Monday, December 25, 2006

Happy Birthday, O pale Galilean

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath
—A. C. Swinburne, Hymn to Proserpine

The skeptical Swinburne, under the guise of a pagan critique of Christianity, really was writing against, I suppose, the dull pieties of Victorian Anglicanism, but his attitude crops up quite a bit still. The grey world? yet as I look out my window, the neighborhood is a blaze of brightly colored lights, glistening decorations, and crazy plastic figurines. These things are only the echoes or the outskirts of genuine religion; but could a life-denying faith really engender such a merry display?

The other day in the New York Times, an unrepentantly Jewish writer talked about how she and her husband celebrated Christmas for the first time:
I love that as soon as I told a Catholic friend what I was up to, she invited me to a gingerbread-house decorating party. How fun is that? And why wasn’t I invited before? What does a gingerbread house have to do with Jesus?
Some nights, I put on our Starbucks Christmas CD, light a fire, turn on the tree and play with the different settings, put liquid smoke in the train’s smokestack and turn on the choo-choo sound effects and then I sit back and enjoy my first Christmas, in all its kitschy splendor. I feel a little guilty when I look at our lone menorah on the mantel (the only evidence of my faith other than my guilt), but I ask you: how can this much pleasure be wrong?
It reminded me for some reason of a passage from Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, when one of her students told of the religious instruction in the university after the Islamic Revolution:
On one side [the teacher] had written, in large white letters, MUSLIM GIRL, and drawn a vertical line in the middle of the board. On the other side, in large pink letters, he wrote CHRISTIAN GIRL. He had then asked the class if they knew the differences between the two. One was a virgin, he said at last, after an uncomfortable silence, white and pure, keeping herself for her husband and her husband only. Her power came from her modesty. The other, well, there was not much one could say about her except that she was not a virgin. To Yassi's surprise, the two girls behind her, both active members of the Muslim Students' Association, had started to giggle, whispering, No wonder more and more Muslims are converting to Christianity.
I know that neither woman's experience is religious, or has anything to do with "authentic" Christianity; but it has everything to do with the world that Christianity made. After 2000 years, there are still plenty of people out there, on the outside looking in, who have the impression that such a world, with its colored lights and gingerbread, has something to do with pleasure and liberation. The pale Galilean, who was criticized for enjoying food and drink too much (Luke 7:34), might, after all, have had something to do with that.

Happy birthday, Lord. And many more.


Ken said...

Interesting perspective... thanks!

Ha-historion said...

"but could a life-denying faith really engender such a merry display?"

Life denying?

Andrew Criddle said...

Swinburne's poem is put in the mouth of Julian the Apostate.

The historical Julian sneered at Christianity for being too indulgent towards the pleasures of the flesh