Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also principal of St. Michael’s College. His most recent novel is Original Prin.
I don’t want a lot for Christmas. There’s just one thing I need. All I want for Christmas is … for British historian Tom Holland to have coffee, at Starbucks, with Kanye West. I am sure they would notice the phrase “Merry Coffee” beribboning their cups and debate whether the coffee chain is affirming Christianity’s staying power, sip by sip, or eroding it, drip by drip. I think the case could be made either way. I think the point is to take notice and decide to make a case. Our varied and often uncertain experiences of this time of year invite an intentional moment of reckoning with the higher-order origin story of Christmas itself, whether over coffee or in the still dark of a winter night. Otherwise, whether believer or agnostic or atheist, we risk captivity to indifference and presumption about what we think and believe and do about Christmas, and likewise about what others think and believe and do about it.
Mr. Holland and Mr. West, each and together, can serve as helpers for this Christmastime effort because they outflank the great majority of responses to Christianity in style, substance and perspective. Leaving aside the “Hot Priest” story line of the second season of Amazon Prime’s Fleabag, Mr. Holland and Mr. West are responsible for 2019’s most unexpected, attention-getting super-claims about Christianity. Mr. Holland is a chipper non-believer and deeply read author of several popular and well-reviewed books about classical-era civilizations. His new book, at once much more expansive in scope and more specific in argument, is Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. Mr. West is, well … what is Kanye? Ostensibly a very popular and prominent contemporary hip-hop musician, he’s also an activist-celebrity-evangelist whose religion, politics, family businesses and family life – and often erratic, exasperating outspokenness in these categories and many others – make him a permanent source of confusion, alarm, popularity and fascination, as many cultural critics have observed. And he’s certainly giving off a lot of his radioactive magnetism with his latest album, Jesus Is King.
From title onward, with their latest works Mr. Holland and Mr. West have made provocative proposals about the public and personal importance of Christianity – today and always. This is why I’d love to know how each reads and rates “Merry Coffee,” the phrase featured on Starbucks coffee cups through Dec. 25. According to the company, “Starbucks designers looked at everything from iconic Christmas movies to music, along with more than two decades of Starbucks holiday cups” before deciding on this year’s colour scheme, design and signature phrase. Something the size of a newborn babe seems missing from the “everything” the designers looked at, doesn’t it? Because at its base, the meaning of this holiday season’s signature phrase is anchored, however thinly or playfully or cleverly (or cleverishly), in Christianity’s annual marking of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. Starbucks predictably exercises strategic ambiguity about that specific source, whose globally observed timing, articulation and practices, whether within or beyond the doors of churches, date in formal ways to at least the fourth century.
How we mark Christmas has changed over subsequent centuries and had various manifestations in different parts of the world before cohering, over the past 200 years or so, into our present-day, Anglo-American-dominated instantiation. In this immediate context, “Merry Coffee” might be the latest evidence of Christianity’s enduring, all-permeating and even permanent role in our world, as Mr. Holland would likely claim, given his 600-page argument for how and why specifically Western – Catholic and Protestant – Christianity represents “the most influential framework for making sense of human existence that has ever existed.” Alternatively, “Merry Coffee” might be the latest evidence of just how far removed we have become, immersed as we are in an over-caffeinated, consumerist culture, from that consequential event in human affairs, now that its significance can be so easily cupped and capped. I am fairly certain that this would be Mr. West’s argument. After all, in one of the songs on his new, gospel choir-backed album, he counsels and challenges his listeners to “Follow Jesus, listen and obey, No more livin’ for the culture, we nobody’s slave.”
Mr. Holland’s and Mr. West’s respective interests in Christianity mark them as notable outsiders in the story of the First World West’s progressive secularization, which is particularly pronounced in the environs of intellectual and artistic production but felt by most everyone at this time of year, when we face the question of how to name and claim a common festiveness that has always had a divisive origin point. These days, this situation is known as the Christmas Wars, an annual rite and polemic of passage, although it extends backward well past squabbles about inclusive greeting nomenclature and the church-state implications of erecting nativity scenes in public squares. In fact, you could say the first Christmas War – and certainly one of the most horrifying – took place almost immediately after the very first Christmas, when, as the Gospel of Matthew recounts, Herod, appointed ruler of Judea by the Roman rulers of the province, met wise men who had come from the east to venerate a newborn rival king in his midst. In turn he “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under.” Even from what we normally think of as the humble, gently wondrous beginning of the story of Christianity – a poor, anonymous young couple reduced to staying in animal quarters for a winter night’s lodging and childbirth, only then to receive starry night visits from shepherds and magi – the scandalous particularity of the Christian proposition has provoked intense and unexpected responses.
These haven’t always corresponded directly to the bloody stuff of power politics, as with Herod and the massacre of the innocents, or necessarily involved godless secular authorities encroaching on the rights of believers to mark the birth of the Saviour. As late as 1870 in Boston, for instance, three years after Charles Dickens had come to town and read A Christmas Carol, children could face truancy charges for not attending school on Christmas Day, attesting to the lingering puritanical sensibility in Massachusetts and related antipathies toward observances and celebrations that smacked of popish obedience and Romish decadence. But that same year, the U.S. Congress made Christmas a statutory holiday, and 10 years later, political cartoonist Thomas Nast introduced what went on to become the universal image of a jolly bearded fellow as Santa Claus, itself a happy hackneying of Saint Nicholas, the gift-giving protector of children whose story dates to the generous, miraculous doings of the bishop of a city in fourth-century Asia Minor, near Demre in present-day Turkey.
Like a nerding-out altar boy, Mr. Holland glories in tracing out the seemingly infinite loops of transcultural connection made possible by Christianity’s unfolding across time and space. To be sure, he is always clear-eyed in emphasizing the many failings and hypocrisies of Christianity throughout the ages, especially when measured against its own professed commitments toward the least in any given community. That said, he seems convinced we’ve spent too much time on that particular part of the story in recent years. Deciding a corrective is in order, not so much in defence of Christianity as in hopes of revealing deeply forged, long-held, now-obscure points of contact and continuity between that religion and this modern life of ours, whenever and wherever possible he argues that what we might take for granted as evidence of secular notions of justice and equality owes much to Christianity and bears an unmistakably Christian genealogy, intellectually and demographically.
Sometimes his evidence goes back a long way, as when he points out that rape, infanticide and slavery were norms of Greek and Roman civilization prior to the arrival and expansion of Christianity from the Middle East to the Mediterranean and beyond, and with it a bold conception of human life and human community that was universal in its articulation of our equality and sacredness, of our being made in the image and likeness of God. Elsewhere, Mr. Holland emphasizes how substantially Christian were many of the leading arguments – at the level of persons and ideas, both – waged against slavery in the United States and in the age of European empire, and likewise against apartheid in South Africa and for civil rights in the modern U.S. He points to the Christians who supported Voltaire’s arguments against absolutist ecclesial authority and to the faith’s staying power and capacity for accommodation when confronted by assorted revolutions – political and philosophical, economic and cultural. He overreaches and turns glib and superficial when he considers Christianity’s presence in more recent times, as when he argues that at the height of the Beatles’ fame, “John Lennon … offered the watching world a prescription with which neither Aquinas, nor Augustine, nor St. Paul would have disagreed: ‘All you need is love.’”
Worse still than this watered-down comparison work is his making a mutually cheapening case for the underpinning presence of Christianity in the tumult of our present moment by arguing, for instance, that “implicit in #MeToo [is] the same call to sexual continence that [has] reverberated throughout the Church’s history.” I think it’s so implicit as to be invisible and irrelevant to a supermajority of people involved in #MeToo, and probably offensive even to propose, so why bother? There’s something lavishly irresponsible in some of Mr. Holland’s superclaims for Christianity, which is in keeping with the lasting impression that because he doesn’t take it seriously on personal terms – in that context, it’s nothing more than a “palliative” for good and kind people such as his beloved Aunt Deb, he notes in the end – he can say whatever he wants about it in public terms.
Here’s where Mr. West returns to this Christmas story. As far as I know, he has yet to make an argument for positive intersections between church teaching on sex and the #MeToo movement; he has, however, in recent days, called out the Devil for sowing division between Christians, as evidenced in part by limited playing time for his new album on Christian radio stations, and also exhorted believers to get over “this Christian beef” between them. Which one doesn’t matter, because “Look, Jesus died for our sins! It’s simple. If you believe that, that’s it.” In other words, Mr. West is also willing to say whatever he wants about Christianity in public, but in this case precisely because he takes it seriously – if idiosyncratically, to say the least – on personal terms.
Between Mr. Holland and Mr. West opens up a spectrum of contact points, dispositions and responses to the question of Christianity’s enduring, force field-like presence in late 2019, and certainly in ways that include and go well beyond sifting the meaning of seasonal Starbucks cups. It may be enough, in the days leading up to Christmas, to measure your own position on that spectrum against theirs, and in turn reconfirm whatever (likely more middle-ground) sense of the meaning of Christ’s birth you’ve long assumed and maybe stopped thinking, worrying and praying about. But why not take a moment to yourself, stop hate-listening to Mariah Carey and do something joyful and terrifying: reckon afresh with who and what that little baby in Bethlehem was or was not, or still is, or never, or always will be.
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