because everyone was there to register for a census, and the inns and restaurants and streets were crowded. Bethlehem was a complete madhouse.

Sarah Thebarge seems to think that the time is past when an intelligent person would sing “Silent Night,” because Bethlehem would have been bustling like an anthill on that particular night, among other reasons, which include crowded “restaurants.” In Bethlehem. In the Year Zero.

Furthermore, sheep don’t (usually) talk, so “Do You Hear what I Hear” is right out. Similarly, “Away in a Manger” tanks, because Jesus is depicted as not crying, a sign of poor health in an infant. Apparently, these songs provoke the author to wrath, and she yells at her radio.

If Thebarge were consistently applied her rubric, she could similarly object to “Last Christmas” because if you were literally to give someone your heart, you would croak, and people who have croaked do not really care if the person receiving such a grisly gift, in turn, re-gifts it before the next setting of the sun.

It seems that our author’s main objection, though, actually stems from the surreality of a heavenly peace settling on a hellish world. To paraphrase her argument, why paint in brilliant colors, when there was no light to see anything by? If Thebarge has never seen an angel, how could some smelly shepherds have seen them? Our author wants the mess, the pain, the barbarity of things that would be a radical inconvenience to anybody with her sensibilities. To her, “good Christians” ought not rejoice, because the world is an icky, smelly, wretched place. She thinks that the authors of Christmas carols are papering over reality with all this supernatural nonsense.

If you’ve ever read C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, you may recognize the disposition of Orual, older sister of Psyche, in Thebarge’s voice. Our author’s world is a world where all applications for poetic license have to go across her desk, and summarily wind up in a recycling bin. It is tempting to say that the author merely has her category wrong: that she objects not to the theology of the carols, but to their historical accuracy. But hers really is a theological objection: she objects to theology as a category, especially when it is presented as an object of imagination. Her universe has an iron dome over it, through which there could no angel fly, nor could prophet heavenly vision spy. Crowded restaurants, birthing pains, and bustle: these are the realities.

Her objection is not merely providing cover for bad reading of poetry. She has read poetry badly; but in this, she is not alone: there are many today, even in Christian ministry, who have never intentionally read a poem as a poem. Even Scripture, large swaths of which are poetry, they read badly because they read it with the sole purpose of formulating or systematizing. That is not what poetry is for, and neither are Christmas carols crafted to tell us about Ancient Near East guest relations, astronomy, pediatrics, animal husbandry, or whether you could sail three ships to Bethlehem.

Was there a silent night in Palestine, long ago, in which a mother and child reposed in heavenly peace? It depends on where your eyes are pointed. “Silent Night” looks at the birth of Christ in its point-in-time beauty from a heavenly-minded perspective: this is a portrait of the birth as described in the Annunciation, viewed from above, as it were, complete with radiant beams from His holy face. You may argue with Mohr about whether he captures the scene properly or not, but you are not going to argue fine points of history with him, but fine points of aesthetics.

Do you need to believe what Mohr believed in order to have a valid opinion on “Silent Night?” Not necessarily: Leonard Bernstein, for example, was able to engage Bach thoughtfully, not because he believed what Bach believed, but because he recognized that if you do believe what Bach believed, you had better express it well.

I fear that Sarah Thebarge and her readership may never know the answer to this question in this lifetime: she seems to have traded her eye of faith for a journalism degree.


1 Comment so far
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“Do you hear what I hear?” is a post-Cuban Missile Crisis prayer…


Comment by C A Watson

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