2005-12-13

Santadolatry?

Alright, I am not the biggest "anti-Santa" fanatic in the world.  I used to be, then I became a youth minister that occasionally has to work with young children, and I had a young child of my own.  I mean, I see the Consumerism in the whole thing.  I also hate the Santa-Claus view of God, in which God is benevolent grandpa in the sky who only gives good gifts to good girls and boys.  And, I think that Santa, as we know him in 21st century America, contributes to both consumerism and the Santa ideal of God.

Yet, just as the idea of Saint Nicholas as been co-opted to become the Santa Claus of mass marketing, so also the Santa Claus can be co-opted back to teach about Saint Nicholas and the Spirit of selfless giving that flows from Christ.  If the "Santa Myth" can be "spun" for bad, then it can also be "spun" for good.  So, I do not mind Santa so much anymore.  He is a morally neutral tool that can be used used to serve Jesus just as easily as he is used to serve selfishness.


In general, I have found that it is much more profitable to "spin" the Santa Myth to serve Jesus than to de-bunk the myth altogether.  If you de-bunk the myth, you hurt kids and hurt families... needlessly... because they would have figured out the Santa Myth in two years anyhow.  Instead, when you debunk the myth you destroy any usefulness that the example of Santa may serve to share Jesus with kids.  If you destroy Santa, the kids you tell get upset and bitter, and then they will covertly share their "bitter joy" by destroying Santa for other kids too.  And then you have dozens of parents mad at you for telling little so-n-so that Santa is not real.  But, if you keep Santa, you get to use his joy and selfless giving to point to the Source of his Love: the Risen Christ.  Then, when they get older, Santa may leave them, but Santa's meaning, and Santa's Lord, will not.

But, the last few weeks have made me seen how badly Santa can be twisted to the "dark side".  First of all, I was Santa at our Church a couple of weeks ago on a Saturday morning.  About 50 kids were gathered for "Breakfast with Santa", where they paid $5.00 for a continental breakfast and a photo-op on Santa's (my) lap.  First, they gathered all of the kids and had "Mrs. Claus" (who is also my English nanny!) read the Santa Claus story.  Then they came and got me out of my hiding place.  Then I rang bells ominously as I walked down the hall into the worship area, where the breakfast was being held.

Then it happened.  You should have seen it through my eyes.

50 kids staring at me in amazement and joy, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, laughing, shouting, and waving at me.  It was as if God had entered the room.  Seriously.  They could not have been more excited if God Himself, robed in glory and power, with myriads of angels, entered into the worship center.

I consciously wondered, as I waved and said "Ho Ho Ho", if God would strike me dead for idolatry.  I was being worshipped as God in the middle of HIS sanctuary.  I didn’t mean to be worshipped.  It just kind of happened.

Now for the ten million dollar question: Why don't these kids react that way when the cross is processed on Sunday morning?  Why doesn’t everyone act that way when we sing songs of praise?  Something is wrong here.  Something is out of whack.

Now, I just watched the 10pm news on Fox 4 Dallas.  The top story was about a first grade teacher in Richardson who told her class that Santa was not real.  The news reports that the kids were destroyed and the parents were enraged at "destroying the faith" of their children.  Some of the parents said their children are so traumatized that they took them to the mall to sit on Santa's lap to show he is real.  Some of the parents wanted the teacher fired.

Can you imagine?  A war is being fought in Iraq.  People are dying of starvation all over the world.  Christians are being persecuted for their faith in countless nations.  Millions of dollars were made and lost today in both legal and illegal transactions.  Yet, the top story on the news is a teacher who tells the truth to her kids.  Huh?  Is there something I missed here?

We do not complain when teachers in public school deny the existence of God or the historical reality of Jesus Christ.  We do not complain when they portray history in completely secular terms, totally divorced from the religious realities that were so important in shaping actual events.  We do not complain when they teach science and history using anti-religious rhetoric, making religion the enemy of "scientific progress" in such celebrated episodes as the Inquisition, Galileo's struggles, the Salem Witch Trials, or the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Yet, it makes the top story when teachers reject Santa Claus?  I just don't get it!  Don't get me wrong.  I do not want to Christianize the public school system, and get secular teachers to teach a bad version of what should be taught well in the Church.  In fact, I do not want the schools to be pro-Christian or anti-Christian, just realistic, objective, and balanced about all of the forces that shape society.  But that is another point...

How on Earth do we re-balance the whole Santa thing?  I don't think that the way to achieve balance is to de-mythologize Santa, especially not for really young kids.  But, we shouldn't worship Santa or put him above Christ either.

So, what do we do?  I do not want to be guilty of "santadolatry"!

6 comments:

Caren said...

Hey Nate,
Didja ever think that Santa really is just a harmless way to get kids to behave, be nice to one another, enojoy the idea of giving gifts and spending time with their families?
I mean, it's Santa Claus. I see your larger point about what deep theology are they getting out of it, but let's use our heads and what we know instead of what we've read, just for a minute. I was raised being lied to, many of my friends were raised being lied to, but at the same time I went to church on a regular basis, I learned the truth of Christmas. I was not jaded because my parents lied, I did not turn away from religion because that, too, was a lie my parents told me.
Santa is a tradition, much like giving gifts or putting up a tree or making cookies. Are we going to battle against the altars of tree worship we place in our living rooms? Are we going to fight against the unhealthy breaking of cookie between parents and children?
Is togetherness through shallow traditions really a bad thing? To me, its not the tradition or the qualifications for them, its the passing on of love, joy and most importantly HOPE. In a world filled with ugliness, hate and true war, isn't a little love, hope, faith and JOY what we need?

-Caren

Anonymous said...

Amen! Sister!

I think we are agreeing here...

But, at the same time, I do not really do not like being worshipped... contrary to popular opinion :)

So, my experience of being worshipped as Santa was a bit over the top... at least through my eyes... and you really should have seen it through my eyes!

As for the teacher being persecuted for telling her kids Santa is not real... I agree that it was REALLY dumb move for her to kill that sacred cow (can you imagine doing that in a children's chapel????)...

She's not the sharpest tool in the shed... BUT THE LEAD STORY on the 6 o'clock news??? Come on!

Doesn't that defeat the purpose of Santa just as surely as telling kids he is not real?

So, I guess what I am saying is that I don't consider Santa a lie any more than I consider Aesop's fables a lie (or Jesus' parables for that matter). Santa is simply imaginative fiction with a very real moral: hope, joy, love, and selfless giving.

I DO NOT have a problem with telling the Santa story (Elise will hear it!), nor do I have a problem with Santa inhabiting that space of "imaginitive reality" that young children possess...

I have a problem with Santa worship and people persecuting each other about Santa. I mean, can't we all just get along?

I think that is a really long way of saying I completely agree with you.

Matt said...

My wife and I have talked about this at great length. We think it best to totally forgo Santa and explain the "real" meaning of Christmas to our kids.

"when you debunk the myth you destroy any usefulness that the example of Santa may serve to share Jesus with kids"
I, obviously, disagree. I think it much better to share the REAL Jesus with kids. Christmas just serves as a platform to do that.

On another note...instead of telling the "santa story" to these kids at church, what could have happened had the Gospel been shared with them in the form of the Luke 2 Christmas story?!

Anonymous said...

Matt,

First of all is this Matt Tapie? It didn't say in the "from:" line...

Second of all, we share the Gospel too. In our Church during advent we have whole Sundays set aside, every year, to explore all of the annunciation and incarnation narratives (i.e. the Christmas Story in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke). We look at these in Sunday services, Christmas eve services, Sunday School, Children's chapel, Youth group, and even at our Day School (who put on the whole "Breakfast with Santa" program). So, long story short, for every one time the subject of Santa is brought up at Christmas in my Church, the subject of Jesus is brought up five or six times.

So, there is no question of whether or not the Gospel has the primacy, nor whether it is told often and told well. The question is: (1) whether or not the "Santa Myth" CAN be used to serve the Gospel, and (2) whether or not it SHOULD be used to the serve the Gospel.

I used to believe the way you do. One Book. One Story. One Gospel. One Savior. Don't waste time on any cultural crap. It only distracts from getting souls into heaven. Hit 'em hard and hit 'em often with the Bible and the claims of Christ on our lives. Furthermore, there is no room for other stories or other books, because they are fundamentally incompatible with the claims of Christ. Best to throw the baby out with the bathwater and focus only on what the Bible says.

I disagree with this now. And here is why: I still believe that the Bible is true from cover to cover, that it says all we need to know Jesus and be saved, and that Jesus is the ONLY way to the Father. It is just that I think that the Bible is no longer the only tool to get people acquainted with Jesus. Jesus used analogies and parables drawn from everyday life (even using Caesar and unjust judges) to get people to understand the Gospel. Paul quoted pagan poets and used pagan idols to point to the true God (see Acts 14 and 17). The first people to really "get" who Jesus was were illiterate shepherds and three pagan priests (magi) from the east. Neither of each had anything like Scriptural literacy.

All of this is to say that God has written "good dreams" of the Gospel story into all of the really good stories of the world (thanks to JRR Tolkien for this insight). Whether it is pagan myths of gods who become human and gods that die and rise again, or whether it is modern movies about heroic self sacrifice and the love that will not die, all of them point to the Real Story of God's Incarnation in Christ, and His salvation of the world by living, teaching, doing miracles, dying, and rising again.

So, if there are good things in the Santa Story, then they can be used to point to Christ. And certainly, there are many noble things about the Santa Story. Especially if one goes back to the base of the "Santa" story, which is the story of the 4th century bishop of Myra, Nikolaos. In history he became Saint Nicholas, and this was shortened to Santa Claus, or Saint Nick. The real story of Saint Nick is one of a man standing for Trinitarian faith even when it was not popular, preaching the Gospel of the death and resurrection of the God-Man Jesus Christ, and living in the example of Christ by giving away his wealth and his own self to serve the Church.

Even the modern "bastardization" of the Saint Nick story still bears undeniable traits of a Christ-centered spiritual vision: a man who lives to serve others and bring them joy, who gives good gifts to the faithful, and who stands for right and wrong by telling us to be "nice" and not "naughty". He can be seen as a bearer of the Spirit of giving, the Spirit of Him who emptied Himself to become a slave to save us all (cf. Phil 2:1-11).

And finally, let us not say that the Santa story cannot be used to share Christian truth because it is "mythical" or "fictional". If we say this, then we must also say that Jesus' parables cannot convey truth because they are fictional. We must also say that great works of Christian fiction, such as bedtime stories, and allegories like "Pilgrim's Progress" and "Pilgrim's Regress" cannot be used to convey Christian truth. God can and does use fiction to convey His Truth, just like any other medium of meaning-giving communication.

So, the Santa Story definitely CAN be used to convey Gospel Truth, but SHOULD it? I say yes. If we followed the logic that we should not worry about the Santa Story because it is not as important as the Christmas Story, then we should follow that logic to its logical conclusion: Since NO other story is as important as THE Story of Christ, then logically we should not listen to or worry about any information of any other type other than reading the Bible. Nothing that literature, science, math, or history could tell us could ever be as important as the life-saving truth of Christ. Therefore we should chunk it all and only study the Bible all the time, right? Wrong.

It is obvious that God has given us other sources of information to enrich our lives and point us to the Gospel in other ways than just reading Scripture. Psalm 19 and Romans 1 tells us that nature itself bears witness to God and His Truth. Like I said above, both Jesus and Paul (and most of the other Bible writers) include allusions to other sources of knowledge to help us understand the meaning of God's Revelation. So, if we are given a fact, an idea, or a story that can be used to point to Christ, we are being bad stewards of information if we do not use it to point to Christ. It's as if God gives us power screwdriver, and we say "No thanks God. I will use my manual screwdriver to drive this point in."

It takes more than criticism and denial to create an effective interaction with culture. Sure, the Christian response to culture will require criticizing and/or denying what is wrong and evil in culture. But it also requires focusing on, and recognizing, all that is good, true, and beautiful in culture (cf. Phil 4:8). If we merely criticize and deny secular culture, just because it is secular culture, regardless of whether or not there is good in it, then we become false witnesses (that's a denial of commandment 9), and we are denying what God is doing in culture to prepare it for Christ.

Since we are called to be Christ to this culture, and walk in it as Christ-bearers just as Christ Himself walked in it, we should use every tool we can to point to Christ. Every tool. We should be fighting mad that we have allowed the devil to take everything good, true, and excellent in culture and "spin" it to the dark side. We have allowed culture to be taken over by the forces of darkness, and let them "spin" everything toward destruction.

I am here to tell you that Christians are called to be innocent as doves but wise as serpents (Mat 10:16; Rom 16:19). We are children of the Creator of the Universe and not of that Parasite that cannot create, but exists only to destroy what God has created! The children of God can and should be MORE creative than the children of darkness. If they can "spin" things toward the dark side, then we can and should "spin" them even better back toward the light! We should recapture what the devil has seized, and use it more creatively for good than the devil ever thought about using it for evil!

How does this relate to the "Santa Myth"? There is simply too much good in "Santa" to give it over to the devil, like we have with so many of our stories and our institutions. We are not called EITHER tell the Santa Story OR the Gospel Story. We are called to tell the Gospel Story in as many ways as we can, using as many tools as we can. Sure, the Biblical Story of the Gospel is always the central, real, reliable, foremost source to know Christ. But, we should welcome as many tools in our arsenal as possible.

Therefore, I use the Santa Myth and "spin" it toward Christ, denying what is wrong in the myth and affirming what is good. I think that is the most Christ-honoring, most Biblical, thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Matt,

I just re-read your post again. Do you realize how arrogant you came off in that last line: "what could have happened had the Gospel been shared with them in the form of the Luke 2 Christmas story?!"

What's up with the "?!". Are you super-Christian? Are you Jesus' right hand man telling us all how it should be done?

Yes, actually I do know what could have happened because I see it happen quite frequently:

When you share the Gospel long enough- whether it be by using the Biblical Story, or by using "myths" such as Narnia, or by using testimonies of God's grace in people lives, or by using all of them- then a few things happen: First, the Holy Spirit opens their hearts and minds to receive what God is implanting. Then the "light" comes on and they "get it": God loves them and has saved them through Jesus Christ. Then they fall passionately in love with Jesus Christ and give their lives to serve Him. Then they become leaders among God's people sharing the Gospel with others.

I have seen this happen dozens (hundreds?) of times in the ministries I have been involved in. Out of my 50 or so regular youth at youth group, about 15 are regularly involved in leadership sharing the Gospel with teens inside and outside of our youth group.

Is this what you were thinking would happen? Or is there something else? Were you talking about the Holy Spirit falling in power to heal and deliver people? That happens too. Anything else? Were you talking about compassion for the poor and needy and giving ourselves to serve others? That happens too. Were you talking about the desire to know the Scriptures and understand the deep things of God? That happens too. Anything else?

I wish ALL of these things happened more often- and God willing, they will- but they do happen with some regularity.

I know that since I affirm the evil Santa Myth this kind of stuff is not supposed to happen around me (especially- God-forbid- under my heretical leadership). But what can I say? God works in mysterious ways and chooses the most unworthy instruments to work through, including me, the biggest sinner I know of.

Have a blessed feast of the Incarnation of God, and may the Spirit of Santa visit your house this Christmas!

Matt Tapie said...

Okay I just skimmed this discussion and noticed that I need to make an important announcement: The above "matt" comment is not from Matt Tapie.

Sincerely,

Matt Tapie

This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.